By Funmi Ajumobi
Mrs Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale, a gender transformation activist, had an experience of violence against women when she was growing up, following which she detested gender inequality with a passion so much so that she decided she was not going to live under any man’s roof, until her mother showed her the way out. Today, she believes the solution to violence against women is empowerment and hard work. With that mind-set, she has not only empowered over 2,000 women in communities across Nigeria and abroad with her Tosin Turns Trash to Treasure programme, she has also supported female orphans with school materials and reusable sanitary pads. Olutosin is recognized internationally and has received many awards since Stars of Hope Foundation started four years ago.
How did it all start?
I am from Owo in Ondo State. My father died when I was three years old and my mother took the responsibility of a father and a mother together. My mother was a farmer and she weaved clothes and did everything just to make sure she fed us.
I saw my mother struggle every day. There was a day my mother was weeping and, when I entered the room and I asked her why she was crying, she told me, ‘We have only one tuber of yam left and when we eat it, there will be nothing to eat tomorrow’. I didn’t understand because I was in primary school then. In fact I did not understand the situation until I got to secondary school and I saw my mother as a hustler. Anything that will bring food on the table, she was always doing it.
Despite her struggle as a widow, I saw her being battered by her brothers because she was at their mercy and there was nothing she could do and I couldn’t do anything either because she moved into her father’s house after the death of my father.
Aside this experience, I saw women in Owo then facing abuse as wives were always receiving punches from their husbands. As I began to grow up, I dreaded growing up to be a woman. I wanted to remain a girl forever but mummy was always telling me that I will grow up. But the way they beat wives, daughters and sisters there, I was always telling her I didn’t want to be somebody’s wife.
My mother would tell me that I should read my book very well and that, if I ended up being able to speak English, no man will beat me because we didn’t speak English in Owo then and she said that was why their husbands beat them. I decided to study because I saw it as the way out. How I got to study in Lagos was a miracle because I wanted where I will meet a man who was educated enough not to beat me. I studied English so I can speak English to the man and I married a man from the same faculty at the University of Lagos and we did our masters together before we got married.
I now realized that the only difference is that, an educated woman knows how to powder her violence. She will make everything up and look so beautiful but she will not say it out. Education helps us to keep a lot of secrets as well as psychological, emotional and financial abuses. When my own share of violence came, the doctor who took care of me said for me to remain in my marriage, I had to join women’s rights saying whatever ‘you fight for, you don’t suffer from it’. If you are genuinely fighting against violence, people will know that you know your right and when you have genuine information of where to go to, where to seek help, you won’t suffer for long before you see solution to your troubles.
That was when I began to write and I wrote a lot of poems about my experience, articles online for groups that are genuinely fighting for women. After that, I discovered I have the best marriage so far because my husband too believes in gender equality.
Through the articles online, I had access to other opportunities to study abroad. I went to India to study gender transformation. From there I was recommended for scholarship to study at the Institute of Transformation in South Africa. So far, I have recommended more than 15 women to study there. After that, I went for further study in Canada and went back to the Indian Institute of Social Entrepreneur and Women Transformation to study social entrepreneurship, women and poverty so that I will actually understand these issues.
In the course of my experience, I discovered that women are treated like trash. A man that was frustrated outside will come home and start beating his wife and they say its poverty, but that poverty that made him to be frustrated will not make the man kick his flat screen television or hit his beautiful car and break the windscreen but he can do that to the wife. People pity me because I have daughters as if they are not children. Psychological and emotional abuse that women go through made me think one day and I did see the correlation between women and trash.
I just said enough is enough. I began to add value to trash. I will pick trash and add beautiful things to trash and call it treasure. I will pick tailors waste, make beautiful dresses from it. The more I make these things, the more I feel good about myself and the more I realize I am not trash. I am an asset that has not been discovered. I am a treasure that needs to be valued.
