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Women’s Round Table: Empowering African Women to make a Difference

On March 8, 2013, Nigeria joined the rest of the world to celebrate the  International Women’s Day. As usual, the day was commemorated with walks, demonstrations, protests as well as symposiums and exhibitions among others. Vanguard Newspapers in collaboration with the Centre for Black African Arts and Civilization organized a Round Table discussion for women.

It was a forum where selected women from various disciplines came together to discuss some of the challenges facing the Nigerian woman, her journey so far and also fashion out the way forward. The two hour jaw-jaw touched on issues such as parenting, culture and traditions, health, business, politics as well as building confidence and self esteem in the work place. Today, we bring you excerpts from the conference.

Culture, tradition and societal values have been identified as the main clog in the wheel of achieving equality for the Nigerian woman. How far have we been able to break off these shackles, Professor?

Pix: from left Mrs Yetunde Arebi; Dr Lady Gloria Chuwa-Ibe ; Mrs Funmi Ajumobi and Mrs Ndidi Aimienwauu during the conference.

AJIKE Osanyin:
Because of the variety of cultural perspectives in Nigeria, it has not been easy for people to make in-roads in terms of changing the culture of the people. For instance, take the issue of dressing, marriage and tribal marks. Your own culture may be different from mine and the moment you try to criticize my culture, I have a group of people who are ready to defend my culture so as a result, it has not been easy for any culture to be modified to a large extent and that is what we have been able to pass across to our children in the society.  Culture is extremely powerful and very difficult to change. However, I would say that the problem of women is women themselves. The women are the ones who raise children, male and female children.

Providing self esteem
What values do they inculcate in these children? The foundation is the set of the structure and if the foundation is not there you have not provided things on which the girl child can actually stand that will provide self esteem for her. Things that will make the child feel that she is okay.

Women are the ones apportioning assignments and duties to children, stereotyping what the male child will do and what the girl child will do at home, or that is expected of them in the society. It is this that translates into the lives of children when they eventually grow up. Most of the rituals and abuses on women in the name of culture are done with the connivance and supervision of other women. I want to say that women are the ones who have created the problems that we are facing in the society. So, the problem is that women and mothers should provide sound foundation for their children both male and female.

Janet Mba-Afolabi:
Culture is a way of life. It is our custom, our traditions, our value and it varies from one place to another. In most communities around the world, you see that many women do not belong to themselves, they don’t own themselves totally. They are either the property of their husbands or their children. Their father married them out either to make money or to survive if they are from poor family background. Their husbands also see them either as properties not to be heard but there to make children.

Sometimes in our culture, women’s values are determined by how many children they give birth to. They do not mind about mortality and pains they go through during childbirth. In South Africa, women are regarded as cattle, livestock which could mean that they can be bought and sold. From these we can see that women at every level belong to somebody. We should change this perception by taking it out of the communiqué and moving it to the communities and schools and talk to children and catching them young.

Funmi Adesegun:
You can identify a problem once you know it is a problem. Ignorance at times will not allow you to identify that something is a problem. I believe that you cannot give what you don’t have. So, as a mother, if you don’t have the right values, you cannot transfer it to your girl child. There are lots of things we should have taught our children when they are growing up so that it will become part of them when they are grown. Children copy us. They do not have ears for what we say but they have eyes for what we do. When you are doing something wrong in the presence of your child, you cannot tell that child not to do it. Let us be role models to our children.

There is nothing that cannot be changed. It is only the time and the method employed. When we talk about the women in the Eastern part of the country, they knew before getting married that when their husbands died, they would have no say in their husbands properties so, why can’t they prepare their own properties so that they would not suffer when their husbands die? We need to educate women. Humans were the ones who made culture, they sat down and thought about it and laid it down as culture. There are certain things that were being done in the old days that cannot be applied to the present time. There are lots of things we can change with education. Let us educate people that we can change cultures with time and that nothing but good will come out of it for us.

