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Mother’s day: Purple ribbons for women workers in NE Nigeria

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Apart from Mother’s day, March 8 every year serves as opportunity to generally express love and appreciation to women globally.  For feminists, activists and trade unionists across the world, the event is a chance to embrace social issues women still grapple with and band together to create hope in the lives of women facing different forms of social, political and economic challenges.  

It is a day women and feminists stand together to evaluate and reaffirm their commitment to social and political struggles for gender equality and protection of universally recognized human rights of all persons.  The day was originally celebrated as International Working Women’s Day but is now marked as International Women’s Day; a day to value sacrifices women continually make towards global economic growth, peace and development. The Solidarity Center, where I work, recognizes women’s key role at the workplace, and to ensure they achieve respect and a voice at work, we assist them in joining and leading unions, advocating for themselves and their families and standing up for the rights of all workers worldwide.

March 8 is not only a time to contemplate  how life has dealt differently with women across the globe, it is also  a time to critically reflect on how women have remained vulnerable to violence  and oppressive situations especially in places torn by war and conflict.  March 8 provides an opportunity for people living in safe and secure work and family environment to spare a thought to sufferings, women caught in conflict prone environments live everyday while trying to carry out their reproductive and productive responsibilities.  For many of us, violence or danger is an illusion; a distant reality when stories are far separated from our environment but for most women, violence is another word for unclothed and dark reality. This is a fact for contemporary women workers and working families living in North East, Nigeria.

Mariam Hassan Usman (pseudonyms used) is originally from Abadom Local Government Area of Borno State but presently lives in Bokolis Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp Maiduguri, Nigeria.  A 35-year-old primary school teacher, Mariam came to the camp in 2014 after she lost her home to Boko Haram insurgency. Facing precarious work conditions, Mariam now tutors children under trees; a stark opposite to equipped classrooms at her former workplace. 

With so much instability around her, Mariam has had to take up extra form of employment of selling veils to augment earning and support her family since her husband can no longer work; this means longer work hours for her despite her primary household care responsibility. Mariam is most at risk as a worker because the insurgents have targeted her profession, yet this woman has vowed to remain a teacher all her life. That is Mariam’s story!

Thirty-year-old Binta Zara Aminu had a normal life a year and half ago but now teaches in Yerwa Internally Displaced Peoples Camp Borno State. Binta remembers a time when she could move around freely without restrictions but knows she must now always pray to get back home as a ‘suicide bomb’ attack could happen anywhere without warning. Before coming to teach in the camp, Binta’s family owned their own house but she now has to pay rent for a small room she shares with two of her children. 

She is presently wrestling with the psychological trauma of losing most of her relatives to terror attacks and has had to send some of her biological children away to live with distant relatives in areas considered safe. Separating her family in such a painful manner is the only way she knows of preventing what Binta calls ‘any eventuality at any given time’. Even with all the misery in her life, this is a woman whose spirit is not broken as she struggles with the increased burden of family care the crisis has placed on her.  

Another brave woman worker is Zainab Adamu, a 43-year-old grandmother who lost four of her family members to Boko Haram insurgency. She watched one of her daughters die with her unborn child as a result of pregnancy health complications that could have been prevented had there been a well-equipped hospital and proper medical attention in their insurgency torn community.  Zainab’s younger brother, a fruit trader, died from a Boko Haram bomb planted in their community market while her son was slaughtered by insurgents when the mosque he was praying in was invaded in an early morning attack. 

As a result of repeated trauma, Zainab is now stricken with high blood pressure and persistent fainting spells; she cannot even afford proper medical care.  As she struggles to maintain her teaching job in one of the primary schools within Maiduguri Town, to meet up with family needs, Zainab is a skeleton of her former vivacious self. She however still believes her legacy to dead relatives is to educate the young and give hope to many who are fast losing hope of ever regaining their normal life. 

The stories are not different for many informal economy female workers, farmers and petty traders within the region. Even where women wholly depend on their husbands for sustenance, decrease in family income as a result of the crisis has had a significant impact on poverty status of women since they are traditionally responsible for their family’s wellbeing.  Ibrahim Saleh a 40-year-old primary school teacher from Gubio Local Government Area, Borno State moved with his family to Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) Secretariat which is currently a makeshift camp for displaced union members in November 2014. 

Before the insurgency, farming was a good source of additional income for Ibrahim’s family needs but now his family fully depends on his salary even as they have had to deal with additional family expenses. His family now spends additional N4000 ($20)  for firewood that only lasts for five weeks as compared to earlier amount of N1000 ($5) spent over a period of six months. Ibrahim is taking care of the two wives and children of his slain brothers with his meager salary; this has brought untold hardship to his family as his salary is no longer enough. 

Real names of persons whose stories are shared have been changed to maintain confidentiality but these are true life stories of women and working families living in North East Nigeria. A lot has been said about Boko Haram insurgency and their reign of terror in some parts of Northern Nigeria but so little has been written about the courage of working families of the region who have continued to defy danger in order to keep hope alive in a region struggling to overcome so much violence. So little media attention has been paid to workers in the region who risk their lives daily to keep a semblance of normalcy in a region where about 300 young school girls were abducted over a year ago and are still missing.  

These are untold stories of bravery and courage of workers from sectors predominantly female dominated and worst hit by the insurgency. Many traders have been killed by suicide bomb attacks in village markets, many health workers have been cut down in their prime while out on routine immunization exercises yet this has not stopped working families from selling vegetables in unprotected fruit markets or providing health care services to community members or daring to make western education part of formal training for every Nigerian child.  

The Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) alone has so far recorded over 380 deaths as a result of the crisis in Borno State, alone but this has not discouraged organized labor leadership from continuing to organize and support members affected by the crisis.  Unions worst hit by the crisis like Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives, (NANNM), Nigeria Civil Service Union (NCSU) and Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN) have continued to silently play a crucial role in the rehabilitation of persons displaced by the insurgency as seen in Maiduguri, where the Teachers’ Union building has since become a temporary shelter for displaced workers.

 Every human being has the power within self to change or shape their environment irrespective of how stark the situation might be. Food vendors, health care providers , teachers, housewives  and working families in Nigeria’s north east live in situations where they may ordinarily be viewed as powerless yet they have managed to use the limited power at their disposal to build up rather than break down. 

As we mark International Women’s day, the event calls for sober reflection regarding the situation of women and working families in northeast Nigeria and other parts of the world where conflict has made life unbearable for women. Government effort at peace building in North East Nigeria is laudable but as the federal, state, local governments and humanitarian bodies respond to the situation, it is expected that such response should have a gendered perspective in order to address the needs of women placed with disproportionate burden by the crisis. There is need for a gendered analysis of impact of the crisis in order to understand the depth and scope of the crisis as well as design appropriate gendered responses. A clear example is the health needs of women in this region—so many women are deeply traumatized by events from terrorist acts yet specialized trauma facilities and services are not accessible to many who need it.

 March 8 is the day of the purple ribbon; let every ribbon worn this period celebrate the courage and bravery of every woman worker or girl child in captivity or lost to crisis. As we step up planet 50-50 by 2030 for gender equality based on this year’s theme, let the ribbons continually commit world leaders to providing gendered responses when addressing conflict around the world. Let the purple ribbons reaffirm humanity’s commitment to fight for a world free from all forms of gender based violence; a world where women no longer remain pawns of war but are honored and respected for the value they add to the political economic and social status of every country. 

Odinukwe is a lawyer, Feminist and works with Solidarity Center AFL-CIO in Abuja. Email: nkyodinukwe@gmail.com


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