Nigeria is a country taking a serious look at sexual assault and the way women are treated. And, amongst those who are talking for the first time about what they have been through is six-time Olympic table tennis player Funke Oshonaike. Oshonaike has been inspired to tell her story after the rape and murder of Uwa Omozua, a 22-year-old Nigerian woman, in a church in Benin City.
Omozua was found dead, half-naked, at the church – sparking protests across Nigeria with many demanding justice. Oshonaike says Omozua’s story brought up memories of her own horrific experience of being sexually assaulted. “He was a friend – I was naive,” she recalls. “When he got angry, he beat me. He used his two thumbs to press my eyes. And he sexually abused me. “I felt helpless, with blood all over me. I never knew it was called rape. All I knew was I felt dirty.” Oshonaike first started playing table tennis at the age of 14, and just two years later she was part of Nigeria’s team for the 1991 All Africa Games. But her first Olympics was Atlanta 1996 – by which time the abuse had begun. “I was in the university of Lagos – I would go to school with bruises all over my body and people would question what was wrong with me,” she says. “But I couldn’t tell anyone. I felt hypnotised. I was a slave in his hand.” The abuse happened while Oshonaike was competing successfully and winning national championships. But despite the attention on her, she found herself unable to escape from her misery. Compounding her situation was that the man had gained control of her earnings. Each time she wanted to leave and demanded her money, she ended up being beaten with bruises. “He told me to give him all my earnings,” she says. “Each time I tried to run away, I would request my money – but he refused to release it. “I was the Nigerian champion at this time, but I was not strong enough to tell anyone. I would go to my little corner and cry. Sometimes I felt like taking my life.” But Oshonaike said she summoned the courage to survive and knew quitting was not her option. She had to pursue her dream of being a table tennis star. “I lost everything to this man. But I fought and got back on my feet,” she adds. “God kept me going on. The stories of Oprah Winfrey and Joyce Meyer kept me going through. “I started my life all over again.” Team Nigeria’s flag-bearer at the most recent Olympics, the 2016 Games in Rio, Oshonaike endured the impact of what happened long after she had finally left her abuser. “The trauma stayed with me for years and it affected my sex life and marriage,” she says. “I am just getting my mental health back.” The 45-year-old blamed the lack of exposure and social media for the inability of women to speak up about their sexual abuse in the past. “During my time we didn’t have social media, women were not bold to speak out. “I didn’t understand what he was doing to me. I have only recently realised it was rape.” Oshonaike says she is now a role model to other women who are victims of sexual abuse. She is determined to make women take back their power after such a traumatic experience. “Everything I’ve gone through has made me a mentor to others. I am able to share my stories with women who have been victims and encourage them to not give up on themselves. “I hope more women will be bold enough to come out and speak up. “I am a survivor.”