Like most other people, I’ve spent the past couple of months running through Netflix’s shallow catalogue. Now that I’m in Nigeria, I’m taking advantage of the healthy range of Nollywood films, and my favourite by a long shot has been the hilarious yet politically rousing Wives on Strike comedies.
Wives on Strike is a socio-politically charged comedy directed by Omoni Oboli, which addresses the issue of child marriage in Nigeria. Calling out our government for their lack of concern for the future of our country, the Areja market women also hold the citizens of Nigeria accountable, as our chronic “mind your business” attitude encourages us not to fight for each other – thereby leaving each and every one of use to fight our battles alone, to no avail.
Child Marriage is an issue that has long since been the concern of many Nigerians, as it is disturbingly prolific in our country. In 2017, UNICEF found that 44% of girls in Nigeria are married before the age of 18. In fact, the same report found that Nigeria had the highest absolute number of child brides in the world, despite the fact that our Child’s Rights Act, passed in 2003, states that the minimum legal age of marriage is 18.
Well, as Nigerian constitution says nothing about the minimum age of marriage or consent, and some states have chosen not to integrate the Child’s Right Act into their internal legislation, in these states child marriages are still very much legal. In fact, in some states, the legal age of marriage drops to as young as 12. Though is not the case in Lagos, where this movie is set, Wives on Strike accurately reflects how this law is flouted all over Nigeria, as young girls continue to be sold off to older men. In the movie, Amina (played by Oyindamola Lampeju), who is to be married at only age 13, represents those girls.
When Mama Amina (Ufuoma McDermott) confides in Mama Ngozi (Oboli) that her child is to be given away into marriage in order to alleviate some of their family’s financial struggles, the outraged friend is not having any of it. After her husband refuses to speak to Baba Amina (Sanni Danja), Mama Ngozi takes matters into her own hands, organising a sex strike between her and her best friends, all of whom then disrupt the traditional wedding in protest against the marriage. Thanks to these actions, Amina earns her freedom. The story could have ended there – it’s a happy ending, fulfilling resolution and a positive message for all viewers to take home. However, thankfully, the writers decided to empower these market women even more, as they earn national praise and are featured on prominent news outlets in order to spread their message: If your husband doesn’t think child marriage is his problem, make it his problem.
As the strike takes effect across the nation – with all women, from sex workers to stay-at-home mums, taking part – we see the power of women standing in solidarity with one another. One character who really exemplifies this is Madam Vera (Chioma Akpotha), whose husband is a senator. Upon seeing the Areja market women on the local news, Madam Vera decides to interview them on her friends’ more widely circulated news channel. When she’s challenged by her friend and subsequently her husband (who both accuse her of putting his career at risk) Madam Vera reminds them that his career is hers too.
People with great power often forget that they are not the only ones with a stake in their success, especially when it comes to their partners. It is all too easy for men to forget that they couldn’t have achieved all they have without that person’s support, unpaid assistance, their ideas and sometimes just their mere presence in their life. As Madam Vera explains this to her husband, the movie once again empowers a faction of women who have been circumscribed, whose influence has been understated, whose hard work has gone largely unrecognised, whose voices have gone unheard. Seeing the Areja market women inspired Madam Vera to put all that she had put into her husband’s career, into her own mission. In response to her friend, who levelled the same accusation as her husband did, Madam Vera says:
“I’m tired of being the wife who smiles and waves. I want to do something for myself, I want to be heard.”
As a marginalised group in society, being heard is something that women actively have to fight for, unlike men who are afforded spaces to speak simply because their gender implies (to some) that they have the authority or superior intellect to speak. By portraying these resilient market women, fighting and succeeding against the Nigerian government who are notoriously self-serving, like Wives on Strike emphasises that women have the compassion to advocate for justice and the power to achieve it in circumstances where everyone doubts there’s anything we can really do.
The second movie, Wives on Strike: The Revolution, conveys this message in another way.
Retaining their core cast, whose friendship is strengthened, The Revolution sees their movement formalised as the Areja Market Women Association. Upon finding out that one of their friends was beaten to death by her husband, the market women unleash another strike, which is quickly recognised by the state government who promise to take action against perpetrators of domestic violence. Notice how I didn’t say men? That’s because the movie made a deliberate point to highlight that women are also guilty of committing violence in their homes – no form of spousal domestic violence is to be tolerated by the Areja Market Women (if only they also mentioned violence against children in the name of ‘discipline’).
Domestic violence is heavily stigmatised, which means that victims of domestic violence, all over the world, tend not to report it. In Nigeria, where data collection is already a tough feat, this means statistics regarding domestic violence are hard to come by; still from word of mouth alone, it is clear that the figures are high. A 2018 article by The Guardian suggested that 1 in 3 Nigerian women have experienced physical violence (including death) from their intimate partners. Unfortunately, given the high premium placed upon marriages, it is commonly known that Nigerian women silently endure abuse in their marital homes (sometimes are even encouraged to) in order not to be perceived as a failure, or to lose respect in their communities.
In the second of the Wives on Strike movies, physical violence perpetrated by the husband tragically results in Mama Beatrice’s death, witnessed by their young daughter who bravely reports to the Market Women who, in turn, seek justice for their late friend.
Throughout the sequel, many important conversations take place. For one, men vehemently correct each other as one friend tries to justify physical abuse and the others react by telling him to stop talking rubbish – no matter how vexing your wife might be, hitting her is inexcusable, they tell him. As ‘Madam 12:30’ (Uche Jombo) comes to terms with her husband’s infidelity her friends advise her to get tested for STD/STI, meanwhile Madam Vera’s struggles with pregnancy leads the market woman (they all still remain close friends) to suggest surrogacy as an option.
Through humour, Wives on Strike brings to the fore many social issues concerning women and normalises taboos in the Nigerian society, such as surrogacy and sex solicitation. No two people are the same and our experiences on earth differ greatly, so it is important that we consider everyone’s experiences equally, as opposed to alienating people because they have contracted a sexually transmitted disease or because they’re being abused at home. These things, unfortunate and tragic as they might be, do happen, pretending they don’t isn’t going to make the problems go away. They will only get worse.
However with her Wives on Strike movies, Omoni Oboli is making addressing women’s issues accessible to everyone, from children who can clearly see how certain dynamics are harmful, to men who are alerted to the insidious misogyny ingrained in our society, and also to women who might still be uncomfortable with breaking out of the patriarchy. Although some problematic messages still percolate through, movies that tackle pertinent social issues as Wives on Strike does definitely need to be prominent in Nollywood. And like The Revolution suggests, this will be best achieved when women take up space within the institutions that produce laws, produce culture, produce goods etc. When women are working alongside men to shape society, that’s The Revolution begins.
Child Rights Act Nigeria – Wikipedia
Child Marriage in Nigeria – Wikipedia
Child Marriage in Nigeria – Girls Not Brides
Domestic Violence in Nigeria – Wikipedia
Domestic abuse in Nigeria – The Guardian