“I’m still an abnormal adult,” Taiwo Akinlami, an accomplished Lagos-based lawyer, says about his traumatic exposure to violence as a child. Half of Nigeria’s children suffer physical violence before they turn 18, according to a recently published nation-wide survey. How does this violence affect their life and being? “What you do to a child,” says Akinlami, “becomes part of the child’s soul.”
The 45-year-old lawyer regretfully looks back at the times he has hurt others, replicating the violence he was exposed to as a child. Now, he is canvassing across the nation to protect children from violence.
“My father was a good person”, says Mr. Akinlami, “But unfortunately he did not know how to bring up children.” He will never forget how his father flogged him as a child: “He would tie my legs and tie my hands, and he would strip me naked”. The punishment often took long. “He would give me six strokes of the cane, go and sit down, come back and give me another six strokes of the cane, and that could go on for a whole day”, says Mr. Akinlami. “My back still has marks”.
Mr. Akinlami’s father did not show any consideration – it didn’t matter if the boy’s wounds had not healed yet: “He would not spare the rod, and he caned very, very regularly”. Besides physical violence, Mr. Akinlami and his four siblings were exposed to emotional violence.
“When my mother was angry with us she would curse us. She’d say you are a useless child only comparable to a dog,” Mr. Akinlami talks hurriedly, as if fending off the emotions that his face occasionally reveals. “She was trying to use negative reinforcement to achieve positive results”.
As a seasoned Child Protection Specialist, Mr. Akinlami does not believe that violence and degrading words positively influence the behaviour of children. “Negative reinforcement achieves negative results”, he asserts. Drawing on his own experiences, he describes how the violence undermined his self-value: “I was suffering from no self-esteem. If people said they didn’t want to be my friend, I wanted to be their friend at all cost.” He lets out a quick sad smile, “I did not see any value in myself because I didn’t think I was worth anything.”
“My father said he was a disciplinarian,” says Mr. Akinlami, who now doubts this statement. “He was just confused as to what it means to discipline children.” The Child Protection Specialist explains: “In disciplining children, one thing you must recognize is that children follow your example”. Pedagogical research shows that children copy the behaviour of adults around them.
Mr. Akinlami said “Children don’t do what you say, they do what you do. I started smoking at the age of twelve because my father was a chain smoker. I started drinking earlier because since I was seven or eight he would have sent me to go and buy cigarette and buy beer for him.”
To top up this misery, Mr. Akinlami was sexually abused by a neighbour. “My mother would go to the market and leave me with this particular woman who was our neighbour and this woman would strip me naked and do with a six year old boy what a woman should do with a man. What she did was to strip herself naked, to now ask me to come on top of her, to touch her breast, to touch every part of her body.” When talking about their forced intercourse, his voice shakes with emotion, “She awoke my sexuality before I understood what sexuality was all about. I was just available prey without any protection or safeguarding.”
How did this exposure to sexual violence at the tender age of six affect his behaviour? “It was a daily experience that awoke my sexuality immediately”, Mr. Akinlami explained “So when other children were seeing aunties and uncles I was seeing sex partners. As a child I started having sexual relationships with other children when we were doing hide and seek. As a teenager I started having anal sex. I have taken my father’s neighbour’s daughter into my father’s bedroom and I molested her sexually and warned her not to tell anybody.”
Mr. Akinlami warns parents never to blindly trust anyone with their children. Raising his index finger emphatically, he says: “That somebody is your neighbour does not mean that person is your friend. That somebody is your neighbour does not mean that person is a caregiver.”
A flicker of pain fills Mr. Akinlami’s eyes when he explains how much effort it took to overcome his past. “I’m still an abnormal adult,” he says, “I use a lot of creative energy to ward off thoughts, to ward off all kinds of things that I don’t want in the corners of my mind. But if I was not abused, that energy would have been channelled at doing other things that are meaningful.”
Mr. Akinlami has forgiven his late father. Together with his four siblings, he has taken care of him throughout his old age. “We knew that he was also a victim of his upbringing, he was living out the kind of upbringing he had.”
Mr. Akinlami’s mission in life today is protecting children from violence – focusing first and foremost on the responsibility of adults. “Anytime a child is abused”, he says, “a caregiver has dropped the ball one way or the other.”
Mr. Akinlami seeks to build people’s awareness by sharing his life story: “My own commitment is to enlighten people”, he says, “and ensure that they are able to prevent abuse.”Author: Abigail Etukudo
Edited by MIND (Media, Information & Narrative Development)
Adapted from a film interview conducted by MIND for UNICEF as part of the Presidential Year of Action to End Violence Against Children