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The power of shame, why women never speak up

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By Onyinye Okonkwo
Nigerians as a people are big on shame; nobody wants to be laughed at by their neighbours, friends or society. This conditioning begins from childhood especially for the girl child; the fear of bringing shame to your family is deeply ingrained in the mind of every Nigerian child, because any wrong doing is followed by a declaration from the parents, mostly the mothers who are often over dramatic, “you want to disgrace me? You want people to laugh at me? The question of “what will people say?” has ruined many lives in our society today. It is this same fear of being shamed that push young girls into taking the risk of getting an illegal abortion that could potentially kill them or affect their reproductive organs. Making many victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, assault and other horrendous crimes to suffer in silence due to the shame and mockery that comes with speaking up.
During the week, the story of how a popular pastor allegedly raped Busola Dakolo, the wife of popular Nigerian musician Timi Dakolo who in a four part interview revealed how the mega church pastor who was a trusted family friend allegedly raped her in her parents living room. What is most striking about her narration of the event was how after the act she rushed to clean off the blood from the floor so that no one will see it. That is the power of shame. Something so powerful that makes the victim want to hide every trace or evidence of what has been done to her because she is trying to avoid the shame and censure she knows will follow when people find out. It is the same shame many women have revealed they feel after they have been battered by their spouse which makes them hide behind sunglasses and fake stories rather than open up to their family and friends about what is going on.
So when people ask why rape victims do not speak up or it takes them so long to speak up like in the case of Busola, the answer is quite simple… they are ashamed! What will people say? Will they believe me? Knowing the society we live in and seeing the reactions of people to Busola’s viral revelation, it is easier to understand why victims of sexual abuse and assault hesitate to speak up. The authorities like the police and the courts also do not help to inspire confidence in the hearts of the victims that they would get justice if they spoke up and pointed out who their attacker is.
Even in religious gatherings women are told cover your husband’s shame, don’t bring him out outside, even though this might be a good advice in certain aspects, it encourages the deadly shame and silence culture which we have in our society. This culture has seen many victims of both physical and sexual assault reluctant to speak up and many even dying in the situation before the truth comes to the fore. A story was recently shared of a popular Tv presenter who was robbed and raped by armed robbers, the lady reported only the robbery but didn’t report the rape due to (yes you guessed it) shame. When the robbers were caught they confessed to the rape and the lady, not being able to bear the shame of people finding out she was raped by a group of robbers, committed suicide. This is the power of shame.
Although shame is not a thing that is exclusive to women, the price of having certain information about you as a woman in the public domain is something many women do not want, as it brings lots of mockery and ridicule which many do not have the mental and emotional strength to withstand. Taking the case of Busola as a case study, people have said all sorts of things about her; many men will not marry or even have anything to do with a woman that was raped even if it happened as no fault of hers, this sadly is the reality of the society we live in.
A lady who is a survivor of domestic violence ones shared her story of how when she was being battered by her husband and enduring all the emotional and verbal abuse he put her through, she couldn’t open up to anyone because she felt ashamed, somehow she felt like a failure even though she was the one being abused by her spouse. Yet she was the one who felt shame and like a failure because society has conditioned women into believing that they are the custodians of morality and not the man, that it is the duty of the woman to “ build her home “ no matter what even though she is being battered every day.
So women are taught shame, they are groomed with it as they grow and many never lose the negative effects of that conditioning that keeps them from speaking up when they have been taken advantage of or hurt. It is why little girls do not always speak up when they are abused, with a lot of victims of sexual abuse or assault have said they felt guilty, responsible as though they somehow brought that evil act upon themselves which is just not true.
A lot of abusers count on the shame and silence of women which emboldens them to brazenly carry out their evil acts. They count on society’s attitude of shaming women to act as a deterrent to discourage women from speaking up. Years ago when a certain lady named Ese Walters spoke up about being sexually exploited by the same pastor Busola Dakolo accused of raping her, she was called all manner of names and accused of trying to take advantage of the pastor, seeking for fame, being an attention seeker, jezebel, Delilah, seductress and so many other unprintable names. No woman in her right senses wants to be called all these names, no woman wants to be known as the girl who was raped, so they keep quiet and endure the trauma and self loathing that comes with being violently violated alone.
But this generation of women seems to be steadily shedding that cloak of shame that has kept women from calling out their abusers and society must encourage this. We must start a new culture of listening to women when they tell their stories and believing them. Asking women questions that suggest they might be lying does not help victims speak up as they fear they might be branded liars or shamed for sharing their experiences. We must as a society encourage our sisters, daughters, mothers, wives, friends to speak up when they are abused and when they do, believe them, protect them, and stand behind them in support as they fight to get justice and ensure that the perpetrators of any form of abuse and assault are brought to book and appropriately punished.
The Nigerian legal system must also do more to ensure more cases of sexual abuse and assault are convicted. Legal experts recently revealed that only 18 rape cases have been convicted in the history of Nigeria, this is very poor and the law must do more to ensure that more rape cases are properly handled and that victims get justice in the court of law. This will also encourage more victims to speak up and seek redress in the courts of law as they are confident that the courts will protect them and bring the culprits to book.
Also in spaces like religious settings where continuous abuse and exploitation by those in authority has been reported by members there must be steps taken to bring healing and restitution to the survivors. Things like sexual abuse awareness trainings, how to counsel survivors, how to respond to them and how to spot sexual abuse should be part of trainings given to leaders not only in religious settings but in the society as this will help victims receive help quickly and also help identify possible abusers.

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