BY JOSEPHINE IGBINOVIA
Dr.(Mrs.)Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi is an activist of note within and outside Nigeria. The Executive Director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre- WARDC, in this interview, among other issues, she suggests the need for a gender struggle that is less elitist and which would easily accommodate the rural women who largely constitute the female population in Nigeria.
What’s your general assessment of women’s movement in Nigeria so far?
Apart from organising seminars and workshops, we need to mobilise the movement in such a way that we’ll have one voice. As it is in Nigeria presently, the women’s movement seems to lack solidarity. For example, while majority of the women’s movement were clamouring for a change in the language of the constitution during the call for memoranda on the amendment of the constitution, the National Council of Women Societies-NCWS came up to talk about the need to create an Office of the First Lady.
Is that a priority for women? But that was made a big issue and was almost over-shadowing every other issue that was supposed to be on the agenda. So, we need a more common agenda. If you look at countries like South-Africa, Uganda, etc., you’ll find that they have a common agenda and are all aware that they have a five point demand as women.
Despite this show of division, how would you say our women have fared in the last hundred years?
I would say we’ve really tried. We participated actively in Nigeria’s independence though our voices and roles have not been properly recorded. We’ve moved from where we were to a better position. It hasn’t been rosy, but we’re trying. In terms of politics, we’ve not been able to achieve most of our desires; our constitution is still very rigid and less sensitive to our issues. Between 1999 and now however, we’ve been able to achieve domestic violence laws in some states. We’ve been able to achieve some laws on maternal health and also have the National Gender Policy signed and adopted by the Nigerian government, among other things.
Today, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria is talking about the need to ensure that we have at least 30% women directors in the banking sector; that’s a landmark! Gradually, we are beginning to have some kind of enabling environment. What we now need to do to address the issue of discrimination of women in rural areas is to organise movements that can help us assert our powers. Most of our struggles have been very elitist. We need to move from that elite point of view to a view that that can be said to be the people’s voice and that can cut across social levels.
What’s WARDC doing to decentralise the struggle?
We believe in organising. We have paralegals who work in the grassroots communities, so, we’re trying to set up accountability forums and women’s groups in grassroots communities, which can develop to assert some of the rights we’re concerned about.
Nigerian women are famous for refusing to engage the law when their rights are violated; how cooperative have they been with the presence of these specially designed laws achieved in recent years?
It’s unfortunate because the root of the problem is that the system itself is not cooperative on gender issues. That’s why you find women and girls being mocked at police stations where they go to report cases like rape! We need to sanitise the system so that more women could come out boldly. For cases like rape, we also need to sensitize women on what to do after a rape because many of them often wash away the evidence before they get to where they could get help.
I understand this is because of stigmatisation, but we really need to outgrow this. However, we expected that people would have become familiar with the Domestic Violence Law in Lagos State by now for example, but the reverse is the case. The problem with government is that when they make laws, they don’t take steps to also inform people about it. Even for us as civil society, we’re guilty of not popularising these laws.
Recently, the Lagos state government did an abridged version of the Domestic Violence Law to be able to reach as many people as possible, and that was a good step. I however think they need to take more steps by writing it in local languages so that more people can read and understand, and by also talking about it on radio. Unfortunately, a lot of people are not aware of the existence of some of these laws; that’s why they don’t use them.
However, as civil societies, we have our own constraints because we rely so much on donor funding for our work. There’s economic collapse everywhere, and in the west where the money is coming from, there is a major challenge. So, grants are not coming and this has restricted the efficiency of the civil society. Also, we really need to build capacity. There are several young girls and women out there who can do more than what we as civil society can do. We need to mentor them! Sadly, mentoring is lacking amongst our women, even in the corporate workplace.