On a late September day in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, hundreds of women from the Egberu, Afam-Ukwu and Afam-Nta communities gathered in Oyigbo.
They had repeatedly tried to talk with the local government council about their dire need for a functional health center but had been ignored. With no health facilities nearby, access to medical care required traveling long distances, a costly expense few impoverished residents could afford, and a journey that further endangered the health of women and their children.
The women marched to the council building that day in 2011 to demand the government meet with them. The council secretary instructed security to lock the gates, but as the guards tried to barricade them, the women pushed the gates open, singing as they did.
They would be heard. Because of their persistence, the council chief of staff met with them and, at their request, asked the state to renovate and update the area’s dilapidated health clinic. The government also built a well-equipped health center at nearby Obuakpu, achievements carried out by community women empowered through a dynamic community coalition, Women Initiative for Transparency and Social Justice (WITSOJ).
Born out of necessity to combat injustices in the Niger Delta, WITSOJ is training and mobilizing women and young people to effectively engage in the democratic political process, hold local lawmakers accountable and achieve concrete goals in their communities. WITSOJ formed in 2007, after a Solidarity Center workshop in Warri, a major oil city in Delta State.
“Women from all Niger Delta states were represented, and we were asked to go back to our communities and ask for social justice,” says Dr. Jennifer Spiff, who heads the organization. Following the Solidarity Center training, more than 200 women from a variety of organizations and communities met in Port Harcourt, and from there, the coalition reached out to additional women-based organizations. Spiff was interviewed as part of a new Solidarity Center report, “Nigeria: Empowering Women, Transforming Society.”
WITSOJ works closely with the national trade union movement, especially with Women in PENGASSAN (the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria). PENGASSAN members have called for transparency in the government’s handling of profits from its vast oil reserves, demanding that oil income fund infrastructure repair and create environmentally safe refineries. The union’s deep roots in local communities adds credibility to WITSOJ. The partnership with the union “gives WITSOJ the leverage to be trusted as an organization owned by the masses,” says Spiff.
Ceciliar Anthony, a farmer who lives in the Kpor community with her husband and three children and who took part in a community campaign for clean drinking water, says “WITSOJ activities brought responses from the leaders who have made firm promises for the first time.”
As a coalition of more than 20 local organizations, WITSOJ regularly taps into the expertise of its members and has the support of clergy. WITSOJ focuses on training women in large part because “women are the most vulnerable and are on the receiving end of social injustice,” says Spiff, WITSOJ coordinator.
“WITSOJ has made women realize the need for gender equality, and that most times, women can become as good ambassadors in leadership as their male counterparts,” says Gold Minimah, an active WITSOJ member.
Victory Goodluck, a farmer from the Ihuike community who has taken part in WITSOJ workshops, agrees. “It is a good strategy to focus on women because women are instruments of change, and WITSOJ has enlightened us to know our rights and the power of women in bringing our desired vision into full manifestation.”
This article is an excerpt from the report, Nigeria: Empowering Women, Transforming Society.” The report is part of Catalysts for Change, a Solidarity Center series supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. The series features the working people, their unions and activists who are advancing worker rights and greater equity in their societies. Their experience and efforts provide real, transferable lessons for others seeking to affect positive change.
Phumzile Mashishi, HOSPERSA gender project officer, helped lead the gender action learning process in her union.
Each day this week, leading up to International Women’s Day March 8, the Solidarity Center is highlighting an example of how women and their unions are taking action to improve women’s lives on the job, in their unions and in their communities.
Unions around the world are at the forefront of the struggle for gender equality. And sometimes, that means taking a look at their own structures, policies and practices to ensure they, too, are working to make equal treatment and non-discrimination central to their efforts.
In South Africa, four unions grappling with the complexities of gender inequality took part in a structured, multiyear process facilitated by the South Africa Gender Action Learning Program. The group is part of Gender at Work, a global nongovernmental organization that helps organizations become models for a more equitable and accountable world.
