Let me begin by thanking Mrs. Rita Amachree, members and Executives of ANWLD and organisers of this conference for the honour of their invitation to me to speak at this important inaugural convention of ANWLD. The plight of women and children in Africa is intrinsically linked to the continent's development challenges and therefore deserves the accentuated focus it has been receiving in recent times. I have no doubt that the deliberations at this convention on the need to empower women and children will serve as a further catalyst for change that will make a real difference in the condition of and prospects for the empowerment of our women and children.
Just last month, the World Bank released its new World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development. The report has once again drawn attention to the economic and social vulnerability of a vast majority of Africa's women and children and to the statistics that highlight the urgency of the need to empower them. African nations must empower its women if Africa is to achieve sustainable development. "Educate a woman and you educate a nation", goes the popular saying. The corollary to that cliché must be: "Educate a nation and you ensure its sustainable development".
We must break the distressing and vicious but avoidable cycle of poverty, disease and sub-optimal development that has plagued our continent by effectively addressing women and children empowerment issues in imaginative and effective ways.
While the historical and cultural diversity of the African continent tends to make generalisations problematic, the fairly uniform statistics which are beyond debate are damning:
According to a 2008 WHO estimate, some 358, 000 women, die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth, with sub-Saharan African accounting for approximately 57% or 204, 000 of global maternal deaths. In my own country, Nigeria which has approximately 2% of the world's population, the maternal mortality rate of 2008 was estimated at 840 deaths per 100, 000, and Nigeria was one of 45 countries that had a high maternal mortality rate; with "high" defined as having greater than, or equal to 300 deaths per 100, 000 live births. This is despite our capacity to almost eliminate the risk of a woman dying from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. That risk is reduced to 1 to 5,000 in some developed economies.
In most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the dismal maternal mortality ratios are an average of over 1 per 16 live births. That is one maternal death in every 16 childbirths! The fact however is that simply increasing the number of deliveries attended by skilled health personnel with reasonable access to basic obstetric support would considerably reduce the deaths. The absence of family planning, malnutrition and the lack of access to basic health care and sanitation have thus simply compounded the plight of Africa's women and children.
Infant and child mortality rates are equally alarming, an average of 180 deaths per 1000 live births on account of poor health care access. The absence of clean water, the transmission of HIV/AIDS between mother and child, malaria are some of the other common causes. The recognised barriers to equality and equity between men and women are however not limited to high mortality rates of women and children. Breast and cervical cancer malaria and HIV are other causes now competing with pregnancy related deaths. (Women and children are also victims of trafficking, abuse, violence and discrimination in areas of citizenship and inheritance amongst others). I would argue that the deaths are perhaps the most serious and tragic. After all, if human capital is the most valuable asset for development, the woman's role in producing and nurturing this resource certainly ought not to result in a diminishing of her status or much worse, her dying on account of it.
Yet such tragic statistics remain and the deaths continue to mount and be recorded, or not recorded, as the case may be. All sorts of analogies have been drawn to bring home the sheer magnitude and gravity of the situation: from the unimaginable spectre of several jumbo jet aircraft with their full passenger loads crashing every day, or to the population of entire cities disappearing every year until that became an imminent reality earlier this year as a certain despot's chilling threats to the inhabitants of a prominent North African city created sufficient alarm and outrage provoked a unified global response to pre-empt the deaths of innocent men, women and children.
Why should it matter less that, metaphorically speaking, the occupants of the aircraft or the inhabitants of the city are all poor African women; or that their deaths are dispersed throughout our huge continent or can only really be differentiated through the absence of dramatic headline grabbing causes or impact.
Let me suggest that it is worse in the case of the women and children in Africa because the causes are plain and well documented: haemorrhage, infection, obstructed pregnancy, abortions and pregnancy induced hypertension or diabetes arising from lack of access to basic health care and nutrition, education, deliberate exclusion from mainstream economic activity and the failure or inability of our legal systems to protect societies most vulnerable.
The notion that hundreds and thousands of women should lose their lives in the process of bringing forth a new life ought to be utterly unacceptable to our modern world - A world which decades ago could already boast of" the power to abolish all forms of human poverty," to borrow from the famous words of the inaugural address of that widely admired United States President John F. Kennedy.
