Leaving to live: Obstacles faced by women seeking escape from abusive relationships

By Emiene Erameh 

365Daily– The death of the renowned gospel singer Osinachi Nwachukwu on April 8 2022, came as a shock to many Nigerians and shook the Christian community.

Allegations that Osinachi was a victim of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) made the news of her passing even sadder. Many Nigerians point to Osinachi’s death to appeal to women in similar situations to leave to save their lives.

The death of Osinachi brought to the fore the conversation about women who choose to remain in relationships where they are subjected to GBV and why they decided to stay. In Osinachi’s case, while she confided in a few people, she begged them not to tell anybody about her ordeal at her husband’s hand. Her greatest fear was being stigmatised, said her brother, Chimerie.

Numerous studies reveal that women face more severe consequences when divorced than men. Women are not socially accepted and often find themselves alone and avoided by close friends and family. This happened to 37-year-old Eunice Otika*, who divorced her husband after seven years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Eunice was ostracised by her church, family and friends, who did not want to be associated with a divorcee.

Women are often “begged” to return to abusive partners by in-laws and relatives who blackmail them into staying in the relationship for the sake of the children. Frequently, this leads to even more abuse and, in some instances, even death. This happened to the 23-year-old mother of two, Mercy Samuel*, who left her abusive husband after years of abuse. Her in-laws begged her to return to her marital home for the sake of her sons. According to this report, Mercy was hacked to death by her husband on April 21 before going into hiding.

Jummai Madaki is a project officer at the Women’s Right Advancement and Protection Alternative in Plateau State. She was in the process of helping Mercy leave her husband when he killed her.

Divorce is considered taboo by many communities in Nigeria. This perception and the stigma associated with divorce force many women to remain in dysfunctional relationships. Divorced women are seen as ‘second-hand/inferior, troublesome” and solely responsible for a failed marriage or relationship.

The stigma associated with divorce is why women like Osinachi and Mary opt to remain in such unions.

Dr Olusegun Shoyombo, a consultant psychiatrist with the National Hospital, Abuja, said stigma can manifest in several ways, such as “a sense of unfulfillment.”

“In severe cases, people are overtly depressed, have low energy, and lack interest in pleasurable activities. They also have low self-esteem, negative self-worth, negative self-evaluation, thoughts of self-harm and attempted self-harm,” he explained.

According to Dr Shoyombo, stigma occurs in several areas of everyday life, such as in workplaces, across different cultures and even with families and can have devastating effects on the survivor.

Religious organisations also harbour stigma. This is what happened to Eunice, whose pastor led the congregation in ostracizing her after she divorced her husband.
This fear of stigma is perhaps why Osinachi’s case generated such a public outcry. Many people felt that she should have been able to get some help from the church where she worshiped.

Religious organisations preach tolerance and forgiveness. Therefore, they should be more accommodating of people going through difficulties such as divorce. This is not the case, as survivors still face stigma in such circles.

The Pastor of City of Light Evangelical Ministry International, Faith Thompson, is a GBV survivor who walked away from her abusive marriage. In a Facebook post, she narrated how she complained to her pastor about the abuse she was going through. After a terrible beating from her husband, during which she nearly lost her life, she decided to leave him. She was stunned when her pastor told her to remain in the marriage or risk losing her position in the church ministry if she went ahead with the divorce.

“Faith, you just have to stay there because no marriage, no ministry”, he said.

Despite her pastor’s urging to remain in the marriage, Faith eventually filed for divorce. She said the ostracisation started as soon as the congregation learnt she had initiated divorce proceedings. She was forced to resign from a group she was heading in the church and was told it was because “the church cannot have a divorced woman leading married sisters”.

She was also dropped from a programme she was billed to minister at because the church’s pastor said he could not have a divorcee minister on his pulpit.

The status of the relationship can also encourage or impede a woman from reporting abuse or even leaving a dysfunctional relationship. This is what happened to Stephanie*.  She endured the abuse from her partner of nine years. Still, she was afraid to speak out because they had not formalised their marriage in a traditional or religious ceremony. All they had done was the introduction ceremony in the early stages of their relationship. They had visited her home and informed her family of their intention to get married.

