My favorite colour is yellow. Yellow, because it represents light, energy and optimism. It is the colour of the sun, the world’s most consistent reminder that as it sets, new beginnings are on the horizon. But, there was a season in my life when black and its overpowering despair colluded to consume what ultimately propels my activism on behalf of women and girls: hope. In 1991, I was a naïve 17-year-old girl who, because of my sheltered upbringing, believed that the world was relatively safe for women and girls; that women and girls, regardless of where they were born and the colour of their skin, were entitled to the same access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That naivety was eclipsed on July 21, 1991, a day that ultimately awakened my soul to the stark reality that injustice around the world most often bears the broken face, body and soul of a woman.
On the night of July 21, 1991, I was physically assaulted by a misguided young man who believed he was entitled to silencing my voice with power and control. The two-inch cut on my back, which traced a nail in that textured wall behind me before I collapsed, serves as a poignant reminder of the day that I too joined 35% of the women around the world who have been forced to have either physical or sexual assault written into our life stories.
My assailant was charged with two counts of simple battery and given “12 months probation, no contact with victim.” I, on the other hand, was casually offered a life sentence that, had my spirit not chosen to aggressively appeal from, could have imprisoned my soul forever.
The reality is that women and girls across the globe are routinely brutalized; so much so that humanity has grown desensitized and disconnected to the haunting echo of pain and suffering. Many of us, overwhelmed by the prodigious statistics, choose to conveniently employ selective guilt; selective outrage. But the facts are what they are:
· at least 1 in every 3 women, i.e., around 35% of women around the world, bear similar scars of either physical or sexual assault;
· according to Equality Now, women and girls make up 98% of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation;
· every 7 seconds, a child bride is forced into an unholy alliance;
· female genital mutilation has disfigured the bodies and sewn shut the souls of 200 million women and girls worldwide.
In the context of my work in Nigeria through the NGO I founded, Pathfinders Justice Initiative, these statistics parallel the global phenomenon. Violence against women is pandemic in this patriarchal society, with sex trafficking emerging as the largest consumer of female bodies. In fact, my home state of Edo, Nigeria, is an internationally recognized hub of sex trafficking, an evil that is deceptively embedded in our culture and proudly flaunts itself as part of our functioning economy. Over 90% of the women who are sex trafficked from Nigeria into Europe (increasingly over the migrant graveyard that is the Mediterranean Sea) hail from my home state. The majority of these women and girls “volunteer” to be trafficked because they deem prostitution a desperate alternative to poverty. This so-called volunteerism, however, is laced with deception and as such, we must collectively debunk this myth of “choice.” Why? Because anyone’s spirit can be broken into submission when they are forced to face the vulnerability of homelessness and hunger.
As onerous as it may be, our mission at Pathfinders is to eradicate sex trafficking from Nigeria by generating viable economic alternatives and reigniting hope in the hearts of our women and girls. We are unapologetically aggressive in that pursuit, as we stand with women and girls who, as an act of resistance (not resilience), summon up the courage to show up to broken lives that have been devastated by injustice. Our methodology is holistic, rights based and survivor centered. I do this work to preserve the memory of young women like Faith who was 31 years old when she died in 2016. Because she was poor, uneducated and therefore had little to no economic opportunities, she was intentionally rendered vulnerable by failing government institutions which choreograph lives of generational poverty. Like 1 in 3 young women from my home state of Edo, she too was successfully recruited into sex trafficking.
It was in Libya that Faith was first sold, forced into a life of prostitution, beaten and raped on countless occasions. Those rapes resulted in a pregnancy, and because she was unable to feed her young daughter, she was subsequently trafficked to Moscow, Russia. In Moscow, Faith was repeatedly raped and beaten and forced to have sex with 10-15 men a day, every day, until her young body, overwhelmed by the abuse, rebelled in repeated kidney infections.
Because her traffickers were unwilling to afford her the dignity to obtain basic antibiotics, the infections ultimately progressed to kidney disease. Close to death, she was discarded on the streets of Moscow by her traffickers. It was there that she was rescued by one of our Russian partners. Alone and afraid, Faith’s dying wish was to return to Nigeria to see her young daughter again.
We worked with several of our partners in Moscow and Faith was reunited with her daughter in Nigeria in November 2015. It was our intention, with support from our partners, to provide her with six weeks of dialysis treatments while we desperately endeavored to fundraise the $35,000 that she needed to secure a kidney transplant. Those six weeks churned into six months and notwithstanding our best, yet unsuccessful efforts, Faith passed away in September 2016, a victim of an industry that buys comfort at the expense of human lives.
We also do this work to amplify the muted voices of women and girls because every woman deserves a seat at the table of her life. No woman should ever have to live in fear, be raped into motherhood or be forced to choose between her education and her life, as the Chibok Girls of Nigeria who were abducted by Boko Haram on April 14, 2014 were. Over three years later, 113 of them remain in the hands of one of the world’s deadliest terror groups who have made it painstakingly clear that both life and death embody their aberrant definition of victory. Until every one of the Chibok Girls is returned, rehabilitated and given an opportunity to write her own chapter in history, I will continue to organize and remind the world of the gaping hole that they left, not only in the hearts of their grieving families, but in the eroded conscience of humanity. #BringBackOurGirls.
And so, over 20 years after my experience in July 1991, I proudly stand for every marginalized woman and girl until we can all collectively bask in the warmth of the colour yellow. Because you see, dismantling injustice and demanding fundamental human rights for our women and girls does not equate to a full-frontal assault on my Nigerian culture or amount to the imposition of “western values.” The truth is that when culture and tradition erode freedom and dignity and eclipse access to justice, they oppose a higher order that warrants righteous indignation and justifies a revolution which may or may not be televised. Simply put? We cannot continue to negotiate with injustice. Now is the time for every woman to arise and amplify her own voice, particularly against systemic powers that do not believe she has one.
To this day, that two-inch scar remains on the small of my back. However, today, it traces a different purpose. It serves as a beautiful reminder that there can be beauty for ashes; that one can arise from despair and fear and walk in liberation to lead a movement that forces the debate on the feminine face, body and soul of injustice.
Today, I walk in freedom, a human right that cannot be simulated. I see the face of injustice, not as she has been forced to be, but as she was intended and powerfully empowered to be: Justice. But yet, millions of other women and girls remain enslaved in debilitating bondage that is silencing their voices and slowly obscuring the beauty of their souls. The reality is that it is much easier to sit for nothing than to stand for something. Liberation beckons. Justice beckons. Will you join me to paint the world yellow?