The unions—which represent building and construction workers, health care and retail workers and farm workers—recognized that male-dominated, hierarchical, union culture does not easily address issues such as sexual harassment and violence against women within the union, and they sought to develop alternative models of power. The process involves feminist popular education, interactive learning and a lot of work “at the consciousness-raising level,” said Nina Benjamin, who led the project which, for one union, began in 2005. Benjamin is gender research program coordinator for Labour Research Service/Gender at Work, South Africa.
A recent Solidarity Center-sponsored report, “Bringing Back the Heart,” explores the Gender at Work process with these unions and details how the partnerships achieved tangible results:
• Increasing numbers of women joined the unions,
• More women ran for union leadership positions,
• Union leadership gained a deeper understanding of worker concerns and became more accountable in addressing them, and
• Union activists reported that the process reinvigorated and re-inspired them, even in the face of widescale workplace restructuring and deteriorating working conditions.
The process ensured that gender work was not relegated to the status of an “add on.” Leaders developed unionwide strategies for achieving gender equality—and made notable progress.
• The South African Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), which organizes workers in the hospitality, catering, retail, service, tourism and finance sectors, includes a majority of women as members—but few had been union leaders. Following its partnership with Gender at Work, women routinely ran for and were elected into key leadership positions at the worksite level.
• The autonomous, women-led trade union, Sikhula Sonke, reported that membership was growing, domestic violence was decreasing and union leaders were tackling broader discrimination issues (such as xenophobia, homophobia and HIV). The union, which organizes those who live and work on fruit and wine farms, also found farmworkers’ daily lives were improving and they were gaining access to new resources.
• The predominantly male construction union, the Building, Construction and Allied Workers Union (BCAWU) engaged key male leaders in the Gender at Work process, with the result that more women have joined the union, and they now increasingly participate in the union, such as by becoming shop stewards.
• Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (HOSPERSA), which represents public and private health-care workers, primarily nurses, expanded its reach to grassroots members. Together with union leaders, they are building a new culture of unionism—broadening campaigns from a focus on wages to include issues central to the lives and work of its predominantly female membership.
These four unions demonstrate the challenges of organizational change, but their experiences also show that even in unions with diverse memberships and experiences, a focus on gender equality can empower women and return the balance of power back to members.
Child care is now provided for union members attending NANNM meetings. Credit: Shuibu Usman Leman, NUJ general secretary
Since 1978, when the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM) was formed, few women have been part of the professional trade union’s leadership—even though 80 percent of its members are female.
But in the past two years, union members have been working to increase the number of women leaders while establishing family-friendly policies that address issues such as child care during union meetings. By the end of 2012, the number of women holding state-level leadership positions in NANNM stood at 114, and the union now provides child care for nursing mothers at the union office in the capital, Abuja. NANNM also offers child care for nursing mothers who attend the union’s national meetings and training activities.
Ebiuwou Obiyai, who recently won the national financial secretary position at NANNM’s national office, described her election this way: “I want to create the awareness to our female comrades that this union belongs to all of us and we (women) can encourage effective leadership only if we decide to get involved in the affairs of our beloved NANNM.” Obiyai was one of five women who ran for nine open positions in November 2012. The elections marked a watershed in the history of the union elections—it was the first time such a sizeable number of female members voluntarily ran as independent candidates. Obiyai was one of two female candidates elected to the NANNM National Administrative Council.
In another milestone, NANNM held its first-ever National Gender conference in August 2012. Participants at the conference, held in Ibadan, Oyo State, included more than 140 female members. They created a National Women’s Committee with a five-member steering committee leadership and a mandate to support the first election of female officers in early 2013.
