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IWD: Nigerian women aggregate challenges, map out action plan

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Wife of Lagos State Governor, Dr. Ibijoke Sanwo-Olu (right) and wife of the Deputy Governor, Mrs. Oluremi Hamzat, greet participants at this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) celebration in Lagos… recently PHOTO: NAN<br />

Mrs. Josephine (surname withheld) had big dreams for her life as an undergraduate at the University of Jos, where she studied Mass Communication. She planned to practice journalism at its best on graduation. However, while still in school, suitors began to flock to their homes and her parents tried to convince her that she could achieve her dreams even as a married woman.

She withstood the pressure and was able to complete her university education but got married shortly after graduation. She was determined to live her dream and enjoy some level of financial independence from her husband by pursuing her chosen career but, “my husband threatened to shred my B.Sc. certificate if I attempted to source for a job. He wouldn’t even let me start a small business nor does he provide all my needs.” To make matters worse, her marriage is not working; her husband beats her to stupor at the slightest provocation and never misses an opportunity to diminish her self-esteem. Yet, divorce is not an option for her because her parents insist it is taboo in their culture.

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Speaking with The Guardian on the occasion of the International Women’s Day (IWD), last Monday, Josephine was almost in tears as she lamented the odds she had suffered in her marriage, stating regrettably, “I am in bondage.”

When asked to comment on the theme of this year’s commemoration, ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World’, she mockingly asked: “Achieving equal future? Is that feasible in Nigeria? I am one of the very unfortunate women in this country who got married to a man who believes because I am a woman, and unfortunately his wife, I am his slave and should never look him in the eyes, let alone attempt to equal him. He embarrasses me at will, beats me at the slightest provocation, disrespects my family members who have in turn abandoned me to what they call my fate, and chased all my friends away. Every attempt to leave the marriage has failed because I can’t help myself and have no one to help me. I am in bondage and that is because my father has warned that under no circumstance should I leave my husband. He said it is taboo in our culture for a woman to leave her husband except the husband sends her packing willingly or he dies. Even if I were to call the bluff of my parents and this unethical cultural belief and choose to leave my marriage, where will I go? Who will accept me or help me? No family member will help me because of the same belief. I don’t have friends either.”

Josephine further revealed: “My husband constantly reminds me that my son is a man no matter how young he is, and I should never be rude to him. So, tell me how I can achieve an equal future at any time of my life, COVID-19 or not. For some brave and fortunate women, yes; but for me and a number of women out there who go through the same ordeal, we see no future in this male-dominated country with a barbaric culture against women, let alone attempting to be equals with men.”

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The mother of one is not alone in her belief that the theme for this year’s IWD would amount to nothing without concrete actions against societal barriers holding Nigerian women down by all stakeholders.

President of the Nigerian Women Trust Fund, Mufuliat Fijabi, told The Guardian: “Last year, we celebrated IWD, just like the year before and the year before that and so on and so forth. But truth must be told. What has changed for Nigerian women since all these years? We pick themes every year, hold roundtable meetings, give speeches, and so on, yet, what can we say has changed for Nigerian women truly?

“We are still fighting the same battles our mothers and grandmothers fought. We are under-represented in every single facet of life in this country. We are still treated like second-class citizens in our own country despite making up half of the population. In fact, if I don’t want to be pessimistic, I would say things have even gotten worse for Nigerian women because not only are we disadvantaged in every way, the Nigerian government sees to it that we remain so by refusing to change basic things we have been fighting for.”

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Truly, despite many policies geared towards giving Nigerian women their pride of place in the scheme of things in the country, available statistics show that the country still has a long way to go. According to a recent global gender gap report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), out of 144 countries surveyed, Nigeria ranks 122nd in closing the gender gap. The report also stated that one in every three Nigerian women has suffered physical and/or sexual violence; Nigerian women earn lesser income than what men get for the same work; women account for most of Nigeria’s unemployment and underemployment.

