WOMEN EMPOWERMENT AND NATION BUILDING IN AFRICA: PROSPECT AND CHALLENGES
Tayo A. Zubair
Nation Building is a process of constructing and fashioning a national identity. The choice of these key words; process, and construction and fashioning are very fundamental because they are the basic ingredients of nation building. Taking a critical look at these words, one will realize that nation building is indeed a process which takes place over a long period of time. It is gradual and not drastic or a sudden occurrence. Construction and fashioning are also very important in nation building because there are things to be constructed and fashioned out, both in physical and intangible terms. Fashioning here is a conscious effort at creating an identity and a national image. Among those things to construct and fashion out are behaviors, national image, values, institutions and even physical monuments that depict common history and culture of the people of the state.
Furthermore, national identity has to do with shared feelings among a people with a common or similar heritage, a sense of belonging to a common nation, a feeling of togetherness that is expressed through the sharing of a common national language, national anthem, show of respect for a common national flag, etc. Nation Building is also about forging a sense of unity among the various units of a country; it includes making conscious efforts to unite heterogeneous societies as one indivisible unit, united in national goals, beliefs and common national aspirations. It not only involves rebranding of image, but also includes the revamping, restructuring and reorientation of a nation.
Indeed, Nation building is different from State building, because while the later is more of building and strengthening states institutions which could also be with an outside influence, the later is more concerned with the building of a strong sense of national identity into the individual entities that make up a state. Moreover, it does not really require any outside involvement, but it does require the inputs from all sections of the state. Although every section and group of a state has roles to play in nation building, however it is not always so as only few sections have perpetually dominated mainstream development leaving behind significant contributions to nation building from other vital sections of the state. This is particularly true in most developing countries especially in Africa. Notable among such groups/sections are the women whose roles in nation building have not been fully harnessed.
The Role of women
The traditional role of women from history has always been childbearing and/or rearing and housekeeping, which often includes subsistence agricultural activities. However, most times they have been excluded from most political or nation building activities. In many societies they are regarded more or less as second class citizens. In most African societies, gender preference is prevalent and right from birth, the girl child is faced with the possibility of rejection, because the male child is preferred to the female and this preference also affects the education of the girl child. The education of the girl child is not considered important and if ever they are educated, it is always limited, while their brothers in the same family are given a better chance of furthering their education to a higher level. In addition to this, the education given to them is meant to make them function better in their traditional roles and not for community service or nation building.
Previously, in most African societies, women could not contribute to public discussions on matters affecting the general public. They were excluded from decision making processes of the state. This was indeed a reflection of their roles at a home in decision matters. A typical example is the choice of marriage partners where women had little or no say. Many a times, they were forced into marriages that were negotiated by their male relatives without their consent or that of the mother. They could not even be involved in anything that is greatly detached from household responsibilities. Thus, the nation has not been able to benefit from this very vital group of the community as it should.
However, despite the very limited roles played by women in Africa in nation building, there have been occasions when women rose to the challenges facing the nation. In Nigeria for example, there was the incidence that is now referred to as the Aba women riots of 1929, where it was the women who championed the cause of the nation when they protested the taxation of women by the colonial authorities. Furthermore, there have been individual women that achieved great feats for their nations. An example of such women includes Olufunmilayo Ransome Kuti, the wife of the renowned reverend, Israel Ransome Kuti, who organized a lot of campaigns against colonial rule. Another woman in this category is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia who rose to through the political brouhaha that plagued her country for more than a decade to become the first female African head of state. These women rose above the limiting factor of their gender to contribute greatly to nation building in their time.
Perhaps, we should credit the traditional role of women as a significant contribution to nation building. This because, often times the responsibility of child training and home making are being anchored by them and it is the kind of training that a child receives at home that to a large extent shapes the way that child contributes to his or her society. Beliefs, values, ideals, and perceptions of the mother also determine to a great extent what the child becomes or even contributes to the nation in his later years. Thus, the traditional roles of the women, is not only a contribution to nation building but a critical part of their role as nation builders. It, however, should not end there, but should include contributions to political developments, and other areas of nation building.
