The National President of Soroptimist International of Nigeria, Mrs. Nneka Chris-Asoluka, in this interview with Ugo Aliogo, speaks about her plans, the place of women in political leadership in Africa and other vital issues
What is Soroptimist International?
Founded in 1921, Soroptimist International consists of Soroptimist International of the Americas, Soroptimist International of Europe, Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland and the South West Pacific. It is a global volunteer movement advocating for human rights and gender equality.
At the heart of Soroptimist International’s advocacy is its work across six United Nations (UN) Centres, where our UN representatives ensure that the voices of women and girls are heard. With a network of over 75,000 club members in 133 countries and territories, our members work at local, national and international levels to educate, empower and to enable opportunities for women and girls. They assist them to achieve their potentials, realise aspirations and give them a voice in communities worldwide.
Soroptimist International of Nigeria (SINA) currently belongs to Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland Federations. We are working tirelessly to create a new federation – Soroptimist International of Africa Federation where most of the African Soroptimist Clubs will belong and I’m the current Chairman of the Task Force for this budding African Federation.
Our mission as Soroptimists is to transform the lives and status of women and girls through education, empowerment and enabling opportunities. The principles of Soroptimism are to strive for: the advancement of the status of women, high ethical standards, human rights for all, equality, development, peace, the advancement of international understanding and goodwill.
You were recently elected as the new national president of SINA. What are your plans for the administration?
Leading an organisation where the strength lies within each member is a privilege and the invaluable contribution Soroptimists make to enhance society should not be underestimated. During my investiture on March 26, I articulated in the inaugural address the programme focus for my service years (2016-2018) to be centered on empowering and supporting the 14 Soroptimist International Clubs in Nigeria; SI Abuja, SI Apapa, SI Asaba, SI Awka, SI Eko, SI Enugu Coal City, SI Ikeja, SI Ikoyi, SI Lagos, SI Lagos Mainland, SI Nnewi, SI Onitsha Niger, SI Osogbo, and SI Surulere.
These clubs have done and are still doing fantastic projects which tackled the five programme areas identified by SI which are included: economic empowerment, education, environmental sustainability, food security and healthcare, violence and conflict resolution. As Soroptimists our theme is to educate, empower and enable, so it is fitting that we carry out projects that promote education, good health, protection of human rights and preservation of human dignity. I intend to help clubs raise monies to fund these projects. My priority is to transform lives of women and girls.
Do you have plans to build on the legacies of your predecessor?
My predecessor, Mrs. Bona Okigbo-Udebiuwa, brought great innovation and structure to SINA. She created and acquired a secretariat for SINA which is now the office where we operate from. The secretariat has become the hub of Soroptimist activities and our history centre. She also introduced the quarterly free medical clinic/consultation and legal advice sessions. The centre provides opportunity for the public to receive free healthcare and free consultation on legal matters. I intend to continue with these sessions.
What is the focus of your administration in addressing female gender mutilation?
Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Here in Nigeria, reports have it that many Nigerian girls are cut as infants (16 per cent before their first birthday), and 82 per cent of women who have had FGM say that they were cut before the age of five.
In May 2015 Nigeria’s former President, Goodluck Jonathan, banned FGM, but there remains an inconsistency between the passing and enforcement of laws across the country. While a majority of Nigerians do not want the practice to continue, there is no one centrally funded body bringing anti-FGM organisations together to achieve the abandonment of the barbaric practice, which can cause infertility, maternal death, infection and the loss of sexual pleasure.
To eradicate FGM from Nigeria, we need to do a lot more. We should increase community awareness and knowledge on the health hazards associated with FGM. On our part, we will continue our community awareness programmes geared towards targeting the circumcisers, which is aimed at urging them to drop their knives and accept the campaign against FGM.
What has been the socio-economic impact of SINA in Nigeria?
SINA is a non-profit organisation that relies on private donations, corporate support and foundation grants to help Soroptimist clubs provide services to women and girls in their communities. When we dare to dream for women and girls, amazing things can happen. They go forward with courage to do great things for themselves, their families, communities and the world. Our scholarship award programme recipients consistently report completing or continuing their education, getting a better job, increasing their self-esteem, improving their standard of living and serving as a role model to their children.
