It was Olympe de Gouges, the renowned French Writer, who affirmed with a tone of finality in his seminal oeuvre Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne that “la femme naît libre et demeure égale à l’homme en droits. Les distinctions socials ne peuvent être fondées que sur l’utilité commune” (woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights. The social distinctions can only be based on mutual usefulness). Twin-issues of gender inequality and women liberation which Olympe de Gouges essayed to lay to rest in his book, once again reverberates across the world as another international Women’s Day approaches.
The day March 8 was set aside I 1977 by the United Nations’ General Assembly through a resolution, proclaiming it as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and Internatonal Peace. The purpose of this day is to recognize the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality and development of women to the strengthening of international peace and security. For the women of the world, the symbolism of International Women’s Day has a wider meaning as it is seen as an occasion to review how far women have come in their struggle for equality, peace and development. It is also an opportunity to unite, network and mobilize for meaningful change.
Through the years, the idea behind the observance of this day has ran on the inevitable wheels of time and now presently finds its true expression in the September 2000 Millennium Declaration by world leaders. This declaration distils the key goals and targets agreed at major international conferences and world summits in the 80s/90s and drew up a set of eight Millennium Development Goals with associated targets and indicators that by the year 2015, all 191 UN Member States must meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs which, set a powerful agenda for a global partnership to fight poverty and offered a shared vision of a better world by the year 2015 aim at cutting extreme poverty by half, ensure every child has the chance to go to school and live a long and healthy life, and bring discrimination against women to an end. The risks of dying as a result of childbirth are to be dramatically reduced, deadly diseases brought under control, the environment is better managed and the benfits of progress more equally shared by all nations of the world. Together, the aspirations set out in the MDGs and their associated targets and indicators represent a powerful framework for action.
With the 2015 target year almost half gone, a penetrative gaze into the plight of the Nigerian woman and her counterparts in other parts of the world today will unearth an embarrassing degree of unfulfilled hopes and programmed failures garnished with a tinge of patriarchal laxity and ideological hypocrisy on the part of the women themselves. According to UN statistics, of the 1,3 billion people living in poverty around the world, 70% are women, women do about 66% of the world’s work in return for less than 5% of its income, in the least developed countries, nearly twice as many women over age 11 are illiterate compared to men, two –thirds of children denied primary education are girls and 75% of the world’s 876 million illiterate adults are women, women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food and yet earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s property.
In Nigeria, with an exceeding number of civil society organisations on gender issues and an intimidating number of top female political appointees ranging from Supreme Court Judge, Ministers, Deputy Governors, Directors-General, and Permanent Secretaries to Ambassadors, poverty still has a woman’s face. Nigerian women still disproportionately suffer the burden of poverty, reeling heavily under the pangs of hunger with majority of them living on less than one dollar per day! As primary agents of child welfare, they are victims of widespread and persistent discrimination in all areas of life, and put their lives at risk every time they become pregnant. They are still increasingly susceptible to HIV/AIDS and other killer diseases. As unschooled adults, they have less to say socially and politically and to be able to support themselves.
The impact of the activities of our ubiquitous feminine activists and women lib organisations is seemingly feeble as Nigerian women’s rights and access to land, credit and education are still limited not only due to legal discrimination, but because more subtle barriers such as their workload, mobility and low bargaining postion in the household and community prevent them from taking advantage of their legal rights. These problems affect their children and households without a male head are at special risk of impoverishment with no capacity to immunize their children or know how to help them survive.
The preponderance of feminist CSOs and Activists across the country has neither translated into improved living conditions for the rural women nor has it addressed firmly, the utter neglect and deplorable plight of the Nigerian woman in he village. Instead of concentrating energies on addressing the imbalances of the typical Nigerian woman, these elite organisations dwell more on self-serving actions aimed at launching them to national prominence, thereby cornering juicy positions for themselves and their cronies, in the name of activating the 30% Beijing affirmative action, all at the expense of the rural Nigerian woman. For them, the MDG 3 of promoting gender equality and empower women can only be achieved through the reservation of political positions for elite women, who will in turn use same to oppress the rural woman at will.
Buoyed by the ascendance of the likes of Ellen Johnson Sir-leaf, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Angela Merkel, Dr. Akunyili, Hillary Clinton, and Oby Ezekwesili in their chosen fields of endeavour, they hasten to forget that extreme poverty, hunger, high child mortality rate and poor maternal health can only be combated through a combination of advocacy, technical assistance, funding and working directly with community-based organisations and families themselves to ensure that households have access to education, clean, secure supply of water and safe anc convenient sanitary and health facilities. These actions directly support MDG 7 – improving access for all those who desperately need these basic facilities.
On their own part, Nigerian men should also note that while most of the MDGS face a deadline of 2015, the gender parity target was set to be achieved a full ten years earlier, an acknowledgement that equal access to education is the foundation for all other development goals. Until equal numbers of girls and boys are in school, it will be impossible to build the knowledge necessary to eradicate poverty and hunger, combat disease and ensure environmental sustainability. There is therefore no basis for competition or subjugation of one gender by the other as we march towards 2015. It is time to put an end to gender inequality and all its concomitant effects on our country’s future.
The survival of liberty and prosperity in our country increasingly depends on the liberty of our women and the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of the frontiers of liberty for our women. This can be validated in the story of the American automobile guru, Henry Ford who died and went to heaven. Upon his arrival, he immediately went to God and asked him “when you invented woman, what were you thinking? God asked, “what do you mean?” “well” he says, “you have some major designs flaws in your invention, there is too much front-end protrusion, it chatters away too much at high speeds, maintenance is extremely high, it constantly needs repainting and refurbishing, it is out of commission at least 5 or 6 of every 28 days, the rear-end wobbles too much, intake is placed too close to the exhaust, the headlights are usually small, fuel consumption is outrageous, just to mention a few.”
“Hmm” replies God, “hold on a minute.” God goes over to his celestial supercomputer, types in a few keystrokes and waits for the results. In no time, the computer prints out a report and God read it. He then turned to Ford and said, “It may be that my invention is flawed, but according to these statistics, more men are riding my invention than yours.” God is of course quite right. After all, they are more women than cars in the world.
Happy women’s day!
Atayi Babs ©