Sisters Interact Network: Inspired by History, Consumed by Passion

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Kathlyn Eyitemi, founder, Sisters Interact Network, an NGO that revolves around women and teenage girls with abuse-related issues, is inspired by her past as a victim and also consumed by a passion to provide succour to many women and girls that have walked her path. In this interview with Mary Ekah, Eyitemi opened up on the true reason behind Sisters Network and what drives her

What inspired the domestic violence campaign?

Our work basically revolves around women and teenage girls who have had abuse-related issues like rape, domestic violence, and child molestation. The campaign is inspired by my history as a growing child who lost her mother to domestic violence at only 15. Everyday you go on social media there is a new case of a woman who is badly battered or even killed by an angry spouse, so this campaign is very timely. Women need to sit down and begin to look at domestic violence holistically and find the best ways to tackle it and wrestle it to the ground because it has become a gigantic problem to us.

The truth is that eight out of 10 women have had incidences of domestic violence at one point or the other in their lives. And we are also focusing on enlightening single ladies about dignity and self-preservation because there is nothing dignifying about being beaten by a man who is dating you and a lot of girls are putting up with that kind of abuse and making excuses for the men who abuse them as well. We hope that our domestic violence seminars can change all that. So the forthcoming seminar billed for August 20, at Kidsville Academy, Agip Estate, Port Harcourt, is a one-day seminar to create more awareness on domestic violence and rape.

What specific areas will the seminar address?

We are going to be addressing domestic violence in a broader way. It not only limited to physical battery. For the seminar, we will look at rape and even spousal rape, acid attacks, verbal and physical abuse. Because there are too many depressed women walking around acting like everything is fine but in a couple of years they will either die from high blood pressure or simply be hacked to death by their angry spouses because they have never bothered to take action on the cancer that has been eating them up.

Girls don’t report when their boyfriends beat them because they feel it’s okay and then we see that a lot of men are getting away with hitting women, causing bodily harm and eventually a man kills a woman. It does not just happen overnight. You find out that a man who abuses a woman to the point of killing her has been on an abusive drive for a long time and nobody has restrained him. So we want to see more women reporting cases of domestic violence and rape. And also, during this seminar, we want to enlighten women about how they can build evidence. So we are bringing in some professionals who will enlighten women about this.

What informed the choice of Port Harcourt for your coming seminar?

This isn’t the first seminar we are organising in Port Harcourt. Actually, we hold quarterly seminars there because we have a very strong presence there with over 300 committed members. So naturally we would have our first domestic violence seminar in Port Harcourt. Our second seminar comes up in Lagos this September.

You focus more on women as if they are the only ones experiencing domestic violence. What about the men?

I work with women, so definitely my focus is women. People always ask: Why are you talking of domestic violence as if it is gender thing? I tell them that we have more women who are victims. When there is a spousal fight, the woman is always the weaker one; the men do the beating, which is the actual physical abuse. So it’s the women who get hurt most of the time. In the end, sometimes this results in the woman sustaining injuries and sadly, some women die in the process.

So I would say that women are the endangered species in the case of domestic violence. And then in case of rape, how many women are really raped? There is the issue of spousal rape, which we are still on. Nigerian law has not recognised spousal rape; that there is actually something like spousal rape because it is assumed that when there is a marriage contract, the woman has consented to sex on a regular basis, so legally there can be no basis for a man who is married to a woman legally to force the woman into having sex with him. But that analogy is unrealistic because women are not robots. They are human beings who exist around a clock. Sex is more of an emotional thing than a mechanical thing. It then means that the woman has to be emotionally ready for sex. And the man as the partner has to help her make that happen.

A story was carried recently about a Kenyan woman whose arms were amputated by her husband and yet she still described him as a loving and God-fearing husband. So at what stage should a woman start raising alarm on abuse in a marriage?

There is a strong cultural and religious influence in our society that is sort of a problem in tackling domestic violence. We are preservative in nature as women and we tend to want to preserve and protect our husbands and marriages even when they have clearly become a problem to us. A woman puts her husband and children first in everything and then she comes third. But that should change. We need to reset the scale of preference now. My point is: you have to do everything possible to ensure you are well emotionally, physically, psychologically and healthy.

