RIGHT from pre-colonial times to the early 21st century, the role and status of women in Nigeria have continuously evolved. The Nigerian society being a patriarchal one garnered all the attention while little recognition has been granted to the various integral functions that Nigerian women have performed throughout history.
In the pre-colonial period, women played a major role in social and economic activities. Division of labour was along gender lines, and women controlled such occupations as food processing, mat weaving, pottery and cooking.
Moreover, land was communally owned and women have access to it through their husbands or parents. Although a man was the head of the household in a patriarchal system, older women had control of labour of younger family members.
Most political histories of colonial peoples are salient on the roles and struggles played by women. But further studies by women experts have emerged on the important political and administrative activities of women in pre-colonial period.
Women were central to trade. In politics, they were not docile or powerless either, their roles differed from one political system to the next. In the Yoruba kingdoms, women ran their own affairs and influenced communal decision – making through the palace organisation, the Ogboni Society or the office of the Iyalode.
In the Benin Kingdom, women played less important parts in politics, but even here, the Queen Mother and female palace officials performed vital rituals and bureaucratic functions.
In those areas of Igboland characterised by centralised political authority, female titleholders controlled markets, regulated women activities and sat on state councils. Among decentralised Igbo, men and women attended the village councils that made important political and judicial decisions. There women organised tightly disciplined village associations which protected women’s interest and when necessary, censured men individually or as a group.
It is evident that pre-colonial women did not enjoy the same political power as men but that everywhere, women participated actively in political life.
In a bid to secure their right and voice in their particular societies, Nigerian women have been engaged in liberation struggles. Just like women in other parts of the world that have made great strides beginning from the period of first wave feminism, Nigerian women have focused on their own peculiar situations and have gained ground economically and otherwise.
In spite of the seemingly challenges confronting them, Nigerian women to a considerable extent have emerged strong and successful in the post – colonial era shown in the records of their significant achievements in areas such as education, employment in formal sectors and participation in politics.
It is not out of place to state that Nigerian women should be accorded their rightful place in the affairs of the nation more especially what concerns them and need their feminine discretion. Thus, there are still till date, women of virtues, valour and women who are heroes and are no more associated with the nomenclature ‘weaker sex’.
Against this backdrop, these women icons share their thoughts on the historical progression, successes and bane on women developmental strides.
Lady Ego Uzoezie, former Commissioner of Women Affairs and Social Development in Anambra State posited that women are still contending with major issues which are yet to be addressed.
Her words: “Nigerian women are still battling with major issues
which are inimical to the development of the nation such as domestic violence and various forms of abuse; non inclusion or involvement in decision – making, policy making at all levels – family, government, among others; non recognition of women’s right in certain government policies such as bailing people detained by police, denial of inheritance, among others; lack of economic and political empowerments; society perception of women as weaker sex in the society; hence not recognised to have any good offer for the development of the community and society”.
Adding her voice, an erstwhile Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development during the Presidency of Dr Goodluck Jonathan, Iyom Josephine Anenih, opines that:” Facts of history have it that before the colonial masters came to Nigeria; women were important and active players in the governance of their communities. It was not only in the political sphere but in economics and religion. Women were powerful and influential.
They had wealth from trade and industry, and they were high priestesses whose main function was to cleanse the community if any abomination was committed. There was a working system of dual governance where men and women had distinct jurisdictions and spheres of governance for the equitable and democratic governance of the society. The colonial masters came with their wives and mistresses who were not doing any work and our people started emulating them.
“They disempowered both our men and women. The men had the advantage of working in the public service while the women stayed at home as housewives. This persisted for many decades until women started agitating for inclusion in the public sphere.
“Over the years, Nigerian women have played important roles in politics but it has always been a bitter fight before the few that are able to break the barriers emerge. Some women played active roles in the struggle for independence. After independence, a few made it to the House of Chiefs, Senate and House of Representative. After the 4th UN Conference in Beijing, in 1995, there was heightened clamour for more inclusion of women in governance as one of the 12 critical areas of concern.
“Today we have a political space that is monetised, weaponised and arty primaries. Women need a lot of funds which they hardly have. Unlike men, they do not have sponsors and mentors. These two are necessary but more important is legislation to enforce the various protocols like CEDAW and the African Charter which Nigeria is signatory to.
according to Ambassador Nkoyo Togo, characterised by ‘toxic masculinity’. What women contend with now is the mindset that women cannot lead men. Getting nominated by the political parties is a herculean task because of the high cost of going through the party primaries. Women need a lot of funds which they hardly have. Unlike men, they do not have sponsors and mentors. These two are necessary but more important is legislation to enforce the various protocols like CEDAW and the African Charter which Nigeria is signatory to.
“Refusing to domesticate these protocols and conventions makes it difficult for women to use legal means for their enforcement. For example in Kenya, last week, the Supreme Court advised the president to order the dissolution of parliament because they did not adhere to the provision of the constitution that provided for the two third gender rule.
“Women have to take the bull by the horn now and stop expecting men to ‘allow them space’. Women need to be financially stable before venturing into politics. Women can raise funds for willing women who are ready to serve. They should get involved in party structures. Starting at the grassroots is a good place to start.
Women at the grassroots can be mobilised to vote for women. When they manage to get to the top, they should endeavour to pull others up and build a support base. They have to build a critical mass of loyal supporters to vote for them. Women do vote for women when they are convinced that the women do not want to use them and dump them, but will ‘carry them along’. There is no need to have gender parity in politics. Without women in politics, we cannot build a nation”.
In the 21st century Nigeria, it is evident that the struggle is yet to be over but the fact remains that Nigerian women are today breaking the jinx and venturing into areas ” once seen as sacred and reserved for men”.
Just like it is shown by these eminent Nigerian women worthy to be valourised; whose astute professionalism rings of competence grandeur in governance, Chief Mrs Ebelechukwu Obiano has exemplified her representation of the womenfolk in her women friendly programmes. Others are Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Folunrusho Alakija, Dora Akunyili, Onyeka Onwenu, Genevieve Nnaji, among others.