PRESENTATION BY DR. IFEOMA SYLVESTER-MONYE ON THE OCCASION OF 2016 INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY HELD IN ASABA, DELTA STATE, ON TUESDAY, 8TH MARCH, 2016
First of all, I would like to thank God Almighty for His mercy, favour and grace. I would also like to thank the Honourable Commissioner of Women Affairs and Social Development for inviting me to be part of this important day that women all over the world are celebrated.
I am particularly pleased to be invited to make this presentation, considering the significance of this day for women all over the world. You will recall that more than a century ago, courageous women took to the streets, demanding better working conditions, basic human rights, peace and daily bread. Although we have come a long way since women made these demands, we are nonetheless still far from the Promised Land. In a way the whole unabated match towards women emancipation can at best be described as a tortuous journey with a flicker of hope for the destination.
The biblical injunction is that “All men and women are created equal and the same before God.” A school of thought goes further to suggest that women are even superior being because they were created last, as you save your best for last.
This is a common saying through time. It is often rendered by those who claim adherence to one religion or another and who therefore, subscribe that to the idea of creation being God’s. It is invariably on the tongue of politicians who profess gender equality from the soap box, inside Parliament and even during leisure time. Yet, inside that often-repeated declaration of gender equality, there is a problem.
The much vaunted gender equality is not self-evident. It exists only on the tongue of men-and even women – that are forced by the imperative of political correctness to preach what they hardly ever practice.
The question to ask is this simple: if the deal of gender equality is unbeatable, why is it that it is not being pursued with the needed gusto? Further, why is legislation on the topic crawling at snail speed or completely stagnant? Why are those who profess by their action the superiority of the one gender over the other hypocritical by screening their backwardness with pronouncements that portray them as champions of gender equality? There are endless questions to ask. But recourse to history is apposite at this time.
Indeed, we must stop, albeit for just one day in the year, to remember and celebrate the contributions that women make in all aspects of life. From primeval times, the place of the women has been located inside a numbers of places that scream the pain of slave labour. Women wake up every day all over the world to step into their various roles as wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, learners, employers, employees.
As women, we come together every day in various fora as we get on with everyday living, charting the course of life for ourselves, our children, our families and our nation. Often in our coming together, our thoughts and conversations are around our children and our families. Our concerns and aspirations constantly border on the same issues, whether we are coming together in village markets or supermarkets, around the cold water dispenser or coffee table at our workplaces, fetching water from the streams and rivers, or having our banter in our living rooms or boardrooms.
As we do every year on the 8th of March, we are gathered here once again to discuss with one another, to find common ground, so that we may help bring the desired dignity, respect, strength and honour to women and girls all over the world.
In discussing how far we have come on this, and how much farther we have to go on this journey of gender parity, we hope that this time, we will succeed in taking the discourse to what will generate practical steps and measures aimed at creating sustainable impact, so that it is not just another round of soft talks and definitely not just a mere “talk shop”.
It is our deepest desire that in our gathering today, we may indeed come up with more answers than questions to the burning issues of our time, as it relates to women, in order to restore strength, courage, hope and stability to women and families.
Today, we will be focusing the world’s attention on issues that matter most in our lives. We are taking our eyes off the hustle and bustle of everyday living, to take a critical look at issues that concern women; issues around access to healthcare, education, credit, employment, legal aid ,good housing. We are looking again at the issue of women’s opportunity to participate fully in the political process of their various nations; the chance to enjoy basic legal and human rights where women have an opportunity for their voice to be heard. It is events like this that compel policy makers, governments and all stakeholders to stop and listen, look and hopefully act upon the concerns raised during our discussions.
I have deliberately started this presentation on a practical note because it seems to me that, this could be the way to achieve a better appreciation and understanding. Nonetheless, my message on this auspicious occasion is more of hope than despondency. This is because women across the world have come a long way since our struggles for women’s rights began a few centuries ago. The pride of place must be reserved for the womenfolk who have through vision, courage and self-pride risked humiliation, imprisonment and certain death to secure the air of freedom that women inhale today.
There was a woman named Rosa Parks, a Black American Woman, a civil rights activist, who lived in Tuskegee, Alabama, USA. She lived at a time when Blacks in the South of the United States could not have their names prefixed with Mr. or Mrs. She was arrested and prosecuted for standing up for her human right. The details will bore you. But suffice it to say that Rosa Parks didn’t abuse or attack anybody. She didn’t call for violent action. She just said a resolute “NO” to injustice. Because of her speaking out, several changes occurred to the point that America, for the last seven years, has had a black President.
