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“Throughout my life I have faced many hardships,” says Zainab, a 43-year-old woman who lives in Ogbagbala village in Kogi State, Nigeria. She is married and has six children—three boys and three girls, ages 5 through 25.
“As a young girl, my parents separated and I had to live with my aunt. I never knew what it was to experience the love and attention of a mother or a father. I went to primary school, but when I was six years old, my aunt made me sell milk before school and during breaks. It was exhausting,” Zainab recalls how she would often fall asleep in class and struggle to pay attention. In the evenings, she had to do housework meant for children much older and bigger than her, such as fetching water and washing clothes.
“I was so happy when I got married. I felt this was a turning point in my life. I felt that, at least, my life would be much better as I would have someone to confide in, I would have less housework and I would suffer less. But then things didn’t turn out as I thought.”
After being married for a few years, Zainab’s husband hardly spent any time with her and was always out with his friends. She felt neglected and alone. Whenever Zainab complained about it her husband would beat her.
“My husband decided to marry a second wife, and things got worse for me. He stopped listening to me and whenever I had a misunderstanding with my co-wife, he would beat me without hearing my side of the story. Sometimes he even refused to give me money to feed myself and our children. But this was not the case with my co-wife, whom he loved and treated well,” says Zainab.
Political instability and unrest in Nigeria also had a profound impact on Zainab and her family. During a period of crisis, one of her children was hospitalized. But Zainab did not know what was going on outside the hospital until the day her child was discharged.
“That night my family had to run to the military barracks. But we discovered that the place was overcrowded, as people had already run there for safety. We had to sleep under a tree for five day's because the barracks were too full. We finally decided to move, because the tension where we lived was not going away. We left for Kogi State with just a small mattress, a few of our clothes, and a little bit of food,” she says.
Zainab’s family moved into a mud house. She began to sell small amounts of soup condiments on a table in front of the house to help her make ends meet and pay for her and her children’s food, which her husband frequently refused to pay for.
“The turning point in my life is when I joined Women for Women International. I heard about the program from a participant who graduated, and decided to join because she told me that I would receive both emotional and financial support from the program.”
“During the sessions on decision-making and women’s rights, my eyes were opened. It made me appreciate myself more as a human being. I thought that only men had rights to everything. I never believed that I had rights, nor did I understand gender equality. I have always been taught that a woman has no right until marriage, and when married, her right ends with caring for her family. If she had to claim any other right, it had to be given to her by her husband. Learning that I was born with all my rights was very interesting.
“Practicing what I learned was not easy, because I have always revered my husband. At first, it turned out badly for me since he took my respect for granted. On one occasion, he beat me and asked me to leave the house. Usually, when my husband would insult or beat me, I would look for somewhere to sit and then cry my eyes out. After some time, I would go and apologize to him.
“This time, I refused to cry. Instead I kept calm and then walked up to him, and I told him that if he wants me to leave the house, he should take me back to my people where he married me. My calmness surprised him and my co-wife, because they expected to see the usual crying and pleading Zainab. All of this happened in front of our house. My husband did not know how to react because I have never talked to him with such boldness during any misunderstanding. Before long, neighbors came to plead with me to stay and not leave the house. This greatly embarrassed my husband, because he had been seen as the best of husbands in the neighborhood. Since then, he never speaks to me disrespectfully and he has never raised his hand again on me.
“I have also learned to take proper and better care of myself from the trainings on health and wellness. I used to see family planning as a crime to stop child-bearing, but the information I received was so useful that I have decided to start practicing family planning, and I appreciate Women for Women for this. I have also taught my children the value of keeping their bodies, clothes and environment clean so they can maintain a healthy body.”
Zainab also found a way to contribute to her family’s income. Inspired by the knitting skills she learned in the program, Zainab saved up to buy a knitting machine, which has increased her ability to quickly make products to sell.
For Zainab, becoming part of a support network of other women has provided her strength and the ability to stand up for her rights. “The greatest change in my life is the emotional relief I have received from the trainings offered. Being in the Women for Women International program has helped me to build friendships with women of other religions and tribes. We support each other emotionally and financially when need be. I visit their homes and they also visit mine. I am so grateful for being a part of this program.”