When Nigerian Blessing Ojukwu became pregnant after she was raped, her family disowned her. She was forced to live with her abuser, who continued to attack her. Now, a UN-backed initiative is giving her, and others in similar situations, a chance to become financially independent, and start new lives.
“When my family discovered I was pregnant, they told me to go to live with the father of my unborn child, but instead of going there, I started sleeping in an empty building, where I began hawking sachets of water to survive.
When my family found out, they threatened my rapist and, because I was out of options, I went to live with him. He would beat me so badly that I was in and out of the hospital emergency room, and I almost lost my unborn son.
One day, he poured a corrosive chemical on me, which burned my legs; he then ran away with my son. It took me two months to heal. At first, his father allowed me to live in his home, and then my mother, the only member of my family to support me, took me in.
My abuser’s father also helped the police to find and arrest him, and thanks to him, my son was returned to me. It was during this time that I learned about the culinary arts course.
I had had a strong interest in cooking for a long time, even being paid to cook for people from time to time. However, I only really knew Nigerian dishes, and during the course, I learned how to cook a wide range of cuisines from across the globe, including cakes, pastries, hors d'oeuvres and desserts.
In addition to the new recipes I have been taught, I also learned about food presentation and photography, and I can now take lovely photos of the meals I make for sale, which help me to advertise on WhatsApp, and to attract more customers.
Since graduating, I have started to build up a client base and, with the little money I make, I can take care of myself and my son. I am looking forward to growing and, one day, I hope to open an international restaurant and pastry shop in Abuja.
So, if any survivors of sexual assault and abuse are reading this, I would encourage them to speak out: that’s how you get help. If I hadn’t spoken up, I would never have received this great opportunity to learn new skills. Now I have a second chance.”
A Pathway to a new life
- Ms. Ojukwa has graduated from the Livelihood Pathways Programme, which is supported by the Spotlight Initiative, a UN and European Union partnership to end all forms of violence against women and girls.
- From early and forced marriages to physical, psychological and sexual assault, harmful practices are prevalent in Nigeria. Forty-three per cent of girls are married before the age of 18, according to a 2020 UN Nigeria report on gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The UN Development Programme (UNDP), through the Foundation for Resilient Empowerment (FRED), is providing a livelihood pathway programme to 87 women and girls across the county in culinary arts, fashion design, event planning and decoration, and makeup artistry with support from the Spotlight Initiative.