Mrs. Josephine Effah- Chukwuma , founder, Project Alert has been tenacious about her passion to protect the rights of abused women since her teenage years. Her zeal defend women who are violently abused began during her days in the university. She was pissed off by rampant cases of guys who mistreated their girlfriends on campus. According to the activist, the experience hardened her feelings and vowed, she must get it right in love relationship. Her NGO, Project Akert is one of the highly respected and sought after NGOs devoted to humanitarian services. Talking with Effects, Effah recalls her journey into activism, her challenges lots more. She also speaks about what has made her tick over the years.
What has kept you going?
It is the fact that one is touching lives and trying to make a difference. My policy has been one person at a time. I can’t see the entire world, not even Project Alert from the confine of our small office. To say that I can see everybody is an illusion. Even if it’s one person I can see at a time, I’ll go home and I’m at peace with myself.
You said your friends thought you would not get married, how did you meet your husband?
One of the reasons I said I didn’t think I wanted to get married was the issues around me.Some of my friends and schoolmates in the university were being maltreated by their boyfriends and I often asked myself, did I deserve this kind of thing in life? I’m a strong willed person. I never experienced domestic violence while I was growing older. Seeing it was a big shock for me. I used to ask my parents why all that was happening. I realised I needed to draw the boundaries on what to tolerate and what not to tolerate I didn’t want to see men as Lord and master over me just because I wanted a relationship. I set boundaries on what I would tolerate and what I would not
I always desired someone who would respect me. While I was in the university, I was in a relationship but it was not as if the guy was doing me a favour or I doing him a favour or him being lord and master over me. So, I was very clear about what I wanted in a relationship. I wanted a man who would love and respect me. I have always wanted someone who would take me for who I am; someone who believes in me and encourages me, I see a lot of young men discouraging young ladies, As a young girl in her early 20s, I had just graduated from university. I completed my youth service. I wanted to go for my masters and work. So, I dusted my CV and at the right time went for my Masters and I met my husband in the course of work. He was working in the foremost human rights organization then, Civil Liberties organization founded by Chief Olisa Agbakoba. I was working with Constitutional Rights Projects led by Clement Nwakwo who co-founded Civil Liberties Organization with Agbakoba before he pulled out to start Constitutional Rights Projects. My husband and I met on the job in 1996 and it was respect from day one. I respected him and he respected me. We were friends, colleagues and along the line we discovered we had a lot of things in common.
In the course of sheltering abused women, have you ever been embarrassed or threatened?
Oh yes, I have been threatened, severally embarrassed. It comes with the work because for us to be doing what we are doing, you should know for sure that some people would not be happy about it. In our culture, a lot of men think their wives are their property. They do whatever they like with them. Some women will even say domestic violence is okay that sometimes, the men have to beat their woman into line. I have received threats in the course of work and I have been able to deal with them. I thank God for the supportive husband I have, he’s has accompanied me to Panti a couple of times where husbands who alleged to have violently abused their wives would turn round to tell the police that i kidnapped their wives and children. By the time we got there, the truth will show and at the end of the day they will be put behind the counter for giving police, false allegation. Marriage is not a death certificate it is for better for worse till death do the couple part .
In all this, what has life taught you as a person?
Life has taught me that the family is important. Some of us take for granted what we have. We are unaware of the fact that we are blessed. When people ask, don’t these things weigh you down and kill your spirit? I would tell them no. It helps me to appreciate my family everyday. Life has helped me to be grateful to God. For instance, baby Michael did not choose to be born into this world and if children could choose their parents, some parents would not have been picked. Being an activist working on women issues in the last 20 years has taught me to appreciate what I have and not take it for granted.
With your kind of job, how do you cope with the home front?
Thank God for giving me a supportive husband. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without my husband’s support. He has always encouraged me. I also thank my children who believe in me. Sometimes, my children would be in school till 6.pm it’s not because I’m a reckless mother but I’m caught up running around for somebody else’s children. My prayer everyday is, “father Lord, as I run around peoples homes, please protect mine for me.”
Your job is the peculiar type, what was growing up for you?
It has been a lovely experience. Things hit people differently. You and I may have the same experience but the way it imparts on you may be different from the way it affects me. Two brothers and sisters may belong to a polygamous family, and one of them may say, “with what my father subjected us to, marrying different women, when I grow older, I will marry only one wife. I will not subject my children to that”. The second brother may say, “my father married five wives, I would marry 10.” It’s the same experience but different imparts. For me, I was born into a protective and loving home. I never saw my dad lifted his hands against my mum and I lived a protected life. When I was in the secondary school, I started experiencing some things.
They hit me like thunderbolt. It was like a boy who was brought up in a violent home, and you would think that is all the family is all about because he doesn’t know any other thing. By the time I entered university, I started asking, is it a crime to be a woman? My neighbour’s husband died while I was in primary school and I observed how the in-law stormed her house with a truck to pack her load out. I asked my father why because we are six girls in the family. For me, that experience defined me. From the secondary school to my university days, I drew boundaries on relationships. There are some things I knew I would not take and I remained clear on those things. At some point, some of my friends thought I would never marry but to God be the glory, I have been married for 19 years. It tells you that if you know what you want, and patiently wait for it, you will get it. It’s not all men that are violent, it’s not all men that are bad, my father was a good man; my brother knows that if he touches his wife he has me to contend with. He knows that he’ll first beat me before he beats his wife. There are good men.
What are the challenges of your work?
Fighting culture, tradition and religion. A lot of people feel that this and that are our culture. Meanwhile, I ask them, is culture cast in cement and bricks? Culture is dynamic; it changes with experiences, time and a lot of things. If we are children of the same parents and you are a calm and forward looking child but I’m a reckless first son, the culture says that everything must still go to the first son, whom everybody know is reckless. If you follow culture and leave those things for him, then, who are you undoing? I believe the family is undoing itself because all what they had laboured for, the reckless son will consume it in 24 hours. In that particular case, you can see a dysfunctional family with a lot of despondency.
Can you tell us more about Project Alert?
It was founded in 1999 to educate society on the forms and prevalence of violence against women and young girls. It was also founded to render practical support services to female victims of violence. In its 16 years of existence, the organization has counseled over 400 women and young girls. The shelter, known as Sophia’s Place is the first battered women’s shelter in Nigeria, and was opened in May 2001. Sophia’s Place takes care of women who have been physically and socially abused in marriages and other forms of relationships. The shelter was set up, because the first help in rescuing an abused woman or young girl is to take her out of the abusive environment.