So again we must ask; why are the alarm and outrage so muted with regard to the deaths of African women and children in such extraordinary numbers? Why has our continent or indeed our world not risen effectively to this challenge of empowering or investing in the half of Africa's most valuable and productive natural resource? How did Africa get left so far behind and can we really stop the killing as we did in Libya and in Cote d'Ivoire, where the images of just seven innocent women murdered in cold blood at the height of the crisis in the promising West African country evoked such outrage and provoked a novel international response?
Empowerment of women of course entails a process by which women gain greater control over their lives. A process first of awareness, and then of the actual sharing of power, opportunities and access to and control over resources without regard to gender. It is largely about education and building capacities for effective decision making by women. Decisions based on access to information and a range of options. It is mostly about attitudes, recognition and respect; these are the essential elements of that change that is required.
It would be impossible to discuss the myriad issues thrown up with regard to the vulnerability and empowerment of women and children in Africa in this relatively short address. In any event I would demur from attempting to do so to such a distinguished and well informed audience with so many renowned medical, health care and development practitioners and experts.
What I have therefore sought to do in the remaining time is to offer a wide historical and cultural perspective of the topic and to employ broad strokes to highlight some of the historical and cultural nuances, practices and patterns that perhaps underlie our current challenge. Also essential to the discussion is the responsibility of governments, development agencies and non - governmental organisations, and yes the women themselves, in being more pro - active towards eliminating the historical gap between men and women and children, that have created and sustained these barriers to equality and equity.
The Pre- Colonial Era
There has been a tendency amongst scholars to romanticize about traditional African gender relations in pre-colonial periods. These researchers suggest that women in pre-colonial African societies were fairly well empowered in terms of their political and socio- economic well-being and access to civic opportunities. There is however no question that patriarchy was pervasive and existed in all its ramifications and inherent notions of gender inequality, with boys being favoured over girls and women often subjugated particularly at the domestic and household level.
Women were generally however given their due regard as being partners in sustaining the fabric of African societies. In African traditional communities, women indeed played a key role in sustaining the kin groups which characterised the pre-colonial society. They were involved in the economic life of their communities through farming (which they tended to dominate), trading and the production of commodities, while others were involved in hand craft such as pottery, embroidery and weaving. Much of the same held true across Africa, where women played vital and diverse roles within their societies. Fundamental amongst these varied roles was the responsibility of producing and nurturing children.
These responsibilities further included transmitting culture, teaching and educating, as well as instilling in their progeny, the values of society and what constituted acceptable conduct.
Across Africa women were also however con sorts, queen mothers, princesses, high priests and even political and military leaders. Indeed from ancient times Cleopatra, the Egyptian Pharaoh who reigned circa 6BC, the Kahina, a 7th century queen of the Berbers of ancient Algeria and Tunisia, who led military resistance to the Arab expansion in North Africa, Queen Amina, the 16th century female warrior of Zaria in Northern Nigeria, whose famed and dazzling political and military exploits and conquests led to the expansion of the Zazzau emirate, the Angolan Queen Anne Nzinga of the succeeding age, who is famous for courageously opposing the slave trade and the Portuguese occupation of South-west Africa all come to mind.
In the mid-19th to mid-20th century pre-colonial/colonial period, Nigerian businesswomen and political leaders from Madam Tinubu, whose vehement opposition of slave trade in the mid-19th century saw her banished from Lagos by the British Colonial administrators, to Mrs Margaret Ekpo and Mrs Funmilayo Ransome Kuti who held their own in an undoubtedly male dominated enclaves.
It would seem therefore that while feminity per se was no barrier to leadership or social mobility and empowerment, the stark reality is that the extra ordinary successes of such independent and powerful women across the continent in pre-colonial times did not fundamentally alter the basic and inherent paradigm - gender inequality. This was especially so because in addition to already entrenched cultural norms, religion too tended to provide well defined gender ideologies which subjugated women.
The Impact of Colonialism
Colonialism introduced policies, laws and structures that reinforced existing discriminatory practices and entrenched new forms of patriarchy that were arguably more oppressive and exploitative. The socio-economic, political and civil structures of the African societies were significantly modified, as a consequence and this resulted in remarkable changes to the way of life of native inhabitants of the colonies.
It has been observed that a particular socio-political influence of British colonialism was the concept of the Victorian woman, which colonialism promoted. Under this ideology, women were expected to exclusively occupy themselves with domestic chores and issues.
