On Saturday, the 11th of April, Yul Edochie, a Nigerian actor, took to Twitter to celebrate his daughter on her 15th birthday. His message was innocuous, and one would expect, as in most situations where a person wishes their loved one a ‘happy birthday’ on social media, that others would join them in celebrating.
The messages quickly took a disturbing turn when grown men inundated the comments by not only making sexually suggestive comments about this teenage girl’s body but also making remarks about her virginity or assumed lack of it.
I wish I could say I was surprised, but I wasn’t. And that, knowing that this is a reality that is all too common, constantly breaks my heart.
According to UNICEF, every 10 minutes, an adolescent girl dies as a result of violence somewhere in the world. When you think about it, while death is the finale, there are numerous episodes spanning a short lifetime that is often riddled with forms of physical and sexual violence.
For some girls, this is a nightmare that they have had to live before they even had the language for it while for others, their spiral into this world of abuse occurred at the threshold of their first steps into puberty.
With a new body that they are still struggling to understand, they are forced to understand, quickly, that their bodies can be viewed as objects and weapons simultaneously. Being carefree is a luxury that is not granted to them in their girlhood.
How can they be, when they have to worry about the modesty of the 33 year old brother to their mother, the oglers at the swimming pool, and the random middle aged men on the internet?
If you speak to young women about what it meant to be a teenage girl in Nigeria, you’ll find some overlapping threads in their account; of the many times the weight of another’s common sense and morality was placed right at their doorstep. They were made responsible for violence that was done to them, while the criminals moved on to their next victims, direct beneficiaries of our deeply flawed system.
In response to the justified outcry against the pedophiles under Edochie’s post about his daughter, there were others whose sole purpose was to cape for these people.
“You know, he was probably just joking oh,” “Come on now, he didn’t mean it like that,” were some of the comments from both enablers of this rot in our system and their beneficiaries.
When these adults made comments about how “she don big finish” and how all they can see are “two ripe oranges”, they were simply joking. When they made comments about how hot she was and asked her father to use her as giveaway, we were supposed to understand that they didn’t quite mean it the way it came out.
The truth is, they did. These adults knew exactly what they were saying, and they felt bold enough to share their thoughts in the full glare of the public eye because really, what is anyone going to do about it?
A 2017 report by UNICEF pegs the number of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 who have experienced forced sex at some point in their lives at approximately 15 million globally.
A lot of these girls will not speak up for fear of being stigmatized and disbelieved. The few who speak up often share with family and friends who think it better to pretend the abuse did not happen than to hold the abuser responsible.
Again and again, we place the burden of shame on the abused and let the abuser walk free, protected by a system that is constantly telling us of how much it does not tolerate rapists and abusers, even as it does little to bring them to justice except asking for more labor from the girl child.
By God, let girls be girls. Let them be free to wear bum shorts and t-shirts, let them be free to walk down their own street without constantly having to worry about what a random man is thinking and how his acting on that thought can alter their lives.
Let girls be girls.