Monday, 23 January 2012

Gender equality and equity - can the real woman please stand up

Joachim Ezeji.

It was amazing reading a communiqué the other day which emanated from a Muslim group, the communiqué had advised Muslim women in Nigeria to shun on-going campaigns on gender equality arguing that it is alien and unfriendly to faith and culture.

Ever since reading that report on a local newspaper, I have been very curious to know the red line on gender equality for religious groups such as the Muslims in Nigeria.My interest is deep seated and is intended to be fully discussed here.

However, I am not unaware that the elimination of feminized poverty is a paramount priority for the international community and her local partnerships. I also doubt the ignorance of any educated person or entity on this priority. These priorities are underscored copiously in the Goal 3 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).The UN Millennium Development Goals, issued by the UN Secretary General in 2001,are a ‘road map’ for implementing the millennium declaration. The MDGs comprise eight goals supplemented by 18 numerical and time-bound targets and 48 indicators intended to improve living conditions and remedy key global imbalances by 2015.Goals 3 calls for gender equality and women’s empowerment. In addition the MDGs address several of the 12 critical areas of concern in the platform for action adopted at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, namely poverty, education, health and environmental sustainability.

In Nigeria, gender issues in development received little attention in national planning until the declaration of the United Nations Decade for women. Hitherto, a woman’s reproductive, productive and community management roles and potentials were marginalized and left out of the system of national planning. Therefore, development planning since the colonial period has been gender insensitive, as a result of the continuous interaction between the indigenous culture and the inherited patriarchy from the colonial administration, as well as the strong inhibiting effects of traditionalism and capitalist ideologies.

In Nigeria, women make up 49.6% of the nation’s total population (1991 census).They are responsible for the reproduction of the labor force and for producing over 70% of the nation’s food supply. About 13.3% of Nigerian women were employed in the formal sector until the 1980’s.This proportion declined rapidly in the process of economic reconstruction as a result of the rationalization of public and private sector workers and cuts in production capacity in industry. The majority of female workers are in lower cadre occupations. Those in professional and marginal occupations constitute only 18% of that grade of employment. Most Nigerian women are informal sector workers who predominate in micro-enterprises with little or no access to credit, technology and other supports required to build up capital. Indeed, it is estimated that a negligible proportion of women in the formal sector has access to credit; hence the high attrition rate of women’s businesses.
But, can thinking gender lead to effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease, and stimulate development that is truly sustainable?

In answering this question, I will like to bring in the effects of water or gender implications of water at the household level. Apart from the health implications of water –related diseases, the fetching of water inflicts a heavy burden in terms of time and effort, especially on women and children in the largely un-served areas of our urban and rural areas. Many of these women have to trek long distances to water sources and then wait for long periods in line to fill their buckets. This is part of the daily routine for millions of Nigerian women and girls, often taking up several hours a day. The involvement of children, particularly girls, in this chore restricts attendance at school, as well as time for play. Moreover, water carrying exerts a toll on women’s health. Water containers typically hold about 20litres of water and weigh about 20 kilograms. Carrying such a heavy weight on the head, back or hip has severe health implications for women, who commonly experience backache and joint pains. In extreme cases, spine and pelvic deformities results, creating complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

In view of the foregoing I make bold to emphasize that water is a critical but often overlooked element in sustainable development including gender equity. According to Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), ‘...The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) highlighted that water is not only the most basic of needs but is also at the centre of sustainable development and is essential for poverty eradication. Water is intimately linked to health, agriculture, energy and biodiversity. Without progress in water, reaching the other MDGs will be difficult, if not impossible’’.
Further to this, is the realization that water is a key ingredient in generating rural livelihoods, growing food, producing energy, encouraging industrial and service sector growth, and ensuring the integrity of ecosystems and the goods and services they provide. The position of women in some of these activities is eminent and a matter of daily survival.

Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) recognizes that women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water, this pivotal role of women as providers and users of water and guardians of the living environment has seldom been reflected in institutional arrangements for the development and management of water resources. The acceptance and implementation of this principle requires policies to address women’s specific needs and to equip and empower women to participate at all levels in water resources programmes, including decision making and implementation, in ways defined by them.

The impact of gender role recognition on water resource policy can be viewed in two broad and fundamental ways; Policy relating to the sustainable management of resources relies on a broad base of stakeholder participation and consultation. The diverse gender roles of men and women in the management and control of water resources require that they are viewed as separate stakeholder groups. And; the development of water resource management policy can impact upon men and women in different ways. Gender-sensitive water resource policy will address the equality of access to the potential benefits of water resource development from the perspective of both men and women. As such, gender-sensitive policy development is a tool by which the interests of marginalized members of society can be incorporated into sustainable approach to water resource management. Beyond water are other concerns such as employment, agriculture and entrepreneurship germane for poverty alleviation and national development.

The prosperity of a nation depends on the efficient utilization of all factors of production, land, labor and capital. Hitherto, the labor of women had been used on a small scale in the formal sector of the economy, a result of the social discrimination in education and training, as well as the gender-based division of labor which is reflected in the formal sector of employment. In Nigeria, women provide an estimated 60-80% of labor input in agriculture, especially in food production, processing and marketing. Many women are farmers in their own right, apart from working on family farms. Although various efforts have been made by several agencies, unfortunately women’s contribution in this regard is not adequately acknowledged in the development of agricultural policy and programmes. This situation must be corrected.

The visibility of women in petty trading gives the false impression that their enterprises are successful and acknowledged. However, a recent assessment of women’s enterprises shows that the constraints to their ability to capitalize and to sustain themselves and their families are enormous. These will have to be removed to ensure the efficient utilization of their labor in those enterprises for socio-economic developments. Poor access to credit, information, appropriate technology, lack of technical skills and poor organization and accounting skills are real problems at all levels of women’s enterprises.

It is now generally recognized that the majority of the world’s poor are women. Goal 1 reflects this by broadening the definitions of poverty to encompass not only income poverty but other dimensions such as lack of empowerment, opportunity, capacity and security. Because many aspects of gender inequality influence the different dimensions of poverty, promoting gender equality in the design of strategies and actions to meet this goal is critical. Gender equality has a direct impact on economic growth and the reduction of income poverty by raising productivity, improving efficiency, increasing economic opportunities and empowering women.

Globally, it is recognized that 90 million of the 150 million children aged 6-11 who do not attend school are girls. Meeting the education goal of the MDG therefore requires that the distinctive conditions preventing girls and boys from attending schools be addressed. Reducing education costs, improving quality, tackling parental concerns about female modesty or safety and increasing the returns to families that invest in female schooling are factors that can overcome social and economic barriers to girl’s education.Goal 2 is the key to achieving Goal 1; eliminating gender disparities in education is one of the most effective poverty reduction strategies.

Women aging 15 and above presently constitute two-thirds of the world’s 876 million illiterates. Working women have less social protection and employment rights; a third of all women have been violently abused; over 500,000 women die each year in pregnancy and childbirth; and rates of HIV/AIDS infection among women are rapidly increasing.

Evidence from countries around the world demonstrates that gender equality is the key to improving maternal and child health and stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Some 500,000 women, the majority in poor countries e.g. Nigeria etc. die each year due to pregnancy-related causes. Reducing maternal mortality depends on the extent of health care availability for expectant mothers, particularly when dealing with complications. Greater control of income by women tends to lower child mortality even when the households total income is taken into account. Child mortality rates are linked to gender-related norms and customs. Globally, 48% of adults living with HIV/AIDS are women and in many regions women make up the majority of infected adults. Meeting the health goals requires an awareness of the biological aspects of disease transmission and treatment as well as the social and cultural factors that promote or reduce good health. Women cannot achieve empowerment and equality unless their reproductive rights are fully and legally realized.