“I was not fully married. There was no bride price, no dowry, nothing. And whenever I asked when he would do the proper thing such as going to meet my family to pay my bride price, all l got was a beating!” the mother of two says.

She said it was difficult to speak about her abuse until it was no longer a secret. Her family and friends urged her to leave since nothing was binding them together.

“But how do I leave? To go where? I was already old, had children, and was afraid to start again!” Stephanie said. She eventually walked out when one day, he beat her, stripped her naked and threw her out of the house.

“That was the last straw. My friend came to take my kids and me away. I could not bear to see the neighbours who had seen me naked again.”

This fear of starting again without a partner sometimes contributes to the decision by women to remain in destructive relations.
Other reasons hindering women from leaving abusive relationships include a desire to maintain the family’s dignity since divorce is considered taboo.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), societal pressure to remain in a dysfunctional relationship and cultural and religious beliefs that forbid divorce prevent women from leaving their abusive partners.

Lack of financial independence— the ability to have the means to take care of themselves and their children— also hinders many women from fleeing abusive relationships. This is one of the most difficult challenges that GBV survivors must overcome. In most instances, it requires external support to address.

Gift Oche* has been separated from her husband for 3 years. She first left him in 2011 after years of emotional, verbal and psychological abuse.

“I had to go back. I had no job and no money, so I was forced to return home to my parents, who also had their own issues and my younger ones to take care of. I could not even contribute any money for the running of the house. I felt ashamed and went back to my husband,” Gift explained.

With the support of a local NGO, Gift set up a small online business selling food items. “When l left him again, l was financially in a much better place, and I was able to depend on what l made from my business and did not need to depend on my parents,” she said.

Data from the 2022 Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS) Gender Statistic Quarterly Bulletin report indicates that. In contrast, more than half of the women (61.3 million) are economically active. Women are engaged in informal sector jobs, which do not provide them with the skills and confidence to be in more stable formal employment and its attendant benefit.

“The underrepresentation of women in the [formal] labour force and their growing participation in the informal sector [is] linked to patriarchy, as well as gaps in policy and education,” the report says.

According to this 2019 Institute of Development Studies study, there are numerous reasons why most women are in informal sector employment. Critical among this is the gender gap in education that limits the choice of occupation for women (completion rates of primary education for boys is about 80% while only 66% for girls). And when girls leave school early, they are more likely to get married than get a job and with the attendant family responsibilities.

Therefore, they are more likely to work in lower-earning opportunities like farming and informal jobs and earn less for a given education and experience than men of the same level.

The president of the Women Against Violence and Exploitation (WAVE) Foundation Lola Ibrahim says becoming financially independent boosts an individual’s self-worth and confidence. She says that while GBV survivors require psychosocial support and counselling, equipping them with skills that can help them take care of themselves and their children permits them to recover.

While many women in abusive relationships are trapped because of their poor financial status, women like Osinachi and Pastor Faith, for instance, were earning well. Still, they chose to remain in their abusive relationships.

Wanda Ebe, the president and founder of the Wanda Adu Foundation, explained that the stigma associated with divorce restrained affluent women from leaving abusive marriages.

“From my experience handling cases of GBV among affluent women, they are held back by the fear of stigmatisation, discrimination and having a bad reputation. This is because men would say this woman is divorced, I don’t want to have anything to do with her, she is a stubborn person nobody can live with her, people say those kinds of things,” she said.

According to the UN Women,  women’s economic empowerment includes “women’s ability to participate equally in existing markets; their access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives and bodies; and increased voice, agency and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels from the household to international institutions.”

In practical terms, having less economic power means women have fewer choices if they decide to walk away from an abusive marriage.

The decision to leave is difficult as the GBV survivor must consider several factors. For example, suppose the union had children aged 15 years and under. In such a situation, a woman’s most significant dilemma is whether to leave the children behind or go with them even though she may not have the resources to look after them.

Edith Chukwu said she had to send her children home to her mother when she left her abusive husband. She eventually had to “share” her children among her siblings, who were willing to help provide for them after their father refused to take responsibility for their upkeep.

“I even wanted to go to a human rights organisation to seek their help to ensure he pays something towards the children’s upkeep. The burden is too much for me,” she explained.