I created so many beautiful things from old newspapers like mat, dustbin, etc. and I decided I was not going to stop at that. I decided to train abused women. I have trained women in 15 villages in India, women in more than 10 communities in Nigeria for free. The women I trained too have become trainers.
We sent one of our women from Ibassa river to South Sudan in three different camps training women who were raped. Our training is not to create things and sell them. Before we start our training, we share our stories of abuse and in one of our training sessions, a victim of domestic abuse removed her scarf for all to see, and it was just plastic that was there because she had been battered with machete by her husband. So abuse comes in hierarchy.
Our training starts with telling our stories. Then, counselling to make women see themselves through appreciative lens. During this time, we receive healing because there is nothing new; no matter what your husband has done, you can pick up your life again. After the healing, we try to draw a correlation between the trash which people think doesn’t have value and our wives or sisters who men feel are nothing. We just don’t pick trash and use it like that; we clean it up and make it beautiful.
Galapagos furniture company in London saw what I turned trash into online and packaged fabric trash and sent it to us free. So we create beautiful things out of them and tell these women they can create beautiful things out of their lives. We also train them how to make sales and generate income from what they produce. I love online sales and that is why we went to train over 570 women in nine communities on how to use internet to generate income. They get opportunities online because millions of people will see what they do.
The online community has been also supportive. Then we advise the women to use trash in their communities to make beautiful things and we call it independence production. And they sell them.
We also have programme for female orphans. We give them note book and biro that can last three years and those that have parents but are like orphans too.
For abused women, we are four years old in training because we registered in 2013.
You have trained more than 2,000 women. In the course of training, what did you see in the abused women that is causing violence against them?
I work with women in communities. It’s poverty. When they ask from men who do not want to give……there is the societal belief that women are below and you can do whatever you like to them. And most of these women have nowhere to go back to when they are violated. They have to stay there and when a man knows you have nowhere to go back to, he can do whatever he likes to you.
But when he sees you are working and independent and also that you have a sisterhood solidarity that you can report to, he reduces violence against you or even totally stops it. Violence is not only from men to women alone, women’s bosses in the office violate their subordinates. Even brothers maltreat sisters because of that superiority complex built in them that makes them feel it’s their right.
Does it mean educated women don’t suffer domestic violence or what?
I work in rural areas and most of the women are not educated but it also happens to educated women but they will not want to say it out. They keep it to themselves and pancake everything. And for a husband to go out with women and tell the wife she can’t do anything about it is enough emotional violence.
The percentage of educated women taking care of the home now is high and still women are not appreciated. A woman that has worked so hard for years and decided to build a house and the husband refuses to join in the prayer for the foundation. Women will have joint accounts with the husbands and the husbands will buy property and just put Mrs there and refuse to put the wives names. Is Mrs a name? When the woman goes to the pastor, the pastor will tell her a good woman keeps her home and, as I always say, when we get to heaven there is no husband and there is no wife. Each person will answer for himself or herself.
What advice do you give women because you said ‘what you fight for will not hurt you?’
I would say to women ‘you don’t even have to fight’. Our daughters don’t need to fight. I speak out against violence against women because I don’t want my daughters to face what I faced but we can stop it if we train our sons about equality, tell them women are human beings like them. Men are the head and women are the neck holding the neck because if the neck is not there, the head cannot stand.
Tell them that just as the woman is not balanced if a woman does not have a husband, so it is with man who does not have a wife. Enough of bus conductors harassing ladies as if they don’t have women like them at home. Is every man the head of a woman? That is not what the word of God says.
The man that is the head of the house, you will know him. It is better to be headless than to marry some men. When we train our sons and brothers, there will be less violence in our society. This does not mean that we don’t have men that are compassionate, loving and supportive and make the home look like heaven on earth but some are hell on earth.
