By Bianca Iboma-Emefu
Evelyn Okere Onyung is an entrepreneur. She was the vice-presidential candidate of Alliance National Party (ANP) in the 2019 general election. She is an advocate for better representation of women in government.
In this interview, she dwelt on the fortunes of women and nation-building. She also stated the need for women to know they matter in society and should not be treated like second-class citizens.
Over 51 per cent of women are involved in voting during election, despite the claim that women are under-represented in government. What do you think is the solution?
I think that is changing. Women are now aware of what they want. They have been able to identify the problems that women are relegated to the background in the society due to some socio-cultural and political biases that have denied them their rights to hold key political positions as well as some laws culturally that forbid them, too, from getting involved in certain activities.
Women are mobilizing and presenting themselves for leadership positions. Once a woman takes over the affairs of Nigeria, everything will change. A woman who has what it takes. Madam Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is celebrated all over the world because she stood her ground by building a brand, she protected her name and was very focused on her goal.
We have some of our women that have earned respect nationally and internationally, like our dear mother Dr. Okonjo-Iweala who is known internationally because of her intellectual performance on the economic ladder. A lot of women who have that capacity and personality would also emulate her, be anxious to develop whatever responsibility given to them and turn it into something worthwhile. The society should not look down on us, but give us the necessary support so that our contribution would help build and make Nigeria a better place.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s success was supported by women. Even a woman had to step down for her. So, it is time for us to support women to realise our dream. In 2019, I ran for the position of vice-presidential candidate for Alliance National Party and I got support from the menfolk as well.
Women need to come together and effect a change. It is sad when a woman’s right is infringed upon and other women would just sit back and watch. Until we unite as one, achieving key leadership position in the country would be difficult.
Women need to collaborate with other interest groups to make a difference. The men are already giving their support, once women are encouraged, they would decide to run for key electoral positions.
Nigeria has an age-long political tradition where the women are not given the slot of leadership. How can they change this narrative?
They should understand that it is a process. First, they need to have what it takes to handle such positions and are ready for the task. I will cite the military as an illustration of the matter. When a woman decides to join the military, she understands that the training is tough and she is equally strong-hearted. They don’t say, because she is a woman, therefore, her training would be mild. They all stay in the same training ground and do all the training. There are no sentiments. We can emulate that, and understand the political scene, be familiar with the terrain and be ready to give it our all.
Above all, they should engage in massive advocacy and educate the womenfolk in order to impact on the society.
What influence would you say Kamala Harris’s victory as United States Vice-President has had on Nigerian woman?
Kamala Harris’s victory shows it is possible. A woman can lead the affairs of our nation. She got more support from the womenfolk, there is a data record that shows that. It is heart-warming as her victory has created a deep impact on women globally and equally raised the consciousness of women to realise that they have bargaining power and can contest for any elective position.
Although, before her, women who participated in politics here remained “abysmally low,” with less than 6 per cent of lawmakers in the House of Assembly being female, it is a wakeup call. You have seen female Presidents in the world. Germany has a female president. President Buhari was by the side of a female President, yet, he stated that the role of his wife was in the other room. Women are knowledgeable, sound and have managerial skills to handle the task. I believe we will get there once women are empowered with the right tools. There is a prominence of young women that would steer and sustain this movement as it emerges.
Sad tales of women, especially widows, who are still subjected to some harmful traditional practices abound in Igboland. How can this maltreatment be abolished?
There are some traditional practices in Igboland that should be stopped by now. It is not right that a woman who lost her husband should be subjected to some inhumane treatments in the name of culture. She is locked up in a room like a prisoner where food and water are passed to her from under the door. After bathing the corpse of her husband, she would be asked to drink the water. This is obnoxious. She is secluded from people and kept away from her kids just to perform a useless tradition created by men.
The experience is scary because I have seen victims who were meant to go through that process. I think state governments should make laws to protect widows. These harmful widowhood practices are archaic and should be stopped.
Widows are denied their husbands’ properties for allegedly killing them. Although there are some exceptions, where some women can get to that, but it should be investigated before drawing the conclusion. In fact, these ugly stories of how widows are maltreated in Igboland should completely be abolished.
In most cases, the girl-child is not entitled to any inheritance. Although there has been some advocacy, coupled with the Supreme Court’s ruling on the issue, what do you think is the impact of this development?
I don’t know exactly what wrong or offence the girl child has committed in Igbo culture. There are a great number of customs against the girl child in Igboland. Although some communities with educated traditional rulers are trying to make some adjustments but their efforts, unfortunately, have little or no impact.
There is a veteran Igbo actor whom I respect so much but his belief in Igbo culture has got so much into him that he has come out publicly against his son for kneeling down to propose to a woman he loves, all because, according to him, he didn’t kneel down to propose to his own wife. Civilisation has replaced our culture. What is wrong in kneeling down to express love in a marriage proposal? The girl-child cannot inherit properties from the father just because she is a female. How can a father allow his daughter to suffer because of tradition?
Recently, on social media, a video of a nine-year-old girl has made the rounds where her grandmother was alleged to have traded her as a sex slave for N1,500. What is your view on this?
Everything in life has to do with presentation. The case of a grandmother trading her granddaughter as a sex slave is evil. It is so pathetic and very disheartening. If she can do this to her granddaughter, what about her own daughter? What type of treatment did she mete out on her? What is her orientation? Is it borne out of poverty and socio-economic challenges? The girl-child is endangered in our society from birth, not just in Africa or Nigeria, it’s a global challenge. The society is no longer safe for the girl-child.
And the man who did that to a child should be punished; 70 per cent of women in Nigeria are being abused and, somehow, they carry on because Africans are emotionally strong, but we need to fight it with literacy and look for strategies to tackle poverty.
The girl-child’s education on sex should not be delayed. Sex education should be given to the girl-child as soon as she is born. We should sponsor bills that can tackle the menace. A law should be enacted to protect the girl-child.
You can see the security challenges in the country, people can no longer go to the farm. Any woman seen on the farm by these killer herders will be raped. Educating the girl-child is key in today’s world and remains the only way a society can raise women that are emotionally balanced.
In Nigeria, culture varies from one ethnic group to another in relation to discrimination against women and their vulnerability. What do you make of this?
A lot of women do not know their rights. When you know and understand your rights, you are empowered. I mean having the knowledge of what the law stands for regarding your rights. In a situation where the law is being violated and children are involved, you need to make the right decision for yourself and the children. You are entitled to basic human privileges that need to be treated with respect. These include right to security, safety, not to be abused and demeaned.
And if the laws are violated, the woman has to understand how to tackle it. But first, she must be aware of her rights. Women who remarry are mostly victims in this case. If they find out that their daughter is being molested, they keep quiet and cover the abuse rather than speak up and call for help in order to protect the daughter.
Women need to know they matter. They should not be treated like second-class citizens. People should erase the notion that women are just there to bear children. Women can do more than domestic issues. Women can contribute to nation-building only when they are empowered and given the opportunity to do so.