Therefore like Rosa Parks, we all have to stand up for our rights as the circumstance demand. No one else will do for you, what only you can do for yourself. Otherwise, we will only pay lip service to “Pledge for Parity”, like those others who endlessly claim that all human beings are born equal, without doing anything positive to promote the vaunted equality of the sexes.
17. Another great woman who has pushed the cause of global womanhood was former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was and still remains the only woman to have led the United Kingdom as Prime Minister. Her success in British politics is a rebuke to those who glibly claim that the woman’s place is in the kitchen. Mrs. Thatcher proved beyond all reasonable doubt that a woman’s place is equally on the soapbox, inside the Houses of Parliament and everywhere else that men are found. Time will not permit me to tell of all the other women global leaders, presidents, CEOs, etc. It is however pertinent to mention a few.
India had Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Sri Lanka had Mrs. Siromavo Bandaranaike, Dame Eugenia Charles was PM of Dominican Republic, Golda Meir was PM of Israel; Benazir Bhutto was two-time PM of Pakistan. Others are Portia Miller of Jamaica, Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand, Shiek Hasina of Bangladesh, Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago.
I must crave your indulgence to come closer home to Africa. Luisa Diogo was PM of Mozambique, Aminata Toure was PM of Senegal, Adiato Djalo Nandigna was Acting PM of Guinea-Bissau. Until recently Joyce Banda was Malawian President.
In Nigeria, the highest elected executive office so far was gubernatorial. In 2006, H.E., Mrs. Virgy Etiaba, who had been elected Deputy Governor, became Governor after impeachment of the then Governor. With all these women in very top positions, are we therefore saying that the change we desire has come to the women folk? The answer is a resounding “NO”. Where is the gender equality and respect for human right for the mother of a nine month old child who is four months pregnant, badly fed, has had no access to family planning, nursing bruises inflicted by the same hands that pretend to caress, in the business of making babies?
Where is the gender parity in a mother who does not earn a living, has several children to look after, husband is gone drinking from morning to evening, while she is left to cope with the difficulties of raising her children alone? One thing has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt and that is the fact that if women are healthy and strong, their families will likewise be. If women are free from domestic violence and emotional abuse, their families will flourish. If women are allowed and indeed given the opportunity to work and earn in the community, their families will prosper; children will do well. Research has shown that a working mother spends far more of her income on her family compared to a working father. When families are peaceful, healthy, strong and prosperous, our communities and indeed our nations do well.
Over the last twenty-nine years, I have worked as a medical doctor in Nigeria and in the United Kingdom. I have come across damning situations in families, especially in women and children. I have seen time and time again, how simple preventive measures can change the entire outcome in the health of women, their children and families. The problem has remained the poor access to healthcare and even the lack of education for women and girls, on these issues. The MDGs have become SDGs, alas in the face of success or failure? That is a debate for another day.
Over the past two years in particular, as Global Ambassador for Lifestyle Medicine, I have learned more about the challenges facing women in different countries of the world as they struggle to provide adequate nutrition for their families, and with their cultural, religious and financial challenges, real challenges in accessing family planning and baby care. I have also seen first-hand how the recommended exclusive breast feeding, for the first six months of a baby’s life is only a dream to working mothers. These working mothers often do not have any legislative backing, nor do they have employers that show sufficient understanding, to enable them provide exclusive breastfeeding, leading to poorly nourished babies and the increased risk of lifestyle related diseases such as obesity in childhood that often continues into adult life ,with attendant health complications.
Women watch helplessly as their children succumb to malnutrition and disease caused by poverty and economic deprivation. Women are dying from diseases that should have been prevented or treated because of poor access to healthcare. All over the world, women continue to struggle with everyday challenges, and many others cannot afford safe after school care for their children. They are therefore not able to go out to work and earn a living for themselves and their families. Peculiar challenges confront, women in leadership and policy making (and many of you here, form this critical mass) as they continue to work tirelessly to promote literacy, fight for better healthcare for children, put girls back in school, reduce unplanned pregnancies . Women are taking out small loans, micro credits, to sell Akara, akamu, start a hair dressing saloon among other things in order to provide for their families. Indeed, many of us can cite examples of women we know in our communities, who have solely been responsible for their children’s education from proceeds of selling Akara or Hawking bread on the streets.
Women in Asia have been known to leave their new born babies, locked up in the house, while they go out to the fields to work for their family’s upkeep. They have come home at the end of the day to unlock their doors to a crying, exhausted, dehydrated and I dare add, very hungry baby. Sometimes, the baby has fallen off the bed while mother is away working. These things ought not to be so. Today, as women meet all over the world, we must resolve to give voice to these women, whose very difficult experiences go unnoticed, unrewarded, often unappreciated and whose words go unheard.
