…isn’t the conversation about women about a different sort of power? The rights of the girl child, for instance? And her power over her own body — so that she’s not forced into early marriage, nor threatened by the stigma from medical complications often associated with this. How much of this right is helped by demanding that every girl in Nigeria should get at least 12 years of schooling — up to SS3?


I have never taken part in any official celebration of the International Women’s Day. No claims here. Just a matter of fact acknowledgement. And a couple of weeks back, I had no reason to think it was going to be any different this year. Well, that was before my friend was invited to speak at one of the events with which the day was commemorated last week — and after I decided to tag along.

There were very few men in the cavernous hall in which the event was scheduled to take place — a sense of insignificance that was magnified much earlier by one effect of turning up early for a Nigerian function: a near-empty hall! But, by the end of the day, that was the least of my peeves. Arguably, at first, the high table looked more distinguished than the larger part of the audience. Which looked okay. For it promised a thorough-going discussion of the many themes around which this year’s event was organised.

After this, it was almost all downhill.

Speaker after speaker (bar one — and all female) took to the podium to entertain the audience with their impressive biographies. And impressive these were — from retiring at 43; through juggling work, parenthood, spousal responsibilities, and sisterly duties. The audience lapped it all up — ecstatic at the innumerable successes and cooing when the going toughened. A celebration, it truly was! And you could tell that for many in the audience, the whiff of success emanating from the high-octane women on the high table was far more powerful than any opioid.

Then there is the rural female and the ones that make up the urban underclass. Small scale entrepreneurs and service providers these invariably are. But nearly always, the payment of one school fees or hospital incident away from bankruptcy. Would it matter that they had 12 years of education leading into womanhood?


But, and this was me holding counsel with myself, isn’t the conversation about women about a different sort of power? The rights of the girl child, for instance? And her power over her own body — so that she’s not forced into early marriage, nor threatened by the stigma from medical complications often associated with this. How much of this right is helped by demanding that every girl in Nigeria should get at least 12 years of schooling — up to SS3? There’s research out there that shows that even when not much is being taught at school, keeping the female child in school until she’s 18 keeps her out of early marriages, and depresses a country’s fertility rate. How much of sex education ought our girls to be exposed to, and how early? And what levels of contraceptive availability ought we to tolerate as a society?

Then there is the rural female and the ones that make up the urban underclass. Small scale entrepreneurs and service providers these invariably are. But nearly always, the payment of one school fees or hospital incident away from bankruptcy. Would it matter that they had 12 years of education leading into womanhood? How important is it for the outcomes we seek that this cohort were privy to sex education early, and have non-sniggering access to contraceptives? If we were to trade-off for scarce resources, and then sequence for the biggest outcome for each intervention on behalf of our women folk, would it matter how much formal finance reaches this category of our women, and how this is sourced? Having seen successive efforts at boosting domestic financial inclusion flounder, what are we to make of the recent directives by the Central Bank of Nigeria on payment services banks?

In the end, my friend provided a barely-noticed exception to the triumphal narrative. She spoke to…issues. Acknowledged the need to form advocacy groups, drive changes to legislation, and improve political representation for women if we’re to begin resolving them. Then, for added measure, she hinged the sustainable resolution of the female problem on proper attention to the acculturation of the male child!


None of these questions were posed, nor alluded to, as each power-female powered her way through her allotted ten minutes. By the time each was done, I had no doubt that the glass ceiling was still intact. You would have thought that spurred by the challenges faced by their colleagues at the bottom of the pyramid, our female elite would be alive to the reforms needed if we must improve local workforce participation. I wasn’t sure if the talk about support infrastructure for working women was enough proxy for the provision of cheap and reliable nurseries and crèches in both the private and public sectors. But the ululating that accompanied references to finding family members that made a woman’s return to work after childbirth easy suggested that there was a rich vein to be mined in this regard if the problem and its solutions could but be properly phrased.

In the end, my friend provided a barely-noticed exception to the triumphal narrative. She spoke to these issues. Acknowledged the need to form advocacy groups, drive changes to legislation, and improve political representation for women if we’re to begin resolving them. Then, for added measure, she hinged the sustainable resolution of the female problem on proper attention to the acculturation of the male child! I didn’t think it was enough, though. For not enough in the audience were paying attention. We may have celebrated the achievements of these females in their respective fields. But together, the “distinguished speakers” at this one event barely scratched the surface of the “female problem” in Nigeria. Given a fulcrum (political voice, for instance, as demanded by my friend) could any of them move the world (strengthen female advocacy and enact legislation in support of improved access to finance and better working conditions for Nigerian women)? At the end of the programme, I couldn’t but ask my friend why she didn’t raise the urgency of these needs in her presentation. She said she feared that she’d be talking down to the audience. Thankfully, she didn’t feel a need to re-air her laundry to the rhythm of that much frenzy.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.