HOW do you tell when women are beginning to make impacts in their communities? Is it when their standard of living improves? Is it when more women have education? Is it when they join politics or build community health care centres?
In the Niger Delta, women are at the forefront of changing narratives about gender mainstreaming, and are inspiring fellow women to stand up for their rights.
Juliana’s inspiring story
“I’m the testimony of myself,” said 49-year-old Korepuzhe Juliana in front of a cheery group of women and men who had gathered in Warri, Delta State to celebrate this year’s International Women Day organized by the Foundation for Partnership Initiative in the Niger Delta (PIND).
If her education was inspiring, the rest of her story is
The event, Realising Women’s Rights: Economic and Peace building Route was to allow stakeholders to take stock of achievements made since the declaration of Beijing Accord 25 years ago.
Juliana, who hails from Bilabiri 1 Community in Ekeremo Local Government, Bayelsa State has always been an independent woman, even after losing two daughters in a shipwreck and waited for another 18 years to become a mother again.
She narrated how they swam for long hours when their boat capsized on the way to Nigeria from Gabon. “My two daughters died in the water.”
She grew up in Gabon following her parents’ relocation from Nigeria during her childhood. But the incident that claimed her two daughters while returning to Nigeria in 1994 was one that depressed her for years.
Since then, she has moved from being an illiterate village woman, to being a school teacher and spokesperson for the women.
She was into fishing in Gabon and had thought to continue the same line of business on her return to Nigeria. But for several reasons, fishing in Nigeria at her community was not as productive as expected.
“When I came back, the only occupation in my village was fishing,” she said. “We toiled throughout the night but what we caught is not usually enough compared with the time and energy. We are out on the sea till 2am.”
Juliana could only speak French, and pidgin English and because fishing was not as profitable as she would have loved, formal education was her last option.
“We catch a little fish, so I decided to read ABCD,” an elated Juliana said as she shared her testimony.
At about 26-year-old, she started to learn how to read and write under the guidance of her husband, a Reverend Minister who is now late. “He taught me how to read and write,” Juliana said, eulogising her late husband who died in 2009, as “a good mentor.”
Describing her brain as a computerized one, Juliana, is now employed by Ekeremo Local Government as a primary school teacher after attending teaching certificates at Teachers Training College, Ekeremo and NCE in Ekiti State.
Between when her late husband tutored her and now that she is a full time school teacher, she says there have been many changes for women in her village.
Demanding rights of women
Juliana has been the one standing up for the rights of fellow women in the five communities that make up RDC and two clans.
Men in the communities have given little opportunity to women to be represented at many forums and she fought for women’s inclusion.
“They wanted to have an open forum and they requested for 50 persons to represent our communities: 40 men and 10 women, but the leaders took just one woman to represent us,” she recalls.
“I challenged them that why are they denying women their rights, they said women are illiterate.”
She demanded Adult Education for women in the communities from the local government authorities which were granted.
Juliana, now coordinator of the Adult Education programme says 20 women have enrolled for primary school leaving certificate examination.
“The reason I asked for the women to be educated is that I want women to join in the fight for their rights,” she says. This, she explained, was facilitated by a training on peace building and gender mainstreaming by PIND.
She believes that women hold the key to development in their respective communities with the Adult Education and skills acquisition training they have undergone.
Prioritizing women and children’s health care—Mirian’s bold and courageous efforts
In 2016, plights of women and children prompted Anomuogharan Mirian to mobilise women of like minds to rehabilitate the abandoned Benikuru Community Health Centre in Egbema, Gbaramatu, Warri, Delta State.
The health centre was in total ruins—overgrown by weeds and the equipment were left to rot away—yet women and children in the community were in dire need of adequate health care services.
“I was inspired by the theme of the 2017 International Women Day celebration that was around being bold and courageous to mobilise other women to clean up the abandoned Egoboata Health Centre,” Mirian says as she shares her success story.
With the help of fellow women like Iselekedimine Newman, Abase and Tokiye Okoromadu as well as a man, Festus Ojogun who shared her vision, the moribund health care facility was rehabilitated.
In October, Mirian said, based on the state government recommendation, the health care centre hosted a medical outreach where locals with defects such as cataract were treated.