In a recent report, the United Nations Development Programme said Nigerian women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men get for the same work. This means that a Nigerian woman would earn ₦7,700 for a ₦10,000 job. The UNDP also noted that even though women comprise about half of Nigeria’s population, they account for over 70 per cent of those in extreme poverty.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) also indicated in a recent report that although women represent 51.6 per cent of Nigeria’s working-age population, only 48.4 per cent are in the labour force. The report further indicated that out of the 35.6 million fully employed Nigerians, only 40.6 per cent are women.

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Perhaps against the backdrop of these grim statistics, First Lady, Aisha Buhari, had in her goodwill message to Nigerian women, said the 2021 IWD offered another opportunity for humanity to review and reflect progress made on issues of women and girls, adding that this year’s theme was a strong call to appreciate the efforts of women and girls in the fight against the pandemic.

She admitted that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on women, disrupted education and careers, cost jobs, forced women into poverty, and increased domestic violence.

“Women and girls in Nigeria have continued to suffer abductions from insurgents and bandits. As a mother, I share the sorrow and agony of the victims and their families. I am also not unaware of the impact that these abductions could have in reverting many successes we have achieved, especially in terms of girl-child education and early marriages,” she said.

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In an interview with The Guardian, the First Lady of Ekiti State, Erelu Bisi Fayemi, emphatically stated that Nigeria was not doing well with regards to the empowerment and wellbeing of women.

“Millions of women and girls still suffer from the feminisation of poverty, lack of access to basic resources, violent conflict, and the use of culture, religion, and tradition to render women voiceless. Crimes against women and children are on the rise. Gender-based violence, trafficking, displacement, kidnappings and so on make private and public spaces in our country very unsafe for women and girls. Nigeria also continues to record unacceptably high levels of maternal and infant mortality rates, one of the highest in the world,” she said.

Fayemi stated that Nigeria needed to do more now, noting that, “there was a need for laws and policies to guarantee the empowerment of women and where we have them, they need to be implemented with serious political will.”

She added: “There has to be equal access to education, training, capital, technology, and other resources, and women should be able to participate fully and equally in decision-making processes. There should be zero tolerance for violence against women, discriminatory practices, and negative gender stereotypes.

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“An uneducated girl stands no chance of becoming the next Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). A disempowered and abused woman will have all her dreams taken away from her. An empowered woman means that families, communities, and nations will thrive and prosper. If we want to see women in leadership, we should be prepared to make the necessary investments in raising the status of women in all spheres of life.”

To a professor of Gender and Development Studies, Funmi Para-Mallam, it was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic put the realities of gender-based violence encountered by Nigerians from all walks of life in the spotlight. According to her, the COVID-19 pandemic accentuated the fact that Nigeria has, for a long time, been in the throes of a shadow pandemic.

Her words: “Women and girls of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds have been victims and survivors of diverse forms of gender-based violence, including sexual, domestic, psychological, physical and intimate partner vlence. Also, violence occurs from traditional practices that are pervasive; and they cut across all geopolitical zones and cultural and religious expressions.

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“The Nigerian woman has had to carry these mountains of discrimination, violence, marginalisation, and the trivialisation of issues on her back. With the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an opportunity. Every danger presents an opportunity. And the opportunity is for Nigeria to give teeth to the national gender policy.

“Over the years, since its inception, the gender policy has enjoyed only lip service from various governments. Lip service in the sense that the policy articulates a moral obligation on the part of the government to ensure that there is no less than 35 per cent of female representation in all elective and appointed posts. We are still a far cry from that. In fact, Nigeria lags behind most other African countries in terms of female gender representation.”

Leadership development strategist and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Rellies Works, Kemi Ogunkoya, stated that the world has been badly hit since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that just as women were not excluded from its effects so would they be required to adapt to the demands of the moment.

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She noted that the demand on the working woman was on the rise, especially in her bid to juggle increasing family responsibilities with her career in a pandemic.

Ogunkoya said: “These additional strains present an even wider lacuna for women in leadership. Therefore, organisations cannot afford to turn a blind eye to these realities anymore. Women are struggling to cope and find that balance and this will affect their health and wellness, which will go on to invariably affect productivity. When women are not supported, the workplace suffers. Therefore, organisations need to become more aware of the cycle of determined and undetermined losses and understand how they are also impacted by inequalities in the workplace.