New laws which imposed restrictions on the participation of women in certain aspects of economic and political life were enacted. Lands were confiscated for use in the agricultural production of vital cash crops and the establishment of industrial production plants, which men were required to manage.
Among the Kikuyu women of Kenya, who were major food producers and had authority over how land was to be cultivated; the impact of confiscation of lands by the colonial administrators significantly affected the position of the women in the society, by denying them the means to engage in productive economic activities. A respected scholar states that "even with the new system of agriculture, only men were taught how to apply modern techniques in the cultivation of a given crop, while the women continued to use the traditional method in cultivating the same type of crops. As a result of this, the gap between the labour productivity of men and women continued to widen. Women thus no longer were given the opportunity to exercise any power except those supervised by men".
In the area of politics, their exclusion was even more pronounced, as this was an arena that was already male dominated from the preceding era. Even after the introduction of electoral processes, women were denied the right to vote!
As a consequence of these oppressive policies, several women protests broke out in many parts of Africa. The famous Aba Women's riot of 1929 in Nigeria, which resulted from planned taxation of women who had already lost their livelihoods and were dependent on their husbands, is just one of countless examples.
In the Non-British colonies as well, the story was similar as women were deliberately relegated to performing domestic functions. The 'Foyer sociaux', or social homes in Belgian Congo, were key components in the Belgian colonial project to refashion gender roles and instill a western family ideology into African urban life. Women participated in classes on sewing, cooking, housekeeping and maternal hygiene, to redefine gender roles and further domesticate African women.
Thus, colonialism distorted the social order by pushing women to the fringes and restricting their participation in socio-economic and political life, fuelling gender inequality and entrenching the philosophy that women were subordinates to men, consequently leaving them more disempowered than they had been in the preceding era.
Empowerment of Women: An Urgent Priority
Today, the need to empower women which has become a clarion call and is more widely understood and accepted is urgent and critical. Although the progress recorded in terms of empowering women since the independence era in the 1960's has been commendable, there is a compelling urgency to fully empower women to achieve equality and equity.
Unfortunately, in too many circles, women are still not perceived as being entitled to equal status and opportunity with men, in spite of express constitutional and other legal prescriptions that prohibit discrimination on grounds of gender.
In Nigeria for example, the constitutional order in the council of 1960 which heralded independence in Nigeria had in its third chapter, the fundamental human rights, which stipulated the basic rights of every "person" or "citizen". This chapter was retained in our current 1999 constitution.
The directives of State policy, contained in chapter two of the current 1999 Constitution, expressly prohibits discrimination on grounds of gender and directs "the protection of right of every citizen to engage in economic activities". It prescribes "the equality of rights obligations and opportunities before the law". In addition, "equal and adequate education opportunities at all levels" are also stipulated.
Ghana and Uganda's constitution have similar provisions with Uganda going admirably further with affirmative action provisions to enforce the conferred rights. Still improvement has been marginal.
It is ironic in some ways that, individual African women today have achieved the most significant level of women empowerment in post- colonial history, with the emergence of many women leaders in Africa including a President (Liberia), numerous senators and parliamentarians (51% in Rwanda) and Ministers (over 30% in Nigeria), CEO's of International Organisations, Development Agencies and corporations, Judges and eminent scholars successful professionals and a Nobel Laureate! We must pay tribute to the memory of Mrs Wangira Mathai who did so much for the empowerment of women through her work on the environment. Today Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 8 of 28 countries globally who have reached or exceeded the 30% mark of women's representation in politics.
Similarly, some progress has been recorded with children in terms of the provision of basic needs such as nutrition, healthcare (immunisation in particular - polio, TB, measles, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus and yellow fever), clothing and shelter, as well as increasing access and quality of education for both male and female children. However, statistics by the Global Campaign for Education, show that an estimated 8.2 million children were out of school in Nigeria in 2010, (GCE, 2010) while in Mali, less than 7% of students were able to read a single word of connected text, after spending two years in school. These distressing reports highlight the scale of the challenges that we are faced with in terms of the empowerment of children.
