This story originally appeared in Minority Africa and has been updated by the author for Reasons to be Cheerful.

On November 26, 2018, Ugochi*, a 24-year-old writer was walking to her office along the streets of Lagos, Nigeria when a man popped his head from behind the bonnet of a car, gave her a quick look and said, “I’m going to suck it very well.”

By “it,” the man meant her breasts.

Ugochi’s first reaction was confusion, followed by anger; she remembers being unable to work for the rest of the day.

“[The experience] made me feel completely dirty,” she says. “I felt the need to have a bath, to wash off myself.”

“I started thinking, maybe I shouldn’t have had breasts at all, because I have no agency over who looks at it or who talks about it. I felt helpless and enraged.”

That incident was the first of many different forms of harassment Ugochi would come to experience in Lagos, a city she had then just moved to, yet she wouldn’t be exactly shocked. It was the same even in Enugu, a state in Eastern Nigeria, 567 kilometers from Lagos, where she had moved from. 

On some days, Ugochi was called Naira Marley, a Nigerian musician who wears longer but similar-looking dreadlocks, and on other days, strangers questioned her gender.

“They want to figure me out, because they know I don’t tick their normal box,” she says. “If I don’t answer, they follow me and yell the questions after me until they’re tired.”

“I started thinking, ‘maybe I shouldn’t have had breasts at all’ because I have no agency over who looks at it,” says Ugochi. Credit: AA Visuals/Minority Africa

This harassment happened at parties, too — especially at parties. When Ugochi danced with her partner, who is also a woman, men came between them or behind her, groping her and making her feel mentally exhausted, she says.

It was thus only natural that when Ugochi learned about Wine and Whine, a party strictly for women, from a flyer she saw circulating on social media, she was delighted. 

“I’m always comfortable in women-only spaces,” she says. “So there was no second thought about attending Wine and Whine.”

Founded in October 2018  by Dami Odufuwa and Odun Eweniyi, Wine and Whine is an organization centered on creating safe spaces for women to converge, discuss issues that affect them, and then execute relevant solutions.

“The goal is to create a women-focused network that will eventually have physical spaces all over the country where women can learn, relax and more importantly connect with other women,” says Eweniyi.

Before she founded Wine and Whine, the 26-year-old Eweniyi studied engineering and now works in technology — both heavily male-dominated fields. She says that the thinly veiled misogyny she had to overcome made it imperative for her to hold the door wide open for the women coming after.

Since its inception, the organization has successfully hosted a series of women-only events, including a self-defense class for women. The women’s only party, held in November 2019 in Lagos, was nonetheless the first of its kind. Over 300 women were in attendance and everyone from the bouncers to the bartenders was a woman.

“It is exhausting being on-guard every minute of every day,” Eweniyi says.“[It is] something that all women are familiar with, and we wanted to do something about that.”

“Public spaces unsafe for women”

In Nigeria, women continue to face various forms of sexual harassment and violence. One in four Nigerian women report experiencing sexual violence as children and almost 25 percent of women within the ages of 18 to 24 say they experienced sexual abuse before they turned 18.

Omolara Oriye, a human rights lawyer, believes that the creation of safe spaces for women and girls is an important strategy in their protection, especially for a group who she says would otherwise be exposed to issues brought on by social inequalities.

24-year-old gay Nigerian writer, Ugochi says Nigeria’s anti-gay law passed in 2014 made her feel very paranoid. Photo by AA visuals/Minority Africa

“Public spaces are sacrosanct to the existence of societies, but in many cases, public spaces are unsafe for women because of sexual harassment and violence,” says Oriye.

Just in April 2019, police officers in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, raided a nightclub during which 65 women were either sexually assaulted or injured.

Yet, things seem to be changing with women at the reins. With the rise and popularity of feminism among a young generation of Nigerian women, years of harmful gender norms, stereotypes and behaviors rooted in misogyny are being unlearned and protested against.

Adapting to the pandemic

At the end of March 2020, the Nigerian government ordered a lockdown in three major states — Lagos, Abuja and Ogun — to curb the spread of Covid-19. For some women, this meant balancing care of their children and the home with a nine-to-five work schedule. For others, it meant the risk of constant abuse.

Reports indicate that during the lockdown in Nigeria, incidents of domestic violence increased by 56 percent. In the months that followed, several online campaigns against violence toward women such as JusticeforUwa, JusticeforTina and more sprung up on social media. It became more important for women advocacy groups to continue empowering women and challenging violence.