“While I strongly believe that COVID-19 has presented threats, the pandemic has also ushered new approaches to thinking, work, and leadership. Flexi-working, working from home and other adaptive procedures should be embraced in organisations. Result-based appraisals against time-bound working gauges should also be encouraged.

“However, beyond the stated interventions, organisations need to become more intentional about reviewing systems and policies that sublimely affect equality and ensure a supportive, empathetic culture that is inclusive and provides great levels of flexibility for women.”

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She noted that organisations also needed to become more intentional about empowering women and ensuring that there was a system of growth through mentorship and coaching.

“The recent appointment of the WTO DG, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is a testament to just how capable women are. It is important to note that leadership in itself is a shapeless phenomenon, and it will take the shape of whatever container you put it in – male, female, black, white, young, old, and other variables of diversity. Therefore, if a woman is a person for the job, let’s put systems in place to ensure her success. Let’s focus on skills and value, not gender, because truly an equal future is possible in a COVID-19 world, and we can make it happen,” she added.

On his part, Executive Director, Gender and Development Action (GADA), Ada Agina-Ude, gave kudos to women who have been leading the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are touched by the bravery and sacrifice of front-line workers, who are mostly women, as women dominate the health sector as nurses and cleaners. We owe a lot to them and we are grateful. It is important that the government and women groups across the globe continually find more innovative ways to carry out advocacy for the eradication of violence in society. It is by so doing that we can find ourselves in a much better situation,” she said.

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Development Consultant and Executive Director, Centre for Non-violence and Gender Advocacy in Nigeria, Asmau Benzies Leo, said this year’s celebration was special as the world was recovering from the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There is no better time than now to work and put an end to the exclusion and marginalisation of women and girls in all spheres of our national life; economically, socially, politically, and culturally. But for us to do that, we will need collective action.

“Women must be carried along and be given the opportunity to play vital roles in decision making that affects their lives directly and those that have to do with leadership and governance. Women can contribute to decisions that will shape the destinies of their nation through committing to the response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the choices that will affect the wellbeing of people and the planet for generations to come,” she said.

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Leo added that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of women’s leadership in promoting and ensuring that the perspectives of women and girls are reflected in the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes in all spheres and at all stages.

“There is need to re-emphasise the importance of advancing women’s leadership and participation in decision-making, as a key component of all efforts to advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially in addressing the potential long-term effects of COVID-19.

“The commemoration should focus on highlighting the ways in which women and women leaders were able to bring to bear their different experiences, perspectives and skills to the table, and make irreplaceable contributions to decisions, policies and laws. This is to provide a platform for women leaders from government, civil society organizations

Human rights and all stakeholders to lend their voices,” Leo added.

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Human rights lawyer and founder of Women’s Advocate Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, said women were powerful agents of change, adding that the far-reaching benefits of diversity and gender parity in leadership and decision-making were increasingly being recognised in all spheres of society.

“Still, women continue to be vastly underrepresented in decision-making in politics, businesses, and communities. Women as leaders and decision-makers at all levels are critical to advancing gender justice and gender equality and to furthering economic, social, and political progress for all, particularly in the COVID-19 era. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have suggested that countries led by women have fared better than those led by men. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s success in ‘flattening the curve’ attracted initial attention and speculation about the role of leader gender in mitigating the deleterious effects of the pandemic. Iceland has garnered similar praise. Recent research also suggests that countries led by women have six times fewer deaths than those led by men,” she said.

Akiyode-Afolabi noted that in Nigeria, women’s rights organisations such as WARDC and Feminist Womanifesto were leading the advocacy for the inclusion of women in COVID-19 responses and supporting women affected by physical and sexual violence.

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“The impacts of crises are never gender-neutral, and so was the COVID-19. While everyone faced unprecedented challenges, women bore the brunt of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19. Women who largely depend on the informal economic sector for survival were severely affected. In Nigeria, domestic violence cases rose by 297 per cent in states that were under lockdown.

