History and results of the power of women in civil protest
On the heels of the largest protest in US history, the numbers keep coming in and the magnitude keeps rising. This past weekend, the Women’s March on Washington took the world by storm, in protest of the 2016 Presidential race and election results which was laced with the dismissal of women’s rights, reproductive rights, civil rights and more. From women in Los Angeles chanting “My body, My choice”, to Barcelonan protestors chanting “Love trumps hate”, and protest signs in DC that read: “I march for my baby girl” to London with signs reading: “though she might be little her voice is fierce”, women, girls and their male supporters all came out in historic numbers to stake claim in their position regarding women’s rights as human rights.
A much higher number of people showed up for the Women’s March at 3.2- 4.2 million participants and counting in over 500 cities in the United States alone compared to the 250,000 who attended the inauguration. In Los Angeles alone, 750,000 showed up to march for women’s rights and in DC (500k), New York (250k), Chicago (250k), Boston (135-150k), Seattle (130k), Denver (100-150k) to name a few. But the protest was not limited to the US, protestors took to the streets in their marching shoes in London (100k), Canada (50-60k), Australia (10k), Paris, Cape Town, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, Singapore, Tokyo, Dublin, Vienna, Mexico, Berlin and even Antarctica with a total of 616 “Sister marches” around the globe.
While the organizers of the marches are working for a continued effort to seek results, all this strategic use of woman-power has got me thinking of some other examples of the power of the unity of women being used in civil unrest and their yielded results. With leaders like Chief Mrs. Margaret Ekpo, a 20th century pioneer of women’s rights in Nigeria, it should be apparent that Africans are not new to women taking the lead in resistance efforts.
During British colonial Nigeria, when Igbo women sought to gain representation in native leadership as well as fight excessive colonial taxation, in what was birthed Ogu Umunwanyi-also known as the Aba Women’s War, or the Women’s Market Rebellion of 1929. Over 10,000 Igbo women participated in anti-colonial, anti-tax-efforts. Ogu Umunwanyi was mainly organized and led by rural women, and spread rapidly throughout south-eastern Nigeria among the Igbo and Ibibio of Owerri and Calabar provinces, covering about 6,000 square miles and involving a population of two million people.
Specifics that led to the war were heightened prices of the imported goods that were staple’s in the people’s daily sustenance and lower and lower prices set for exports. The final straw came when warrant chiefs were instructed by colonial leaders to count the number of women, the women concluded this would lead to taxation of women as the same procedure had been done in the past in the process of taxing men. The women went after establishments as well as houses and compounds of notorious warrant chiefs and court messengers. They demanded the caps of corrupt warrant chiefs. They released Prisoners. The women outwardly pursued any visible signs of colonial domination and exploitation. As a result, taxation of women was halted, policy changes were made, and based on recommendations by the women, eighteen of the most corrupt and exploitative warrant chiefs were ‘decaped’ and removed from office. Women were also appointed to serve in newly constituted Native Courts and began to hold positions in public affairs with the power of helping to select new chiefs.
In the Abeokuta Women Anti-taxation Demonstrations, more than 100,000 women waged demonstrations against the Alake (King of Egba, a city in Abeokuta, Ogun State) and his supporters for exploitative policies during colonial rule which he supported including negotiating land contracts with foreign traders without seeking consent of the native owners; setting food and price controls; favouring European companies in leasing space by forcing the eviction of market women’s stalls and other exploitative acts. Using native forms of protests like songs, sitting-on, protest demonstrations with a combination of foreign methods at the time, such as petitions, court actions, and press conferences, the Abeokuta women succeeded in forcing Alake Ademola II to relinquish his throne on January 3, 1949, four women were placed on the Native Administration Egba Interim Council, the flat-rate taxes on women including the water rate, were ended, among other changes.
The most modern and sustained protest in Nigeria of the 21st century for women’s and girl’s rights has to be the Bring Back our Girls campaign for the return of all 276 kidnapped Chibok school girls from the grip of Boko Haram terrorist group since 2014. With over 1,000 days and counting, the protests and demonstrations requests, with undying hope, for the safe return of all kidnapped Chibok girls and also for the right of girls to receive an education. Since 2014, a number of the girls have been returned but not all, and the protest continues.
In 2003, when the women of Liberia united to encourage peace negotiations for the unrest in their country, they were kept out of peace talks but it was their efforts of sit-ins, demonstrations of praying and singing at town halls, parliament buildings and even outside of the building when peace talks had commenced that pressured the government and rebel groups to come to a solution to the long-standing fighting.
When the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) engaged in a fierce conflict with the abductions of thousands of girls and boys by the LRA, displacement, rape and other atrocities women activists decided to mobilize to play a direct role in finding a negotiated settlement. During peace talks to end the war in northern Uganda, women marched hundreds of miles, from Uganda to the site of the talks in Juba, Sudan, to pressure a successful negotiation.
It was Angela Davis who said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change, I am changing the things I cannot accept”, who was also a key player in the resistance to the oppression of Blacks in the Civil Right era.
The launching start of the Modern Civil rights movement in America, is accredited to the brave women Claudette Colvin and later, Rosa Parks (strategically) who refused to give up their seats on the public bus for white passengers in Montgomery, Alabama. This was followed by boycotts of major state revenue- generating commerce such as buses, sit-ins defying white/black designated public areas and non-violent protests and marches. These demonstrations were of course accompanied by lawsuits, talks between prominent African American leaders (mainly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and federal/ state government officials and lawmakers which ultimately resulted in desegregation of public areas (one year after Colvin refused to give up her seat, federal lawsuit Browder v. Gayle ended segregation on public transportation in Alabama), voting rights for African Americans and the adherence to civil rights for all American citizens despite their cultural and lineage differences.
Most crucially, are the actions during and after protests that bring forth most change. Actions in the form of coalition-building, sustained advocacy campaigns, inter-sectional programs, direct communication with lawmakers and representatives that result in grand shifts. These are the shifts that oftentimes push the world to marvel at the vast amount of strength stored in women who are determined to rise beyond any limitations.
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