Girls abducted. Girls married off before they turn 15. Women denied equality before the law. Why do so many African societies move like a car on two left-side wheels?

Are children as capable of thought and insight as adults? How do they react to stereotypes about age, race, ethnicity, culture, religion or gender? At what age do children form opinions, or start to remember things? Too often, adults assume that childhood is some sort of mental, auditory or visual impediment: when really, they are just The Little People

All our troubles seem so far away…Yesterday I listened to my partner talk about his childhood in a small Dutch town in the late 60’s. He mentioned how when he and his twin were only 4 years old, they would press their ears to the wall and listen to their parents screaming at each other. Their dad would threaten to jump out if she didn’t shut up- and then march across the floor pitta-patta to the window, while their mum would scream Don’t Do It! Think About The Children!

Of course these parents had no idea that the children not only heard them, but also experienced emotions and formed an opinion based on what they heard. They didn’t expect that half a century later, their child would be grown up and telling the story. Truly, not all marital tensions are tragic or fatal. Many couples learn the ropes of marriage as they go along, and often the foibles of a difficult past become distant memories. Time heals all wounds, even if scars are left behind.

I grew up in Ibadan, a sprawling, densely populated metropolis in southwestern Nigeria. When I was just 3 years old, we lived in a spacious bungalow surrounded by a well-kept hedge of verdant shrubs and variegated flowers. My parents’ bedroom was down a long corridor, and mine was somewhere on the right side, across from the kitchen and the sitting room. However, our manicured surroundings held an ugly secret: the undulating tides of an unhappy marriage. One quiet afternoon, I heard my mother screaming in terror. Her cries drew me down the corridor till I pressed my face to the window of my parents’ bedroom. I couldn’t see them through the closed louvers, but I imagined his blows falling with heavy thuds against her fragile body, and I winced viscerally.

Later, after the noise had died down, my mum would emerge from the room, avoiding my eyes- hers blood-shot and subdued. Her arms would be covered in yellowish-white blotches. Were these swabs of iodine-stained cotton wool covering her wounds, or tell tale signs of sexual abuse? I watched her silently, and my brain took indelible notes of her anguish.

Were these swabs covering her wounds, or tell tale signs of sexual abuse?

What is interesting is that my mum kept all her pain inside. She never discussed these things with anyone. I can bet she would be shocked to know that I graphically recall everything. They are emblazoned in my mind’s eye like a 3D IMAX movie. My dad would probably deny that they happened. Every time I confronted him with my childhood memories, he always told a different version of the story, where he was right. It was always someone else’s fault.

I remember another time when my mum fled to the home of the closest relatives we had in Ibadan. The Alades were a married couple, and they were my dad’s elder cousins. Later that evening, they came to our house, to return my mum to her owner and husband. In Yoruba parlance, the marital home is not the house of both of you; it is referred to as Ile Oko, or Your Husband’s House. Anyway, they told my dad to stop beating his wife, and they left her there and went home that night.

Til’ Death Do Us Part

Culturally, in some parts of Africa, a woman who complains about spousal abuse is often told to return to her husband’s house, because it is the proper thing to do. If she is reluctant, she may be emotionally blackmailed, reminded that she must do it for the sake of her children. You see, it is the woman that owns the children- except of course the child achieves greatness, in which case the credit automatically switches to the father. Like the song goes, “T’omo de ba huwa buruku won an’iya re loko…”

If your home is divided, just put some Elastoplast or Band-Aid on it

Then, there is also the social angle: being a divorcee doesn’t look good. Everyone is expected to stay in marriage, even if it is not working. Every mother tells her girl child that she went through the same abuse at the hands of her own husband- the girl’s dear daddy. Therefore you must go back, and endure your broken marriage. If your home is divided, just put some Elastoplast or Band-Aid on it; and if it’s broken, some plaster-of-Paris will do. Separation or divorce are social taboos. If you do get a divorce, your ex-husband can never be compelled to pay alimony, so you will have to raise your children alone. He will simply go off, marry a new wife, and start a new life. Besides, divorcees are stigmatized, and children from broken homes belong in the anecdotes right next to illegitimate children, or bastards.

