Govt should make education free, compulsory

Rev. Sr. Ngozi Frances Uti, a Reverend Sister, a Catholic nun of the congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus (HHCJ), the first indigenous congregation of women religious in Nigeria, is a founding member of Center for Women Studies and Intervention (CWSI) and the executive Director. In this interview with ENE OSHABA, she discusses women empowerment, gender equality, rape and the need for stringent measures to addressing the menace.

What does the Centre for Women Studies and Intervention (CWSI) do basically?

First of all, the congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus (HHCJ) was founded in Calabar in 1931, by Mother Mary Charles Magdalene Walker, of the Congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity. She came to Nigeria in 1923 and her mission was to empower women and girls as persons created in the image and likeness of God.

She did this by educating women and girls and empowering them to live with dignity and be able to contribute their quota as partners with men in the development of the society.

It is in continuation of this apostolate of the empowerment of women and girls that CWSI was established in 1999 as a Not-for-Profit organisation by the congregation according to the signs of our time and in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

CWSI is an organisation which envisions women and other vulnerable persons empowered, liberated, and active in the creation of a better world.

This is the vision of CWSI and the roadmap guiding all our activities. We can only achieve this when women and men begin to appreciate each other as partners in development.

Therefore, conscious of the fact that men are the main custodians of culture and tradition in most parts of Nigeria, we embark on conscientising the men on the need to have women at the table where decisions are made and taken for the welfare of all. We carry out advocacy visits to those we think are major stakeholders in this matter.

There are people who still believe the whole issue of women empowerment is a foreign ideology which does not exist in our land but I strongly differ from this opinion because our culture differ from one region to the other, marginalisation and abuse also differ.

Most women have also accepted this situation as normal and so it is important that such people understand what is at stake. This is the big challenge of educating women and girls on their dignity and fundamental human rights which is the main focus of our intervention which is holistic empowerment. 

Do you think women play roles in nation building?

Yes, women have roles to play in nation building and the role of women in nation building cannot be over looked. Nigerian women from pre-independence days have contributed greatly to the growth of our nation.

The history of this country will not be complete without mentioning women like Queen Amina the Hausa queen of the city-state of Zazzu, Mrs Fumilayo Ransome Kuti, a women’s rights activist who also took part in the Nigerian independence movement.

There is also Mrs. Margeret Ekpo, a women’s rights activist of her time, a mobiliser and politician in the first republic. These women were fearless and could speak up for justice.

To bring it closer to our day we can talk of Mrs Marian Babaginda, who as first lady with her Better Life for Rural Women’s programme championed the cause of empowering women.

Similarly, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as finance minister tried to build up the economy of the nation. Professor (Mrs) Dora Akunyili as minister of health fought hard to stem the importation of fake drugs. There are so many women who have contributed a lot in the building of our nation.

However, the common experience that most women share is a passive and subordinate one. It forms the base on the gender division of labour, which allots to women the bulk of the tasks associated with the sustenance of the domestic unit. It therefore inequitably excludes women from sharing economic and social values of power equally.

This fundamentally underlies and perpetuates gender discriminations against females at each stage of their life circle from cradle to grave.  As women we should collectively work against such a mindset and cannot continue to remain passive or marginalised even where this is being forced on us. Therefore, we must continue relentlessly to demand for the promotion of the principles of justice, solidarity and the common good. It is our collective duty to continue to address inequalities and challenges to inclusion, the need for access to education, health care, work and social services.

Given the role that women played pre and post-independence we know that given the space women can do a lot because of their God given nature to nurture.

So, would you say that women have been given their right of place in the scheme of things in Nigeria?

No! Even though I know that there would be those who think otherwise. 

In Nigeria, despite the 35 per cent affirmative action for women participation in the political sphere, women are not regarded to be equal as men and as such considered incapable or “not strong enough” to lead in strategic positions of power which is wrong given the few examples I cited earlier.

In terms of women participation in politics, there are a few indicators which reiterate this position including: the number of women who participate in elections; the number of women selected as candidates, nominated and elected; as well as the disparity in women’s financial and material resources to run campaigns as against the men.

Also, the ratio of elected women against men; perceptions as to whether electoral opportunities are similar for both men and women; the restriction to carrying out “women’s work” when selected to work in any committee board or council at the local and state levels; percentage of voters’ support for women running and campaigning for official positions.

Similarly, voters’ perception of women and their performance in political offices including in positions not traditionally held by women; as well as discriminatory cultural norms and family obligations totally vested in women leading to lesser assignments of policy roles.

These factors make it very difficult for most women who so desire and aspire to fulfill their dreams.

What would you say is responsible for the increase in different forms of gender-based violence in the country?

The rise in the prevalence of gender-based violence in Nigeria can be attributed to factors including: societal norms and cultural permissiveness that justifies men’s aggression against womenhe the perception that women are regarded as passive, submissive and fully dependent on men; as well as the valuation of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) as a normal and functional behaviour. The perception that GBV is exceptional hence caused by factors outside men’s control places obligations on women to ensure they minimize the chances of their behaviour instigating violence.

