Stories From Women
Life is very difficult for Ai. Her house was burned down on November 28, 2008. She, her husband, and their ten children moved into her parents' already small house. They still live there. Her father is very sick.
Four of her kids are in school. Her husband works as a taxi driver, and four of her children also work either as drivers or day laborers. She makes bean paste and sells it by the portion in a local market.
She and 17 other women from her Women for women Nigeria group have a chicken coop in the city of Jos. It is a very small room just outside the front door of one woman's house. Picture the biggest closet in your house, and picture it with 90 chickens in it.
Despite these conditions, the chickens lay about 60 eggs a day. They sell for about fourteen cents an egg. That's about $128 a month in gross revenue. Subtract feed at $13 a bag each week and monthly rent of $22 a month, and that leaves $54 to be split 18 ways-- $3 for each women in the group.
Victoria is a 28 year-old widow with 2 young children — Emenike, her 9-year old son, and Oruebube, her 6-year old daughter. Before joining Women for Women International, Victoria was a peasant farmer, struggling to support her young children by growing and selling cassava. She was also struggling to get her teaching certificate. She had to give up school so she could work to feed her children. With the help of her sponsor, Victoria began making snacks to sell at the local market and was able to reenroll in teacher education courses. Victoria now teaches nursery school to local children. She also is teaching women in her village to read and write, and is working to educate her community about the consequences of female genital cutting. Victoria has become an active and involved member of her community. “Women and girls should be educated so they can better take care of their families,” says Victoria.
Roseline Nwamaka Anukwa lives in Mgbidi. A 45 year old mother of seven, Roseline is subject to an unfair tradition in Nigeria by which she is forced to remain an unwed mother and have children in her parent’s name and remain in their home. She lived her whole life believing that as a woman, she was worth less than a man, and that the ideas, opinions, and voices of women were of less value than those of men. WfWI-Nigeria’s program instilled in her a renewed sense of confidence and the understanding that women are equal to men. Now she is focused on ensuring that all her children – her sons and daughters alike – are given an education and opportunities she was never afforded.
In Nigeria, religious codes and family traditions that subject women to unequal treatment tend to outweigh national laws asserting gender equality. Despite the 1999 Constitution which gives equal rights to all regardless of gender, Nigeria’s decentralized legal system has resulted in inequitable treatment of women on a state-by-state basis. In Enugu State, where Women for Women International-Nigeria’s offices are located, women are learning for the first time that they are in fact equal to men, that their ideas and beliefs are of equal value, and that the education of their daughters is as important to that of their sons.
For Roseline Nwamaka Anukwa, a 45-year old mother of seven and participant in the Women for Women International-Nigeria program (WfWI-Nigeria), these lessons have been eye-opening and exciting. The environment in which she was raised taught her from a young age that her opinions and contributions to society were of lesser importance than those of the men in her village. Roseline is subject to an age-old tradition in Nigeria that limits her freedom as a woman and a mother. As the sole living child of her parents, she has been forced by her family to remain at home unmarried, a common custom for the eldest daughter in a family or, in Roseline’s case, as the only survivor of her many siblings. She is not allowed to marry and she has never had the joy of falling in love.
“I never got married,” she says. “All my siblings died and my parents compelled me to stay home and have children in their name. Impliedly, I am never to get married to any man but I can have affairs, get pregnant, but the child will bear my father’s name.”
As a result, Roseline’s body was no longer treated as her own. She belonged to her parents, and to the men who impregnated her without worry of commitment or marriage. “I have had many male bedmates who took advantage of me and my situation. Once I get pregnant, the men disappear. I go through the pregnancy period and delivery…all alone.”
Now with seven children, Roseline is three months into the Women for Women program and her spirits are high. “What I have learnt from Women for Women can neither be quantified nor measured. I learnt how to write my name and this is what I never dreamt of in my whole life. I learnt that a man and a woman have equal right in the family.”
The unfair treatment Roseline has undergone throughout her life is difficult to undo; despite what she has learned, she is still not treated as an equal within her own family. But what she has learned this year will ensure that her own fate is not repeated among her children. Her three daughters have all been educated – two have finished primary school and one is still enrolled. She speaks of her childhood and of the barriers to education she faced. “When I was young, girls do not go to school. Parents believed that…when girls have good education, they do not respect their husbands and so many men will be afraid of seeking their hands in marriage.”
Her favorite lessons have been on equality of men and women, and in raising her boys and girls. “This lesson opened my eyes to start correcting the mistakes I have made in the way I have trained my children. I assign more [chores] to my daughters thinking that I am preparing them well to serve their husbands and to be good housewives, not knowing that I am limiting them in life. … I can’t stop telling people around me, both men and women, about equality in raising boys and girls!”
Roseline’s life has undergone many changes in the three months since she began as a participant in WfWI-Nigeria’s program. She can now write her name, something she has longed for all her life. “I can identify the letters that make up my name and whenever I see them even if it is in a crowd; I will make people around to realize that this letter is the beginning of Roseline, Nwamaka or Anukwa.” She has also learned more about the importance and influence of her own opinions that her voice can and should be as loud as any of her fellow citizens of Nigeria. Roseline has only ever voted once. “Actually, I have never bothered going to vote again for years because I felt it is for politicians alone,” she said. “Obviously in the upcoming election, I will be at the forefront because I learnt from Women for Women that I have the right to chose who leads me.” There is a renewed confidence within Roseline. She now speaks up in large crowds, whether it is among men or women. “I feel younger as a pupil every Thursday when I dress up to go for our manual classes.”
Roseline is not alone in these feelings. Upon graduating from WfWI-Nigeria’s program, 84% of participants have reported that they have a greater understanding of their rights. 85% report that they have more self-confidence. There is a great sense of unity among all the participants through their shared experiences as survivors of conflict and their collective gain in confidence. “Women for Women made me realize that I am not alone in the race, ”Roseline said.
There is great hope for the future of gender equality in Nigeria when women like Roseline have the strength and the courage to empower and educate the next generation of Nigerian women like her three daughters. When she was asked if she believed girls should go to school, she said “Capital Yes! … I said this because families that sent their female children to school when we were young stand out in my community now. They live comfortable lives and their daughters work in big offices in the city.” Roseline has such pride for women who are able to achieve these accomplishments. She finds great joy in the prospect that her own daughters might too have “big offices in the city.” But for Roseline, it is not as much about the big office as it is the respect that comes with it. “Indeed,” Roseline wisely adds, “Knowledge is Power!”