In 2013, we launched career support guidance counselling to girls in secondary schools who face obstacles to their future success. The programme gives girls access to professional role models, career education and resources to live their dreams. Topics covered include career opportunities, setting and achieving goals, overcoming obstacles to success, and how to move forward after setbacks or failures.
On healthcare, we have constantly continued to raise awareness about the importance of maternal healthcare. Our clubs in their various communities hold workshops and seminars for pregnant women and nursing mothers on the need to seek good medical care before and after delivery. New equipment is purchased, distributed to hospitals and community health centres across the country.
Our soroptimist clubs also, from time to time, host free breast, cervical, ovarian cancer screening, Tuberculosis, Hepatitis and HIV screening exercises which gives the public opportunity to get tested. The national association also introduced a quarterly medical consultation and legal advice sessions that is open to the public. This takes place in our secretariat. Our healthcare intervention also includes the distribution of drugs, mosquito nets, hearing aids, reading glasses etc, to vulnerable members of the public.
What has been the progress report of SINA in addressing female gender issues in Nigeria?
Women are under-represented in almost every sphere of social and political life in Nigeria, including politics, commerce, agriculture, industry, military, and educational institutions. Furthermore, gender discrimination remains highly pervasive, from biases in the constitution, right down to workers rights, legal protections from abuse, and inheritance and land rights.
Politically, Nigeria women are a negligible and undermined force, with little political involvement. Economically, they constitute the majority of the peasant labour force in the agricultural sector, while most of the others occupy the bottom of the occupational ladder and continue to be channelled into service and domestic occupations. The consequence of the unequal status between men and women is high level of economics and political powerlessness among women. Powerlessness in turn retards development at every level, politically, economically and socially.
Nigeria took a bold step in the year 2000 when it adopted and passed into law the National Policy on Women guided by the Global Instrument on the Convention of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Nigeria, indeed, has tried to respond to this development from the international arena by articulating policies and programmes that seek to reduce gender inequalities in socio-economic and political spheres, however, the success of bridging the gap between men and women is not farfetched. A lot still needs to be done and this is where we come in.
SI advocates making gender equality a reality. Every woman and girl must have access to education, be economically empowered and live life free from violence. SI campaigns against early child marriage. In her journey through life, the girl- child, when lucky enough to be spared, undergoes a lot of harrowing experiences ranging from early marriage, low level of schooling, exposure to violence, HIV infection, maternal death and visco-vaginal fistula.
Invariably, these early marriages deny girls the opportunity for quality education in addition to depriving them of their childhood. In Nigeria, women and girls constitute 60 per cent of the illiterate population. Also, most young wives are burdened by growing up responsibilities, household chores, rearing of children, and consequently do not get a chance to interact with their peers or carry on friendships outside the household.
Again, they cannot contribute to the economic growth of the country, as they are put in a state of complete dependency on their husbands. As a result of the age gap existing between the child brides and their spouses, they are often exposed to domestic violence and other forms of abuse. At least one in three girls and women worldwide has been beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. It is now a common occurrence to hear of girls and women being frequently raped, irrespective of their ages.
Today, rape is the greatest fear of girls and women. The rape epidemic in our society reflects the extent to which women’s and girls’ rights are being flagrantly violated. It has gone so bad that minors, as young as four years old and less are now being raped with resultant effect of preventing the victims from socialising or settling down later in the future.
Kidnapping of young girls of school age, either as sex slaves or for ransom is the in-thing. In order for this situation to be addressed, there are a number of actions that must be taken. Government should put an end to all forms of gender discrimination in both public and private sectors, including in education, employment, housing, property and inheritance rights.
Moreover, anti-discrimination legislation and affirmative actions should be pursued, and there needs to be legal protection for the fundamental rights of the girl-child on religious, social, and economic life. The patriarchy structure which gives men ascendency in inheritance, authority, and decision-making should be discouraged through education, and enlightenment.
In order to emancipate women in education sector, the government should provide education and relevant trainings for all girls and women, including those with special needs. The gifted and handicapped, nomads, women in purdah, widows, single parents, market women, and career women. Also, the government must forbid, under threat of legal sanction, the removal of girls less than 18 years of age from school for reasons of marriage.