Girl on fire - Burning from a place of familiar pain...
Painting by Tomasz Alen Kopera
*Azuka Liberty, 18, is a budding advocate who is fierce in her resolve to end all kinds of violence against girls.
Born and raised in Ajegunle, Ikorodu, an underserved settlement in Nigeria’s ‘state of excellence’ Lagos,
Azuka is one of the many girls who have experienced sexual violence while hawking to support their families.
Azuka’s tale of abuse is convoluted. Same convolution obtains for other girls caught up in the vortex of hawking, predatory sexual advances and a parent –or guardian– insistent on 100% sales, irrespective of the consequences.
One may rationalize the need for 100% sales –Azuka’s ‘Okpa’ – a native delicacy with a shelve life short of 24 hours- will not command a premium price the next day– but in turning a blind eye to the physical and psychological abuses visited on hawkers, are parents and guardians not complicit in the abuse?
The jarring takeaway from many tales like hers is that, often, with parents and guardians too poor and disempowered, the atrocities seem to enjoy compliance from Azuka’s and other girls’ first line of protection.
The cons of hawking outweigh the pros, every time. Hawking debases the society in ways that can never be summed in Naira and Kobo.
Photograph by Helga Blank
Research indicates that victims of repeated abuse may develop Stockholm syndrome, as coping mechanism.
But not Azuka; not for her the psychoanalytic escapism of Stockholm Syndrome.
Azuka hated the acts of paedophilic activities visited on her underdeveloped body; her missed years of schooling and, the dire nature of the nurture provisioned her and her siblings because their mom was desperately poor.
What stands Azuka out from many of her peers who have suffered same abuses as her, however, is her resolve to put an end to it, beginning from her community, the same community that failed her.
Not many are like her; she is an inspiration.
Illustration by The Art of Kadir Nelson
Azuka is the third of four children born to Mr. and Mrs. Liberty of Ajegunle, Ikorodu. She grew up in a loving household. Her memory serves up a kind and thoughtful father, who despite being vulnerable to the vagaries of underemployment and unemployment of carpentry took adequate care of her mom, her siblings and herself.
They lacked but it was not biting. They could even afford a coloured TV set; a rarity in her community.
All changed when her dad took ill and died.
After his death and burial, Azuka’s mother was accused of many patriarchy-tinged abominations, cast off by her father’s siblings and left to cater for four children.
As an uneducated woman with very limited skill set, her chances of giving her children the best of life opportunities were very slim.
Once Azuka turned 11, she began supporting her mum by hawking ‘Okpa’. She was gung-ho and feared not. Until the first assault, she was willing to hawk at the detriment of her safety, education and wellbeing.
Painting by Małgorzata Lazarek
“If I don’t go inside the house to sell to them, they will not buy. If I go inside, they ask for sex… and if I go home without selling everything, my mother would beat me…”
The first assault mystified her. The next one did not. And the next and the next. She lost count in her misery. She was pained at what the society does to her: her ‘customers’ were paedophiles and her mum could not understand why she does not want to hawk.
Daily, she dreads being tricked off the street and assaulted. Nightly, she dreads the early shifts involved in the preparation of ‘Okpa’. A living nightmare was her lot.
Then, a ‘good Samaritan’ came from a local church. The woman promised haven: schooling, meals and comforts. Hell is better lived than imagined. There was no school; meals were leftovers and comfort? The only comfort Azuka knew was the next-door maid!
After 20 months of this hell, she returned to her mother.
She vowed never to be vulnerable again. She did not know how, what and when her fears about society will be assuaged but she held on to this belief.
Artwork by Sanpaiya
I met Liberty in 2012. She was a participant of EWOF. During classes, her reticence was noted. She was active yet withdrawn, open yet closed, and, playful yet serious and very quick to sporadic bursts of temper.
She was a bundle of contradictions. I was piqued.
She told me her heart-breaking story in bits over the course of her study. She had no rage for her abusers.
She wants justice but not retribution. She just wants to prevent what she suffered and still suffers.
In her quixotic mien, she states ‘I do not want revenge; I cannot gain what was lost. But, and but, I can prevent other vulnerable girls falling into the traps of paedophiles and poverty.’
Every time I think about her, every time I walk beside her during a campaign, I am always in awe. How could someone who has lost so much give so much?!
Upon graduation, she went ahead to become one of the trained-trainer, co-facilitating educative and rehabilitative sessions designed to educate her peers on their rights and build their self-esteem.
She now leads campaigns exposing many harmful cultural practices prevalent in her community; speaks to the community elders and her peers about ways of handling problems teenage girls face and, facilitates sessions with new EWOF intakes.
Her action has given more girls the support they need to speak out against abuses.
Artwork by Hans Walør // Art + Design
Azuka envisions a world where every girl is in school and stays off the streets, where mothers have the money to meet the needs of their families so that they can best provide for their children and not endanger their lives. She has had the opportunity of sharing this vision on local radio and TV stations.
She will graduate high school in some months, though she is unsure about what she wants to study in the university, she is absolutely certain about her resolve to continue working to end all forms of violence against girls.
*Name Changed to protect her identity.