Hauwa Ojeifo is the founder of “She Writes Woman”, an organisation that focuses on helping women with mental health problems. In this interview with MAKINDE OLUWAROTIMI, she explains how her organisation has restored hope and joy to several distressed women among other issues.
Can you please tell us why you founded ‘She Writes Woman’?
“She Writes Woman” is a women-led
movement of love, hope and support that gives mental health a voice in Nigeria. Founded as an outlet for my own mental health issues. I founded the organisation in April 2016 following my diagnosis of Bipolar and Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2015, as well as multiple near-suicide attempts. She Writes Woman was an outlet to tell my story in an anonymous way. Over time, I started putting a name and face to my posts and I realised that people relate with it. What started as a form of personal therapy grew into a movement to provide judgement-free safe spaces and support systems for people living with psychosocial disabilities and mental health conditions, which was evidence of a gap that needed to be filled.
How has the journey been from inception till date?
I feel grateful to be someone who people
use as a beacon of hope and people see themselves in. It feels encouraging to be that person who speaks truth to stigma and who is able to be the voice and face of mental health in Nigeria, someone who can show from a lived perspective. The impact is being able to establish one of the first 24-hour mental health helplines in Nigeria and collaborate with local and international organisations, most recently Facebook, to drive change in the sector.
Since inception, our work has received several recognitions including the 2018 Queen’s Young Leaders Award, 2019 Obama Africa Leader, 2018 Viacom MTV EMA Generation Change and Women Deliver 2020, among others. I am currently a One Young World Award Ambassador and have spoken at the United Nations (UMN) several times.
With regards to the pains, I am a person who actually lives with a mental health condition so every day when I do my work, I could be retraumatising myself or re-triggering myself. In essence, our work is such that I have to keep telling my story over and over again.
I have to keep coming from a place of a lived experience so that I can connect with other people. Also, being on the frontline is also ensuring that I hear people’s stories and it echoes my own story. We are living in a system that is broken. Even if you have the best intentions, you can not save everybody.
Can you give us examples of people that have benefitted from SWW?
We receive many testimonials from many
support group participants whose lives have been positively impacted. Over 50 people have called our helpline who were at the verge of suicidal ideation and were able to receive help.
Permit me to share testimonials from our regular support groups.
The Safe Place Support Group is a gathering of people in a stigma and judgement-free environment that offers them a space to release or talk about life issues in the hope of getting care, accountability and information that creates attitudinal/behavioural change.
Recently, we received testimonials from the attendees, one said: “The initiative is very impactful and informative.” Another attendee said that “the impact is indispensable and looks forward to the next edition.” Someone else said that the “time was worth it.” A total of 100 per cent said they would like to attend in future and would recommend our support group to their friends.
And this is what is important to me; that we are having these conversations and people are benefitting from them.
Many victims of rape experience mental issues as a result. What is your position on rape and how can it be stopped in our society?
My life’s work is to give a voice to, stand up
for those who can’t and ensure that together, we can unite to end sexual violence and give mental health a voice in Nigeria. When people say, “It’s in the past”, “get over it”, “that was a long time ago”, I just smile because if you’ve been there, you’ll know how getting raped changes everything about you – how you see the world, how you process pain, how you respond to fear and so much more.
Rape is a systemic issue that is deeply rooted in patriarchy. It is a power issue as against a sexual issue. Most of the time, people think that rape is about “urge”. That is not a true representation of what rape is. It is about power.
It’s about a group of people feeling like they have power over the other group of people. According to data, sexual violence is largely about men believing that they have entitlement over women’s bodies. That’s what the problem is. When a woman says no, they feel like they can take it by force.
With regards to how it can be stopped in the society, it has to be an intersectional thing. While we are talking about reorientation in terms of ensuring that we have our VAPP (Violence Against Persons Prohibition) Act across board, we have to ensure that what we are trying to push for is intersectional.
We are also looking at reorientation: at the school level, law enforcement level, legislative level and ensuring that, by doing all of these things, we are also dismantling patriarchal beliefs has just been selected for the 2020 Facebook Accelerator.
How are you planning to use the funds to produce effective and optimum impact on your community?
I am honoured to have our community, She Writes Woman’s initiative selected for the Facebook accelerator. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity that connects us to a tech giant which mission is to bring the world closer together.
The funds will be purposefully used to scale mental health awareness through a closed online community of mental health- conscious Nigerians where affordable mental healthcare, support and engagement is available. We are glad that communal and confidential support will be provided online. The selection process will be based on those who indicate need and interest based on our values of love, hope and support.
Safe Place Nigeria is important, especially now with restrictions in accessing physical spaces. This Accelerator offers us an unprecedented opportunity to scale access to mental healthcare, self-care tools and wellness resources.
Where do you see She Writes Woman in the next five years and how do you plan on getting there?
Over the next five years, She Writes Woman
will be leading groundbreaking initiatives and intersectional solutions that cut across digital healthcare and policy advocacy at the national level.
Our mission at She Writes Woman is to create safe places for people living with mental health conditions in Nigeria so they can speak freely without fear of judgement and stigma.
We want to change the narrative of mental health amongst women, girls and young people through advocacy and education and give mental health a voice in Nigeria and normalise such conversations.
Our goal is to use innovative approaches to influence attitude and behaviours towards mental health in Nigeria.
What is your advice to women globally that are experiencing one mental illness or the other?
We have a lot of unlearning to do. From
subconscious oppressive cultural and religious actions to patriarchy and misogyny, we need to be open to realising that what we already know may not have been accurate. These deep beliefs may sometimes hinder us from seeking the help that we need. Whether it’s by blaming ourselves or suffering in silence.
So things like, “you’re weak for experiencing this.” “It’s your fault that you were assaulted.” are things you need to unlearn for your healing journey. Live your truth. Speak your truth. Seek professional help. Whenever you need to talk, please reach out to people more likely to give you a non- judgemental ear. She Writes Woman is also that kind of ear. You can reach us at anytime via Instagram, Twitter or send us a mail.