Nigeria @ 60
Imagine Nigeria with a female president and women taking up powerful positions in government, multinationals and corporate affairs? While this might seem far-fetched to some, it is definitely in the works with a stronger quest for women’s empowerment.
Let us talk a bit about women’s empowerment, localising it to Nigeria of course. Women’s empowerment in Nigeria is the upward development of women in all spheres of society. We are talking economic, political and social areas
Over the years women have always been seen as second fiddle to their male counterparts and before you shake your head in disapproval, it has been proven and the earlier we accept the truth the faster we make headway.
October 1 1960, Nigeria was taken out of the cradle of colonialism and we set off on a journey of self-discovery and sovereign rule but not without the hard work of our heroes and heroines past. Let’s talk about the heroines past, women who walked that women of our time could fly and the groundbreaking work they carried out to help define Nigeria as we know it.
We cannot talk about all these without bringing in women like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margaret Ekpo and Hajia Sawaba Gambo. If you have never learned about these women it’s because they have been conveniently left out when the likes of Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Tafewa Balewa are mentioned. You may ask why? It is because we live in a largely patriarchal system where women are viewed as subservient but we will touch on that today. Today is for women who laid the foundation for Nigeria and joined in creating the framework for independence
These women pushed envelopes, led marches and mobilised fellow citizens, founded political parties and spoke too loudly to be ignored in the sands of time. All done in a time when women could barely be heard or seen at the forefront of hypothetical battle lines. Let’s talk about them, shall we?
To think of the name is to remember the first Nigerian woman to drive a car and the mother to the famous king of Afrobeats, Fela Ransome-Kuti with blood and sweat put into education, women right activism and political campaigning swept under the rug. Born Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas in 1900, she was the first female student of Abeokuta Grammar School which she got into in 1914 after which she moved on to further her education in Wincham Hall School for Girls in Britain from 1919 – 1922. Coming back to Nigeria she immersed herself into anti-colonial education and social activism. She fought tooth and nail to give women access to education and political representation.
In a bid to improve women’s involvement in society, she founded the Abeokuta’s Ladies’ Club in 1932 which would later evolve to be the Abeokuta Women’s Union, a club with deeper roots into feminism admitted members from all walks of life especially the maligned under the colonial rule.
AWC gradually pulled an estimate of 20,000 progressive women who wanted more female participation in social issues. In 1947, they fought against the special tax imposed on the market women by Sir Ladapo Ademola II. Over time then union expanded its horizons into access to education for women, healthcare and sanitary regulations. The club grew into a national union named Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU) in 1949 and eventually in 1953, the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS).
It was around this time she got actively involved in politics and was the first women to be appointed to the Western house of Chiefs in the 1950s. The title of ‘Oloye’ was also conferred on her. Kuti who saw herself as an African socialist spoke to women in different parts of the world. She posed as a threat to different capitalist countries such as the U.S and the UK who didn’t want her to spread her ideologies which they termed ‘too communist’.
It would delight you to know that she was very instrumental in the constitutional negotiations that laid the foundation for our independence. Funmilayo was attacked by soldiers in 1977 and was thrown out of the second floor of the building we now know as Kalakuta republic. She died a year later(1978) of complications from injuries she sustained in that incident.
Hajia Gambo Sawaba
Hajia Sawaba (Hajaratu Amarteifo) was born in 1933. She started social activism at a 17 after being married to a war veteran Abubakar Bello at the tender age of 13.
Dropping out of school and being married off at the age she probably motivated her quest for girls and women to get better. Under the umbrella of the Northern Elements Progressive Union(NEPU) a union that has one of the strongest international backings at the time, she fought tirelessly against forced labour and underage marriage while using her voice to push for western education. Shortly after joining the union, she was made the female leader of the Zaria branch. At the point she openly gave a speech attacking powerful male political figures to do better by women in terms of basic rights and freedom was when a target was placed at her back.
She went under the wing of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti after becoming friends and went on to be one of the driving forces for the liberation of women in the North in a time when causes like these were a risk to life. She never cowered in the face of danger making her feisty nature one that is not easily forgotten. Reports have it that Hajia Gambo Sawaba was jailed over 16 times but increased her volume after every arrest even dragging the deplorable state of the prisons in the trail.
Hajia Sawaba was extremely vocal in the affairs of women in Northern Nigeria especially fighting against female degradation and oppression in the region and gained the name ‘Sawabiya’ which means ‘redeemer’. She died aged 71 in October 2001.
One interesting fact about this powerful woman was that she stumbled upon politics and its affairs. Born in 1914, Margaret attended school up until 1934 when her father, the breadwinner passed causing her to halt her dreams of attending teacher’s institute and taking up a job as an elementary school teacher. 4 years down the line she carried a government worker who was a medical doctor and this was where her journey into politics began.
Just like her, Margaret’s husband had an itch to make things balanced especially with the treatment workers from Nigerian descent were getting from the colonial masters but could not afford to attend the meetings set to discuss these matters so she went in his stead. Slowly and steadily she picked interest in the affairs discussed and started attending more of these meetings. She took particular interest in cultural, gender and racial discrimination which saw women at the receiving end of poverty and strife/ the first time she attended a political call, she was the only woman present and that riled up something unquenchable in her.
Later on, she joined the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons(NCNC) where she met Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and together they fought against the killings on anti-colonial protesters in the Enugu Coal Mines. She was the pioneer of the popular pressure group, Aba Township Women Association which she formed in 1954 and at the end of 1955. The Association had more female voters than male in the city.
She however mellowed when the civil war was approaching which was the time she was detained for 3 years as a result of her fearless activism.
In 2001 the Calabar Airport was renamed as Margaret Ekpo International Airport after her and she died in the year 2006 of natural causes at age 92.
Now back to my opening question, with all these that the pioneering women fought for, is there still hope for the inclusion they so passionately fought for. Our independence is 60 and yet there we can not boast of one female president or Vice President in Nigeria, we still have unequal pay based on gender in the corporate environment, some girls have been denied access to educational and cultural facilities based on nothing else but the mere fact that they are female.
While we have modern-day feminists championing these causes, there is still so much work to be done to ensure that there is increased inclusion and participation in all spheres of society. It is impossible to have a well-rounded country without women. Does the giant of Africa still retain its position by taking baby strides?