It is however an irony that the foregoing challenges is taken for granted in Nigeria in particular. Statistics are grossly lacking and were available are largely misrepresented. Curiously, keen observation tend to reveal that the bulk of women currently championing gender equality in Nigeria are either unmarried or no longer in marriage. Some of them may be mothers but certainly not wives. The trend these days stretches from lesbians to same sex partners. But for me I know what it means growing up under Papa and Mama. My mother calls my father 'Mine' while my father calls her 'Oma' (Igbo language for good one).The gains of living and being groomed by both parents is inesteemable. The real woman is my mother and other women like her who adds family values to their lives. Both the man and woman need to tangle to achieve a lot, including procreating and raising the children. Not devisiveness, No!

Last year I was among a study team that visited Nanyuki, a distant dry part of northern Kenya. We were desirous of keeping appointment with a group of locals who comprised mostly of the Masai. On arrival for the meeting, we discovered that these locals have waited all day, abandoning every other engagement just to meet and receive us. In their number was a plethora of very poor and famished mothers. For these Masai natives, most of who scratches for survival on the foot of the Kenya Mountain, wealth and affluence is represented by the number of wives, children and sheep one has. I have never stopped to wonder if these men and women ever think of gender equity or equality and what it portends for them. I am also keen to know how many charities or NGOs that have confronted sincerely the gender inequity trap on their behalf as a poverty alleviation strategy.

I have always insisted that gender as a component of the millennium goals is all about poverty reduction and the mobilization of the productive strength and number of women for community development, growth and productivity. I have canvassed this view in many conferences such as held variously at Ottawa, Canada in 2004; Texas, USA in 2006 and Jos, Nigeria in 2005.I have never stopped raising my voice on this matter. At the occasion of the maiden Nigeria national water and sanitation forum held in August 2006 at Abuja I also maintained this opinion, though my views were rudely cut short by a woman university professor who insisted otherwise, and on her own terms. She saw gender more from the lens of political empowerment i.e. getting more women into high political offices such as the governorship and presidency. I saw her position as being uninformed and biased. She got it wrong!

Though political empowerment is vital in Goal 3, it cannot veil its context and realities. Women who insist on political patronage as gender equality are basically seeking easy routes to the top. They forget so soon that women like Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, and Gordon Meir got into political limelight years before gender campaigns become rife. I am waiting to be presented with facts that shows gender biasness as a factor which favored women leaders such as the leaders of Liberia and Germany during their elections.

It also remains to be proven how the political patronage of women elites in Nigeria has benefited poor rural or urban women in my native Uboma, Imo State or elsewhere.
As a well trained gender ambassador, I have no doubts that gender empowerment more than many issues also favor the elimination of violence and discrimination against women. It favors a good sense of social well being that ‘waters’ the ground for both men and women equally. I wonder what the Masai or Uboma woman can benefit from all these gender campaigns if not social inclusion and farewell to poverty amongst other things. Amongst these Masai and Uboma women is the real woman. They are not even difficult to be found in many other neighborhoods in Nigeria and elsewhere. It is their wants and deprivations that makes gender concerns relevant in today’s world.

Our society must arise to check the rising insubordination of women to their husbands as well as growing lawlessness in many homes today. Responsible for all these are petty issues such as the insistence of some married women on political engagement against the consent of their husbands. It is a reality that caution has been discarded, simply because a woman is bent on going into politics. It is most worrisome that propelling factors in most of these cases may possibly be by the prodding of a ‘lover boy’ and NOT even the desire to serve.

It is my prayer that Non Governmental Organizations working on these issues will rise to the occasion by calling a spade by its true name. The universities in Port Harcourt and Makurdi that pioneered gender studies in Nigeria should not be found wanting on this matter too.Till we get it right, the gender mission remains a challenge.

First published in 2006

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