Celebrating our Women

Celebrating our Women

And I got flowers…
We had our first argument last night, and he said a lot of cruel things that really hurt me. I know he is sorry and didn’t mean the things he said, because he sent me flowers today.

I got flowers today. It wasn’t our anniversary or any other special day.
Last night he threw me into a wall and started to choke me.
It seemed like a nightmare, I couldn’t believe it was real.
I woke up this morning sore and bruised all over.
I know he must be sorry cause he sent me flowers today.

I got flowers today, and it wasn’t Mother’s Day or any other special day.
Last night, he beat me up again, it was much worse than all the other times. If I leave him, what will I do? How will I take care of my kids? What about money? I’m afraid of him and scared to leave. But I know he must be sorry because he sent me flowers today.

I got flowers today. Today was a very special day. It was the day of my funeral. Last night, he finally killed me. He beat me to death. If only I had gathered enough courage to leave him, I would not have gotten flowers today…

The above words of an anonymous writer, captures the danger many women out there are being exposed to within an environment that is ordinarily meant to provide haven for them – their homes. Many homes than we can imagine have since stopped being havens, but hell for some. Unfortunately for many women who find themselves as wives or partners in such environments, they cannot run to any other place, or so they think. They therefore have to imagine that things could and will get better or that things aren’t as bad as they seem after all. And so, they continue to live with the monster until it is too late.

For many others, it is the shame of letting others know what they are passing through or the influence of tradition or interpretation of religious injunctions about divorce that box them in the environment of danger until they get the last flower of the character in the above illustration. Sometimes too, it is the family, their parents, siblings and others who urge them not to leave their husband’s house for any reason. Our society thus looks disdainfully at a divorced woman or one separated from the husband, no matter what led to it, only to give flowers (wreath that is) to the “courageous” ones who stick in there until they are killed.

In January 1999, one Reginald Ifeanyi Ononye, a superintendent of police battered his wife, Veronica to death. It was not a one-off incident, for Reginald had manifested a pattern of regular assault of his wife. Each time the wife ran to her family, Reginald would go back begging, promising never to do it again and the family would promptly urge their daughter to return to her marital home. But on January 22 of that year, Veronica got that final beating that qualified her for a wreath.

There is yet another blood-chilling recording of domestic murder in the book, Beyond Boundaries written by Josephine Effah-Chukwuma and Ngozi Osarenren of Project Alert against Violence on Women. It is the murder in 2004 of a 60-year old medical doctor, Dr. (Mrs.) Nnalu Chukwudebelu, allegedly by her husband of 30 years, himself a professor of gynaecology. In this case, the woman had lodged a complaint with the police about threats to her life by her husband and two of the husband’s sisters. After listening to the complaint, the state police commissioner advised the woman to go home and return on July 25, 2000 but she was killed the day before that appointment.

In the two incidents above, the society, both the family and the police could have saved the lives of the deceased persons if they took the matter of threat to life more seriously. For too long, domestic violence has been treated as family affairs that should be left for the parties to settle privately. As we have continued to see, the “settlements” have often been to disastrous finality.

Our public institutions have failed in many ways to curb gender violence. The police stations are yet to be victim-friendly, making it difficult for people to lodge complaints. Even where complaints are so lodged, many women have complained about the hostile and degrading manner the officers they meet at the stations relate to them. I am yet to get over an experience I had in 2003 when I gave a talk to some senior police officers on how to handle reported cases of domestic violence. Current trend demands that domestic violence being first of all a crime, should be regarded as such by the police, not minding that the perpetrators may be family members of the victims.

Many of the superior officers, mainly men of course, shamelessly said that the women should be blamed for the violence they received from their husbands, as many of them do not respect their husbands, are very rude, do not get the food ready on time and blah blah blah. It was almost a waste of time convincing those ones that their duty as police officers was to first react to the crime of assault occasioning harm and not to decide who was at fault in the so-called domestic affairs. If the superior officers, many of who were heads of police stations and area commands could reason that way, where then lies the hope for the society, where such cases get to their stations?

What is the relevance of all the above today? Yesterday was Mothering Sunday (or Mother’s Day) in many churches across the world. Some other churches may yet mark the day next Sunday or some time later in the month. Also, Wednesday is the International Women’s Day. This is therefore the week to celebrate our women. For the Mothering Sunday (some folks actually pronounce it murdering Sunday, making one wonder at the cruel pun), many churches elaborately celebrate the occasion, many homes too. But beyond the gifts and genteel attitude towards the women by their husbands and children this season, can society claim to really care much about the women after such events? How many of the homes practice equity between the boy and girl child, without unduly withholding the rights and opportunities of the latter in relation to the earlier? For instance, if a family cannot afford school fees for all its children, what determines which child to benefit from the limited resources? Will it be the ability of each child or the gender?

How many of the men who “celebrate” our women as wives and mothers this week still respect and celebrate those women when the unfortunate happens – on the loss of the woman’s husband? Aren’t these men the first to abandon their Christian standards in order to embrace the standards purportedly set by their “culture” and “tradition”, requiring that certain obnoxious widowhood practices must be observed and the women stripped of inheritance from their late husbands? Some of those women who were happily decked in their colourful wrappers and other aso ebi (uniform dress) yesterday are equally guilty of debasing womanhood by being the custodians and executors of the same repugnant widowhood practices, back in their villages, on the death of their male relations. But yesterday they were at their Christian best celebrating the womanhood they do not truly appreciate.

I strongly believe that Mothering Sunday and Mothering Week could be better celebrated by the churches through the holding of seminars, trainings and lectures on the growing incidents of domestic violence and the (dying?) culture of harmful widowhood practices. Unfortunately, many churches would rather not talk about it, pretending that such do not exist among their members. Yet many of the reported incidents of domestic violence involve people who are regular members of churches, even church leaders. A classical example was the murder of one Jumoke Martins, an evangelist, by her husband, Femi Martins, the pastor/founder of a church in Ibadan.

And as we celebrate the International Women’s Day this week with the theme, “Women in decision-making: meeting challenges, creating change”, there will, as usual, be a lot of activities at governmental and non-governmental levels to highlight the issues of inequality and inequity between men and women, the women being on the disadvantaged side of the divide though. The theme should be a wakeup call especially for us in Nigeria. The number of women in political decision-making positions may have increased marginally in recent years, but it is still less than the 30 percent universal benchmark. Even the increased number of women in government must also be weighed against the increase in the number of positions also available, to see whether in real terms, there has been an improvement. The situation is even worse when it comes to elective positions as the women hardly get through the primaries.

Luckily, Africa has just witnessed the emergence of its first democratically-elected female president in Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia. Is there any hope of Nigeria replicating the feat, perhaps drawing from the rich collection of women professionals, technocrats and politicians that dot the country today? It may yet be a distant and tall dream, until the political system is thoroughly reformed to allow for the so-called “even playing field”. Until the cash and carry electoral system is done away with, it would be so difficult for women to make it to decision-making positions since women remain the poorest of the poor in the society.

This piece was last published in NewAge newspaper of March 6, 2006 and was updated from a similar piece by this writer, published in NewAge of March 7, 2005

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