A woman who has a nervous breakdown can’t care for her children. A dead woman can’t care for her family. I also read that article, the woman also said her pastor said she should pray and stay put. I always tell abused women, separate from your abuser and pray from a distance because you just could die! In Sisters Interact we don’t encourage divorce but we urge the woman to seek help from a safe place. We are trying to prevent cases where more women are killed or hacked to dead because a man is angry and cannot control his anger. We need the church to shift ground and stop telling women they should stay put and pray for men who would kill them eventually.

The church needs to take a position where it addresses domestic violence upfront. The church has to be more vocal and more practical in addressing it. Pastors need to start talking to men; they should start doing what I am doing right now or what women like me are doing. We are talking to women, they should talk to men as well to stop beating their wives and subjecting them to different kinds of abuse. The African society also needs to come to that level where we hold people accountable for their actions. Look at it this way. When rape happens within the family, the family wants to cover it. Grandma will come from the village and beg. They will say it’s the devil that pushed him to do it. Then the guy will be sent out of the house. No formal complaint will be made to the police. The guy will just go scot-free and what happens? He is free to move on to his next victim. We have to take a stand against these things as a people and stop being unreasonably sentimental.

What are the earliest signs of abuse that a woman should watch out for in a relationship?

It starts in courtship and usually with a slap or a punch or even a threat. These things don’t just occur. Although sometimes, women marry men that they don’t really know only to get into the marriage and find out that the man is violent. The truth is that if a man is beating you during courtship, then there is a very high possibility that he will do much more than beating in marriage.

When a man starts hitting you or starts using threat words like ‘I will kill you and nothing will happen’, when a man starts saying that, he is not just saying it, he means it! If he has spoken the word, he is going to eventually do it. If a relationship is abusive, quit. You can’t change a man. You can only change yourself.

You said earlier that you were inspired by your mother’s unfortunate incident to do this. Can you tell us what that incident is all about?

I was 15 when my mother died. She was no longer married to my father. She got married a second time to another man and I was living with my father at a time, and the news came that my mother had died and that she killed herself. And when we checked to find out what exactly happened, it happened that the man had beaten her to a point where she sustained a deep gash on her head and she didn’t even get treated for it so that the next morning they found her dead hanging loose like she took her life.

But the question that I kept asking much later in my life was: did she really take her life? Even if she did, what was her state of mind when she took her life? Did it get to a point where because of the gush on her head she had completely lost her sense of reasoning? Did she hemorrhage in her brain? Did she even really take her life? Or was it a set up to cover up what had actually happened so that the man will not be held responsible for her death? My family couldn’t really do much to answer these questions. There was no arrest nor any formal complain to the police. She was in the village then and everything just died down just like that. I was just 15, there was nothing I could do then, and so they let it go.

So how was life after your mom’s death?

Life was hard! Coupled with the fact that I was in a polygamous sort of environment. It has been a long tough road. That is why I have pursued this campaign with so much vigour. When I think of the torturous roads that I had to walk to grow up into adulthood, it was just too hard. I just felt that it should not happen to any one. No woman tolerates abuse to the point where she dies and leaves her kids behind. My brother was like three years old when my mother died, so he does not have any memory of her.

At what point in your life did you begin to feel like serving humanity?

It happened when I got kicked out of my dad’s house because I had also become rebellious, I left home for Lagos for a reading camp where some students like me went to read, I got really sick with typhoid fever but I had no money to treat it. I remember throwing up so much on the road that I passed out and it was strangers that took me to the hospital. And when I came back to myself, the doctor said it took seven drips to get me back to consciousness. I could have died. So to me that was a turning point in my life. I remember being on that hospital bed and not being able to walk on my feet for two weeks. That was when I made a pact with God. I told him if you get me out of this bed alive and walking I would serve you and humanity. I’m happy I was able to keep my promise.

How long has Sisters Interact Network existed?

It has existed for four years now. I started it because I just wanted to talk to someone. I used to wonder if there were other women like me who had gone through any of the experiences I had gone through. I just wanted to create a space where women could talk to one another freely and that was how Sisters Interact started on Facebook as a group. And when it started, I just splashed my pain all over the group wall. I talked without holding back and shocking their stories came spilling out too and it just felt like I had been through nothing when I began to hear their own stories. Since then it has been a sort of therapeutic space for all of us.