Wine and Whine adapted to the situation with the use of virtual tools and social media, to help women across Nigeria stay sane, safe and educated during the pandemic. Shortly after the lockdown began, the team hosted a virtual event to talk about Covid-19, women’s rights, and physical and mental health. Beforehand, a call-to-action was issued for attendees to think up solutions to help women who lived in abusive homes, struggled with period poverty or couldn’t afford to work from home. It was a relaxing session, with women drinking wine, sharing anecdotes and ranting in the webinar’s comment section. 

Not everything became about Covid-19, however. The organizers put together a live online yoga and meditation session in collaboration with Yoga Club Lagos. In May, they organized a webinar, Let’s Talk About Sex during which a sex expert answered 60 questions about sex over two hours. In June they organized a webinar to help women understand cryptocurrency and started a series called “How I Feel” where women could vent their emotions.

Throughout 2020, the team continued to use social media to advocate for women. As more reports of violence spread, they rallied with other women’s rights groups to raise funds to combat gender-based violence and lent their voice to the protests against police violence that swept Nigeria in October 2020.

Since the country began opening up in the second half of 2020, some women have been clamoring for more in-person events. During this time, Wine and Whine has hosted some gatherings virtually, mainly on the platform Clubhouse. 

A space for everyone?

But with all its advantages, is Wine and Whine creating a safe space for just cis and heterosexual women? 

The organization says its events are open to all women.

“Intersectionality and intersectional feminism are a big part of our belief system,” says 29-year-old co-founder Odufuwa. “We believe that we are not free unless all women are free and trans women and the LGBTQ+ community are our allies and are important to us.”

In Nigeria, members of the LGBTQ+ community are subjected to widespread homophobia, much of it stemming from religious and cultural perceptions. 49 percent of Nigerians are estimated to be Christian and another 49 percent are Muslim. 

In Northern Nigeria, where Islamic Sharia law is implemented, gays and lesbians can legally be stoned to death. The Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) passed in 2014 further fanned this flame by criminalizing certain homosexual relations with up to 14 years in jail, a law that Ugochi says made her feel like a criminal.

“It made me always look over my shoulder and was a real part of my existence,” she says. “I was very paranoid that people could tell I was gay.”

She adds that this fear has decreased with time, saying she has found comfort in an understanding of the law and in the people working to have it repealed.

“I realized that the law does not criminalize being gay, it criminalizes the marriage of homosexuals. While this is still a problem, it doesn’t make me feel as bad as I used to feel.”

For Oriye, the greatest gift Wine and Whine might have given women is more mental than physical.  

“Women often have to negotiate their bodily autonomy with society,” Oriye says. “But in safe spaces such as Wine and Whine, the mental burden is taken off. This contributes to the overall wellness of women, either queer or otherwise.”

“I’m so glad that Wine and Whine happened”

The feedback following Wine and Whine, both online and offline, was immense.

For Ugochi, it is the most powerful event she has been to. “I didn’t have to second guess anything. I wasn’t scared of being groped or that my drink would be spiked.”

Sophia Essien, a 29-year-old heterosexual woman and lawyer who also attended Wine and Whine echoes Ugochi’s sentiments. Having lived in Lagos for over a decade, Essien says she doesn’t remember ever attending a party in Nigeria and not being groped by a man.

“The last time I attended a safe party must have been years ago when I was a child,” she says. “There was even a time a man forcefully kissed me at a party.”

Hence, she is thankful for Wine and Whine. “Partying as an adult has been the most difficult thing ever,” Essien says. “I’m so glad that Wine and Whine happened.”

Many of the attendees also praised the event online.

“The aftermath of it is that we realized that women wanted and needed this, so we have now added it to our offerings,” Eweniyi adds.

But for all its good, putting together Wine and Whine has not been hitch-free.

In the days that followed the third edition of Wine and Whine, there was criticism across social media from both men and women who opined that women already owned their space in society and thus did not need a break from men, a viewpoint that Oriye disagrees with.

“In human rights, the creation of safe spaces are not only legal, they are very important to the enjoyment of fundamental human rights to which women are entitled,” Oriye says. 

The organizers say, however, that critics are the least of their problems. According to Odufuwa, a lot of the challenges are structural and financial. They range from finding the right space and raising the required funds, to locating partners and sponsors.

“Nothing in life is without a cost even when it is tied to activism,” she says.

Yet, both Odufuwa and Eweniyi are spurred by the impact Wine and Whine has had, and rudimentarily by their understanding of why women need safe spaces.

“Existing as a woman is having an innate understanding that anything could jeopardize your wellbeing at any time,” Eweniyi says. “And who doesn’t need a refuge from that?”

*Name changed to protect identity