Growing up, I had a friend named Chinyere. Like every young girl in the neighborhood, she had great dreams and aspirations. She was an outstanding student with a strong belief that the future held nothing but the best for her.
Her life took a dramatic turn, however, when her parents offered her in marriage at an early age. When she refused, she was subjected to force and threats of abandonment by her parents.
By marrying their daughter to a merchant – one who already had two wives – Chinyere’s parents received some farm land and money. For 14-year-old Chinyere, marriage to a man her father’s age meant an end to her education and dreams of becoming a doctor. Instead, she became a young mother, raising four children and suffering four miscarriages while still a child herself.
She also became a victim of spousal abuse, battery and disrespect. Following the culture of silence and shame in which gender-based violence is shrouded in her community, Chinyere kept the abuse to herself. When she did share details with her mother, she was told to keep quiet to not shame her family. Violence is part of what a woman should endure in marriage, her mother told her.
Years passed. I had completed my school and university education before I ran into Chinyere again. She told me of her forced and abusive 15-year marriage, revelations that left me stunned, deflated and sympathetic.
But how could I help? Do I tell her to walk away from an abusive marriage when the culture frowns at divorce even in the face of abuse? How would she care for her four children alone without an education, skill or job? How do I make her husband stop the abuse? At only 29, could she still fulfill her potential and aspirations in life?
My work on gender for MCSP – training health care providers on how to counsel survivors of violence with compassion, and offer related health services – served me well. I had a new goal: to educate and enlighten Chinyere’s husband. I aimed to orient him on gender-based violence and its far-reaching implications, including the socio-economic impact of a girl’s education on her family, society and nation at large.
To begin, I approached the church leadership where Chinyere’s family worshiped and asked to have an all–male symposium on gender and masculinity. The pastor agreed, invited me as speaker and, with a colleague, I spoke passionately about Chinyere’s story. We maximized every opportunity to educate the men in attendance on the rationale for gender equality and equity.
We condemned gender-based violence – including those acts perpetuated against Chinyere – despite her husband’s presence in the audience. We proffered practical solutions to remedy already bad situations and offered counseling immediately after the symposium for those who were interested.
To my amazement, Chinyere’s husband was one of the many men who turned up privately for counseling. We had the privilege of advising him on how to empower his wife economically to, in turn, support their home. The best news? Chinyere informed me that her husband enrolled her in an evening school and she has established her own small business.
The opportunity to bring about this change in Chinyere’s life has inspired me. I will continue to reach out to women and girls who are surviving different forms of gender-based violence – especially intimate partner violence – hoping strongly that someday the world will be free from gender inequality.