Oil, Poverty and Women
Interview with Ngozi Eze, Nigeria Country Director of Women for Women International
Thank you so much for talking to us Ngozi. Can you start by painting a brief picture of Nigeria?
Nigeria is such a large country.
When something is happening in the north they may not know what is happening in the south, for example.
There are around 150 million people.
The state of Lagos has twice the population of the whole of Rwanda. There are lots of ethnic groups
Could you talk a bit about your life and work?
I was born in northern part of Nigeria and then we were in Lagos for a while.
In the early 1960s, we moved to the UK for 3 years. My brothers were born in the UK.
We moved back to Nigeria and the civil war broke out. I'm a survivor of the civil war.
I'm a single mother, divorced.
Through my work, I have learnt an understanding of the problems & challenges - and realised there is a lot to be done.
I worked with an NGO in South East Nigeria with women whose sexual rights had been abused and with students in school on sexual reproductive health rights.
And I worked with public institutions and then Women for Women.
I was the first Field Officer in Women for Women and got experience in rural communities, where I found the situation to be unacceptable.
The women need to be empowered to bring about changes for themselves.
Not just economic empowerment, but also socially & environmentally.
December 9th is the International Day Against Corruption. What part does corruption play in Nigeria?
Corrupt people are not fulfilling their official responsibilities and the people who suffer most are the women and children.
We lose a lot of women through child birth complications & pregnancy: around 50,000 a year.
This is unacceptable when you consider that we are the fifth largest producer of oil.
This year, we lost over 1,400 people from cholera because a lot of communities don't have clean water. And 31,000 were hospitalised because of cholera this year.
We rank only 142nd on the human development index.
We have lots of wealth but where's the money going to? Is it going to the grassroots?
Look at the Niga Delta. Because of militancy control over resources, mines and oil drills, it has not been developed.
The land has degraded and the women cannot farm.
The militants were fighting so the security had to go in and look for the militants.
But a lot of women and children were killed and families displaced.
In the Niger Delta, close to 40,000 people are currently displaced.
The conflicts are over land as a resource and the women bear the brunt of it.
There are several pockets where conflict erupts from time to time.
And kidnapping is like a business.
So there is also a big challenge of getting resources to where they're needed?
Money has been diverted from the country. There have been some arrests.
The military has compounded the issues over the years.
The infrastructure would have had more funding but the military syphoned the funds.
At the next election, people should vote for those who really work for the country and not for corrupt politicians.
Do you think that women are less prone to corruption?
Women in Nigeria who are in positions of authority have proven that if women are given the opportunity they will do a lot of work.
Dora Akunyili, the former Elector General of Food and Drug administration, fought the scourge of counterfeit drugs, coming from China, which were making people sick and many people were dying from them.
Women working in our banks & hospitals are doing a lot too.
Women in positions of authority can contribute to decisions which will benefit women but women are severely underrepresented in politics, though there are a few at local government level. There are some women in top positions - a few doctors.
Not so many women are moving into politics because of the danger of executions, arson and violence, even amongst men.
I think it will take a while before a lot of our women move into politics.
What positive contributions can women make to the healing of Nigeria?
The patriarchal attitude has impacted on the lives of a lot of women.
As women get more economically empowered, they will have voices and speak out. Some of the injustices will be addressed.
70% of people live in rural communities where we have a problem with customary laws versus constitutional laws.
Men are under the influence of customary laws in the communities. They don't know about policies etc. They don't trickle down to the grass roots.
There is supposed to be no segregation, but in subtle forms it happens. For example, in 2007 the national gender policy was introduced and women were given the right to own property but it hasn't trickled down.
Even some officials don't know of the gender policies and we don't know whether there is much gender analysis before projects are carried out.
With more money and more economically empowered decision making, then the voices of women will be more heard on the table.
Is there a problem with women being unable to own assets?
Many are ignorant of the law so we educate about law.
There are some gaps. When Nigeria got independence, the cultural aspect wasn't factored in - that so many go by the traditional rules. And they did not factor in the different cultures.
Lawyers will use international instruments.
We have had some landmarks in the law courts where the presiding judge is well versed to get the woman justice with regard to property and land.
Is that very costly?
Yes of course it's very costly.