Women form over half of the world’s population, about 56% of the world population. Women comprise 70% of the world’s poor. They have another rather troubling statistics: of the world’s poor, they form two-third of those who are not taught to read or write. So you can only imagine the level of illiteracy among women and girls. If trends continue exactly as things are now, girls in Sub-Saharan Africa will only reach universal access to primary education in the year 2086.
In Ethiopia, an NGO recently published a research finding, where girls are regularly pulled out of school because their mother has had a new born baby and the girl child is expected to look after the new born baby and there and then her dreams for education ends. The girl-child is being denied the right to go to school by their brothers and fathers. You will be shocked to know that this is not just a problem of the developing world. Only last week, a school was closed down by OFSTED in Birmingham, UK, because girls were seated at the back rolls of the class while boys took the front rolls. This was judged to be sharply discriminatory. OFSTED is the UK Body responsible for ensuring Standards in Education.
Those of us who are privileged to be seated here, have the responsibility to speak out for those who are not able to be here. We must speak out for women who face many challenges, too numerous to cover in a short speech such as this. We must speak out for women who are denied the right to school education or the right to own property or the right to see a doctor or the right of inheritance. We must speak up for widows all over the world who face unprintable culturally based maltreatments because they have lost their husbands, at a time when they are very sad from their loss. We must speak out for women who do not have a right to have a say about the direction of their lives, who are not allowed to make decisions that directly or indirectly affect them, simply because they are women. Women do jobs such as child minding, elderly relatives minding, cleaning, cooking and all other household chores that go unpaid for and often unnoticed and unappreciated. It is estimated that the total unpaid jobs amount to about seven (7) trillion dollars every year! Every woman deserves the chance to realise her God given potential. Their human rights must be respected and protected. Women must be encouraged to take greater responsibility in the timely discovery of their purpose on this earth, pursuing this purpose and achieving destiny.
Hillary Clinton said at the Beijing Conference that “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”. This is so true. It is a violation of human rights, when girls are sold to do prostitution, teenagers and young girls are taken to dance parlours for the sexual gratification of men. This is sadly happening here in Asaba.
It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalised by the painful and barbaric practice of female genital mutilation. It is a violation of human rights when women are abducted and used as war sex-slaves. We are now well into the second year of waiting for our precious daughters of Chibok to be brought back home. It is a violation of human rights, when women and girls are subjected to untold hardship, emotional and physical pain by the physical abuse they suffer in their very homes. It is a violation of human rights, when women are denied the right to have a say in planning their own families. This includes the number of children they may wish to have, or indeed being forced to have abortions or sterilisation against their will.
Women therefore must be allowed to participate freely in the political process of their countries and that includes creating an enabling environment for them and not labelling a woman politician a “man”, so that she can belong. Our history has not changed as it should, because we are silenced each and every time. We must not allow this to continue. The story of Malala remains fresh in our minds. Simply because she spoke out for the girl child education, she was shot in the head to silence her once and for all. Thankfully, she survived and continues to advocate for girl-child education.
As I conclude now, I must draw our attention to the dominant news in the last two weeks in our dear nation. A 14 year old girl was abducted in Bayelsa State and taken to far away Kano State where she was forced into child marriage and a new religion. It beats the imagination that things of this nature still happen in our country. Where is the gender equality when this underage girl is compelled to face the challenges of family life?
What can we do, what can the government and policy makers do to provide us with gender equality? How can we enforce this continual pledge for parity?
Legislation in one. Executive action is another. Legislators are hereby called upon to look critically at many of the issues raised here today and begin to come up with across-the-board legislation on these issues. Female legislators have a profound task ahead of them.
It behoves political leaders to impose conditions that make it very difficult for the abduction and forced marriages of our girls. Judicial action is yet another means of fighting for the pledge for parity, by imposing stiff sentences on abductors and violators of our girls, for example.
There is a final point that must be made. Pledge for parity does not just seek women at the commanding eyes of national political leadership. It imposes on us all, the imperative of seeing to it that, at every segment of national life, women are fully represented. Be it in the university placements of courses, traditionally reserved for men, or in the workplace, with women as CEOs. The overall picture is not bleak. But it could be brighter.
Women must arise to a new dawn. A time of believing in yourself and forging ahead with your dreams, a time to resolve that all things are possible to anyone who believes, a time to see the seemingly impossible, possible, a time to contribute to the development of our state, our nation and our generation.
The woman is the centre of activities in the home. The family relies on her for emotional support, caring and nurturing the children, loving her husband and extended family and in many cases, income for the family. Is it too much to ask that she is given a level – playing field to do just that?
This is the challenge before us. That is what we must strive to achieve. You and I must rise to the occasion. Yes we can!
Wishing you God’s grace and every blessing in the task ahead.
I thank you for your time and kind attention.