|Photography by Laura Putman|
Author: Dr. Cheryl Cottle
Recently, I was asked by one of my colleagues from the academe, when I became a woman' advocate for empowerment? When I was asked the question, I reflected on when, and I realize that it has been many years ago and as early as when I was a little girl at around age 7 or 9, when I saw a woman being beaten and was lifted and thrown into a dirty drain by her husband. Some years later I saw another woman who had found refuge in our home after running away from her perpetrator. My mother extending her hand to assist this woman in her time of need.
On reflecting much deeper, I realized my divine gift was teaching; and it was my purpose in life. I believe to foster empowerment, people should be given the opportunity to grow to their maximum capabilities and potential. I also believe that every one should be given the opportunity to be exposed to the most effective teaching and learning methodologies. I also strongly believe that an egalitarian educational approach should be implemented, and not one that foster divisiveness - classicism and racism.
It was this latter experience that I became more reflective and put more thought towards women living in violence and abuse; I also drew upon stories told by women in my family about others who have been battered. At that age, I felt that if women who were beaten by their husbands, were more confident, and saw themselves as beautiful, and had resources - - money, an education and a skill; that they could leverage with, they could be independent and therefore will be in position to wager for a better life.
As I got older, I saw that the empowerment of women as the solution to their circumstances; a life free-from-abuse and free-from-violence and free-from -poverty. I thought that if women were given the tools to empower themselves, it will give them a chance to change their lives and leave a legacy for their child, so the cycle does not continue. I saw that if women who were living in this social climate were taught how to achieve some degree of independence, there might be hope for a brighter future for them. How was that to be achieved? At that time I had no idea as to how the cycle-of violence and abuse could be stopped. It was much later in my early twenties that I understood the implications of social changes and the empowerment of people, regardless of gender, race, class or creed. I felt that if the government implemented social and educational programs that focus on skills training, knowledge-based education, and developing their self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth; changing their perception of themselves, and provided opportunities for employment, would facilitate their independence.
I remembered that when I was around age 9 or so, I saw Sophia standing at our back door, naked and there was blood all over her body. She was running away from her husband. That night she found refuge at our home, my mother opened her doors to grant Sophia support. She was violently beaten by her husband. I was very shocked to see what he had done to her. Her face was battered, her jaws looked broken and she had lost some of her teeth. That is just to list some things. Thinking back, I shuddered, although it was not the first time I saw a woman being abused by her husband. Two years before I saw, my teacher being berated and thrown into a dirty drainage system. I also never saw violence and abuse in my home. I grew up with both of my parents and I never saw them engaged in fights. I also did not observe the folks in our community engaged in fights, overall; although you will hear from time as you passed older women engaged in conversation that Mary or Jane were beaten by their husbands. It wasn't a common practice. In sharing this story, I will use the pseudonyms Sophia to refer to the wife and Stephen to refer to the husband.
Sophia and Stephen had just gotten married. Sophia was from another village, and Stephen was a young man from a "good family" from our community. His parents were God-fearing people who worshiped the Lord. Ever since I knew Stephen, he always accompanied his parents to church. They were prominent people in our community. His mother was the mid-wife of the community. She delivered almost every baby that was born in the village and she was also known to be the woman to go to if you needed a cake for your wedding, christening, birthdays or special event. His father was well liked and was respected by all.
When, Sophia and Stephen got married, I was a flower girls for their wedding. My mother, using her skills in floral designs made the bouquet for the bride's maids and flower girls. At that time, people in our community joined forces to make sure that special events were indeed special. Sophia was our new bride. She married Stephen, and the community was happy to welcome her.
About a year after the wedding, around late evening we heard a knock on our backdoor. When my mother asked who it was, in a weak voice a woman responded "Sophia". My mother rose and open the door. I was surprise to see Sophia all in blood, battered, and tattered. Her eyes and lips were swollen too. My mother invited her in. Her tattered clothes, swollen eyes and lips caught my attention and I asked her," why did Stephen do this to you?" But as she began to explain, my mother suggested that she allow her to take her to the hospital. She refused to go to the hospital, so we nursed her wounds as best as we could.