And a woman in a landmark case was kind of ostracised but she by proved her case. It took long time but she finally got justice.
So you can imagine poor woman in the community.
Sometimes they don't even want to go through the process, it can be too horrendous to access justice through the judiciary. The physical travelling distance is long sometimes and also they may be threatened.
So is enforcement of the law a problem?
Some areas of laws have to be looked into - the attitudes of some of the judges & lawyers.
If a woman has economic empowerment, then she has a solid foundation to find out how to go about accessing justice.
But if she has no money, she can't even get to town to ask for help from a bro bono lawyer.
So money and justice are interlinked.
Do you have any women lawyers in Nigeria?
There is legal aid and there are some women lawyers, but many are in the towns.
And women need to be aware of the resources.
So we educate, sensitise and raise consciousness.
Some women are the pioneers and bear the brunt so others can get justice
Do many women have access to communication? Do they have cell phones?
Women in rural areas are beginning to have access to cell phones - there are usually a couple of phones in a community.
But the phones rely on small generators to charge the batteries. Electricity is a big issue, even in government offices.
Nigeria is running on generators.
I think it's hard for some people to imagine the scale of this challenge - can you talk more about it?
We run our offices virtually on generators - every Nigerian home in urban areas has a generator and some in rural areas have generators of different sizes.
The present government says it will have to do something about electricity. We have noise pollution from the generators.
Can you talk more about the issue of access to clean water?
There is often either no water or bad water.
Some communities have no water at all and have to go to a local stream.
This year over 1,400 died due to cholera.
So hygiene is a big problem as well?
Hygiene is a big, big problem.
There are so many factors - illiteracy, ignorance, abject poverty.
In addition, many doctors have migrated to other countries.
As Nigeria Country Director for Women for Women, what are you able to do to help address some of these issues?
In 2000, there were only two of us working together in Nigeria.
We started with 800 women in 3 communities. Now we have a team in over 34 communities and over 30,000 women.
It's been a journey for me.
Our work is multidimensional.
We work with women from 18 to 55 years of age, approximately. We counsel women, and train women to counsel other women. We teach vocational skills and business skills to women in a 1 year training programme.
We also teach rights awareness training, so the women can know about their rights and advocate for changes, including sexual reproductive health rights: conception, pregnancy, childbirth, sexually transmitted infections, prevention and treatment of HIV, basic health care. We help women to access lawyers and legal aid, hospital.
There are a lot of injustices and we try to bring this to a stop.
We educate women on the implications of the different types of marriage.
A woman has justice from the law courts if a statutory marriage breaks down, otherwise the community will decide your case.
We are working with courts, police, judges, traditional rulers, to address the obstacles which women face.
If the judiciary are not equipped, or don't know about gender sensitivity training, then there will be no justice for women. The police will say go home, this is a family matter, and then the woman might be killed in her own house through domestic violence.
We place ads on the radio and question the patriarchal attitudes.
Women who earn money do not tolerate injustice.
Do you know of the injustices that a widow faces? She's made to swear by drinking water which has been used to wash the body of late husband. And she is dispossessed of her inheritance if ir is a customary marriage not a statuary one in a registry office.
There is so much diversity which needs to be harmonised.
How do the men react to your intervention and women's empowerment?
We involve the men leaders, religious leaders and traditional rulers, as well as women leaders.
Initially, the men are skeptical and wonder what we will be teaching the women.
Before we start working in a community, we conduct a 'community assessment'.
We ask the leaders to help us to identify women who may be homeless or in need of basic furniture, have problems with educating their children etc.
With funding from the US Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, we set up men's leadership training - on women's rights, community re-building, violence against, women in decision making, female genital mutilation and so on, so that men, also, can train other men in their community.
Most communities are poor so the men are encouraged that some burdens of looking after community members will be reduced.
We encourage them to buy into the programme, to provide land for income generating projects so that women can buy or use the land. We involve a lawyer to join with community members so they have land rights. The men see it helps the community.
Are you seeing an increase in the number of girls being educated?
The issue of education has improved for a lot of girls.
In some states, there are now more girls than boys in education. In urban areas, there are a lot of girls going to school. Some boys go to work and not to school.
However, about 70% of the women we work with are not educated or they get married early. And they cannot afford university fees.