Now we hold small group meetings every month in different locations around the country. We do a lot of counseling too based on God’s word. We also hold a programme called, Next Generation Project (NGP), which is about women mentoring and counseling teenage girls. We train women volunteers to go to secondary schools to counsel and mentor them. I felt a burning need to go back to secondary schools and begin to not just talk to girls but to listen to what they had to say. I just thought about girls who were lonely and didn’t have any body to talk to and would also be having a hard time growing up too. And you would be amazed at the issues these girls deal with like rape, molestation, abandonment, peer pressure and all that. In dealing with women I found out that many of them have unresolved childhood issues that they carry on into adulthood and marriage.

Our NGP curriculum cover areas like hygiene and leadership programmes too and because we want to instill a sense of dignity and drive in girls as we prepare them for leadership roles in the near future. We also help to treat girls who are infected with sexually transmitted diseases. So we give them access to free medical services to avoid infertility problems as they grow up. Our scope in the NGP is broad too.

What has been the impact since you came up with this?

The impact is not on the scale that I dreamed of but I will say that I am impressed. When you do something and you are able to save a woman or two, you should be impressed. I have been on various media platforms to talk about my own experiences as person and that has inspired a lot of women to come out of their closets. We offer them therapeutic dialogues so it is a kind of healing space because like I have always told them, for you to be completely healed, you need to understand the love of God. You need to understand God as a loving being and you as a recipient of that love.

So we teach them to love themselves, to love God and to appreciate themselves but most importantly, to do something that is not about them. That is where total healing comes from, when you are able to forget about your own needs and begin to meet the needs of other people. When I hear stories of women nowadays, it is like mine is nothing compared to theirs, and most time I ask, how were they able to go through all those near death experiences?

You are a rape survivor as well. Is it an experience you would like to share now to help other rape victims in their healing journey?

Yes, absolutely. I was raped a few months to my wedding while I was sleeping at night in my off – campus hostel when armed robbers broke into my room. They took everything of value I had and still raped me. That just threw me into a deep pit because rape takes something out of you. It kind of yanks the substance out of the core of your very being. You begin to feel like a shell when you are walking around, like your feet can’t really touch ground. See even before society stigmatises you, you already feel like a pariah. I don’t know how else to explain it but I think that every rape victim understands what I talking about. When the incidence happened I was fortunate because my fiancé was supportive and understanding after I told him.

We still got married but it was still a tough process for me. Many times I just wanted to die. I was suicidal. I didn’t just want to go on living. And when I didn’t have my kids early enough (I had my kids six years after we got married) that didn’t help either. Maybe if I had kids on time, that would have comforted me somehow but I just had to deal with myself. I had to make that choice whether I wanted to live or really die. And I think the reason I didn’t take my life was because I didn’t want it to become pattern in my family. I didn’t want to leave that stigma where people will say, ‘her mother took her life and she now took hers.’ I didn’t want to leave that for my siblings because they would have to deal with that.

So for that reason, I decided that I wanted to live. But how do you deal with the memory that had so stuck and was just hacking my psyche? So I had to embrace God, I had to find him. I had to reach for healing somehow. Somehow a friend introduced me to TD Jakes messages and I began to listen and Paul Adefarasin too. And that helped me heal. Listening to Bishop TD Jakes helped me understand my journey and the moment I understood my journey, it was no longer difficult for me.

I understood that the things I have been through were not necessarily about me because the night I got raped, I just kept thinking: ‘How can I catch these guys that did this to me and kill them?’ The hardest part for me was being unable to identify my rapists. Those were the craziest days of my life. Sitting next to a guy in class and cringing because you don’t know if he was your rapist. Or walking into a cafeteria and looking around vaguely at the guys seated wondering who among them raped me. I wasn’t normal anymore. And counseling channels weren’t available those days like you see now. There was no social media.

In order for me to heal completely I had to become a channel of healing. I began to talk to other women, let them talk to me and cry on my shoulders, it was just easier because it was no longer about me. I just began to see myself as an instrument of healing. That’s what I am now – It feels as though my whole life process was in preparation for what I do with women today. I have evolved over the years from an abused, depressed, suicide prone girl to a life coach, a motivational speaker and a role model to many young ladies. The rape incident happened in 2005.

