Nigeria’s ‘Mama Gender’: from child bride to gender activist

by Jessica Murrey

on March 9, 2017

Meeting Ene Ede, it’s easy to see why she’s called “Mama Gender”. The lift of her chin, the cadence of her words, the steadfastness of her gaze — all denote the strength and the grace you’d expect of a matriarch. And that’s what makes envisioning her as a nervous, slight girl of ten about to marry a man three time her age, all the more difficult.

Ene grew up in Northern Nigeria as the third youngest out of ten children. She’d always demonstrated a sharp mind and quickly excelled to the top of her class in grade school. At school, she became close friends with four young boys and a girl who treated her and her ideas with respect and enthusiasm.

As was common practice at the time, a man in a neighboring village offered a bride-price of two pounds for Ene’s hand in marriage. Her Father accepted. Ene was only 10 years old at the time.

Even though she was now a married woman, she was still allowed to go to school for a while longer and live with her family. However, the four boys were visibly upset when they learned of Ene’s fate. They began to advocate for her freedom to anyone who would listen. Unfortunately, there was nothing more they could do, and after 7th grade, Ene was sent to live with her new husband.

Alone and terrified, Ene was completely removed from her family, her friends, her school – everything she held dear. She had no way of contacting anyone and had no one she could confide in about what she was experiencing.

“It was serial rape. The picture you have [of men] is serial rapists. But not only was he a serial rapist, he also confined you to an area, so it felt like you were helpless.” Ene explains. “In a short while, he was able to devastate your life. And if that was not stopped, it would have been lost completely. My own ambitions—everything would have been destroyed.”

I was imprisoned – both psychologically and physically,” said Ene. “I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know exactly what.” She replayed the conversations she had with her friends, and remembered how accomplished she felt in school. That was where she belonged. Fueled by anger and hope, she made her decision. Leaving everything behind, she took her husband’s motor bike and rode it non-stop back to her village community miles away.

Looking back she can’t believe how risky it was for a young girl to travel that distance by herself. “Anything could have happened. So how did I dare? I think it was the anger and the hope those four boys had in me,” said Ene.

Ene never did have to return to her husband. She stayed at school and the now young men convinced her eldest brother that she had great potential. Her brother ended up reimbursing the man the two pounds. Ene had her freedom.

“I don’t have a grudge against the man I was married to because my experience gave me courage,” Ene said. “Your childhood has been stolen and it cannot be fully restored. You can only see it restored when you see it for others who were victims of this kind of arrangement.”

“I give my story with every sense of responsibility so I don’t become part of those who encourage a conspiracy of silence. We must break the silence. Violence against women — psychological, sexual, political, economically, and traditional practices — because the conspiracy of silence women do not talk about it. A lot of women are imprisoned. They may look free, but deep down they’re in prison. My aim in life is to see how many women I can free.”

Ene has spent the last 20 years advocating for women from the highest political offices to the grassroots level. Currently, Ene is Search for Common Ground Nigeria’s Gender Advisor and uses the Common Ground Approach to bring everyone together. She makes sure women are empowered in politics, media, business, and the home through advocacy, designing programs, and training local partners. Right now her main focus is the next generation.

“They say they [youth] are the leaders of tomorrow, but a leader needs to train so they know how to lead. I’m Interested in how the younger people will be given greater space and voice. Interested in focusing on vulnerable groups — women, people with disability, and youth. These three groups will change the world, if we’re able to harness the potential they have.”

And like how those four boys played an important role in her life, she believes today’s men have an important role to play. It’s more than programming – it’s a lifestyle.

“I believe in positive masculinity. I believe in men and women working together to shape gender equality and environment of women. This is why for me, I live gender equality. I don’t preach it.”

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About Ene Ede: Ene worked in the PDP Presidential Campaign Headquarters in 2003 as Special Assistant for Women and Youth. Supported the office of the 1st Female Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives in 2007 as Special Assistant, Women and Youth. The NEPAD-APRM-Nigeria nominated her twice into the National Working Group (NWG), representing Women’s Rights Promotion Organizations between 2004 and 2008. She once published The Women’s Day Newspaper and is a board member of Nigeria Monthly Magazine. She coordinates the Feminist Movement in Nigeria and is a member of the advisory committee of civil society group engaging the Nigerian Parliament (NASS) and Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) aside other numerous roles she plays in the Civil Society Group in Nigeria. Ene was a volunteer hub Coordinator for the IDASA South Africa and UN Women’s Pilot Tracking of Violence Against Women in Politics (VAWiP). From 2015 to now, Ene is currently the Gender Advisor for Search – Nigeria, leading an EESCP consortium, which is the most successful electoral violence reduction program “Stop Violence Against Women in Elections” (Stop VAWIE), in Nigeria

Jessica Murrey is the Creative Lead at Search For Common Ground, based out of the Washington D.C. headquarters.