In the fundamental area of education, the situation is worsened by disturbing statistics for women and girls: While women make up two thirds of the 876 million adults who cannot read and write globally with more than 50% in Africa, more than 60% of the 69 million children who were out of school in Africa in 2010, were girls. Furthermore, 48% of children in sub-Saharan Africa do not complete primary education, consequently losing the opportunity to acquire skills or enlightenment; exposure and self-esteem that would enable them empower themselves.
These challenges increase the risk of deepening poverty and ill health, as well as increasing death and crime rates within the population of Women and Children across the continent.
MDG's and the Empowerment of Women and Children
Since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG's) by governments in September 2000, there has been a renewed focus on the multi-dimensional issues that fuel the increase of poverty across the world and especially in Africa. The consideration of the plight of women and children among the MDG's as observed in goals 3, 4 and 5, which are to:
Promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality and improve maternal health; have contributed significantly to addressing disparities in the empowerment of women and children globally. In the words of Kofi Annan former UN Secretary General," The millennium development goals, particularly the eradication of poverty and hunger cannot be achieved if questions of population and reproductive health are not squarely addressed. And that means stronger efforts to promote women's rights and greater investments in education and health including reproductive health."
In terms of the progress towards achieving these goals in sub-Saharan Africa, much still needs to be done as statistics reveal that only a few African countries will meet these goals by the deadline of 2015 or soon thereafter.
With respect to goal 3, which is to "Promote gender equality and empower women", targets include eliminating gender disparity at all levels of education, increasing the number of women in employment in the formal sector, and increasing the participation of women in politics; progress on these fronts has been mixed since significant disparities still exist between boys and girls at different levels of education, across the continent, although the representation of women in politics has increased.
Progress with Goal 4, which is to "Reduce child mortality", has clearly been slow. The target, is to reduce by two-thirds between 2000 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate. Average figures for sub-Saharan Africa reveal that the rate has dropped from 184 per 1,000 live births in 1999, to 144 in 2008. In some countries on the continent however, mortality has risen.
With respect to goal 5, to "Improve maternal health", progress on the target to reduce by three-quarters, between 2000 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio has also been quite slow, as stakeholders report that the "rate of reduction is still well short of the 5.5% annual decline needed to meet the MDG target". It is also noted that the proportion of deliveries attended by skilled health personnel has increased slightly, but not enough to affect the overall picture significantly. While more women also are receiving ante-natal care, teenage pregnancies are still prevalent, with the attendant adverse impact on the progress being made.
Two key challenges that continue to undermine the improvement of maternal health are the cultural and socio-economic factors that affect maternal mortality, as well as the dearth of skilled manpower and quality public health infrastructure.
Overall, the challenge towards achieving the goals of the MDG's as they relate to women and children, are affected by the priorities of governments. It must be understood, that there will always be competing priorities for resource allocation, therefore, it is essential for governments at all levels, to realise that the central reason for making the empowerment of woman and children a priority, is the moral duty to ensure that every human being regardless of gender or social status, has a right to live and access opportunities that will enable them live better lives. As World Bank President Robert Zoelick recently pointed out, it is also good economics.
It would be remiss of me not mention and commend the multi pronged 'Integrated maternal newborn and child health strategy' of the Jonathan Administration's Ministry of health to accelerate progress in these areas
Effective Laws and Enforcement; A Critical Success Factor
Laws shape attitudes and create new norms. The Universal Basic Education Act in Nigeria, which provides free and compulsory education, from primary to junior secondary school, is an example. More effective enforcement mechanisms must however be designed. It is essential to pass and enforce effective laws that directly address the vulnerability of and discriminatory tendencies towards women and children even in the private and domestic sphere. The private domestic sphere must not be out of the reach of the law. It is indeed in the domestic sphere that the preponderance of violence and abuse against women occurs.
Under Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's exemplary leadership, the United Nations and its sub agencies for women and children, the Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women - UN Women, and the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund - UNICEF, have been at the forefront of global efforts that are aimed at establishing sound legal systems for enforcing justice in the protection and empowerment of women and children. With the ratification of the equal protection framework of the African Chapter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) and the "Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)" by over 186 member states, and the ratification of the "Convention on the rights of the Child" by over 193 state parties, the burden of responsibility now lies with African states to enact and enforce local laws that domesticate these International Conventions in addressing rights violations of women and children. It is proven that where laws and justice systems work well, they constitute a vital mechanism for the realisation and protection of rights of individuals and groups. A prime example is observed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where for the first time in history, a Crime against humanity case was held in February 2011, resulting in the convictions for the mass rapes of 40 women and girls two months earlier. It is encouraging to note that in 21 countries in sub-Saharan Africa now have laws that prohibit domestic violence, while just 8 countries also within the region have enforced quotas to drive increased female representation in government.
