Ms. Betty Abah is an award-winning journalist, author, women rights activist and Founder of CEE-HOPE, a non-profit child’s right and development organisation. She speaks on gender equality and the place of women in today’s society. TIMOTHY ODUTOLU met with her
What is main aim for your programme on empowerment of the girl-child or women in general?
We believe that by empowering girls on ICT, we are closing the gap of gender inequality because there’s a very big gap when you talk about women in technology, compared to their male counterparts especially in Africa and obviously in Nigeria. We are trying to see how we can encourage girls in ICT, especially girls that do not have enough opportunities because this is the age of internet. We are empowering women to stand for their right. Women to take hold of the future. ICT is one of the tools needed in empowering girls.
Is gender equality an achievable feat in the African traditional setting?
Looking at the long-established, structural inequality in the African traditional setting, gender equality would never have been possible. I usually use the analogy of my mother who was socialized to believe that, by the Idoma tradition (as obtains in most places across Nigeria), she as a woman is not entitled to her father’s inheritance. So, when you hear her complain about marginalization in terms of how her family members may have been cheated out of some family land or the other, some economic trees and all that, her grievances are usually on behalf of her only surviving brother. Yet, this shouldn’t be so anywhere. There is no reason why female family members shouldn’t inherit their fathers’ or mothers’ or family property, anywhere in Nigerian or elsewhere. There is no reason why girls shouldn’t be entitled to developmental opportunities such as education anywhere, or why wives should not have a say in how their homes are run. And look, this doesn’t make her rebellious or ‘incontrollable’ or impossible. So, most of these oppressive traditions that impede the growth of women and most people that perpetuate the oppression of women do so most times from a place of ignorance, a place of inferiority and lack of foresight. It is indeed a lack of reckoning with the dynamics of modern times. There is no society that holds its women down that can be said to be truly progressive, that is just the fact.
Do you really agree with the notion of gender equality, why?
I believe that God creates men and women equal. Now, there are traditional nuances that compel women to defer to men in circumstances. I agree with the concept of the man being the head and the leading authority in the house, but that notion does not also make the woman the doormat. I believe that male-female relationship, either by marriage, in office circles or other spheres, should be based on friendship, on mutual respect and not on a slave-master relationship. So, yes, I believe in gender equality.
Do you agree that domestic violence against women is on the rise and how can it be addressed?
I think violence generally, whether against men, women or children is on alarming increase. There is so much economic pressure and people are generally on the lookout for whom to vent them on. There is also the factor of an atmosphere, which indirectly encourages violence and impunity in general, meaning, when people know that they can hurt each other and get away with it, they are encouraged to hurt at will. In the Western world, for instance, rape easily attracts a life imprisonment and that is a strong deterrence, but, here, we hear of rape, especially of minors, on a daily basis and sometimes, nothing comes out of it even if the suspects are dragged to the police station, courts and even on to newspaper pages. That is because, sometimes people feel they can bribe their way out of the cases, or simply walk away because they are connected to some big wigs.
I believe that if we can implement the avalanche of laws we have on gender-based violence, we would not be lamenting the rising rate of violence,either against minors or against intimate partners that we have at hand.
How do we discourage early marriage in our culture without having the girl to pay the price for it?
Again, we have to fall back on the enforcement of available but dormant laws such as the Child Rights Act of 2003 which criminalises underage marriage. There is also need for perpetrators as well as prospective victims (the girls) to be aware of the laws. People perpetuate injustice or fall victims to injustice most times because they are ignorant of the law. It is embarrassing that in the last couple of years, we continue to be the reference point for having the highest number of out-of-school children and out-of-school girls in the entire world. No society can make significant progress when a large number of its citizens are held down in such debilitating practices as child marriage and resultant mass illiteracy of a vital part of its population or demography. We must make child marriage history and this takes government’s sincere commitment and citizens’ action.
What is your reaction to an aspect of the African culture that a woman belongs to the kitchen, as such should not be heard?
That is an obsolete cliché. A woman does not belong exclusively in the kitchen. She can cook, she can run the home and she can as well hold sway in the boardroom. A woman is strong, versatile and multitasking. We women are not complaining of overwork so no one should complain on our behalf and thereby restrict us. Verily, we are jack of all trade and we excel in all!
Anyone who says that a woman must be restricted to the kitchen is saying it from a place of ignorant arrogance or sheer blindness. Only look around and see women excelling in every field. Only recently, at CEE-HOPE, we opened our girl ICT centre because we want the girls from underprivileged backgrounds that we work with to delve into the ICT and science’s fields. We do not believe in impossibilities. We believe a girl, a woman and indeed, anyone can aspire and realize the highest of dreams. He or she only needs the required structures to reach those dreams, and we must never allow sexism or patriarchy to be an obstacle.
How can a woman truly be assertive in a typical African setting?
A woman or anyone for that matter does not necessarily have to be assertive. If you have what it takes, if you are good at what you do, then things will fall into place, you will earn the respect of others or your place in history. So, I believe in working on myself rather than working on people to accept me or trying to push my weight around. Incidentally, I am a rather smallish person so there is actually no weight to push around. Really, I always say women should spend more time decorating their brains rather than their bodies, and they will get to reach the highest heights. When you have got what it takes, the doors will open on their own accord.
How do you suggest women should cope with their male counterparts in offices?
It is necessary for both sexes to have mutual respect for each other and get the work done and they all go home to rest. Not all the attitudes, complexes, suspicions and sexist attitudes are necessary. I know that because of our deeply patriarchal society, women have to work extra hard at times to be able to break through. In addition, some men, because of their socialization, have a hard time accepting that women can be exceptional, women can lead, but they just have to realize that what it takes a man to excel. A woman has it, and that is basically our brains, and I don’t believe that a man’s brain is wired differently from that of a woman, so it’s a matter of having a change of attitude especially because the world has no patience for the kinds of retrogressive attitudes that people pander around sometimes.
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