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Domestic Violence Against PwDs: When Running Away Is Impossible

Women with disabilities are vulnerable to all manner of violence, when it comes to sexual and gender-based violence, the risks could not be higher. For Esther, her inability to move at will compounds her problems.

It would have been easier if she could get up on her feet and run. Maybe then, he wouldn’t have beaten her so many times she miscarried five babies.

But in retrospect, Esther says that the conversation about her bank account had been a precursor to the terrible things that would soon happen.

Why did he ask her how much she had in her bank account?

The beginning of five long years

“Of all the marriage rites that we have done so far, today’s was the most interesting because they were explicit,” he had said, dead serious. “They were telling me how my money is yours and your money is mine. We need to own a joint account to run this family, that is why I am asking.”

That line of thought from her just wedded husband was strange, not only because they had just returned from the marriage registry and were in the process of taking off their clothes, but because he would not stop talking. 

He went on to tell her that the ceremonies had taken a lot from him and that he needed to open a business of some sort to bounce back on his feet. This was particularly confusing to Esther because he was not the only one who had expended money on their wedding ceremonies. She had, too.

“The ceremonies did not take from you alone. It also took from me. This was a collective sacrifice, so whatever money you are asking for, I do not think I have,” she had simply said to her husband, ending the conversation.

At the time, Esther did not quite know what to make of that conversation but looking back at it all, she says that it was the eerie foreshadowing of what was to come.

The thing about forecasts, however, is that one has to be outside of the situation to make meaning of the signs; Esther was inside of it.

Beatings and miscarriages

Esther’s husband had a habit of locking the entrance doors to their flat whenever he wanted to hit her. 

This ritual of his was not done to keep his wife from running out of the house because, with one of her legs deformed, it was physically impossible for her to do so; he locked the doors in order to keep their neighbours from coming to her rescue because he often beat her to a pulp and the interference of neighbours would mean that he wouldn’t beat her to that state which pleased him.

He had a way too of pushing her. In fact, all of the physical harm that he often inflicted on his wife was fashioned in a way that exploited her disability. He didn’t have to do much because she could do so little to defend herself from the assaults.

Esther’s husband was so accustomed to abusing his wife that he did not have to do so much to pick up a fight or find a reason to physically abuse her. He just had to latch onto a single thing and that would be it, it did not matter what it was. Any reason at all sufficed.

There is a particular one Esther could not forget.

“He had gone on a business trip outside of Lagos and did not tell me when he would return,” she remembers.

On the day that he eventually did return, he stormed into their house in anger, demanding to know why her phones were switched off when he called to inform her that he was on his way home.

“It was a deliberate act,” he had snarled.

Esther, irritated at the accusation and apparent scheme of surprise return, explained that her phone had gone off because there was no supply of power for a while.

“You can see for yourself as you are here that there is no electricity in this house.”

“You came into the house and you still saw me, so what is the difference? And you never told me previously that you would be returning home. It means you were trying to checkmate me and I don’t know what you were trying to achieve by doing that,” she had retorted.

What followed their little back and forth was another beating, a mindless beating that led to her second miscarriage.

Nike Akinbola, a disability rights advocate with Nigeria’s National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD), says this habit of inflicting harm is not one that is peculiar to Esther’s husband but is in fact a well-known pattern of disability-based abuse common among spouses of disabled persons.

“We often receive cases like this. Once, we got the complaint of a woman’s partner who, during a disagreement, took her ATM card and made away with all the money in her account because he knew that she could not get up to run after him. He also took her sim card to prevent her from calling for help,” Akinbola said.

The abuse that Esther’s husband inflicted on her did not stop, rather, it worsened. Another time when they got into an argument, he pushed her, and she fell.

Esther explains that the way she would fall down is not quite the way that a person whose legs were intact would fall;because she fell with her waist, the pressure from her descent and her weight was much and it resulted in spotting (blood coming out of the vagina).

When she got to the hospital, the doctor recommended that she be given a 5-day bed rest to enable them to monitor her closely, so she was given injections and other medications.

“On the fifth day, the baby dropped on its own.”


Abrupt change

Before their marriage came to an end, Esther endured five years of abuse from her ex-husband. In those five years, she had been unable to reconcile his actions to the gentleness that he had shown her before so she stayed with him and endured severe abuse, hoping and praying that he would change back to who he was before they got married.