Despite these positive developments, much still needs to be done in terms of making laws work for women and children. In the pioneer UN Women report titled, Progress of the World's Women, it is observed that "for most of the world's women, the laws that exist on paper, do not always translate into equality and justice. In many contexts, in rich and poor countries alike, the infrastructure of Justice - the police, the courts and the judiciary - is failing women, which manifests itself in poor services and hostile attitudes, from the very people, whose duty it is to fulfil women's rights".
A collaborative effort is required from governments, civil society and other stakeholders to articulate precisely what needs to be done, determining how much it will cost (and acknowledging the huge resource gap) and assigning responsibilities to improve the enforcement of women and children rights. We must design a clear pathway towards achieving this within a new realistic time frame as a matter of priority. It is evident from the broad scenario, that governments alone cannot act to change the status quo for a number of reasons; some viable, while others probably not so. Thus, a greater burden of responsibility rests on non-government agencies, such as ANWLD and others stakeholders, to act out of a sense of moral duty. For those who possess the wherewithal and see reason to act, urgent action must meet promises and commitments, since each passing day, implies an opportunity lost, a future denied, and in extreme cases, a life truncated.
With respect to Children's rights, similar action must be taken to avoid expending effort, without realizing tangible changes in terms of enforcing the rights of children. The domestication of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Nigeria, by the passing of the Child Rights Act in 2003, was a positive and noteworthy precedent. However, since its effectiveness is tied to it being passed in all states of the Federation, the promulgation of the Act is yet to translate into improved protection for children across the federation, since only 23 of the 36 states in the country have passed it. As with the enforcement of Women rights, stakeholders must act collectively and and in a collaborative way.
A Champion for Change- Nigeria's First Lady
In July 2010, Her Excellence, the First Lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Dame Patience Jonathan, launched the Women for Change Initiative, "a non-government and non-partisan gender focused movement", which aims to advocate greater empowerment and inclusion of women in society. Areas of focus under the initiative include economic empowerment, health, education and self-help for women. The movement launched at a time of unprecedented political awareness, related to the launch of President Goodluck Jonathan's extraordinarily successful campaign for the presidency in September 2010. The Nigerian first lady's initiative, has led to a remarkable increase in awareness of the need for women to be represented in government, as a means of fostering gender equality.
As a consequence, our President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, while campaigning for office, made a commitment towards ensuring that women will be well represented in his cabinet; and having been returned as president, has made good on his promise by appointing 13 accomplished women out of 40 ministers to hold some of the most important positions in the Federal cabinet: Finance, Petroleum, Education, Lands and Housing, Whilst this is another significant milestone in our quest as a nation to realise gender equality, it also serves as a shining example of commitment to empowering women. Hopefully, governments across our continent will follow President Jonathan's example so that a new culture of inclusion and equality of woman in government, will soon be institutionalised in our continent.
In conclusion the need to empower women and children cannot be overstated. Studies show that when women are supported and invested in, all of society benefits. Their families are healthier, more children go to school, agricultural productivity improves, incomes increase and society's vital well-being and stability is better assured. They directly impact the future of any society and their own well-being essentially reflects the progress and development of the society. Therefore the empowerment of women and children must be our first priority. It is our collective and shared responsibility, deriving from our shared humanity, to ensure that African women and children are not denied their own God given and inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Only this will lead to dramatic improvements in our development paradigm in Africa. Let me end my remarks with late Prime Minister Indira Ghandi's succinct summary of this same conclusion written on an ancient Sanskrit parchment which says that "woman is the home, and the house is the basis of society. It is as we build our homes that we can build our country. If the home is inadequate - either inadequate in material goods and necessities or inadequate in the sort of friendly loving atmosphere that every child needs to grow and develop, then that country cannot have harmony and no country that does not have harmony can grow in any direction at all."
That was as true in ancient times, as it is today. The difference lies in the peril that our continent faces if we fail to heed this truism.
I thank you.
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