Tunde Babawale:
I think it is more universally accepted that the new culture is starting and as somebody observed, culture is dynamic. It changes every day. In fact, if we look around us at the way our children dress, we will agree that our culture is changing and that is what I call cultural updating. Every culture has its positive and negative sides but what is important to us is to keep those aspects that are positive and try to abolish those aspects that are negative. For instance, the culture of respect for elders and the culture of the dignity of womanhood abound in every African culture. A woman’s body is cherished; it was something of pride to observe what is called chastity before marriage.

It is modernization that has now made it possible for people to think that it is a sin for you to remain a virgin before you marry. In those days, you can even get a medal for it. Historically, our mothers have been the ones to take care of the children. You teach your child that as a girl, you need to comport yourself, you are not flippant and must be vigilant.

Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that most of our mothers have neglected that responsibility. There is nothing we can do about the changes that are occurring culturally but we can arm our children to cope with the changes by encouraging them to develop confidence, by getting them educated, sensitizing and enlightening them. More importantly, I think we can use this kind of program to appeal to the government to make laws concerning violence against women because as I know, I have not seen someone go to jail for at least seven years because he raped a female.

Women's Round Table
Women’s Round Table

Next to culture, financial independence is another big hurdle towards achieving gender equality, how easy has this been, especially considering all the various kinds of empowerment government claims to be doing for women? Mrs Okonkwo please, can you give us an insight into this using your own experience?

Henrietta Okonkwo:
The first thing you need to know as a woman is that your survival is in your hands. Men will not help you because they want to keep you down there where they can continue to exploit you. So, you need to be determined to make it. When I wanted to start my business, my husband refused to give me the capital because he did not believe that the business will succeed.

Getting loan from government or banks
I had to make use of the little I could from the paid employment that I had and the help of a friend that I was able to convince. When I hear a woman complaining of hunger, I get angry because there are so many things that a woman can do to get out of poverty. A woman can learn so many things by using her hands. You don’t have to educate women by sending them to school alone. Unfortunately, some women prefer to jump from one man to the other looking for who will give them money.

For how long will that be enough for you? Getting a loan from government or the banks is another problem entirely. They ask for conditions that are impossible for most women to meet. I went to a few of them but I was not able to get anything from them. Everything I own today, I did by myself. However, I think there is a lot we can achieve if women can learn to help each other. We don’t help ourselves enough as women. We rather play ourselves down than help ourselves.

Idera Oshinusi-Martins:
We must always remember that we are one, and that we are fighting a common battle. So, how do we assist each other wherever we meet or need the support of each other?  It is not by bickering at each other, backbiting and backstabbing each other. It is not by going behind to play devil’s advocate when you know that a woman is about to get help from somewhere. Whenever women meet, rather than face the real problems, we go into competition against each other, even for silly reasons. All these will not help us.

Also, we must realise that there must be something a woman can do apart from being a doctor, lawyer and so on, because, if we like it or not, the era of white collar jobs are over. The jobs are no longer there and those available are very competitive. Right from an early age, the girl child must be taught the importance of saving money. I have been in business all my life. I learned from my mother mainly because she insisted that I will not do any other thing except her kind of business which is trading in clothes and jewelry.

When I wanted to start my own, it was from the savings from assisting my mother that I invested into it. I was not able to secure a government or bank loan also. Government should also help women finance their business. They should open a micro finance bank targeted only for women with zero interest. I am also using this opportunity to appeal to the government to build a plaza, a women trade centre in Nigeria where women can have shops, do their businesses and also learn skills.

Ajike Osanyin:
I think the problem we have in Nigeria is that there is no dignity of labor. We want quick money and that explains why lots of girls go into marriages for economic survival and are ready to do anything as long as the man continues to give them money. They are not ready to actually labor for their own money. You have your certificate so what can you do with it? What other things can you do if the certificate is not actually bringing in money? Women should be wise.

Strengths and weaknesses
You should actually assess yourself and know your strengths and weaknesses and you should also know what you can do to help yourself. We have to call ourselves back and add value and dignity to ourselves as women.

So, what is the way forward for the Nigerian woman if we say that culture, financial dependency and government are not in her favour?

Idera Oshinusi-Martins:
Women must realize that we are married to total strangers. Both the man and woman are coming from two different backgrounds with the aim of making something out of the relationship. We should have it in mind that anything can happen. So, the question should be how do I survive? So, what you should tell yourself is, ‘I can do this, I can make this work’.