“He showed me so much love,” Esther says to me, narrating how devout he was before they got married.

“In fact, he was fighting his family because they did not want him to marry me,” she said, explaining how his resilience had endeared him to her.

It was not just his family that had disapproved of their union, his friends also frowned on his decision to marry a woman with a disability, but he always defended Esther.

“I love her the way she is,” he had told them.

Esther thought to herself that a man who could defend her and make his family and friends accept her is a good person, so she loved him even more.

“It was even her disability that attracted me to her… Her potential,” she had once heard him say.

And so that was why it was difficult to reconcile who he was before their marriage to the “monster” that he eventually became.

“You can see some of the scars on my body,” Esther says, pulling slightly at her skirt to reveal black imprints on her leg and thighs.”

“Everything you see here are things that happened to me in marriage,” she said, her legs well covered now.

Unfortunately, Esther is not alone in this. According to a 2018 study carried out by Statistics Canada, “being shaken, pushed, grabbed or thrown was the most common type of physical abuse experienced by women with disabilities.” 

When Esther’s husband was not inflicting physical injuries on her, he attacked her psyche by constantly telling her that no one else would love her because of her disability.

In all of this, she persevered because she believed that it would all stop at some point. “I thought he would change for good,” she said.

According to Nike Akinbode who also works with the Disability Rights Advocacy Center (DRAC) where some level of psychosocial support is provided for persons with disabilities, hurtful utterances such as the ones that Esther endured have a way of keeping them rooted to their abuser.

“Emotional abuse is one form of abuse that the society is yet to wake up to because right now, they feel it is all about the physical abuse but when a woman is constantly demeaned and made to feel subhuman, she eventually begins to believe that perhaps all of the things that her abuser is saying is true. It takes God’s grace for a woman to come out of such,” she said.

After years of physical, emotional, and emotional abuse, Esther finally came to the full realisation that the change which she anticipated would never come because the man who had loved, courted, and passionately defended her to his family was not somewhere in the man who was now her husband, she accepted that he never existed because what she came to realise after all that time was that he never truly loved her, he had only married her because he was under the impression that she had a lot of money and that he could gain from that.

But that realisation came slowly. The acceptance, Esther said, was hastened by a final incident that almost cost her life.

The last straw

“The day was Sept. 13, 2016,” she begins.

I marvelled at Esther’s ability to remember the exact date of this incident but by the time she narrates the events that preceded that day’s incident, it was easy to see why she would remember it so vividly.

The incident was a beating and as was with many of the beatings that her husband gave her, the reason for this one held no water either.

“He was changing his car that day, so he needed a small change so that he would board a motorcycle to the place,” Esther remembers.

When her husband asked if she had any change that he could board a motorcycle with, she had casually told him to check in her hand bag but as he went through the handbag, he started questioning her about some coloured serviettes that he found in there.

“How did you come about these serviettes,” he had asked.

“You are pregnant and you are still sleeping around! That’s why you don’t let me touch you these days. So you are having an affair in your office,” he continued without waiting for an answer.

Esther told him that she had taken some of the serviettes from her sister’s car when she gave her a ride to work. “I picked some because I had a runny nose.”

The words were barely out of her mouth and he descended on her, pounding away until she fell against her waist and passed out in a pool of her own blood.

This violence triggered by irrational jealousy is not a trait peculiar to Esther’s husband. A 2018 Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) study says one of the most common behaviours associated with abusive spouses of women with disabilities was that their partners were extremely jealous and did not want them talking to other men or women.” 

When Esther’s husband saw what he had done, he panicked and took her to the hospital nearest to their home.

At the hospital, he was directed to take her to a general hospital because of the “high degree of injury” that she had sustained on her leg. It was on a bed at the general hospital that she regained consciousness, asking the doctor how she got there.

“There was a deep cut, I don’t know what happened, I can’t explain. I just know I had a deep cut on my leg that was sutured,” she said, reminding me of one of the scars she had shown me earlier.

“The following day, I started bleeding again, and the baby was evacuated,” Esther narrated, her voice lower and tired now, each word forced out, one after the other until she went silent.

Prior to this, she had already lost four pregnancies due to the physical abuse that she was subjected to.

“The first miscarriage was a little over four months, the second one was 3 months, the third one was almost 2 months, and the fourth one was four weeks old.”