“The recently released report shows that the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls. This will bring the total number of women and girls living on USD 1.90 or less to 435 million. (World Bank: 2020).

“Following the 2019 elections, women make up 7.3 per cent of the Nigerian Senate and 3.1 per cent of the House of Representatives. No state governors are women. The statistics imply that the marginal representation of women in leadership robs Nigeria of balanced perspectives and ideas in handling emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Nigerian women have occupied strategic positions globally. The Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and Director-General of the World Trade Organisation are Nigerian women. They are leading global institutions. It is time Nigerians rethink leadership and support women to take up political leadership.”

At the first-ever Glass Ceiling Convention, which held in honour of the IWD with the theme, “Challenging The System: Nigerian Women Taking Political Power,” the British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, Ben Llewellyn-Jones, noted that Nigerian women have shown time and again that they have a voice, noting that the country must support these voices and remove the barriers preventing women from participating actively in politics and other key areas.

“The pandemic shone a spotlight on gender inequality in the country as women suffered increased violence and inequality during the lockdown. 6.7 percent of women in elective positions compared to at least 15 per cent in other African countries is abysmally low. So many underlying barriers prevent women from participating in politics including religious, social, and gender norms as well as poor education,” he said.
    
Keynote speaker, Nse Ufot of the New Georgia Project pointed out that gender and class shouldn’t prevent anyone from access to education and good healthcare. “We are the ones going to save this country. There’s no Calvary coming to save us; we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

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Co-founder, Yiaga Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu, said Nigerian women were asking for more women in power because “we know women can actually lead.”

She added: “I want to tell women running for elective positions to build their campaigns around issues Nigerians care about and that affects them. People need to know that you will represent their interests adequately and fight for them. Politics and leadership haven’t really been a culture for women as it has been for men. We need to close the gender gap on women empowerment. Last year’s #EndSARS protest showed us that women can raise money and put into causes they care about and we can replicate this on a larger scale. Beyond legal reforms, we need to support women financially to emerge and run. Enough of capacity building for women; instead start investing money in women and see how things will change. Let us actually challenge the barriers and factors holding women back not with words as we are wont to do but with actions this time around to bring real change for Nigerian women, change that will drive political, systemic and economic change.”

House of Representatives member, Nnenna Ukeje, pointed out that getting more women into key positions that would drive change comes down to political will at the end of the day. She added that political and social movements should put pressure on the government to effect the changes they want to see for Nigerian women.

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“Women come into the political space full of optimism and without adequate information and after they see what is on the ground, they get disillusioned. Women groups need to put pressure on elected officials to effect the 35 per cent derivative action we have been touting for years. The country has gotten more and more violent towards women in the last couple of years so it is no surprise to see this replicated in elections and running for office.

To Zainab Buba Galadima, women don’t understand the extent of their power. According to her, they always settle for less as a result.

“Every election, women voters far outnumber men voters. They are more reliable and consistent yet cannot use this to their advantage,” she noted.

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Co-founder, Feminist Coalition, Damilola Odufuwa, decried the fact that societal and patriarchal norms were the biggest barriers in getting more women involved politically and in other areas.

“Nigerian women are interested in getting things done, in doing big things but have no idea how to go about it. Elections here are purposely hard, expensive and violent, designed to keep women away. We need to build a community of women that will push and encourage other women to greatness. No matter how small, put your money into women you believe in and see the impact this would have,” Odufuwa said.

Women In Technology Get Boost With Wentors IWD Mentorship Cohort
Wentors, an organisation geared towards creating more opportunities for women in technology by providing a platform for them to access female mentors in the industry, has rolled out a programme to mentor 1,000 women in commemoration of the 2021 International Women’s Day.

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Founder of the organisation, EduAbasi Chukwunweike, one of Africa’s loudest voices in support of women in technology and the ISV Lead, Microsoft4Africa, said the organisation rolled out the programme to ensure that women attain a 50 per cent representation in top management positions in technology globally.