In addition, your pastor will tell you it is un-Christian to break up with your husband, so you must go back and endure it. Don’t you worry, he will be praying for you that God will intervene and drive the devil away from your husband: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…” Meanwhile, through all these, children are imbibing myths of gender roles. Like Adam and Eve after the forbidden fruit, their eyes will be opened and they will form moral codes that last a lifetime, even if corrupted from the start.

When I became a young adult, I heard the ballad by Babyface and Stevie Wonder: How Come, How Long? In the video, now available on YouTube , an abused woman shoots her husband fatally during a scuffle. Neighbors, who could have intervened at anytime, but did not, now stand around watching while police car lights flash in the night sky and sirens blare whoo-whoo-whoo. The cops arrive and the broken, bruised and battered woman is escorted away to jail.

It is a documented fact that many women in abusive relationships can’t leave. There is a conditioning process that keeps the woman chained in her brain. She is like the hamster or the frog in the classical conditioning experiment that remains inside the glass bottle even when the lid is taken off. She has limits in her soul. She has been broken, and her dignity and independence have been taken away. And so, she stays, until cast away by her husband like a used menstrual cloth, or like her marriage vow compels her, ‘til death do us part.

Happily Ever After?

Recently, I was chatting with my friend Simi who speaks to women’s groups in the United States. She told me about a Facebook group they had set up for women in Nigeria. In this group, private concerns on any topic under the sun can be discussed in a safe and protected space. Women can find comfort and solutions to things they would otherwise be afraid or ashamed to share. In one such situation, after hearing that one of their members was being serially abused and battered by her husband, the women in the group organized and went to her house. They packed her things and took her away. Without their active intervention, there’s no telling how that story would have ended. For instance, in the music video by Babyface and Stevie Wonder, the story ends with the woman as a convicted criminal. She goes to jail for killing her husband in self-defense.

People marry for different reasons. Tradition. Security. Money. Love. Sometimes, you think, like Tina Turner, What’s Love Got To Do With It? Love is a strange animal. It is mankind’s highest ideal, but can also lead to toxic dependencies and obsessive infatuations with fatal results. Abusive couples have been known to experience repetitive cycles of breaking up and reconciliation in which reason and rational self-preservation take a backseat. Unfortunately, unlike the fairytale stories of our childhoods, they don’t always live happily ever after.

My mother is unable to completely trust men

My mother hurts till this very day. She is unable to completely trust men, or interpret certain situations without coloring in her own image of my father’s brutal unaffections. I, likewise, still balk when I see fathers hold hands with their children, and have no mental models of the purpose of marriage.

Woman’s Worth

Many societies in Africa often reinforce normative ideas about gender roles in the different ways they provide opportunities for males and females. Girls are raised to depend on men. To feel incomplete without men. Women will expect and routinely demand money or gifts in exchange for sex. On Valentine’s Day, you’d better not give your girlfriend flowers, chocolates or a teddy bear. No candle-lit dinners, unless it involves eating expensive food in a restaurant. The preferred gift depends on what’s in vogue: At least, regular airtime recharge cards for her phone. Then maybe Brazilian hair extensions or the latest smartphones. Better still an all expense paid shopping spree or a cash gift. Best, a regular stipend, her house rent, school fees, or a car. From childhood, a girl’s bait is money. It is not so much a question of poverty of the pocket as much as it is of decrepit souls and bankrupt minds that have been acculturated to see themselves only as appendages to men. Like singer Gwen Guthrie put it, Ain’t Nuthin Goin On But The Rent-You’ve Gotta Have A J.O.B. If You Wanna Be With Me…or in local pidgin, money for hand, back for ground.

Gender disparity is established in childhood. In the 50s and 60s when my parents and their siblings were growing up, none of the women got a university education, but all the men did. My mum, with her nursing & midwifery education, is perhaps the most advanced of the lot. Why is that so? Because traditionally, the ultimate goal of a female child is to be married off to a man. As soon as a child is born, neighbors ask, is it a girl or a boy? If it’s a boy they will dance and sing. If it’s a girl, not so much. If it’s one more girl, they will scream, again? Many years down the line, time will come for her to be married off to a man. A dowry will be paid for her. On the one hand, it is a cultural indication of how valuable she is to her parents. On the other hand, it may be a subtle way of attaching material value to her worth and exchanging her for money or goods- which is why it is called a bride price.