“You know,” she said, stopping mid-sentence.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she said now, letting out a painful sigh.


While Esther lay on the hospital bed, miserable from the loss of yet another child, her husband who had caused it, refused to visit her.

His absence at the hospital was too much, even for Esther’s family to bear so they decided there and then that Esther would not be going back to him.

“But I told my elder sister that I had to go to my house and pick some clothing because I didn’t even have anything to wear.”

Even though her sister advised against it, Esther left for her home anyway because she thought that her husband could not harm her more than he had already done. Besides, she had phoned her neighbours and they had told her that he had barely been at home all the time that she was at the hospital, so what Esther had in mind was to hurriedly pick up a few of her things and dash out.

But by the time she could make it home, it was already midnight so she naturally decided to sleep over and leave the next morning but this would turn out to be a bad decision because that night, her husband picked another quarrel with her because she tried to say a prayer before bed and that he said that it was giving him a headache.

But this quarrel was not like the ones that he’d start in the past.

“He told me that he would slaughter me,” Esther remembers.

After saying this to her, he had gone into their kitchen, walking out moments later with a kitchen knife with which he threatened to cut her with if she tried praying again.

Esther didn’t need to calculate her chances before she knew that she had none. 

Her disability has robbed her of the basic human action of running away when faced with danger and even if he decided to ditch the knife and hit her with his bare hands instead, she would still not be able to run for the door.

“I was face to face with death,” she said, remembering the chills that had coursed through her spine that night.

What followed was quick thinking on Esther’s part.

“I pretended that I was bleeding too much from the evacuation even though I was expected to actually bleed a little,” she explained.

Her husband bought the story but refused to take her to the hospital out of spite. Esther needed to get out of the house as fast as she could, so she came up with another escape idea.

“I phoned one of my neighbours and told her that I was bleeding and needed to be taken to the hospital,” she remembers.

Her neighbour hurriedly came to get her but when they were outside the gate where her husband could not hear a thing, Esther narrated the true situation to the woman who then took her to another house on the same street where she spent the night and was taken back to the hospital early the next morning.

The events of that night shook Esther greatly.

It also made her realise that there was nothing to salvage in their marriage because it had never been about love for her husband. She says that it made her finally accept that the reason this man she loved had asked her about her finances on the day of their wedding was that she earned a lot more than he did and he wanted the money for himself as his compensation for marrying her.

“I am telling you that a good number of men who get married to us disabled women do so in hopes of taking advantage of our finances,” she said.

Although no data could be found presently to support or disprove Esther’s notion on the matter, Akinbola who was the former head of the Women and Gender Unit at the NCPWDs agreed with her stance.

It has been 8 years since Esther left her ex husband but the psychological trauma that he inflicted on her refuses to go away.

Every day, she is hurt that she has no children of her own but what hurts her more she says is that she could have had five, but had lost them all to five long years of domestic abuse.

Akinbola says that the commission for persons with disabilities has a counselling session where people who have come in with complaints are counselled for psychosocial support to ensure that they do not go back to their abusers. She also pointed out that DRAC, a non governmental organisation tries as much as possible to cater to the psychosocial needs of people with disabilities.

“I work with them as a mentor. I currently have some women under me who I mentor because the psychological aspect is really important. Once you are able to work on that aspect, you have done most of the work and a disabled woman who is being abused can then walk away easily,” she said.

In terms of the physical aspect of abuse, Akinbode says that the VAPP (Violence Against Persons Prohibition) act has proven to be a good avenue for woman to get justice.

“The commission is working alongside the VAPP act and our own disabilities act (Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Prohibition Act, 2018) which prohibits every form of discrimination against disabled people, including domestic violence and sexual violence,” she explained.

Esther continues to meet men who want romantic relationships with her but is unable to engage fully with them because of her subconscious habit of holding back on her feelings, out of fear that they could turn out to be like her ex-husband.

Even though she is still able to have children, Esther has begun to look into the adoption process because she does not think there is a man who she can ever trust enough to have children with.

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Chigozie Victor

Chigozie Victor is a journalist and a creative writer. Her work focuses on SGBV, policy and security infrastructure. The graduate of English and Literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka is passionate about helping audiences understand salient issues through clear reporting and multimedia journalism. She tweets at @nwaanyi_manaria

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