By Helen Ovbiagele
A few decades ago when the United Nations was sensitized on the global plight of women by our western sisters, it was decided that the most effective way of resolving the issue was to get governments around the world to be committed to uplifting the status of the women in their domain.
The blueprint ‘CEDAW’ , detailing all the problems and what needs to be done, emerged from this. Governments were then invited to be signatories in order to show their commitment. Of course, not every country agreed that the status of their women needed to be uplifted, or even discussed.
However, many countries, including Nigeria, were signatories. Many of us rejoiced, convinced that our government will take giant steps to improve the quality of our lives, so that we can succeed in our role of raising decent citizens for the nation, and also having fulfilled lives.
From the early eighties, the United Nations began to hold world conferences for women, to which governments, NGOs and other interest groups were invited to come discuss specific problems, and brain-storm on the way forward, to ensure that women’s rights are respected in the countries of those who signed the document.
The last major world conference for women was held in Beijing, China, in 1995, among other things, to find out how much had been done by the governments, and what more to be done. A date to remind governments of their commitment to women was declared International Women’s Day – March 8.
It’s meant to be a day when various organizations (NGOs and government) holds talks, seminars and other events to highlight the problems facing women in their various countries, with the government making a pledge to implement the recommendations made.
Since then, many NGOs on various aspects of the life of the Nigerian woman, have been formed – women’s rights, health, female circumcision, widowhood rites and disinheritance, women’s empowerment in business, vocational education, and contribution to nation building.
I commend these women, and some men, who use their organzations to highlight the problems our women face, and proffer solutions. Some of them even go much further to establish, usually at their own costs, what would bring the desired relief to women; like Josephine Effah-Chukwuma who uses her NGO, PROJECT-ALERT to give shelter to battered/abused women, THE ROSES MINISTRY, headed by Regina Ezenwa, etc..
Others, including religious bodies, give money to widows and indigent women to start businesses, so that they can adequately cater for their families, or, they give them foodstuffs and provisions. These are all very good gestures, but it’s like a drop in the ocean of our needs.
It would be wrong to say that women are totally relegated to the back in the scheme of things in Nigeria, as more and more women are given the chance to prove their mettle in the various fields. Yes, we have many ladies in high-powered positions at State, Federal and international levels.
We’re very proud of them all, but they form a negligible percentage of the population of our women, most of whom are poor, not because they’re lazy, but because they’ve not been empowered to improve their status, and that of their children.
Sometimes, they’re the main providers in their families because their husbands have lost their jobs, or, as widows, they’ve been stripped of their inheritance by their in-laws. Some are in abusive relationships which rob them of their self-esteem, demean them and even endanger their lives. They’re punch bags and victims of violent attacks from their men.
At events to mark International Women’s Day, whether organized by the government, NGOs, professional bodies or individuals, the atmosphere is usually charged with enthusiasm about what should be done about these problems.
Intelligent and well-meaning decisions are reached by all. Many documents, submitted to the government on these issues, are gathering dust on the shelves in the Ministries, I heard; as they promptly forget them. Some NGOs struggle on, but soon, the cause falls to the ground, due to financial constraints.
What will bring lasting and effective results is the involvement of the various tiers of governance in this country. They owe us this, as our rulers. The affairs of the country are in their hands and they’re supposed to use our money to uplift our lives. Here are some ways in which the government can fulfills its obligations to our women.
EDUCATION: First and foremost, each State in the country should ensure that education is totally free up to the secondary school level. That is, up-till age 17. Registration of children at Ward level would make it easy to trace families that refuse to send their children to school.
Isn’t there some punishment for this? Free lunch should be given in all State schools, as this may be the only nourishing meal that many children can have. As they complete their secondary school education the government should know those slated for higher education on the ticket of their parents, and provide vocational studies for those who are not. Jobs should be created for all levels of qualifications. This will drastically reduce the number of miscreants roaming about, engaged in prostitution and criminal activities.
HEALTH: Most health issues of children and women should be free in government health institutions, and the health of pregnant women and young children should be closely monitored, as families at Ward level are encouraged to use their local health centres regularly. This will greatly reduce deaths of pregnant women/babies/children. I’m told Nigeria is one of the countries with the worst records here.
States in which female circumcision, which is very harmful to the girl-child, is still being held, should legislate against it, and punish offenders.
WIDOWHOOD RITES: This is no longer as pronounced as it used to be, but it is still very much alive among some ethnic groups down south. Traditional rulers and elders in communities should be urged by both State and Local governments to see that cruelty is taken out of this, and widows treated decently as they mourn the deceased.
DISINHERITANCE: This seems to be on the rise, as Wills are ignored, and widows and their children are denied their rightful inheritance. I’ve just been told the very sad story of a childless widow who was banned by her late husband’s family from participating in his burial.
The couple were together for almost 40 years until he passed away recently. His extended family said she had no part in him because she had no child for him, and that she should give up the house they both lived in, and his other property.
Even the children the man had from elsewhere are being denied any part of his estate. The government should get serious about this problem of disinheritance, tell citizens where cases can be reported, and set up special courts for disposing of such cases.
Many widows, especially those who had been full-time home-makers, are suffering greatly, along with their children, from disinheritance. Some have no-where to turn and have died of poverty and broken heart.
BATTERED/ABUSED WOMEN: This is on the increase too, as some men who have lost their jobs, or have other personal problems, vent their frustration on their wives and children. There is still the belief that any misfortune that a man suffers is caused by his wife.
If he has no wife, then, it’s his mother or sister. Each local government should have a vibrant department of Social Welfare were couples can go for counselling, and where cases of abandonment and battering can be reported. In the large cities, there should be shelters for battered women and their children, where they can live temporarily and out of harm’s way.
Our female legislators, who I’m sure know precisely the lot of the average Nigerian woman, have a great role to play. Each of them should be involved in the struggle to make our lives better. They should have a score card on this, at the end of their term.
They shouldn’t just limit their involvement to giving scholarships to indigent pupils, and distributing food and clothing items to widows, but should see that bills aimed at improving the lives of their fellow women, are proposed and passed.