As long as women are no different from goods on a shelf, broilers in a hatchery, or semen dumps for horny men, African societies will continue to move forward like a car running on just 2 left-side wheels. Both male and female children will grow into adults who passively and actively conform to their historically and culturally defined gender roles. Men on top, women at the bottom. Eventually, children will repeat the same cycles of abuse their parents went through.

Run the world - Girls?

It’s 2016, and not much has changed for girls and women. In Nigeria’s far north, almost 300 schoolgirls from Chibok were forcefully carried off on 14-04-14 by Boko Haram, while their schools were burnt down. Since then, all have been sexually abused and deeply traumatized, some have been brainwashed and died as suicide bombers, while most remain unaccounted for.

One in four rural northern Nigerian girls are married off before they turn 15. Only 4 years ago, the Nigerian senator from Zamfara West, 56-year old Ahmed Yerima, exploited a weak clause in the constitution to marry an Egyptian bride who was alleged to be aged 13. He later divorced his older 17-year-old bride, in favor of the new child-bride. A public outcry against the senator’s antics was dismissed by the senate.

In March this year, the female lawmaker from Ondo State south senatorial district, Senator Biodun Olujimi proposed a Gender Equal Opportunities Bill on the floor of the National Assembly. The #GEOBill was aimed at according women rights equal to those of men in various spheres of life and to impose certain measures to address past and current discriminatory practices. However, her colleagues voted down the bill. According to the legislators, it was rejected because it is not in Nigeria’s culture and against both Christian and Muslim religions for women to be equal to men. Only last month in this same National Assembly, the senator from Kogi West Senatorial District threatened his female colleague, who represents Lagos Central District that he would rape and kill her and nothing would be done about it. And indeed, nothing happened. Only seven out of the 109 senators who serve in the current National Assembly are women.

Epilogue

The proportion of female students in Nigerian universities rose from 7.7% to 45%

Already, half of Nigeria’s one hundred and eighty-eight million people are female, and in the next 25 years, more children will be born in Nigeria than in any other country on earth. In the half-century after independence, the proportion of female students in Nigerian universities rose from 7.7% to 45%. In August 2016, a 13-year old girl from Ogun State, Tunmise Idowu won the Cowbellpedia Mathematics Television Quiz by answering 17 questions correctly under one minute; She shattered the previous record of 15 questions set last year. In Abuja, Faizah Sani, a daughter of a single-mom, set a new exams record and made distinctions in all her subjects. The teenaged girl scored nine A1’s in the final post-secondary school certification exams for West Africa (WAEC). Earlier in May in the United States, a Nigerian girl named Queenate Ibeto was selected by her school to address the class of 2016 at the Howard University graduation ceremony. She also welcomed the Commencement Speaker, President Barack Obama and shared the stage with him. Last week in Rio, the first Olympic rower in Nigerian history, Chierika Ukogu, competed in the finals of the women's Single Sculls Rowing event. She is a 23-year old graduate of Stanford University and will attend medical school after the Olympics.

Certainly, women have cracked the glass ceiling in a few places. That’s why in the post-gender future, there will be no Weaker Sex: only weaker ideas. The societies, whose children can out-think the rest, will be the strongest. It all starts with the ideas we feed them with when they are still young. For now, children may be the Little People, but they are as wise, and full of ideas, as they are full of sugar and spice and all things nice.

Ayo Adene (1976) is a Nigerian-born public health specialist who has worked in more than 15 countries in 4 continents in 15 years. Whether managing programs at PharmAccess in the Netherlands, evaluating policies with UNICEF in Surinam or financing development with the Global Fund in Rwanda, Ayo writes to live, and lives to write.

A restless pragmatist, Ayo believes in tackling tough questions. There are no perfect answers, but if it starts a conversation, that can make a difference.

Photo: A group of Nollywood actors, the N17 Group, worried by the growing rate of domestic abuse in the country, went on a walk against the scourge on Thursday, January 23rd, 2014. With among others Foluke Daramola, Yomi Fash-Lanso, Fathia Balogun, and Bisi Ibidapo-Obe. Photo from E24-7 Magazine. This protest is just one of several in the last couple of years, against domestic violence in Nigeria.