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How Maryam empowered women

Ibrahim & wife, Maryam Babangida
Ibrahim & wife, Maryam Babangida

By Judith Ufford, Features Editor

THE news of the death of former first lady Dr. (Mrs.) Maryam Babaginda, came as a shock. Do not get me wrong. Death comes to us all even at the moment of our birth. As some would say,  man is born to die. So death is a reality that must come at some point. What we do not know is the time and how. For Maryam, death came at 61 and by ovarian cancer.
It is difficult to know what to write about Maryam Babaginda. And the reason is not far-fetched. Maryam it was who glamourised the office of the First Lady. With  that position came her style and fashion. Added to this was the Better Life for Rural Women programme which many tried to corrupt by renaming it Better Life for Urban women.

According to Oluwole Aloba in a her paper, The role of Nigeria women yesterday, today and tomorrow, the programme did not show that the goal was to empower women to reach their pristine socio-political status. For her, it was more of a progra-mme meant to integrate women into an existing socio-political system which had little or no respect for their rights.”

But those who worked with Maryam on the programme knew better.  According to Mrs. Eno Irukwu, (now late), who was a member of Better Life Think-Tank in a publication in 1994, it is clear from a critical analysis of national and international agenda on women that many Nigeria rural women continue to suffer from chronic problems of underdevelop-ment.

According to her, “this is illustrated in the continuous rural-urban migration and the impoverishment of those who decide to stay back in the rural areas. There is, therefore, the need to change the orientation of the present urban-motivated approach to rural development, which appears to benefit only some highly placed urban women and a number of urban-based contractors, who scarcely carry out any rural project with a view to transforming Nigerian rural areas in general and the quality of life of rural women in particular.”

Continuing, Irukwu stated, “for the Nigerian rural women to be able to take advantage of the present technological breakthrough and in order to play a meaningful role in the future of Nigeria, the women themselves need to take the bull by the horns and enter the 21st Century with greater determination and zeal.”

Through the programme, rural women became aware that it was possible to actually process their produce and send it to the urban areas. When palm nuts were processed and the oil were sent in large quatities to the cities, many accused Maryam of opening the eyes of the rural women to good money. With this, one of the objectives of the programme was achieved— empower the rural woman economically.

But Maryam was not only concerned about rural women and their economic status but the political life of the urban women. In Nigeria, the tempo of women empowerment intensified after the World Conference on Women in 1985 tagged, Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies, NFLS, Nairobi, Kenya. From this conference, most countries were mandated to set up a commission or ministry for women. Before now, it was the National Council for Women Societies, NCWS, that held the fort for Nigerian women.  It took the Babaginda adminstration with the push from Maryam to get a National Commission for Women established.

The function of the Commission include: The full utilisation of women in development of human resources and bringing about their acceptance as full participants in every phase of national development with equal rights and corresponding obligations.

Between 22 and 24 July 1991, the Commission organised a dialogue for women political aspirants. The dialogue was to enable women in politics develop a sense of gender solidarity as well as sensitise them to demands of politics.  It was a forum to prepare them for political extension work among women with a view to increasing the number of women actually involved in politics.

The Commission was later changed to a Ministry by the Sani Abacha administration. It is also to her credit that the Maryam Babaginda Centre for Women Development, Abuja  was built. Maryam mobilised the private sector to have that edifice in place for Nigerian women.

The centre became a rallying point for women whenever they needed to host a big event. Renamed by the Abacha regime as Women Development Centre, it is a living testimony of what one can do if we dare to try.

No doubt, Maryam came, she saw and conquered but had to bow to the tyrant called cancer.
May her soul rest in peace.


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