Rape Survivor Created the Mental Health Resources She Needed — and Now She's a Goalkeeper Winner
Hauwa Ojeifo, 28, started She Writes Woman as a blog in 2015. Today, the women-led organization offers helplines, teletherapy and virtual support groups.
When Hauwa Ojeifo sat down in 2015 to write a blog about the devastating experiences that she and other women had faced and the mental trauma that followed, she never anticipated it would be anything more than a writing outlet.
But five years later, Ojeifo, 28, managed to transform that blog, She Writes Woman, into a women-led organization helping to promote mental health in Nigeria through confidential and accessible helplines, teletherapy and virtual support groups.
Her organization, which serves thousands of survivors of gender-based violence and those living with mental health conditions, has been so impactful that she is now being recognized with The Changemaker Award by Goalkeepers, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"It's so unreal," Ojeifo tells PEOPLE of earning the award, which celebrates an individual who has inspired change through their personal experience or position of leadership. "Doing this work, it's tough. It requires some level of discipline and doggedness, and a certain kind of fire that burns in you every single day."
"You have those days where it feels like, 'I don't know what I'm even doing. Is this even making a change?'" she continues. "So when you have this award, it's such a huge validation. It's another fire to keep going."
"We need more unashamed conversations. We need to undress mental health and begin to ensure that we're allowing people to lean into that conversation," she adds. "And I did that by putting myself out there and using my story to call onto others with shared experiences."
A sexual and domestic abuse survivor, Ojeifo started She Writes Woman after struggling with her own mental health, which included nightmares, the inability to maintain relationships (especially with men), a breakdown and a near suicide attempt.
"I didn't particularly realize the full extent of the mental health consequences of getting raped," she explains. "At that time, I just felt like, 'Oh, with time, it's going to go away.' But it was an accumulation over time and it just stays there in your subconscious."
At the time, there were barely any mental health resources available for Ojeifo, so she turned to social media, as well her blog, for solace.
"There was no cohesive system to say, 'Oh, this is where you go when you experience this.' It wasn't readily available and I had to navigate all of that by myself," she recalls.
By April 2016, after feeling "unfulfilled" in her job as an investment banker and suffering a breakdown, Ojeifo decided to quit and commit full time to making She Writes Woman a mental health organization.
"It was just crystal clear to me that this is what I want to keep doing with my life," says Ojeifo, who based the resources of her organization around what she and others wished they had access to during their crises.
"I sat down and said, 'There's got to be a way I could've picked up the phone and called somebody to talk to when I was feeling suicidal, without having to call my sister who was also as confused as I was in that moment,'" she recalls of forming the helplines and teletherapy service.
Then, earlier this year, Ojeifo launched virtual support groups across Nigeria, Lagos, Ibadan, Kaduna and Abuja.
"People want certain things and the system doesn't give them that," she explains. "So for us, it was about plugging this very imperative aspect of the system and being able to show up for others."
Though Ojeifo was confident about pursuing mental health, she notes that it hasn't always been easy. Over time, though, attitudes have changed, and Ojeifo says she has received an "overwhelmingly positive" response from those she has helped.
"The conversation wasn't as loud and as authentic as it is now," she shares. "Back then, we would post things on She Writes Woman's social media and people wouldn't want to like it or comment on it. They would rather DM [direct message] about it."
"At that time, associating — even just by double-tapping something — was too much exposure for a lot of people, and I think even more so for women because, in Nigeria, there are layers to all of our social issues," she explains. "It's not just about mental health, it's also about some religious and cultural undertones that you also have to navigate as a woman."
Looking ahead, Ojeifo says she is focused on "championing the mental health legislation and policies" in Nigeria. That includes pushing forward the country's first mental health bill, to ensure that mental health and human rights are prioritized.
"It's incredibly humbling to see how everybody was going through something but waiting for somebody to step forward first," she says. "Now, people can publicly identify and share their stories... and I believe that we've been very instrumental to normalizing the conversation or creating safe spaces where people can truly and fully be themselves."
As she continues her efforts, Ojeifo is urging people around the globe to embrace their stories and become more aware of others' experiences in order to reduce the stigma around mental health.
"I want everyone to know the power of their story because I think that is what mental health needs," she says. "What really keeps me going is this vision where mental health is not seen as this taboo topic."
She hopes for "a day where we can have these conversations normally, and seeking support is normal, and access is easy and affordable."
"We are people and we're all different, and that can be okay," she adds. "But understanding that we will live with mental health conditions, and have been touched by the issues and challenges, are perhaps the biggest assets in changing the mental health narrative globally."
If you or someone you know need mental health help or have been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.
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