IF MY LIFE WERE MINE
Amina and Zainab walked as briskly as they could to get home. The clouds looked like it would let the rains down soon and night was coming quickly. They decided to go to Amina’s house first since her parents were more laid back and would give them the much needed privacy to just be close to each other and talk about the future they might or might not have. As soon as they got home, they greeted Mrs. Sule, Amina's mum who was in the living room reading a newspaper, she responded noncommittally as all of her attention was on an article about another bomb blast in Kano state which she was engrossed in. The girls got into Amina’s room, lay down on the bed and continued making plans for their future which they had mapped out in their heads.
“I want to build airplanes Amina” Zainab said, “To be the one who gets to work on the designs on such large aircrafts that takes people to their dreams and get them to faraway places they need to be as quickly as possible”. Amina smiled at Zainab; her life ambition was well known, to represent women from her constituency at the Federal Level and to work with an International Non-Governmental Organization while she waits for that dream to materialize.
Both girls refused to think about the odds stacked high against them. Their parents were both rich farmers in Katsina State. Amina’s three sisters had been married off by the time they were 14 years old while Zainab’s parents usually waited until the girls completed secondary school before choosing ‘suitable’ husbands for them. They never discussed marriage because it was the one thing they were most scared to think of.
Two months later Zainab returns home from school to meet a small crowd of people inside her home. Her mother rushes up to her and says “Zainab! Come quick we must prepare, your future husband and his people are here”. In shock she follows her mother into her room where she is dressed up to meet her future husband; a man she doesn’t know. At the last moment when she is about to be presented to the room full of people, she jerks her hands out of her mother’s grasp and in tears says “How can you people do this to me! You didn’t even tell me that I was going to be married off! I don’t even know him! My JSS3 exam begins in two weeks! I am your daughter! How can you treat me like one of the cattle from the farms! I am not ready for marriage!” The stinging slap which hit her cheeks was unexpected. She didn’t know when her dad Alhaji Hamza, a tall, light skinned, well-built man had walked into the room to see what was delaying the bride to be from showing herself, when he walked in to hear Zainab’s tantrum “You will not bring shame to me and this family! You will do as I say, when I say. Education was just to prevent you from being idle. If your husband is kind enough he will let you continue but that will be entirely his decision and you better be meek, humble and respectful in your husband’s house!” He says. “But Baba….I am only 15 years old” Zainab replies. “So? Most of your friends were married off soon after they started their monthly cycle… now stop complaining, put on a smile and go and welcome your husband!
As she walks into the living room she looks around the room, on the right side of the room are women from the village smiling proudly at her as if welcoming her into the fold. There is one woman though Mrs Abdullahi who stares at her with a look akin to pity as if she knows what its’ like to live a life that is not of your choosing, on the left side of the room is where her husband to be is sitting with his parents and close relatives. The first thing Zainab notices about him is that he is old, really old. He couldn’t have been more than a few years younger than her father. The sprinkles of grey hair surrounding the bald patch on his head tell her that, but what puts her off is the crooked smile from his tobacco ruined teeth. His face is filled with joy, his eyes linger on her chest too closely and when he looks up at her he has a glint in his eyes like if he is eying a delicious meal he cant wait to devour.
Zainab wants to be anywhere but here. In one day all of her dreams have come crashing down, she will never get to see the inner workings of an airplane, or learn from the best in the field or go to an engineering school in the US; she will never leave! Her life feels like it is over. At 15 she will be expected to start breeding children within one year and join the cycle of slaved wives she never though she would be a part of. As plans are concluded, she briefly wonders if Amina has heard the news about her impending doom of nuptials. She fears that her new husband will prevent her from being friends with Amina once she becomes his wife instead preferring that she makes friends with other women who are married just like her.
“I am going to run away”. That is the first words out of Amina’s mouth when she sees Zainab the next day on their way to school. “What!” Zainab screams. “I have to leave this place Zainab, how long until am next, If I don’t leave now I fear that I will become the very thing that I want to fight against. I have an uncle in Port Harcourt, he works with an oil company, my parents do not speak to him because he has different beliefs from theirs, but he has always told me that if I ever need a way out all I have to do is call him. So I am going to take him up on his offer and run away on Friday while everyone is at the mosque”. Zainab’s first instinct is to plead with Amina to stay, but as she gazes into the fields, taking in the view; she realizes that there is no future for Amina if she stays here, so against her selfish interest but borne from a place of love she looks at Amina with sad eyes, smiles at her and says “Go; I understand. I pray and hope every day that your path will lead you to a place where you can save our children from being stuck in the life that I am doomed to suffer”.
Zainab’s fate isn’t a lot different or worse from what a lot of Muslims in the north of Nigeria and the Arab parts of the world have to go through. There is nothing as terrible as taking away the choice to a career and the path to life from a young person filled with hope, dreams and aspiration. We do not fully understand the consequences of the actions taken against women in the north; the psychological damage, the depression, the health hazard and most dangerously the loss of hope.
