Why Hadiza Bala-Usman Campaigns for the Girl-child

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Vanessa Obioha
By the time Hadiza Bala-Usman finished delivering her paper on ‘Equity and Inclusiveness’ at a recent WIMBIZ masterclass at George Lagos Hotel, Ikoyi, most members of her audience were in awe of her towering personality. The audience of mostly young women were curious about her achievements; how she climbed the rungs of the ladder of success to occupy one of the most powerful positions in public service: Managing Director of the Nigeria Ports Authority, how she became an advocate of the girl child.

Their questions were almost endless. But the former Chief of Staff to the Kaduna state governor in her gentle mien seemed undaunted by the avalanche of questions thrown at her. Such questions have become familiar since she took over the reins at NPA, a position which many, at first, doubted her capacity to cope. Others slandered her appointment as being politically orchestrated.

Despite the odds stacked against her, Bala-Usman has over time proved that she is more than just a pretty face. Under her watch, she has restored the lost glory of the organisation, initiated friendly policies that ensure smooth operations with transparency at the core, as well as, developed good welfare packages for staff. Her efforts have been greatly lauded but it was not as easy as a walk in the park. Being a woman in such an enviable position requires her to work twice as hard as her male counterparts. She told her enraptured audience how she arrives to work on time, reads every mail sent to her, holds meetings with men who either looked down on her or are intimidated by her status. A lot was expected from her every step. However, this has not stopped her from playing the role of a wife and mother. She has somehow perfected a balance between her home and career.

Bala-Usman’s meteoric rise to power at 42 years is a success story worth telling. Her provenance makes her success more beguiling as northern women have very few representations in the government. While this singular fact makes her an outstanding one-in-a-million, she, however, pointed out that there are more northern women who could do better than her given the opportunity.

“There is a kind of unspoken general perception that certain cultural peculiarities that are identifiable with the northern part of Nigeria literarily means that there are too few women to take positions of responsibility than those from other parts of the country. While some of those who hold this perception suffer from a willing inability to seek the truth, others are actually justified by the fact that they have not seen women from the north match some of the milestones that women have attained in their part of the country. But I tell you there are thousands of other women in the northern part of Nigeria, who have the competence and ability to occupy the seat that I currently occupy and that the only thing that stands between them and the role is that they have not been presented with the opportunity.”

But opportunities like the ones presented to Bala-Usman are very scarce in the north. The average northern girl-child has so many obstacles. From lack of access to qualitative education to gender and religion issues. Moreover, as Bala-Usman argued, the patriarchal society we live in makes the plight of the northern girl very pathetic.

“We are essentially a patriarchal society in which different parts of the country have literarily instituted ways in which women are limited. If it is not through lack of access to education, it is denial of ownership of land and assets or forced early marriage, discrimination in inheritance rights, human resources development and sustainable economic growth and what have you.

“Lately, the incidence of violence against women and sexual molestation have become very rampant. Researchers say that 25 per cent of women in Nigeria go through some form of domestic violence. Between 60 and 70 percent of the 46 million illiterate adults in Nigeria are believed to be women. And of the 11 million children who are said to be out of school in Nigeria, it is believed that not less than 60 percent are girls. These factors have been employed by society to perpetuate the suppression of the female gender and increase the ratio of inequality in the society.”

Generally, she further argued, women in Nigeria have a longer way to go in achieving their dreams as they have been stereotyped to function at a particular level. She bemoaned the dearth of female representations in many sectors of the economy, particularly in politics and commerce. This gaping difference according to her shows that Nigeria is still lagging behind in achieving gender equity and inclusion.
“The challenge of exclusion is a global one and unless we realise this and tackle it as challenge that we all face, chances that we will ever attain equity in this country are negligible.”

Notwithstanding, the NPA boss believes that there is a solution.
“My experience has taught me that preparation is the most important factor to actualisation. I say to women that we must not allow ourselves to be defined by gender. We should build our capacity to be the best in areas that we have chosen for ourselves and earn respect through competence that is obvious to all. When people see that we add value to every environment and situation that we find ourselves, even if they continue to deny us what is due us, it would no longer be our fault!”

She further advocated that the girl child education must be given top priority.
“If we make the education of our girls a priority, we make the girls knowledgeable family planners, more competent mothers, more productive and better paid workers, informed citizens, confident individuals and skillful decision makers. With the singular instrument of education, we would have tackled the dangers of poverty, income inequalities, underdevelopment, gender disparities, discrimination, poor education, conflict, gender-based violence and even harmful traditional practices which all collegiate to diminish the capacity of the woman to make the best of herself.

Above all, we as mothers must bring up our children to value womanhood. The boys must be taught to cherish and nurture women as creatures made by God just as themselves, while we must inculcate the value of hard work, equality of the sexes as well as self-esteem in our girls. As a child, I was brought up to know everything my brothers knew. I learnt to wash cars and fix a car tyre, I was allowed to speak my mind and take up my parents on issues that I do not understand.

These are the ways in which we can build an inclusive society from our homes and when we do that, it would be impossible for anyone to sell the news of female inferiority to our children when they get to the public space. Let us start from our homes, even as we take the very essential battle of inclusion to the policy makers. Our society will be the better for it at the end.”