It was many years before David* heard the term “emotional abuse”, and realised he had been a victim of it in his early life.
The biggest bone of contention between him and his father had always been his performance in school. His father raged at him if he didn’t live up to expectations.
But even when David did well, he was not free from the abuse.
“When I was in primary school, I used to score good grades at some point, but instead of congratulating me, he would say I only passed because my mother was a teacher in that school and I wouldn’t amount to anything,” David told HumAngle.
Child abuse is a wilful infliction of pain through maltreatment, neglect, psychological and verbal abuse or wilful inactions such as failure to fulfil the roles assigned to caregivers which causes harm, whether physical or psychological to the child involved.
In the years since he first started understanding what happened to him when he was a child, David has dedicated himself to doing what he can to help children in the same position.
He has become a teacher and published writer. In his own classroom he makes sure to tell children about what child abuse is, and let them know that if it is happening to them, it is not their fault.
He hopes that by doing so, he can help abused children live better lives when they are adults.
David, who was the first of four children, suffered the brunt of his father’s anger. “He would always remind me of how hard his life was and how easy I have things,” he said. It never mattered whether he did things right or wrong.
His father monitored everything David did. He complained about how David played and how much he ate and prevented him from going out to make friends. “He always had an excuse to hit or insult me,” he said.
David had to walk on eggshells throughout his childhood because everything could trigger his father. Even basic mistakes such as spilling water came with devastating consequences.
“It got worse when I got into secondary school and I could remember one time when he threatened to kill me and kill himself just because my result was not up to his expectation. “
David’s father saw school as the only path to success. He made it clear many times that he would rather see his son dead than fail in life.
David’s mother was in the background. She tried to comfort him and be a source of support, and that was one of the reasons he was able to hold on for long. Unfortunately, she lacked the courage to stand up to his father. She was also a victim of his abuse herself.
“My parents had a traditional patriarchal relationship. He married her after secondary school and brought her to Lagos. Because of him, she was able to go to a Teacher’s Training College before getting her Nigerian Certificate in Education. So she felt very indebted to him.”
This fear and submission to his father made it harder to have an advocate in his mother.
Nigerian laws such as the Child’s Rights Act were enacted in July 2003 to combat the problem of child abuse in the country which includes trafficking, abandonment, sexual abuse as well as emotional and physical abuse.
According to section 11 of the Child’s Rights Act, every child is entitled to his dignity and should not be subjected to physical, emotional or mental abuse including torture and degrading treatments.
The Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act enacted in 2015, which seeks to eradicate violence in all forms, also has additional protection against child abuse – providing punishment for abandonment, psychological, verbal and emotional abuse, forceful isolation from family and friends, female genital mutilation, forced labor, child marriage and all forms of sexual exploitation.
However, despite these laws, many acts of child abuse, such as physical assault and other forms of emotional abuse and manipulation continue to occur in the Nigerian society.
This makes it harder for survivors to tell their stories because the acts are not outrightly considered abuse despite their devastating consequences in the lives of affected children, David says.
Things fall apart
By the time David was in Junior Secondary Three, he started to understand he was not supposed to pass through such treatment. This was partly because of the books he had read over the years.
When he made it to university in Calabar, the capital of Cross River State, southern Nigeria David’s belief was solidified.
“I stayed with an uncle for a while when I was in university and I experienced a more humane approach to parenting.”
But it was literature that really opened his eyes.
“When I read the book, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the character Okonkwo, who was haunted by the fear of failure reminded me so much of my father.”
Hope and comfort
Going to university also made David realise he was a lot smarter than his father tried to make him believe. “I was part of the entertainment circuit in the University of Calabar and during my National Youth Service Corp, I was elected to be the president of the Catholic Corpers Association and the vice president of the anti-HIV Community development service.”
He finally moved to North West Nigeria in 2012, away from his family and has been able to complete his master’s degree. He published three books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has become a strong voice for education in the region.
David didn’t want to live like his father. He has instead tried to be a source of hope and comfort for other children. He followed his mother’s profession and is currently a passionate school teacher. He strives to make sure his students do not feel insufficient and inadequate like he was made to feel as a child.
Despite the fact that he was able to make something out of his life even after his abuse, David still struggles with self-esteem issues and finds it hard to believe in his worth.
“I struggle with relationships because he never let me develop healthy relationships with people. He isolated me from my friends and tried to force me to connect with children he believed were up to his standard. Things only got better for me when some of my cousins moved into the compound and I was able to have some fun.”
Some effects of childhood abuse may include health problems, substance use disorders, increased risk of juvenile crimes, psychological issues such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, impaired cognitive skills, engagement in risky behaviours, as well as low self-esteem.
David always feels judged by people around him and struggles to invest emotionally in his romantic relationships. He says: “I always feel like something will go wrong no matter what I do.”
His relationship with his father became distant over the years and, even though he had a close-knit relationship with his siblings, they are currently in different parts of the world and that makes it harder to keep in touch as often as he would want to. His siblings’ relationship with his father was also bad, but they hardly ever talk about it.
“I think they also have a bit of resentment towards him.”
“I still get panic attacks when I see my father’s calls and sometimes I just ignore them.”
Even though he is now 42 years old, David is still haunted by his father’s abuse. “I am thinking about seeking professional help so that I can clear my mind and create a new slate.”
In the years since, David has become a published writer. He uses his experiences to inspire his stories. Although, despite his publishing success, he did not want to be named for this report. He did not want to be directly identified, and still feels he cannot openly come out with his own experience. He says he fears a backlash from his family.
“I wish we can understand that child abuse has a long-term effect on people. We really need to be kinder to children,” he said.
*Name changed to protect the subject’s identity
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