On this special day, I join everyone around the world to celebrate women. In a place like Nigeria, the efforts of women are usually most acknowledged in the household—and, indeed, we must never take their efforts on the home front for granted. However, the International Women’s Day offers us a great opportunity to go beyond the home front and celebrate women everywhere: in the household, at the workplace, or in the field.
I celebrate women like Dr. Ola Orekunrin, a medical doctor, helicopter pilot and healthcare entrepreneur, who founded Flying Doctors Nigeria, West Africa’s first Air Ambulance Service that is breaking new grounds in bringing trauma care to the remotest parts of Nigeria and the sub-region.
I celebrate Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje, who contested as a member of the House of Representatives when she was just 35 and with a new baby. Today, she is one of the longest-serving legislators. I celebrate the all-female team of athletes who represented Nigeria in the just-concluded Winter Olympics in South Korea, making history and breaking barriers.
I celebrate women like renowned artist Nike Davies-Okundaye, founder of the popular Nike Art gallery in Lagos; Rabia Salihu Sa’id, a physicist, professor of atmospheric and space-weather physics, and a researcher at the Bayero University, Kano; Mrs. Itoro Eze-Anaba, anti-rape activist and founder of Mirabel Centre, Nigeria’s first sexual assault referral centre.
Of course, it would be impossible for me to mention all the women shining as stars in the spheres of business, government, arts and science. Space will also not permit me to include in this short piece, women making a mark in other spheres of influence beyond these. This is just a taster, to remind us Nigerians what is possible when women have opportunity and support.
But the question is always asked, why do we celebrate Women’s Day?
For over 70 years, since the late 19th century, almost every established secondary school was exclusively for boys, with the exception of the Methodist Girls High School, Lagos. Schools like CMS Grammar School, Hope Waddell Calabar, Bayero College, Ibadan Government School and King’s College. For decades, the only opportunities for education and advancement were only available to men, meaning women had next to zero opportunity.
While it seems opportunities are available for everyone in present-day Nigeria to aspire in career, business, and politics, the fact that men had over half a century of advantage still shuts women out, because the meetings where deals are sealed in business and politics are to a great extent skewed disproportionately to the disadvantage of women.
This is why we must make it a point of ensuring women get the opportunity to catch up. For as long as women don’t catch up, nearly 40% of our productive population will not be able to make a significant input in the economy.
Up till this day, women are the biggest sufferers when war strikes. The North East is an example. When men go to war, its women who suffer the brunt. Women also bear the worst effects of negative cultural practices, whether it is early/forced marriages, or being shut out of an inheritance.
My first daughter, Fatima, is a doctor. My wife and I stood against pressure from family and friends to insist she must finish her degree – today, she is a celebrated doctor and humanitarian, providing help to families at the grassroots around Adamawa and the North East. If we all support our daughters, wives and sisters, who knows what great accomplishments could come out of it?
Despite the immense hurdles women face from culture and prejudice, look at what they have achieved. Imagine if we allowed all our women to flourish and to thrive, without restricting their dreams and opportunities with man-made shackles. Imagine how much more women will accomplish for Nigeria and for each and every one of us.
Nigerian women have been longtime achievers. There are many established names that have beaten the threshold in areas women were once relegated to the back seat. But the real heroes are those unsung mothers, sisters and daughters who go the extra-mile in dignity to make things work in the household. Theirs are examples that there are no barriers to how high any woman can go with determination.
On this women’s day, I ask all men, fathers, religious and political leaders to join together and act as humans to improve the lives of women.