The self esteem and the total confidence must be there. You must believe in yourself because you must do things for yourself before you can do it for your children. A woman that is not well placed cannot do anything for herself, her children or others in the society. So, for me, the key word is that we should educate women. There are different ways to do this. Everything is not about formal education. Let government help women to set up enough training institutes. Build affordable shop where women can learn and trade, no matter how small.

Pix from righ Mrs Idera Oshinubi Martins; Mrs Janet Mba Afolabi and Mrs Funmi Ladele
Pix from righ Mrs Idera Oshinubi Martins; Mrs Janet Mba Afolabi and Mrs Funmi Ladele

Sade Alli:
Women have been left alone for a long time and I think we need to stand up and actually grab what is required from us. But before we can do that there is an adage that says ‘when you educate a woman, you are educating a whole nation’ Therefore, the basis of everything we are going to discuss should be on education because when you learn something, it becomes a part of you and nobody can take it away from you. Let us look at how we can give education equally to a girl child as well as to a boy child. When a girl gets training then she will know what her rights are and she will be able to stand up and say ‘this is my right’ and be able to claim it.

Shola Oladeinbo:
Education is either formal or informal. Formal is the one you get from school while the informal is the one you get from your mum at home and if the mum is not up to the task then this can create a problem for the girl child. You must build confidence in your girl child. She should know how to do the right thing at the right time.  Whatever you teach her from the beginning is what she takes along with her when she gets to school and starts getting along with her teachers and peers.

I know a lot of women now who say that when they graduated from school, they were unable to get something to do. Most of the female graduates we have now are unemployable graduates. They are just there, they don’t have anything upstairs. They have the papers but please put them to test and they can’t do anything. I believe that for a girl who knows how to turn N5 into N15 while in school, after school, such a girl will never be unemployed. These are areas mothers should look at. As mothers, we have a lot of work to do.

In a previous discussion, one of the challenges of parenting was that women now have to leave their home and children to work and contribute to the upkeep of the family. Dr. Alli, your work must be demanding of your time as a medical doctor. How far is this true?

Sade Alli:
As a medical professional and a mother, in my place of work, I let everyone realize that I am a mother and that my family comes first. If I become a successful woman and not a successful mother then I am nobody. Being a mother also does not make me lag behind in my place of work. I am very good at my work and I give any duties assigned to me my utmost best. As parents, we should be good role models to our children. Children normally follows their parents footsteps and most times, what they see are often more than what they hear. As a mother, you must have time for your family in whatever you do, whether as a business woman or civil servant. Create time in order to spend time with your family.

 Pix from left: Mrs. Funmilayo Adesegun, Wife of the Deputy Governor, Ogun State, Mrs Henrietta Onwujei Okonkwo, M/D Buchees and Prof. Tunde Babawale, Director General, CBAAC.
Pix from left: Mrs. Funmilayo Adesegun, Wife of the Deputy Governor, Ogun State, Mrs Henrietta Onwujei Okonkwo, M/D Buchees and Prof. Tunde Babawale, Director General, CBAAC.

Ajike Osanyin:
For you to be successful as a parent, it takes a lot of sacrifice. We cannot say that because we want to work, we will not have children and because we want to have children, we will not work. We all want to love our children but love is not sweet on an empty stomach, therefore, we must go out and work. You cannot just do anything or any kind of job because parenting demands sacrifices and the only dignity you have as a woman is because you are financially okay. All those women that married for economic survival are the ones that usually suffer the most in their husband’s places because they have to rely on their husbands for everything. So, the advice we should give to women is that they should choose the kind of work that will allow them to also pay attention to their homes.

Funmi Ajumobi:
Talking about working hours for women, it is not only women in white collar jobs alone that are affected. Business women as well as market women are also affected by this. They normally leave home very early in order to beat traffic and because they do not have enough money to employ house helps, they leave their children at the mercy of neighbors who may even abuse the children.

I think we also need to educate market women very well. Some of them, their children will go straight to their stores after closing from school and they will be there until 10pm. The child does not even have time to study after school and we call that training a child? The only thing that parent is teaching that child is how to sell in the market and that is not the most important thing in life. A child also needs home training. We need to educate women especially market women on how to train their children so that the country at large will have peace and the issue of child abuse will be reduced.

