Mary Ero credits the self-esteem she gained in dance and drama programs with giving her the courage she needed to escape an attacker.
This was the moment I realized that women with a voice and a healthy self-esteem stand a better chance of bouncing back.
I have been homeless, penniless, and unemployed. I have been physically and sexually abused. I have been raped—twice. For much of my tumultuous life, I have been a victim of my cultural conditioning. But one time was different. One time, I fought back and won.
I was part of a theater performance at my university. In those days, we had to steal whatever time was available, on whatever stage was available, to rehearse. That day, we finished rehearsals late, after 11pm.
Usually we rehearsed at the campus annex that was very close to my parents home, so it was easy for me to walk home afterwards. On other days, like this one, our rehearsals were at the main campus, which was quite a distance away.
After our rehearsal that day, our stage director expressed concern for the safety of the cast and crew, especially the girls. He wanted to know where we would sleep and how we intended to get there. He organized people who were commuting to similar locations into groups.
A few people who lived on the main campus offered shelter so we would not have to travel home that night. I gladly accepted an offer from a boy named Femi because I was not willing to face the barrage of questions my parents would have for me if I arrived at home at that time of night.
Another girl also accepted his offer, but suddenly, as we walked towards the boy's room, my friend changed her mind and decided to head home. Femi and I tried to dissuade her but she was determined to go home. She even asked that I accompany her. I declined, feeling it was safer to stay on campus. She left for home alone.
As Femi and I made our way to his room, I must admit I had some concerns about being alone with him. I asked him where he would sleep. He said this was not an issue as he would stay in the room of one of his flatmates. I was satisfied with that answer—in those days I was very trusting—and I followed him to the room.
My host's room was typical of student accommodations: a very small affair with a ceiling fan, a carpet on the tiled floor, a clothes rack that hung just beside the door, and a mattress on the floor against the wall. It was a bit untidy and dank and there was no electricity, but I was grateful for the favor.
When we arrived, Femi appeared to be quite the gentleman. He ran around getting water for my bath, laid out his tee shirt for me to change into, and stepped out while I undressed. But I began to become increasingly uncomfortable when he did not make any attempt to leave the room as I settled in to sleep.
I asked him several times when he would leave and he responded that he would go eventually. After a while he said he had decided to sleep on the floor while I took the bed. This made me extremely uneasy as there was little demarcation between the bed, which was just a mattress, and the floor.
I began to settle down to sleep, more out of exhaustion than ease. I made sure to move to the edge of the bed, and, as much as was possible in that space, out of his reach.
I must have fallen asleep for a few minutes when I felt his hand on my breast. I woke up startled and pushed it off. He pretended to be in deep sleep but his hand somehow managed to remain heavy on my body. I struggled and pushed it away, moving myself farther from him and hoping that this would strongly indicate that I wanted no part of whatever he was planning. By this time, the fog of sleepiness had dispersed from my eyes and I was lying still, praying for morning.
His next move was to roll slowly onto the mattress. Noticing this, I shifted away even further, although I soon ran out of space as I backed up into the wall. Again he placed his hand on me. This time on my torso. But it was not a light touch; it was a firm, heavy grip. As I wrestled his hand off, he rose and tried to lay his full weight on me. That was when I went crazy.
I began to punch, kick, and bite every body part of his that was within the vicinity of my hands, my legs, and my teeth. I remember biting his ear, his fingers, kicking his groin. I punched and poked his eyes as he thrashed helplessly in the dark. I must have dealt him an exceptionally wicked blow at some point because he suddenly stopped trying to attack me and rolled over to the floor.
But I was not done. I continued to kick him, bite him, scratch him, all the while calling him names like “bastard,” “idiot,” “fool” until he had no choice but to run out of the room through the only door. After he left, I locked the door and went to sleep.
He knocked at the door several times, pleading that he was sorry and saying that he needed something from the room, but I totally ignored him. In the morning, once I was certain that it was bright enough for anyone to see if he attempted to touch me, I put on my clothes from the day before, picked up my bag, opened his door, and left for home. I did not say a word to him or anyone else in the flat as I walked out.
Despite the spirited fight I put up in Femi's room, I was very deflated by what had happened. I stayed away from rehearsal for a day. When I did show up, the director of the play gave me a public scolding for not turning up the day before.
I then pulled him aside and told him about how I had fought off Femi’s rape attempt. He apologized to me and his eyes clouded with anger at Femi. “Good!” he said, “You should have bitten his manhood off.”
I don’t share this story to imply that my tactics here would work for every situation. That night, I was lucky my attacker was unprepared, alone, and unarmed. Any of these factors being present would have changed the story. I share this story because this was the moment I realized that women with a voice and a healthy self-esteem stand a better chance of bouncing back from whatever life throws at them.
I look back at that day and I still marvel at my courage. Growing up, I was a painfully shy young woman with a serious lack of self-esteem. Like most Nigerian girls I was brought up to not be expressive. The courage I summoned that night was developed over evenings of drama and dance rehearsals. Endlessly repeating lines and cues in front of an unforgiving audience established my confidence. And more importantly, in the moment I needed it, these experiences gave me my voice.
Like most girls growing up in Nigeria, I was actively discouraged from expressing myself in any way that was not considered culturally feminine. In college, free of these suppressive influences I was able to find my ‘voice’. If I had discovered my confidence and self-esteem at an earlier age, I would definitely have been better prepared to face the most difficult moments in my life. I believe all girls deserve these opportunities at a young age. Girls should be raised with the essential components of self-expression and confidence-building. It could be the difference between life and death.
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.