For Joyce Okungbowa, 53, the worst part of being physically and emotionally abused by her ex-husband was feeling like she could not talk about her experience. During the 17 years she was beaten, slapped, and shoved, she felt alone and isolated.
“The fact that I had no one to talk to and nowhere to go bothered me,” she says as we sit in her office in Victoria Island. It was better to stay silent about the abuse she faced.
It’s midday Friday and afrobeats music is floating in from a party in the compound next door.
In 2017, years after she gathered the courage to leave her ex-husband, the story of another young woman who had been abused and killed by her husband resonated with her. Okungbowa recognized that as a former victim and now survivor, she could no longer ignore the problem that was all around her. So, she started the Domestic Violence Assistance Line Initiative, a 24-hour helpline managed by survivors of domestic violence. She does this while working full-time as the executive assistant to the chairman of an oil company.
Okungbowa used some of her savings and money she raised from friends to fund the initiative. Currently, there are five volunteers—three are survivors and the other two passionate advocates. They staff the phones hoping to provide a safe space where women can talk about the violence they have experienced and receive support and resources.
In Lagos, Nigeria, the shame around experiencing domestic violence can be felt across society. The stigma has made it difficult for women to speak out. One reason many women who experience domestic violence have been afraid to speak out is because they feel that “it’s better to be a Mrs. than to be a Ms.,” Okungbowa says.
Married women are held in higher regard and respected more than unmarried women. For one, unmarried women are less likely to be allowed to rent houses on their own because landlords assume they are irresponsible or financially unstable. If they are able to prove stability and responsibility, they are expected to bring a male figure to vouch for them. The discrimination faced by single women is so great that many women who experience domestic violence find it much harder to start their lives over.
Ayodeji Osowobi, the executive director of Stand to End Rape, a youth-led organization in Lagos pushing for an end to gender-based violence, agrees. She also points out that many victims in Lagos, especially women who are of a lower income status, understand that the violence they face is a problem. Regardless, leaving may not be an option because they feel pressure from their families, who would be their other source of support, to stay.
“The challenge arises when their families say ‘no woman will return to my house as a single parent. It is against my tradition. It is against my culture and it is not permissible,’” says one woman. Beliefs like these make it so much more difficult for victims and survivors to speak out, especially because they do not want to be labeled as “damaged” or bring embarrassment to their family. For Okungbowa, it took years to speak out. “There’s a lot of shame that comes with [speaking out]. For many years, I just didn’t want people to know because I wanted to remarry and I felt if people knew I was a survivor, no one will want to marry me,” she says.
“It is perceived that your ability to manage a marriage or stay in a marriage shows your capacity as a domestic woman,” Osowobi says. “Out of that home, you have no value so society will mock you.” This higher status and respect for married women make it more likely for them to participate in society or even hold political office. Lagos girls grow up to become Lagos women who fear that their existence will be invalidated by society without a man and a marriage.
Many victims of domestic violence stay silent because they rely on money from their husbands to sustain themselves. Financial dependence, however, was not a factor for Yinka Balogun.* During their nine-year marriage, Balogun says she heard numerous reports of his infidelity and that he tried to slice her neck with a knife.
Although Balogun’s husband worked and earned money, he preferred to be the “Baba Adugbo” rather than feed his family as he had promised. “He would buy a carton of beer and share it with everyone to celebrate. He never cared about my children’s education,” she says. So, the decision was easy. Balogun gathered her three children and left. She paid for all her children’s education through university with income she earned from her business, and now works in a domestic violence shelter. Her responsibilities include visiting communities to educate women about the resources available to them if they find themselves impacted by domestic violence.
As Balogun reflects on her marriage, she says the decision was easy for her because she was the main provider for herself and her children.
Balogun did not go to the police station to report the incident with the knife. She says she loved him too much. Okungbowa also did not bother going to the police. Nevertheless, many other victims see the police as their first point of contact when they have been abused. They are likely to be sent back to their abuser and inadvertently silenced.
Okungbowa believes that if women who experience domestic violence have a platform where they feel safe enough to talk about their experiences with other women who have survived their abuse, the victim’s chances of survival will be dramatically increased. “We’re not even encouraging [victims] to leave.” she says, “What we’re saying is that it’s good to talk—80 percent of the problem [can be solved by] talking.” So, she's making it happen.
* Name has been changed to protect individual's privacy.