Mrs. Oladeinbo, how well have we done in politics? What has happened to the much touted 35 percent affirmation for women?

Sola Oladeinbo:
It is unfortunate that we are not even close to that figure at all. Women are far above 50 percent in this country’s population but we are under-represented in government and you know that if you don’t have quite a sizable number of women in politics, you can hardly do anything. That is a challenge. Most women are not educated, some of us are lucky but we have a larger percent of women who are illiterates. Being able to read and write does not mean we can get that far. For instance, if there is an opening and we are asked to submit our CVs, if we have six men submitting their CVs, we should not have less than four women also submitting their own CVs too.

There are women who can come out and contest for positions in government, they have what it takes but they don’t have money. They have great ideas but ideas without money will die. Campaigns are expensive and without money, there is nothing that can be done. Some women rely on godfathers but godfathers don’t come free of charge and only women without self esteem trade their bodies for favors. Women should join hands and work hard to put fellow women in high position in government so that out interests will be well represented. Without good representation, we are nothing and can’t move forward.

Is there no way that you can lobby your parties to say look, there are 20 local government councils in Lagos, we want 20percent of those councils ceded to women, so, in the chosen councils, only female candidates can contest from the parties and that will ensure that only a female chairman can eventually emerge, no matter the party? We are already trying to work out something similar to what you just described. However, rather than the councils, we are more interested in getting women into the National Assembly.

We want them to give us one of the three slots for the Senate. That is where the laws are made that is where the changes can be effected. So, if this pulls through, we will have at least, one female Senator from each State of the Federation in the next general elections. We complain that those representing us are not well read but those women who are well read are not coming into politics. If you leave things to those who don’t know anything, whatever laws they come up with, we all have to abide by it. So I am putting it to you that if you are well read, you should come into politics.

Dr. Alli, you are here on two counts, to enlighten us about women’s health as well as participate in the discussion. What exactly is happening to the Nigerian woman and her health status? Suddenly, we are battling with an avalanche of diseases especially heart failure and the various forms of cancers. What is wrong here?

Shade Alli:
The health issues of women is a global concern, it is not only in Nigeria. In fact, just as every other aspect of life concerning women has been relegated to the background, so also their health. In several researches that have been conducted, the focus has been on men. Majority of drug trials and so on are on men. Men are more studied because the belief is that it is a man’s world.

But globally now, the beam of light is upon women and there is a slogan that we now use ‘go red alert for women’s health’. What this means is that every time a doctor comes in contact with a woman, the doctor should make sure that everything concerning the woman, starting from her head to her heart, to her womb, cervix, breasts and so on are being examined. Just as a doctor would pay attention to every organs of a man, so also every part and body system of a woman must also be checked and taken care of.

In health, women also have various disparities concerning health problems with regards to men and also symptoms that we exhibit also differs from that of men even in the same categories of disease. We are now looking into the various differences in health issues as per the symptoms, complaint and signs, particularly with regards to women differently from a man’s angle. Again, because the only time a woman will visit a doctor is when she is pregnant, therefore, we have been asked not to look at the pregnancy alone but at the woman’s heart, blood vessels, brain and so on.

We also find out that as women, we always relegate ourselves to the background so much. We are always concerned with our children, husband, marriage, work and so on. As women, we should begin to look at ourselves as the first in the family because it is the way we see ourselves that we will be addressed. If you see yourself as the last person in the family, you will be treated as the last person in the family. So, we need to stand up, we need to be affirmative and do what we need to do. We need to do a lot to ourselves concerning our health.

Henrietta Okonkwo:
Talking about women’s health issues, we also need to address eating habits. Most women are too busy and sometimes too lazy to get fresh things for meals. Because of the various pressures, most of us cook meals that will last for weeks and store in the freezer. This is not good for our health. Also, we are now used to getting food from eatery outlets as meals even for our children because we don’t have enough time to cook. We all know that the quality of these meals is not usually good enough. I think we need to address this. In a way, it is affecting our health status.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.