In rural areas, there is a disparity as girls look after elderly parents or leave school to get married.
The government in some states passed some laws to prosecute parents if the kids are not at school.
Do you think that one of the main challenges is attitude?
Yes - it's the patriarchal attitude.
Men don't want to relinquish power.
So we use this multi-dimensional approach.
Women need to know their rights and have self belief in order to move ahead. They need self esteem & dignity.
If we don't believe in ourselves that means we will not move ahead. And we also need economic empowerment.
But women have been treated unjustly for over hundreds of years because of patriarchal attitudes - that woman is man's property and should stay at home, have his permisson to go to hospital, get a passport etc. - a patriarchal enforcement of a cultural tradition.
There has been a landmark case showing that a woman doesn't need permission from her husband to get a passport.
The men who made the laws have also oppressed women and this has become ingrained for hundreds of years. People didn't question it.
Now it is being questioned.
For example, if there is HIV / AIDS in a traditional marriage with a few wives, then it spreads.
In the old days, more kids were needed for the farm but now it is not practical. Poverty means parents can't even look after themselves, certainly not all the kids. It is not realistic.
So we need to start questioning.
People rely on religion: a Muslim man may claim he can marry up to four wives & love all equally - but this is not realistic and people should question it. I think people don't question some of the religious leaders.
Men start off on a better footing. Man is seen as the one to continue the lineage of the family.
The women in the south have been kept at home to have babies for the continuation of the lineage, without being married. It is a form of subjugation violence.
What's the attitude towards contraception?
Some religions say that women should not use contraception.
Some women are breaking down this so that they can look after their children. But this needs the cooperation of men, except for the IUD etc. One of our Catholic women has started using an IUD.
In our men's leadership training, we teach the responsibility of men to be involved in contraception but it's mostly the women's responsibility.
Can you talk a bit about your work in conflict resolution?
There are two predominant religions in Nigeria - Muslim and Christian.
There are two predominant religions in Nigeria - Muslim and Christian.
In Jos, there are a lot of ethnic groups. Women enroll from all groups.
We work with two states primarily, and see ourselves as peace-makers, peace-builders.
It was especially hard at first with the Christians & Muslims.
In 2004, we decided to get involved with peace-making. We had to work from a central place and talked to the leaders.
At first, they were skeptical that there would be conversions to other religions.
We told them we have to look at the commonalities in their societies, for example domestic violence, schooling, food shortages.
We told them that to move socially excluded women from poverty and victim to become survivors, they need to work in this kind of integrated setting.
We have seen changes. Muslim and Christian women visit each other - both sides have suffered· and lost homes, family members, everything. So they support each other.
We talk to them about our experiences working in other countries: Rwanda, Sudan, DR Congo - about all of us who are trying to make peace.
We give examples of Women for Women sponsors from different religions, in different parts of the world.
The problems arise because of poverty and illiteracy.
There was no crisis before the civil war. It is the result of the breakdown of infrastructure, of ignorance and of the actions of the politicians.
We used to have Christian and Muslim intermarrying.
They are cohabiting in peacefully in the south, even today.
But then, every other month, there is a crisis. There have been four crises this year. We lost over 20 women.
Over 100 women had houses bombed. Even our staff - luckily none of the staff were injured.
But some partipants lost over 3 or 4 family members.
I can imagine that women feel empowered when you interact with them
There is a quote I like about why are we hear on earth:
"We are here to love, we are here to grow, we are here to learn and we are here also to leave a legacy."
I see myself a vehicle to be used to at least bring some hope to some women and if I can do that, for the little time I have on earth, that will be something.
Gandhi said be the change you want to be.
So I think it starts with myself. Then I start with my office. I start with my small area of influence. And I try to at least encourage women to support each other.
Let us not be so dependent that we have the victim mentality.
When things happen in the community, we tell women to encourage and support other women and to donate so they can go to the·hospital, because we will be doing ourselves a great service to be doing so.
People are becoming aware but it is only a drop in bucket.
Thank you so much for your time Ngozi - and I am sure you are already making a huge difference in the lives of so many women.
Thank you for the work you are doing.
You are doing a lot to promote grassroots & justice & dignity for women.
Our work is all interlinked and interwoven: oppression and injustice, access to justice.