Against this backdrop, every society needs to take a conscious effort in enhancing the role of women. In other to achieve this, there is the need to empower them for nation building. There is no way women can contribute to nation building without talking about empowerment. The World Bank (2011) defines empowerment as the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. According to Wikipedia (2012), these capacities has to do with increasing the spiritual, political, social, educational, gender, or economic strength of individuals and communities. It can therefore be said that women empowerment is an undisguised positioning of women for nation building. Empowerment could take many forms and a good example is spiritual empowerment. A spiritually empowered woman for instance becomes conscious of her inborn ability to change her destiny and to be a catalyst for change. Meenakshi Jha (2001), put it this way, in Spiritual Empowerment and Women, “Spirituality is all about awakening the ‘consciousness’ that we all humans have been gifted with the consciousness to recognize the ‘truth’ about self, about relationship of self with the people and the nature around, and according to her it is the beginning of taking care of our own self and understanding others in a better way”. This is to say; when a woman is empowered spiritually she possesses enough confidence to exploit her abilities, which she can use in building her nation, making her a very vital component that constitutes the nation. Furthermore, it improves her understanding of other members of her community, creating room for peaceful co-existence and other platforms for unity.
Also when women are politically empowered, there is a greater possibility of positive political development. The chance at peace for instance is better guaranteed, because women and children suffer most in the aftermath of any violent conflict. Thus, when marginalization and gender inequalities which exist in many African countries through laws and customs are removed, it will give women the ability to play greater and more influential roles in nation building.
Furthermore, educational empowerment of women is a very important tool in enhancing the role of women in nation building. This is because, when a woman is educated to the point of gaining sufficient skills and training, she is better positioned to contribute to nation building in any capacity. If the rate of female school dropout is checked and more females are encouraged to be educated, teenage marriages would be reduced, the national population planning goals with all its attendant benefits would be easier to achieve, and the opportunities for economic empowerment would be further expanded.
Empowering women economically is fundamental to their ability to contribute meaningfully to nation building. It gives them the chance to stand on equal footings with men; it enhances their ability to contribute to national economic development. This is because the inclusion of women who are usually a large proportion of the population, in a nation’s workforce will definitely have a huge impact on the nation’s economic output.
Another area where the role of women in nation building cannot be overlooked is in military and Para military service. In a situation where the woman is edged out of these services due to psychological or socio-cultural reasons, the effectiveness of such a nation in maintaining national security is jeopardized. This is so because, there are roles that can only be played effectively by women in military service and which if they are left out could create a gap in the nation’s security efforts.
In conclusion, given the notable role some women have played and still play in the African continent, they should not only be given chance in a greater capacity to contribute to nation building, but they should be encouraged to do so. They should be empowered spiritually, educationally, economically and socially so that they could harness their latent abilities for the good of the nation. If the nation is to be built successfully, no section of nation is to be left behind, if new values are to be cultivated, if new national identity is to be fashioned out or existing ones built strongly, the contributions of the women folks should not be overlooked. Furthermore, for the nation to enjoy lasting and stable peace, women must have equal opportunity in decision making processes in the nation. If the nation is to succeed in its fight against poverty, human trafficking, violent conflicts, corruption and other social vices that confront it, the women folks must be enlisted. They must be discouraged from staying only within the confinement of their relegated “traditional positions”. They must be seen to contributing more in matters of nation building such as voting and being voted for, getting more education, being involved in economic, and other nation building activities.
Afigbo, A. E. The Warrant Chiefs: Indirect Rule in South-Eastern Nigeria, 1891-1929 (London: Longman, 1972).
Alistair Boddy-Evans, About.com Guide Biography: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s ‘Iron Lady’
Cheryl, J-Odim, Nina, E. M 1997 For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria
Meenakshi Jha, (2001) Spiritual Empowerment and Women
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Wikipedia, (July 2012) Empowerment The free encyclopedia