Sophia hid out at our home for over a week not showing herself outside for one moment. Stephen did drop by our home to find out if we had seen her. Our home was the last house that she would have come across before coming to the main road that would have taken her away from the village. Stephen knew that she wasn't able to leave the village, because he knew when she ran, she did not have any clothing or shoes; and I guess suspected that mom was giving her shelter. Sophia went home after spending more than a week with us. Her life seems to have been normal after that. She had a baby girl sometime after, followed by a baby boy, followed by a few more girls. I did not hear anything about Sophia's beatings, I guessed, they had ended. Life seems to be normal.
Many years passed, and I now had my own home. It was close to where I grew up, and one night around 9:00 am EST, I heard a knock on my front door. When I opened, it was Sophia. Her face was covered in blood; it was streaming off her face. Her eyes swollen and her lips were also swollen. Sophia was a frightful sight. She was naked not even a shoe or a slipper. I took her in and nursed her wounds, just like my mother did over twenty years before. She stayed at my home for a week also.
Stephen came to my home the following day around 3:00pm, and asked me if I had seen her on Friday evening. It was now Sunday evening. He asked whether I had seen Sophia the night before. I asked him why and reminded him that it was the same question that he had asked my mother, so many years ago. He shyly pointed out that he and Sophia have had a "little fight". I pointed out that I had not seen her and that I was surprised to know that he was still violent towards his wife after so many years. I guessed he knew that she was at my home.
He knew she had no clothes, or money, and therefore could not go further than my house. He knew that she could not have accessed the main road without clothing. He left, and he did not come back. I guessed he knew that she would eventually come back home. She always did; at least twenty years ago, she did. She was just so predictable. A week later she went back home. I guessed Sophia's life continued to have some good times and some bad times sprinkled with some violent times or maybe some bad times and some violent times sprinkled with some good times. She never left him. I don't think that she ever reported the abuse. Sophia was liberated from Stephen's abuse, on his passing some years later. I felt that Sophia stayed with Stephen because she was not empowered. I always believed that if a woman was economically empowered, she would be better positioned to make decisions to affect her life positively. I am an advocate for women empowerment and I believe that empowerment also gives the woman the opportunity to contribute to the life of her family overall.During my years as an empowerment coach, I have directed many women to become entrepreneurs so that they can be self-sufficient, and be able to forge a life with self-respect and self-confidence.
I sat down one day to talk with Sophia. I had some questions that I wanted answered too. One of my question was: why throughout the years although Stephen continued to batter you, you stayed? Sophia explained that it was always difficult to leave. "The night I came to his home after the wedding, he berated and beat me in front of his friends. I thought that I could go back home and I went back, but my mother refused to give me a shelter and asked me why did you come here?" "And my mother says, "stay with your husband, you are now his responsibility." She also stated that she contacted her brother in Canada, but he too said that he could not assist her at this time in his life. What kept you from leaving, you could have left and taken your children with you? She said that she had thought about it, but she felt that she did not have the skills or the education to get employed, and more so what level of job I would have gotten." She also said that she also started having one baby after another - so many children, and the question was; where could she leave them to go? It was as if she felt trapped. She saw where she had no recourse.
Looking back, I realized that Sophia's story of violence and abuse was not my first experience. It wasn't the first wife bashing I saw. I had seen the ugly image of women violence and abuse before. I experienced this one; I was much younger. I was just about 7 years old when I saw Kelli, a pseudonym that I give her, violently lifted off her feet and thrown into a drain of stagnant water. It was around 8:00 am EST when Kelli was dressed for work. She was a teacher. She looked beautiful as her normal self every morning. At least I felt that she was beautiful when her husband lifted her off her feet and threw her into a pool of dirty, stagnant water that served as a drain off from a sty. Her children were there too. They were my friends and we were dressed for school and their mom was dressed for work. I am not sure how many times their children witnessed it and we never spoke about the incident. Kelli was liberated from a life of violence, when he left her. I don't believe that economic empowerment is the dominant reason why some women stay in violent relationship. I believe that lack of personal empowerment is also a contributing factor. Women empowerment has to do with personal and economic empowerment; and I believe that it can save lives.