The Nigerian refugee who saved her daughters from FGM

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To mark World Refugee Day on June 20 and Refugee Week in the UK from June 17 to 23, Al Jazeera is profiling five refugees who are based in England. This is the story of Odachi*.

London, England – She was forced to make a choice that would haunt any mother: Abandon her young son to save her three daughters, or stay with him and let her daughters face their fate.

For six months, Odachi Mustapha* (not her real name) had been siphoning money from the household allowance her husband provided, squirrelling it away in a secret bank account until she had amassed £2,000 ($2,518).

She knew it would not go very far, but it would have to do because she could not wait any longer and none of her well-off siblings was going to help her.

Odachi had been born to middle-class parents in Lagos, Nigeria, both of whom had passed away. Her father had studied accounting and business in the United Kingdom and her mother ran a fashion import company.

As a teenager, she attended beauty college after high school. By the time Odachi met her future husband she was 21 and had established her own salon doing hair, nails, and make-up for the women of Lagos. 

Being in Nigeria, you’re not meant to walk away from your marriage. You will be a shame to your family. Better you die in silence.

Odachi*, refugee

He was 20 years her senior – worldly, well-read, educated as a geologist – and worked for Mobil Oil, a job that afforded him the opportunity to travel frequently for work. 

They courted for a year, and then married and Odachi moved into her husband’s house. 

His three daughters from a previous marriage also lived there; their mother had died, but by remarrying, the widower now had a live-in housekeeper. 

The 22-year-old bride was not much older than her teenage stepdaughters, and they regarded her as an intrusion into their lives. In addition, their maternal grandparents were adamant that they knew best how to care for the girls. 

In short order, Odachi gave birth to a son and three daughters of her own. The house was now awash with children – and one exhausted wife. Not surprisingly, her husband idolised his only son and wouldn’t let him out of his sight.

Odachi was also overwhelmed by the constant intrusions of her husband’s family, who felt free to barge into their son’s home at any time and instruct the new wife on housekeeping and childcare. “They thought I just came from nowhere to enjoy their wealth.”

“The man, too, started treating me bad, you understand. His children, they will be insulting me, abusing me. I’m like a housegirl in my own house,” she said.

While the teenaged children expected Odachi to clean up after them constantly, her husband verbally and physically assaulted her if she tried to defend herself. 

This continued throughout her pregnancies, as the physical abuse escalated to her being punched in the face. After one particularly severe beating, she ran away but her husband came looking for her.

Odachi’s children were young and she knew they needed her, so she overrode the instinct to protect herself and returned to them. 

“Being in Nigeria, you’re not meant to walk away from your marriage. You will be a shame to your family. Better you die in silence.”

Odachi’s husband soon forbid her to work as well, and the beauty business she had built disappeared. 

She tried to console herself that at least she didn’t need to worry about providing for her children; they had a comfortable lifestyle with a large, impressive house. 

‘It’s like living in bondage’

Her husband even let her take a trip to the UK alone and she went to Manchester to visit her friends. On a second trip, she was able to take her eldest daughter; again they visited Manchester for a couple of weeks. 

But her life at home had become intolerable and Odachi could feel her ability to cope slipping away. 

“My health was getting worse and my doctors advised that I should leave this environment because I was suffering from a serious, chronic depression. I was on high medication, but I felt like committing suicide. I didn’t have any say over my own life. It’s like you’re living in bondage.” 

Odachi’s story clearly shows that many forms of violence against women, including female genital mutilation, are closely linked. All are rooted in discrimination against women and girls.

Na?ssatou J Diop, coordinator of the UN programme to eliminate FGM

The breaking point arrived like a thunderclap when her husband and his parents announced they planned to perform female genital mutilation (FGM) on her three daughters to “keep them from being promiscuous”. 

As city dwellers, Odachi’s parents did not believe in this practice, but her in-laws hailed from a village where FGM was prevalent. All her arguments were ignored. 

Odachi managed to cajole her husband into letting her take the girls to Britain for a holiday before they had to undergo the cutting. He refused to let her take her son, or even apply for a passport for him. 

At this point, the mother knew she had to make a choice and, since he was in no danger, she would have to abandon her young son. 

It would be the price of saving her three daughters from being mutilated and suffering for the rest of their lives. That is, assuming they survived the cutting, which 25 percent of victims do not.

According to Na?ssatou J Diop, coordinator of the UN programme to eliminate FGM: “Odachi’s story clearly shows that many forms of violence against women, including female genital mutilation, are closely linked. All are rooted in discrimination against women and girls, and the reluctance of male-dominated societies to grant them autonomy and equality.”

It was time for Odachi to act. Always thrifty, the wife began saving in earnest now, skimming all the money she could from the household budget to save for starting a new life in Manchester. She had decided to go there since that was the place she knew best overseas, and she set to work getting visas for the girls, ages six, 14, and 18. 

In Manchester

When the family arrived in Britain, Odachi found lodging in a Manchester slum, a dismal house divided up to accommodate many flatmates; all four of them were crammed into one room, with a shared toilet down the hall.

Odachi realised she could not even afford this dwelling for long before the money ran out, while the girls were stunned to find themselves living in such squalor. 

“They came from a beautiful, lavish house, and couldn’t get over it. Since I brought them here, all they’ve known is suffering.” 

As children, they were not able to relate to the abstract concept that their mother was saving them from FGM, they had no knowledge whether the sacrifice was worth it. 

Odachi’s husband was emailing her repeatedly, telling her to bring his children back. She did not reply, focusing instead on enrolling her two younger daughters in some classes.

The girls’ teachers called Odachi, they had noticed the children didn’t have basic supplies, including lunch money.

The government are returning even young people who grew up here, but who haven’t sorted out their legal status.

Jane Graystone, director at Manchester City of Sanctuary

Odachi explained the situation to the school and was advised to go to the Home Office and apply for asylum, so she would receive government benefits. 

But Odachi’s friends warned her not to listen, “because they will deport you immediately”. She was too afraid to risk it because returning to Nigeria would destroy her daughters. 

In January 2017, the decision to go to the authorities was made for her. 

“Early one morning, immigration came to the house. I don’t know what led them to come. When they met me, I explained to them our story. They saw the girls were shivering and crying. The immigration people knew we are not living well, with me and all those children in one room. The house was not at all good.” 

Odachi was amazed at the Home Office’s response: They gave the struggling family their own private accommodation. 

No more little girl hopping up and down because she needed to wee and someone was in the toilet. 

The agents also gave them provisions for food and a modest weekly allowance. 

“They were so supportive,” she stressed. 

This was a godsend since Odachi wasn’t allowed to work in the UK without papers. To disobey this rule was to risk deportation. 

Since then, she has been to court twice to present her case as a way to save her daughters from FGM. 

Her forms, seen by Al Jazeera, have a box ticked that reads: “You are liable to be detained because you are a person without leave who has been served with a notice of liability to removal.”

When contacted about their position on cases involving FGM, a Home Office spokesperson said: “All asylum claims are considered carefully and sensitively based on the evidence available and published country information.”

Odachi’s options are limited because she has no money for a solicitor to help with her case. 

Jane Graystone, director at Manchester City of Sanctuary, says there are additional dangers facing the daughters as they turn 18. “The government are returning even young people who grew up here, but who haven’t sorted out their legal status.”

Odachi knows that if they return, her husband will continue with his plan to circumcise their daughters and will turn her out onto the street. And then her painful choice, and the years of sacrifice, would have all been in vain.

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