That was like 10 years ago. Today, I don’t have bitterness any longer because that is part of healing process and just because you see the nature of the devil in some men, does not mean every man is bad. But all the same I want to see rapists convicted, I want to see more rape cases reported, I want to see people making rapists to answer for their actions. I want to see rapists behind bars. It is not so much about anger but about what is right.

Are you fulfilled running Sisters Interact Network?

Yes. I feel really fulfilled running Sisters Interact. I have discovered the purpose and it is that sense of purpose that helps me to keep pushing on in spite of the challenges. Anything you do and get a lot of joy from when you are not even paid for it must be something very fulfilling and that is what has happened to me. I do a lot of counseling with women. So listening to them and helping them through their issues and just knowing that I am helping to hold someone’s hand and soothe her in her weak moments brings immense joy to my heart.

To do what I do God has prepared me step by step. The pain I went through was just part of the processing. If you don’t feel a particular brand of pain, you can’t help someone going through that kind of pain. You have to be able to understand the depth of that person’s pain, to be able to help that person, dig in through that depth of really get through it. Now, when rape or abused victims talk to me, I understand what they are going through and I can walk the walk with them and I can help them through their paths because I understand the depth of their issues.

And you don’t major on what is happening around you but you have to look inward, to find what is the message behind the pains. I have always been a visionary. In spite of everything that happened to me, I have always had dreams of making a difference and my dreams kept me alive. Even though there are times you feel like you should not do it because it is not easy considering the economic situation, especially as we are self-founded. Self-funding is very hard for an NGO.

How do you pay your many bills?

By and large, I have had an amazing team of women that I work with and they have been very supportive. So my work is made a lot easier because of the kind of people I am blessed to have around me.

Are you trained for what you do now as a social worker?

Yes, I am. I majored in social works in Ambrose Alli University. I originally set out to study law but when that wasn’t working out I dropped out of the law programme and went back to study sociology and I majored in social works. God works in mysterious ways. That’s why I always say that he has always prepared me for this work.

How would you describe your husband?

My husband is a very supportive person, very loving and he is my best friend. He has been my backbone through it all.

How did he cope with your years of dealing with depression?

Frankly, I’m amazed myself. He was just really there for me. Assuring me of his love and support and telling me that I still had a lot to offer. There are many men whose wives have been through incidents of rape but they don’t tell their husbands for fear of being victimised or being rejected and so they fight their demons alone yet their husbands are not aware. You sleep with a woman who hates your touch and barely tolerates the sight of you and you don’t even know.

One time I was on a radio show and someone called and she wanted to know: How am I supposed to get over the phobia of having my husband touch me because I have had this experience? Men have to be more supportive in situations like this rather than labeling the women. And if she has a phobia for your touch, you have to understand that it is not about you but the experience that she has been through and that she needs help. So it will be nice to see more men go through therapy with wives who are rape victims. People need to stop stigmatising rape victims. The way we handle rape victims is what makes it difficult for people to report rape.

Believe it or not it is women who stigmatise women who have been raped, as though it is their fault that they were raped. For me, what is even more appalling is how some people can actually descend on a rape victim. When people start saying, ‘Oh, she is the one that seduced him by the way she dressed and all that’. And it is women that do this. I always tell women that men will not come and fight our battles for us but it is we, women that will stand up and fight for ourselves. When we stand up and say ‘enough is enough’, the men will listen to us.

You were a recipient for Christian Woman in Community at the Wise Women Awards, how did that make you feel?

I felt surprisingly good. I never thought I would feel that good if I ever picked up an award but I did feel good. I was proud of myself, and the women who work tirelessly behind the scenes to keep our vision afloat. I never even used to believe in awards. I always thought organisers always gave to people they knew but I was really surprised to be announced as a recipient. Pastor Marjorie Esomowei is doing a wonderful job to acknowledge women who serve humanity selflessly behind the curtains and no one really sings about them. We don’t do what we do for the awards but it feels very encouraging and rewarding to be recognised on such distinguished platforms.