After the recent Yerima call for legalization of child brides I did some research and I am extremely shocked at the results. The most important and common consequences of child marriages in the north isVesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF).
According to Dr. Ahmed Yola, a VVF surgeon:VVF is an occurrence of abnormal hole between the bladder or Rectum and the Vagina, characterized by continuous and uncontrollable leakage of urine, faeces or both. He said that most of the women affected by the condition come from the remote villages which lack motorable roads, healthcare facilities and numerous barriers to seeking healthcare. According to the VVF Surgeon, it is common where ignorance and poverty are prevalent and affects young, short teenage girls of poor social economic background and women who are delivering babies for the first time. He said the condition is also common among older and even elderly women as well as uneducated women living in the villages with the latter mostly affected. Dr. Yola disclosed that 90% of VVF is caused by prolonged unattended obstructed labour while other causes include harmful traditional practices such as Female Genital Mutilation among others.
VVF is prevalent in the north, where maternal mortality rates are high. Sadly, he said, VVF accounts for 75% of loss of baby and is responsible for 55 – 60% of divorce rates in the country. (culled from the Vanguard newspaper)
Nigeria records for 40% of the worlds’ cases on VVF which is the highest in the world. There are more than 800, 000 cases with 20, 000 more recorded each year.
Amina and Zainab didn’t choose the lives that they were born into, they did not decide to be born into families that saw women as tools who didn’t have a say in their lives or the path to their future. It was all pre-ordained before they were born by virtue of the families they were born into. I have tried to put my myself in the shoes of women who are forced into marriage at a very young age but so far I have been unable to. I cannot imagine being forced to marry someone I do not know at a young age, rushed into adulthood before I become a teenager and suffering from something as dehumanizing as not being able to control faeces or urine coming out of my body as of result of carrying babies in my womb at an age when young girls are finding their purpose in life. I simply cannot imagine the power of choice taken from me.
Another example of Nigerian women who have the power of choice taken from them is women who have suffered or are suffering from Female Genital Mutilation. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as all procedures which involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and/or injury to the female genital organs, whether for cultural or any other non-therapeutic reasons. The WHO offers different classifications of FGM. Type I usually refers to removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy) and clitoral hood. Type II (excision) is removal of the clitoris and inner labia. Type III (infibulation) involves the removal of all or part of the inner and outer labia, and usually the clitoris, and the fusion of the wound; a small hole is left for the passage of urine and menstrual blood, and the wound is opened for intercourse and childbirth.
The health consequences of FGM can include recurrent urinary and vaginal infections, chronic pain, infertility, fatal hemorrhaging, epidermoid cysts, and complications during childbirth.. FGM is widely recognized as a violation of human rights, which is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and perceptions over decades and generations with no easy task for change. FGM is widely practiced in Nigeria, and with its large population, Nigeria has the highest absolute number of cases of FGM in the world, accounting for about one-quarter of the estimated 115–130 million circumcised women worldwide.
Now imagine a helpless baby who has no choice in this matter being circumcised in the inhuman and barbaric fashion described above and made to face the health repercussions for the rest of her life. She might not be able to have children, she might not be able to enjoy sex and she may suffer from vaginal diseases through no fault of hers.
These women who suffer, they look at us and they envy our lives. They see us as the distant dream that will not be achieved. They had the power of choice taken from them before they were born and if they could go back to him who gives babies and chooses their destiny they would choose a better life.
I think about it sometimes. How does God pick the children who goes to which family, how does he decides who will be born in abject poverty, the few who will ascend to greatness, the royalty born in a life of affluence, the children of billionaires who will never want for any material thing for a day in their life. Is it luck that some have it better than others, or are some people simply fated to live a miserable live. How does he do it all?
Sometimes I am angry with God, I am selfish and dissatisfied that even if I have it better than millions of people, there are millions more who have it better than me. I look at the kids of the rich on T.V and I ask God why am I not them. Why is my life filled with so many turmoils and sometimes I wish I had control of my destiny even before I was born. So I could pick the perfect country, with the perfect family and the perfect life and all my problems would suddenly vanish and the things I always dreamed of doing would become a reality not an illusion that I sometimes fear is all I have to look forward to.
But my life does not belong to me. These women have it worse than I do and for some of them there is nothing that can be done about their bleak existence but to try and get through the next hour without falling into depression. If their lives was in their hands they would trade their lives for mine in a minute and be thankful to God for the miracle of choice, hope and a dream to look forward to.
Life can be incredibly brutal, sometimes dreams are the only escape we have from the harsh reality that surrounds us and as long as I have that I will be thankful that even though my life is not in my hands, there are certain parts of it that I control. The right to choice to live as I want that cannot ever be taken from me.
There is so much that has to be done to reduce the occurrence of VVF in Nigeria. More specialists are needed to perform corrective operations, training and re-orientation of people who are directly involved in practices that lead to VVF and most importantly funding to help more women get treatment.
To donate log on to http://www.fistulafoundation.org/wherewehelp/nigeria/
We cannot change the hand of fate, but we sure can ensure that others who have it worse than us get a little respite.