Similarly, the notion of masculinity being linked to aggression, dominance, and honour; prevalence of silence amongst victims under the guise of strength; acceptance of violence as a means of settling interpersonal disputes; tolerance of physical violence and sexual violence against women and children.

Also, the perception of women and children as trophies and objects of war; and low socio-economic status of women leading to dependence on men Isolation of victims of GBV and the condoning of violence against women contribute to rise in the prevalence of gender-based violence in the country.

How does the CWSI intervene in women issues?

The centre is a female-led organisation that works with women, groups and other relevant bodies. The CWSI has carried out a number of researches on root causes of gender – based violence covering seven states in Nigeria. The effects of these abuses and the outcomes have led to CWSI’s numerous interventions which include:  education for victims of early/forced marriages; economic empowerment of rural women; advocating for political and social rights of women at all levels; and public awareness on gender issues as a way forward towards the achievement of sustainable development goals.

In addition to the protection of women’s rights, CWSI provides pro bono services to victims of socio-cultural abuses and marginalization; public awareness through various channels have been an important medium of reaching out to the public and sensitising them on topical issues especially as it affects the female gender and other vulnerable persons.

In addition to the above, the centre has published various books and newsletters that help to amplify the voices of women on related issues.

To institutionalise her work in her project locations CWSI has formed women coalition groups that continue to push women issues in their various states. This office also has human rights clubs that monitor and report to appropriate quarters, human rights abuses especially as they affect women.

Over the years many para-legals have been trained and clinics set up where these noble men and women help in maintaining family and communal harmony.

What is your take on allegation that most Non-Governmental Organisations are means of enriching their founders?

The CWSI was established to contribute in dismantling social structures that promote the oppression and subjugation of women and other vulnerable groups. Women and the vulnerable are continuously exposed to harmful traditional practices that give rise to GBV such as battering, female genital mutilation, and other forms of physical and emotional abuses.

The quest to promote the dignity and wellbeing of women and the vulnerable in the society is the driving force behind our programs and activities.

At CWSI we uphold our vision of a society where women and the vulnerable are liberated and active in the creation of a better world. This vision is precipitated by our desire to maintain the legacy of our Foundress Mother Mary Charles Magdalene Walker, RSC.

It is a known fact that women religious, the world over, have been in the fore-front of humanitarian activities. Think of the early missionaries and their works. Most Nigerians benefited from their activities at little or no cost; think of the schools, hospital, orphanages, that they built single handedly and of cause the scholarships that were given.

One would argue that these days religious organisations own schools and hospitals like others do, but then we have to pay salaries and other running costs, that doesn’t mean that CWSI doesn’t receive grants for our activities. We do, but our life as religious is one of sacrifice and service to humanity.

What is your take on child labour and how do you think it could be curbed?

The issue of child labour has lingered for a long time and at a high proportion. It is an issue that occurs globally, regionally and nationally.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), child labour is any work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and dignity, and is harmful to physical and mental development.

The ILO minimum age convention (C138) of 1973, provides the age/work of children that falls within the category of child labourers as any work performed by children under the age of 12, non-light work done by children aged 12-14, and hazardous work done by children aged 15-17.

Data estimates that child labour accounts for 22 per cent of the workforce in Asia, 32 per cent in Africa, 17 per cent in Latin America, and 1 per cent in the United States, Canada, Europe and other wealthy nations.

Nigeria as a country is not left out in the scourge of child labour as at least 43 per cent of Nigerian children are reported trapped in various forced labour.

These children are mostly seen in streets as hawkers, homes as domestic workers, mines and construction sites, carrying out tedious activities that could harm their growth and development.

More so, these forms of labour could be as a result of family debt, cultural influence and other factors. The children are sometimes victims of exploitation and abuses.

Over the years, news publications and reports verify the fact that children, especially the girl-child, have been exposed to harm in the form of sexual abuses as a result of these child labour activities such as hawking. Child labour in all its form is harmful, and it violates the right of the child. As stipulated in Article no. 32 of Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a child’s right is to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development

Efforts should be made to at least reduce child labour to the barest minimum. This reduction can be achieved through raising awareness on the ills associated with child labour especially at the grassroots; carrying out helpful activities to keep the public informed on the World Day Against Child Labour.

Continuous advocacy for the implementation of the child labour laws; and advocacy for the domestication and implementation of the CRA throughout the Federation can also contribute to reducing child labour.

I have taken time and the pains to add statistics to the last question because of the pain I feel for children who are not able to enjoy their childhood; children who assume responsibility even before they understand what life is all about.

It is my hope that someday poverty will be eradicated from our society so we no longer have child labourers, house helps as we have them today but one that has work hours, remuneration package and job security.

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