Although the centre was serving the interest of the locals, Mirian who had mobilised resources to run it was asked to vacate it by the community. While she left, the community offered her another abandoned building to renovate to continue her work.
“Again, I started all over to renovate the abandoned building. I constructed a wooden bridge over water to link the clinic. I repaired the roof. Today, my new centre is the only one serving the community,” she recounts her experience.
Women for women, Alfreder’s political engagement
Alfreder Ato, advocate for girl child education in the creeks recalls her experience as the first woman to come out of Ekeremo Local Government in Bayelsa State to seek an elective post.
In the 2019 general elections, she contested the state House of Assembly seat and in 2020 was a deputy governorship candidate. At the time, she was one of the seven female deputy governorship candidates.
Her campaign slogan, “women for women” inspired women to come out massively to vote during the election though she didn’t win the seat.
“Women came out massively to vote for me because that was the first time a woman was coming out,” she says.
“I was able to tell them my vision, that they have tried men and they should have tried women too.”
Alfreder stirred hornet nests during electioneering when she blew the cover of state officials and electoral officials caught in vote buying and hoarding of voters’ cards.
“I ran into some electoral officials and some community leaders who were hoarding cards,” Alfreder relives her experience with fellow Niger Delta women.
This, she says led to the arrest of those involved by the security and removal of compromised electoral officials.
As a result of what happened, the election became a tug of war- her agents were kidnapped by militants; her bank account and phone line were hacked.
She says what she saw during the elections were eye openers that “we have a lot to do.”
But her involvement in politics earned her nomination by YIAGA as one of Nigeria’s most influential young politicians.
What must be done to improve gender mainstreaming?
In the Niger Delta, like many parts of Nigeria, women face barriers to realise their potentials, to representation in public life at the local level. Poor women are particularly vulnerable.
Tunji Idowu, PIND Deputy Executive Director explains that the Foundation places women and girls at the heart of its work, working closely with partners on ground to spread the benefits of its programme interventions to women, who are the most marginalised.
“For us, gender mainstreaming is not only about including women as intervention participants,” Idowu says. “It is about deliberately addressing issues limiting women’s economic and social wellbeing.”
The Foundation has over the years empowered and facilitated opportunities for thousands of women such as access to fit for purpose efficient technology and also championed women’s issues such as violence against women.
Bose Eitokpah, a gender specialist says there is a need to bridge the gap between the generation of those who started what culminated into the Beijing Declaration and the new generation to be able to continue with the struggle for gender equity.
Though, the figure of women involvement in Nigeria’s different sectors is still far behind that of their menfolk, Eitokpah who had worked with the Foundation on gender mainstreaming and capacity building says the current realities of women participation in various activities gives encouragement and builds hope of a brighter future.
Blessing Epharaim Sam, specialist in ceiling and floor finishing says barriers against women such as being tagged too weak to do certain work must be broken. She was part of the PIND’s Niger Delta Youth Empowerment Programme (NDYEP) where she acquired the skills in ceiling and roofing finishing.
“A woman is always considered too weak to do certain jobs, like a woman cannot go into construction,” says Sam whose work now speaks volume about what women can do.
In politics, Agatha Osieke Osagie, a lawyer and gender activist laments that Nigerian women are yet to get there. She wonders why women usually fail to support their fellow women seeking political offices.
“In Edo State, we started with three women in the state House of Assembly and today there is none,” she says. “It is a shame.”
Osagie, commends however, women in Edo, that are now playing roles in issues of peace and security unlike in the past when they were laid back.
She attributes this and other success to PIND, which gives a road map to women on how to be more active and engaging.
Benedicta Peter-Ughe’s aquaculture business in Akure, Ondo State which used to be an exclusive preserved business for the men inspires other women.
“I use what I’m doing to mobilise other women in Akure, especially in aquaculture,” she says.
“Women have been taken for granted and are not allowed to engage in some works based on traditions and customs. Eradication of poverty is one of the rights women are entitled to.”
Yet, it would be a mistake to be carried away by the success stories— many more women remain highly vulnerable to poverty and without the right support, will not find a way out.