There is a saying that goes; "Educate a man and you educate an individual, but educate a woman and you educate a nation.
It is no secret that there is widespread gender inequality around the world and especially in Africa. A lot of African families still see their male children as more important than the female ones. As a result, they make sure the boys are better educated and presented with better opportunities in life. Some parents send their boys to the best schools, buy them the best uniforms and books and in most cases, pay more attention to them than they do their female children. The mentality is, there is no need to waste money educating a girl because she will eventually get married and stop bearing her father's name. All they do is give them just "enough" education or schooling to be good and submissive housewives. They forget that in order to lay a solid foundation for the future of Africa and the world, providing our girls and women with quality education is an essential requirement.
How do you think you can fix all of Africa's (and the world's) problems if you do not empower women? You're only wasting your time if you think that the future lies in the hands of men.
While growing up in Nigeria, one thing I came to realise was how bad, poorly equipped and insufficiently funded public schools were. They were breeding grounds for lazy teachers, unmotivated students, mostly from poor homes and house girls. House girls are maidservants (usually from very poor families) who leave their homes at a very young age to live with the rich, care for their children and do household chores. These girls are never treated the same as the children they take care of and in most cases, are extremely maltreated. The saddest part is that their parents usually do nothing even when they are maltreated because the rich families they've been handed over to (by their own parents) send gifts and money to the girls' families. This is a common practice among poor families in the rural parts of Nigeria, because uneducated parents tend to have large families and no means of caring for them. They see sending their children to live with rich families in the big cities as a "blessing of some kind." Majority of them are girls and they always end up in public schools where the rich never send their children.
Note: I'm not trying to take away anything from the public schools in Nigeria, because some of them are quite good. But the fact remains that a lot of them are very poor and are better shut down because they aren't educating anyone.
It is sad that the politicians at the top have not come to the realisation that one of the reasons why Africa is in shambles is because they have failed time and time again to empower women. Women and girls in Africa have always had to face discrimination and inequality at home, at the work place and virtually everywhere they go. This has not only hurt them, but their families, communities, countries and even Africa as a whole. Africa is a continent with a lot of potential but first of all, African leaders need to stop looking in the wrong places for solutions to their problems. The "remedy" is right there in Africa and if they want to move into a brighter future, they need to find ways to empower the girls and women in Africa.
Here are some steps they can take in putting Africa on the part to greatness.
Eradicate Child Marriage and Gender Inequality
In order to take the first step towards the much needed growth and development, African leaders need more women in positions of power. And in order to have women with leadership qualities in any given community, you need to find them while they are very young. The best way is to make sure that all girls end up in schools, have easy access to the best education and are given all the necessary opportunities they need to become strong, independent and reliable women, who can confidently be in leadership positions and contribute positively to society. The first step in creating these "game changing" women is to tackle the issues of child marriage and gender inequality.
Gender gaps in education remains a huge problem African leaders haven't really dealt with. Although there has been a significant increase in enrolment rates for girls in comparison to say, 30 years ago, boys are still more likely to complete secondary school education. In contrast, girls are more likely to drop out, if they are able to attend secondary school at all. In most parts of Africa, poverty and a heavy work load at home often prevent girls from attending school, and sadly, this is further compounded by child marriage.
African leaders need to tackle issues like child marriages (where very young girls who are supposed to be in school end up getting married to older men), female genital mutilation and the mentality among (rural) Africans that male children are more important than female children.
Child marriage isn't just a sick way of encouraging paedophilia in Africa, it is a cankerworm that has destroyed (and is still destroying) the very fabric of African society. One of the major reasons why parents give out their teenage daughters to older men as wives remains poverty. A lot of families in Africa are so poor (and greedy), they wouldn't hesitate in giving out their daughters to older suitors as long as they are provided with some (or little) luxury. These families are led by parents who aren't educated and do not understand that they are destroying the futures of their daughters by giving them out at such a young age.
If child marriage can be tackled, then there is hope that African girls will be able to stay in school and make something good of their lives.
Promote Sex Education and Family Planning
Having the "sex talk" with children is still one thing African parents dread more than a cholera or Ebola outbreak. Africans are pretty conservative in nature and talking about sex or contraceptives with their children is something they just wouldn't do. Children are taught to be obedient, godly, well-behaved and not be a nuisance to society. Every girl child is expected to be a virgin till marriage, not party, focus on her studies, go to church (and be religious), stay away from boys, know how to cook and clean, be obedient and submissive to a man and also never act out. Although, it may all seem a bit too much, more than 40 years ago, African girls had to grow up in a society that very much put them down and made sure they knew their place. Condoms, pills and abortions were seen as the ultimate taboo - something a "Good African girl" would never associate herself with.
