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Her name is Tolu (real name withheld) and she was my best friend in elementary school. Our routine each day was the same. We would sit together in class, share our lunch and play together during break periods and after school. My dad was often late picking me up, so I had ample time to get to know her, since she would hang back to wait for her mom who was the school’s proprietress. Tolu and I were friends for two years until I had to leave for secondary school, and during this time, I learned a lot of what I now know about autism. Tolu was autistic you see. At the time however, she was no different to me from anyone else really – the innocence of a child, I suppose. I only remember finding it odd that Tolu only liked to do the same things, over and over; she never wanted to try anything new with me. I didn’t like that, but she was my best friend, so I went with along with it. She barely spoke also, but that was alright by me; I quite liked it actually – I was very chatty then and so I did all the talking for both of us. None of the other kids, or the teachers for that matter, seemed to understand Tolu, and she would sometimes have a hard time for that reason. The other kids would sometimes be mean for instance, and I noticed that the teachers sometimes left her out of activities. This made me bond closer to her, to shield her from when other people were not so accepting of her.
One day in my class, we were asked to solve a difficult mathematics problem, and on this day, no one had been able to concentrate on lessons because it was so hot. Our teacher was frustrated by our non-responsiveness, and many of us were flogged with his cane for it. When it came Tolu’s turn to be punished, there was a certain aggression, a certain dislike that underlay the beating that he gave her. With us, it had been corrective, but with her the flogging seemed driven by disdain . . . by contempt. He flogged her for far longer than he had any of us, and her loud wailing and exuberant flailing at the many cane strokes only seemed to provoke him even further.
Tolu was deeply affected by what happened that day. She had always been quiet, yes, but I would never have described her then as unhappy. After that day, she became sullen and quite withdrawn, even from me. Luckily the teacher was fired for what he had done, but that incident never really quite left me. It made me very sad, and it still does. Somehow even then I knew that our teacher had done what he did because he saw Tolu as different, and strangely also, because she was a girl.
Fast forward to 2021, I currently work with the Ike Foundation for Autism (IFA). A lot of what I do on my job is autism research and advocacy, such as in the collaborative work that IFA does with the Autism Eswatini team, where we track down and investigate alleged cases of sexual abuse of autistic females. I don’t know if it’s serendipity that I ended up working in an area that made such a strong impression on me as a child, or if somehow, I have been subconsciously led by the fact of that experience into choices that ultimately brought me here.
Anyway, in the joint work with Autism Eswatini, I have encountered many instances that demonstrate the deep-seated stigma associated with mental health issues in Africa, which leads to the social isolation and consequent vulnerability and endangerment of persons with these conditions. For a lot of African women dealing with mental health problems, this systemic relegation often exposes them to gender-based violence, and this is the case with the autistic victims of sexual abuse that we advocate for in our work.
I will tell you about 3 of these African women with autism.
First, there is Tina (this is not her real name). Tina was sexually abused repeatedly by an elderly man, who took advantage of her in this way whenever she went to the village stream to fetch some water for the house. Tina was 13 years old when the abuse began and it lasted for 5 years before anyone caught on. Being non-verbal, she for one couldn’t really communicate with anyone about what was happening to her. Her brother eventually got wind of the molestation and got the elderly man arrested. It was at this point that we came in to offer support to Tina’s indigent family with the investigation and litigation.
Second, there was Niso. Niso is dead now. Before her death, Niso lived with an affluent couple who charitably took her in because of her autism and her parent’s poverty. Because these benefactors were quite enlightened, no one suspected that Niso was being abused in their home. As it turned out, the husband was constantly molesting her sexually. She got pregnant, and she died after the birth of her baby, under mysterious circumstances. We are currently helping Niso’s family with the investigation into her death.
Finally, there is Rose. Because of her autism, there was a married couple that used her as a surrogate for childless couples, for their own personal monetary gain. They gave some of this money to Rose’s complicit parents. Rose had many babies for different couples this way. My colleagues and I are trying to bring legal charges against this couple and the other perpetrators. What I found particularly disturbing about Rose’s case is that many people within her community were aware of the situation, and no one intervened. It appears instead that everyone quietly condoned what was going on.
All these women make me think of my childhood friend Tolu. Tolu and I completely lost contact after elementary school, and I have been unable to track her down in spite of my many attempts over the years. I recognize the commonality between the treatment I saw Tolu receive as a child and the treatment that I have seen women living with autism receive in my work – I have seen that the patriarchy inherent in many African societies is infinitely worse towards women with mental disability, and that it is deleteriously mixed with a good measure of stigmatization. What is more, larger society, in its quiet acceptance of this victimization, is an accomplice. In these African settings of poverty and little education, nobody really cares about these women who hold no social value, nor about what happens to them. These women are therefore easy prey to the sexual predators that definitely abound.
I shudder to think about how many instances there must be in Africa . . . hidden, unheard of, not spoken about.
We need to do better. For Tolu. For Tina. For Rose. For Niso. For all the vctims.
We need to elucidate the dark in our societies where these abuses thrive, so that they might end.