EduAbasi and her Cofounder, Unoma Adeyemi, disclosed that in less than six months, the Wentors community has grown to over 1,000 women in technology from across four continents. They noted that having just begun their second and largest mentorship cohort, IWD Mentorship Cohort, the global stage was getting set to witness the unleashing of the true potential of women in tech globally.

EduAbasi said: “In my current role as ISV Lead, Microsoft4Africa, I have come across so many people who thought I was a man until we met physically or virtually. This is just a small pointer to how deep the gender bias has grown in the industry.

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“According to a report by Entelo, there is about 19 per cent of women in entry-level and mid-level roles in the tech industry. At the senior level, however, women hold only 16 per cent of positions. As you go even higher, this number drops even lower, with women holding just 10 per cent of executive-level positions.

“A survey conducted by HackerRank found that 20.4 per cent of women over the age of 35 in the tech sector remain in junior-level positions, in contrast to just 5.9 per cent of men over the age of 35. Actually, the survey found that women are more likely than men to hold junior-level positions in the tech industry, regardless of their age.

“In Africa, we find an alarming gender gap in the technology ecosystem with a mere 38 per cent representation of women in management roles, and the higher up the corporate ladder, the less the representation of women.

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“It is evident that we play our part in balancing out these numbers. We would not leave this great imbalance to chance and hope that someone, somewhere, would do something to change the narrative; rather, we are already bringing women together to encourage them to aspire for top positions in the industry. We have created a thriving community where women support, train and nurture one another.

“Wentors enlists women in technology and pairs them with female mentors in the technology industry using an algorithm based on career interest and personality type. These mentors advise and guide their mentees on how to navigate through the murky waters of their careers in technology.

“This means you, as a mentor or mentee, are paired up with the best person for an optimal mentoring experience.”

EduAbasi and Unoma added: “We invite all women who would love to join in this odyssey, either as a mentor or a mentee, to register now on www.wentors.com.”

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‘If We Could Break Into ‘Men Only’ Field And Succeed, Why Not Others’
By Daniel Anazia

FOR Sandra Uso Prince-Ekueme, a mechanic; Uju Udoka, a painter and Cynthia Chioma Egbunam, a barber, there is no field of human endeavour women cannot venture into and succeed, as they are excelling in what was considered the ‘men only’ field.

As part of this year’s IWD celebration, beverage brand, Amstel Malta, spotlighted the trio. They shared compelling stories of how they came about their line of work, how they were able to navigate male-dominated spaces, and how far they have come.

Speaking on the difficulties she experienced while starting out, Udoka, who prides herself as the ‘first lady painter’, with specialisation in creative wall designing (interior and exterior painting), revealed that her biggest challenge was sexist stereotypes and having to prove herself when bidding for jobs with male competitors.

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According to her, she was worried that clients would not want to entrust her with jobs because of societal roadblocks that paint women as weak and feeble-minded. She, however, said she was proud of her progress, noting that she hopes to see more women realising their full potential.

Her words: “When I started it was often difficult to convince a prospective client, especially male clients, that I could paint their homes or offices. It was easier with female clients because they were always so eager and excited to see the work a female painter would do.

“I wasn’t taken seriously when I went out for marketing; people thought I was working under someone. So, I had to do a lot of work trying to convince them that it was my business and not someone else’s. Right now, there are a lot of women taking to painting as their profession and people are taking us more serious.”

While urging other women to choose to challenge the odds, the founder of ‘Grab a Brush, Colour a Life’ initiative founder added: “Just do it, never ever believe anyone that says they cannot do it.”

On her part, Prince-Ekwueme stated: “Standing up for yourself as a female in a male-dominated field is a must. People think women have feeble minds; they are mushy and they are soft! But we are strong.”

Asked about her challenge as a female barber, Cynthia said: “People don’t always take you seriously. You have to prove yourself over and over again. A lot of people look down on me and think I am not capable of doing my job. Sometimes people will tell me, “women are not allowed to touch my hair.”

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