My advice for women is to be empowered, become treasures. No man can beat me now. I won’t allow it to happen because I am a treasure. I am an asset. If your husband tells you not to work, you can stay at home and create beautiful things. Don’t be lazy, be online all the time for your business. Create beautiful things and display them online. Enough of display of pictures and your food online. Make beads, bags and other beautiful things and display them online.
Not everyone is creative
They can package ogi, they can package mushroom. I know a friend from Uganda that packages Pumpkin; last December, she won $100,000 as the winner of African Entrepreneur of the Year. Work with what is around you. Use cassava to make something. I started in my house very small with tie and dye on a plastic table and chair. I am not an artist. I studied English. The only creative thing about me is my poem and the way I write beautiful things. Star of Hope Transformation Centre also does Tosin Turns Trash to Treasure which I established to show women that it is possible to turn trash into a business and they can see it in what I use waste to do. I sell those things so that they will know it is possible to sell.
It is not only about women, it is also about the environment. We pick waste and recycle it and we reduce waste in our environment.
Part of our work through waste is reusable sanitary pad because we know how hard it is for poor persons to buy sanitary pad every month. We give it free of charge to women outside the country like Congo, Sudan, Rwanda and we teach them how to make it too. We use new materials for our pad and indirectly help the environment because if you count disposable pad a woman will use in her lifetime, it’s going to be thousands but with this you can wash and reuse.
We give female orphans four which can last them for three years if they use it well. We also have styrophone we use to make bag for cooking food. We call it treasure cooking bag and we have trained more than 150 women on how to do it and it reduces the quantity of kerosene or gas they use in cooking. You bring your food into a boiling point, put the pot inside the bag and cover it and the bag will cook the food. We use trash to make school bags, food warmer, wall clock; newspapers for mat, bed sheet, etc.
We sell online and they support our cause by buying our products and the proceeds from it is what we use to support the organization. Trash to Treasure is a business venture that supports the organizations. I have won awards most of which come with cash and we use the money to organize training in different towns. The recent awards money is what we use to rent this place we are in. We won the Women of Courage Award in the USA, Impart Leaders Award in the US, Change in Life Heroes Award, Global Change Award in Canada and the Social Entrepreneurs in the World Award in Sweden.
As a woman who has been battered before, I can say everything is possible if you want to make a change possible. We can become transformed if we decide to be transformed. Nobody can stop us. We are the only one who can stop ourselves, not your husband, not your father, not government. If you want to make a change, as long as it is legal, everything is possible. The sky is just the beginning.
The solution is not leaving your husband because you don’t know what awaits you in another place. Become empowered. Come out of your shell. Be the best you want to become in life. Tap into your potentials. Become an exemplary person that if you want to leave your husband, he will rather leave everything for you to stay with him. For me, if you lose me, you lose an asset you cannot easily get in the world.
When my abuse happened, my baby was small and the doctor told me that when a man starts beating his wife in Nigeria, he doesn’t stop. ‘It is either you become empowered or you divorce’ but I told him I am educated and he said education is different from empowerment. When I got home I wanted to pack my things but my husband begged me, saying we should take care of our children together. I decided to fight for my right from home.
I started typing on computer with one finger and I began to write my experiences online and I have more than 100,000 friends online in our community online and I am one of the board members. Then I began to apply for training but now if you want me to come to your country, you will have to pay for everything and you have to send my ticket at least 6 months upfront. That is what empowerment does. It is not about talking alone, it’s about learning. It’s about reading all the time.
You cannot stay at home and be brooding over your pity party and you say you want to be empowered. It is not about running around for divorce. It is about working on yourself. When you are empowered, you become a beautiful role model for your sisters, daughters. You become a mirror for others. Empowerment is different from what we learn in the university, it is different from what our mothers told us. It is different from what most of our leaders in churches and mosques are telling us.
My husband now sees me as his friend and I thank God I did not divorce him because of that singular act because I wouldn’t have known his other beautiful sides. There are some times when your life is at risk, run for your life but if it’s a case triggered by a particular thing, be empowered and forge ahead.