Edith said her greatest desire is to find a safe space where she can live without fear of harassment. Edith found refuge with a friend who allowed her to ‘squat’ in her house for a while. However, after a few months, she had no choice but to shelter in an incomplete building after her friend sent her packing. At the time, she did not have any money to rent a place of her own.

In the Federal Capital Territory, there are a handful of safe houses or shelters that women like Edith can go to once they decide to leave a dysfunctional relationship.
One such shelter is run by the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation (DNF), founded by Dorothy Njemanze, a gender-based violence survivor and activist.

“For GBV survivors, the decision to leave an abusive relationship is a matter of life and death. In many instances, they need to leave to live,” she said.

“GBV victims are more likely to leave a destructive relationship if they are assured of a place where they can get help and support. Remaining in such a relationship may result in death,” Dorothy said.

Dorothy established the foundation and the shelter in 2011. She says it has been a struggle to keep the safe house running with the support of well wishers and local and international donations.

“But we need more support. Running a shelter is very expensive and requires a lot of support from all concerned stakeholders. We have created a space. What support can the government offer to ensure that those of us rendering this service continue with providing the care that is so desperately needed?”

Most of the safe houses and shelters, as well as services to support GBV survivors, are established and run by individuals and or community-based organisations such as the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation.

“We feed, clothe and provide medical and psychosocial support to the women survivors. We also cater to the needs of their children. It would help us if the government subsidised or funded some of the expenses we incur regularly,” she said.

Despite the government’s commitment to eradicating GBV, there are no shelters or safe houses established by the federal or state governments. This means a substantial unmet need for shelter and support services for GBV survivors.

“It is heartbreaking to turn away a woman because we do not have the space to accommodate her and her children,” says Dorothy Njemanze. She has sometimes been forced to go into her own pocket to pay for a short hotel stay for some extremely desperate cases.

She credits the International Federation of Female lawyers for providing pro-bono legal services to GBV survivors.


Walking out of a destructive relationship takes a lot of courage. But it takes even more courage and determination to recover from the trauma and rebuild their lives. Stephanie *, a mother of two, took the plunge a year ago and walked out of an abusive nine-year relationship.

“It does not end when one walks away. The road to recovery is long and sometimes difficult, and a lot of support is needed,” she said.

Stephanie was lucky because she had friends and relatives who provided her with the support she needed to look after herself and her children.

“But at the end of the day, it is up to you to learn to live again,” she advised.

For Dorothy Njemanze, Stephanie’s case is one of the rare instances where a GBV survivor receives full support to rebuild their lives. The majority of the women who are sheltered by the foundation need help for prolonged periods.

“We can provide these women with shelter when they leave abusive unions. But we cannot keep them in the shelter forever. The women have to leave someday.

But how do we prepare them for life outside the shelter?” she says and appeals for support from the government, the private sector, and the community to assist the women in rebuilding their lives.


Social media has been used to mobilise large online protests to demand action from the government and to rally against rape and sexual harassment. Using hashtags such as #SayNoToRape, citizens and activists alike express concerns about the need for reform. The online protests have become a tool for Nigerians to Inexplicably, the constitution does not provide remedies for sexual harassment.

Online protests have become a veritable tool for Nigerians to demand for accountability from their leaders as offline protests are usually violently put down by the police.
These protests have also spotlighted gaps in the constitution which for example, provides no civil remedies for secual harassment in the workplace. The online campaigns also amplify the incompetence of the police sevice which has a very low conviction rates for rape cases which contributes further to gender-based violence as perpetrators are not held to account.

Nigeria’s celebrities such as Don Jazzy, Rema, Patoranking, and Falz have also been known to use social media to post messages to their millions of followers to join the protests against rape and sexual harassment.

Tobore Ann Emorhokpor, a pharmacist turned online women’s rights crusader has been using her modest 10,979 Facebook followersto connect women in distress to organisations and individuals who can help them.

“It has helped me build a network of people willing to help. It has helped victims get justice,” she says.

The use of virtual platforms are useful to keep public debate about sexual and gender based violence open. But until issues of gender inequality are addressed, the promised police reforms to improve the reporting, investigation, arrest and prosecution of perpetrators are made and ethical and sound systems are established, Nigerian women and girls remain at risk of gender-based violence. 

This report was supported by the Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and with the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation.



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