By JULIANA TAIWO-OBALONYE
Nneoma Albert-Benson is an Abuja-based lawyer and single mother. She is also the President of BEFA (Beauty for Ashes) Women and Child Care Foundation dedicated to using legal means to protect women and children, guiding them to live meaningful lives.
She lost her husband in an automobile accident a few years into their marriage. In this interview, she tells a moving story of the challenges faced by women in her situation in the country.
Coping as a single parent
I always introduce myself first as a Christian because that is the major reason I am one of the happiest and most fulfilled single mothers you can find around here. Then, as a mother because being a mother is the greatest accomplishment I could have ever dreamed of achieving. It is the one thing I do, the very best in this life! My career as a legal practitioner on the other hand, has given me some measure of exposure and relevance to my community and the world.
I never planned to be a single parent. I had not been prepared to become one. My sudden loss and push into single parenting was a severe indictment against my degree of faith and my relationship/connection with God. My identity as a woman, a mother, a person in my birth family, as an in-law, as a Christian was changed.
I was not meant to be a single parent! As a very young, naïve woman and mother who had lost practically everything, I was in hell! I knew that only God could help me. I relied on every precious promise in the scripture. I had to begin to love and accept myself as a person. I decided to make me the object in a project. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the loving nature of saintly friends and family, I made it through the madness of loss, pain, sickness and grief.
Surely, if I had not sought the Lord during that difficult time, I would not have experienced the liberating feeling of getting to know myself and God’s divine purpose for my life. Today, I am partnering God to bring esteem and harmony to the lives of women especially those going through the challenges I had been through.
Women are naturally wired to multi-task. I presently see my role as a single parent as a special responsibility rather than a challenge. The major challenge most single mothers face in our society is the one that society places on them. Our society discriminates against single mothers, even the Church discriminates against single mothers (which of course, is the societal structure interfering with biblical standards).
This has made certain single mothers view themselves in a particular way – the way the society views them – helpless, unfortunate, irresponsible. Thankfully, I am not the type that is particularly intimidated by negative societal perceptions and views; therefore, I consistently refuse to allow negative societal perceptions dictate my attitude. That is a basic step to happiness as a single mother.
Raising my children single-handedly continually reminds me that the only thing I cannot do is what I do not want to do. I am not emotionally or physically challenged because I am a single mother. I strive to provide the best for my children, teach them the best and devout time and attention to them. That in itself is what most couples still cannot do.
I do not undermine the impact of a father’s presence in a home or the ease of having someone share the responsibilities. But, I firmly believe and from experience too, that life responds to our outlook. I confront the truth that I am the sole provider for my children and I perform my duties as a parent with all sense of responsibility as God has His own special way of knitting up the gap if we let Him.
I lost my husband in an auto crash. It was the most shocking experience of my life. I was traumatized. All my dreams came crumbling like a pack of cards. A few years later, I had found comfort and peace in the arms of a loving family. My father became the “man” in my life and another tragedy struck – my father died of cancer! Six months later, my son was diagnosed of a terminal disease. My head and my heart were confused. After my dad’s death, I found it very difficult to believe God for healing of my son. All I knew was weep and weep over and over. No husband, no father, sick child, dwindling finances and I was on the border of a nervous breakdown. I weighed 45kg. My son will look up at me from his sick bed with tears in his eyes exclaiming, “Mommy, you must be sick too! Look at how skinny you look!” I entered the realm of life called testings.
No matter how bitter I was at the time, I still knew God was my hope in or out of the situation. The Grace of God stretched my relationships so that I would have friends to support me. A very familiar line from a comforting Psalm 23 says: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” I came to the realization that I was walking in my very own “valley of the shadow of death”. Unlike the psalmist, I was afraid! My valley journey was intense, the route was treacherous. Yet, throughout my valley journey, God was with me – not as I perceived that God would be, but as the Lord knew I needed for God’s sake and purpose for my life! I grew in that valley, I met God in a different way in that valley; I discovered my true self in that valley. I learned that God did not leave me alone! In the deepest part of the valley, when I did not know my way, God was there. I was never alone. My son survived! My life was completely transformed and I found peace like I never thought I would.
Single parenting taught me to take full responsibility for my family. If I do not take care of them, who will?
Advice for single mothers
Women have a strong nurturing side that causes us to take ownership of the brokenness and hurt we see; whatever the situation. I strongly advise single mothers to first, love and accept themselves; see their children as their responsibility and not liability, strive to solely cater for their children, refuse to be boxed in societal perceptions and to have absolute faith in God to grant us the very special peace and joy that comes with being a lone parent. When we adhere to this maxim, every other thing falls into place.
Passion for widows, orphans and less-privileged
BEFA (Beauty for Ashes) women and child care foundation is a non- profit, Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) established in 2008 and registered in 2009 as an incorporated trusteeship under the Nigerian law with the Corporate Affairs Commission. In August 2013, BEFA was granted special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Our vision is to bestow a crown of beauty instead of ashes on women and children, to provide poor women and children with a wide variety of aggressive, quality legal services which effectively helps them to gain equal access to the courts; empower them to control their lives and impact on the major causes and effects of poverty.
Our motto is, “Achieving the minimum conditions for living with dignity.” Our focus areas are protection of rights of women and children; provision of legal aid for women and children; empowerment; rebuilding, rehabilitation and re-integration.
BEFA has been working with women to ensure that widows are not tortured for the death of their spouses or stripped of their properties unlawfully; ensure prosecution of perpetrators of domestic violence; challenge forced/premature marriages; ensure that divorced/separated/widowed women are not denied the comfort of their children and/or legal entitlements; empower young women entrepreneurs. Our Save Women in Prison initiative (SWIP) works to limit and where possible, prevent the damage and destruction done to women due to their contact with the criminal justice system.
Presently, we are operating from four cities: Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Owerri. Our 24-hour helpline enables women to call-in within these jurisdictions and lay their complaints and we follow up all our cases to logical conclusion. We are mainly funded from donations by philanthropic individuals and organizations who understand the impact of our mission in the society and we run social enterprise projects that enable us provide funding for the organization.
On legal aid, since December 2010, 153 women have benefitted from BEFA at various levels of the nation’s judiciary. Of the 153 cases we have taken to court, 55 successful judgments have been recorded, the rest are pending in various courts across Nigeria. We have effectively utilized arbitration/reconciliation modes of dispute resolution in over 100 cases we’ve handled across Nigeria. We have also empowered numerous women and girls through our partners across the country in various vocations.
BEFA also set up vocational training and rehabilitation center in Imo State where select women are trained in bakery, hand crafts, catering, event management, cleaning, marketing, etc. Yearly, select outstanding candidates are presented with financial and material benefits from the organization to enable them start up their own small businesses. Most of our empowerment initiatives are funded by the Trustees from their personal resources. In addition, BEFA discovered a huge empowerment opportunity in recycling waste for wealth and partners Recyclepoints Limited in engaging women in recycling and making a good living for themselves and their families while assisting the community in waste disposal and management.
BEFA participated at the Commission on the Status of women (CSW59) Beijing + 20 held at the United Nations headquarters in New York in March 2015 and spoke extensively on the need for women to form liaisons and coalitions to ensure gender equality. We emphasized that the problem in Africa and Nigeria in particular is Patriarchy. Gender equality can never be achieved in a patriarchal society. Until we ‘slay’ patriarchy completely, all our efforts for equality will be limited in scope and longevity.