The good thing is, times are changing and some African parents are starting to understand how crucial it is to teach their children, especially their daughters, the importance of contraceptives. Preaching abstinence to children is something African parents have realised does not work. In most cases, being sexually responsible falls on the girl, because, in a relationship, most boys want unprotected sex and put a lot of pressure on the girls to practice it. For a lot of these girls, it takes tremendous amount of discipline not to lose sight of what is important - their futures! There have been cases where girls were pressured into practicing unprotected sex by their boyfriends and when they got pregnant, the boys denied the pregnancies and abandoned them. This does not only delay or totally put an end to their studies, it also emotionally weighs them down, making it quite difficult for them to focus on school. The worst part is, while the responsibility of practicing safe sex falls on these girls, majority of them have no idea what safe sex is all about, because they never had sex education.
A lot of African girls have had their studies cut short by pregnancies - something they could have avoided if they had received good sex education and if contraceptives were made easily accessible. There are very few sex-ed outlets in Africa, and it's also not taught in a lot of schools. Condoms aren't distributed among young people and abortion clinics are still seen as a taboo - mostly because religious people speak out against abortion and give others the feeling that it is an act that guarantees a straight ticket to hell!
Encourage Women To Chase Their Careers and Be Successful
The problem isn't just with young girls, it's something married women face as well. A lot of married women in Africa have to deal with situations where their careers are put on hold because their husbands always want unprotected sex. There have been cases where African women ended their dreams of chasing a successful career, in fields they love, because their husbands are of the opinion that it is their "God-given right" to have unprotected sex with their wives. These African men will neither consent to a vasectomy or the use of condoms. They always seem to have a Bible passage (or two) in defence of the pressure they heap on their wives to oblige to unprotected sex.
With no support from their families, the government and the church, a lot of women with brilliant minds, who could have contributed positively to the African society have ended up as nothing but baby-making "house wives", tending to their husbands' egos while wasting away as nothing but cooks and cleaners.
Isn't it absolutely heart-wrenching that a lot of highly intelligent women, who ended up as housewives only did so because it was something their husbands wanted? These women could have easily been doctors, scientists, engineers, successful business women, ministers, presidents, Olympic athletes, professors, accountants etc. They wouldn't just have been exceptionally good in their respective fields, they would have been way better than a lot of men! It is a sad reality that the African continent would let good minds go to waste just because of their gender. A reality that the whole of Africa needs to be absolutely ashamed of!
Create an Atmosphere for Girls and Women to Learn and Grow
While Africa has one of the highest rates of female labor participation, vulnerable employment (such as unpaid family work) remains the norm. In Nigeria, uneducated women take up jobs as farming and road-side hawking as a way to make ends meet. They work longer hours than men and perform most of the (unpaid) household work. Although women farmers make up almost half of the agricultural workforce across the African continent, their level of productivity is significantly lower than that of their male counterparts.
While non-mechanised farming may be a form of unskilled labour that lots of uneducated African women turn to when they need to provide for their families and complement their husbands' incomes, we also have to agree that it is not the future of the African woman. Of course, if a woman has a passion for farming, she should be able to pursue it, but it should not be the only option for her just because she never had the chance of getting an education or acquiring a skill. The African government must be able to provide opportunities for all women to grow and better themselves.
The world is becoming a global village and technology is starting to lead the way. Africa should be able to look into the future and see herself as one of the leading continents in the area of medical and technological advancements as well as the eradication of poverty. One of the ways to eradicate poverty is to change the mentality of the average African. The mentality that portrays women as nothing but properties belonging to men. Women are equal to men and can even play a more crucial role in the elevation of Africa.
Believe it or not, women can be catalysts for real change and are essential in the fight against poverty in Africa and around the world. Strengthening the roles of women in Africa as leaders, entrepreneurs, scholars, teachers, sports people and politicians will tremendously improve the African continent and the world in general.
I truly believe this, deep in the very core of my soul.
This blog is dedicated to Prof. Mrs. Dora Nkem Akunyili, OFR.
She remains one of my best role models. A woman who truly believed in change. She was an award-winning pharmacists, catalyst for change and a true servant of the people. She believed in doing the right thing even if it meant losing her life in the process. She didn't just fight counterfeit drugs and fake foods in Nigeria, she also made powerful enemies in doing so, as multiple attempts were made on her life by those who were threatened by her work. She won many awards for her contribution to the safety of pharmaceutical products in Nigeria and Africa.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Dora Akunyili died on the 7th of June 2014 after a battle with cancer.
She was a rare gem. One that illuminated the world.
You can read more about her on this link.