Underlying these successes is NANNM’s national gender policy, which has served as an effective tool for addressing some of the challenges hindering female members from involvement in union activities. Ever since the union’s National Executive Council adopted the policy in October 2011, gender activities have been included in the union’s budget. Members are pushing for an adoption of a gender clause in NANNM’s constitution which will also create opportunities for more women in leadership. Lawal Dutsinma, the unions recent past president and NANNM President Abdulrafiu Adeniji, have actively supported these changes, which began in 2009 when the Solidarity Center launched a series of gender and leadership trainings for members. The trainings, which continued through 2012, led to creation of the gender policy.
Just a few years ago, NANNM’s gender desk office was staffed by one person. That office had no power, no clear budgetary allocation and no programs. NANNM’s 2008 national memorandum stated gender issues would be a priority. In practice, women were never encouraged to play an active role in the union’s leadership and child care was never discussed. Today, women have moved into elected positions in states like Lagos, Benue, Kaduna, Kogi, Osun, Ekiti, Kano, Anambra, Bayelsa and Rivers States. Although the union’s gender power imbalance has not been completely resolved, these moves are powerful steps in the right direction.
Although post-apartheid South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and women comprise more than 40 percent of Parliament, the country also has high rates of gender-based violence, including “excessive rates of female homicides,” according to the World Health Organization.
Most recently, the brutal rape and murder of 17-year-old Anene Booysen in February and other high-profile killings have brought the issue of gender-based violence to national attention. Two men have been arrested for the death of Booysen, who worked at a construction company in a small rural town southeast of Cape Town, South Africa.
Around the world, in their homes and at the workplace, women are highly likely to experience violence—up to seven in ten women globally will be beaten, raped, abused or mutilated in their lifetimes. This March 8, International Women’s Day, activists across the globe are focusing on ending violence against women—and in South Africa, working women and their unions are among the leaders in events across the nation.
Demanding a “proactive, transparent strategy to halt the rape and violation of women and children,” the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) in February laid out steps toward a national strategy to combat the epidemic. “Violence against women is a harsh reality in South Africa,” says Martle Keyter, FEDUSA vice president of gender. Booysen’s murder and all such acts “perpetuate the violent disregard of women’s constitutional and universal human rights to equality, freedom and safety,” she said.
Members of FEDUSA and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) are heading up rallies and other events across South Africa. (Follow their actions on Twitter with the hashtags: #NoToRape #StopRapes #COSATU.)
In commemoration of International Women’s Day, the International Labor Organization (ILO) is highlighting the issue of sexual violence at the workplace and includes the experience of Sisandra, 28, a telecommunications technician in South Africa. “My executive manager came to the office and asked for my number and I gave it to him,” Sisandra said. “I did not ask him why he wanted my number as he is a senior person and respected by all in the company because of his position. He then started touching my breast and private parts … I felt violated and scared. Even though I said I was going to report this, I felt I could not because I thought I could easily lose my job if I told.”
As in many nations, researchers say the culture of violence against women in South Africa involves a combination of “a historical culture of ‘might is right’…an unequal relationship between women and men, lack of adequate childcare … and high male unemployment.” Underlying all of these issues is economic inequality, in which a large swath of the population has diminishing or no access to family-supporting jobs and to fundamental rights, an explosive and injurious environment that frequently undermines people’s view of themselves and those around them.
The United Nations Commission on the Status for Women is meeting now in New York to review previous resolutions and take new steps toward the elimination of discrimination against women. A 100-member trade union delegation of women from Italy, Senegal, Canada, the United Kingdom, Morocco, Brazil, Singapore and other countries is attending the meeting as part of an
International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) delegation. The ITUC is demanding governments “live up to their international and national obligations on the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.” The ITUC says that last year, the commission “failed to reach agreement because of conservative governments questioning the very principle of gender equality.”
On the blog, FEDUSA Writes, a poster notes that “the regular headlines witnessed in South Africa of women young and old, poor and rich, black and white getting beaten, raped, or murdered,” mean that “it is time for us to call on our Government to turn their political rhetoric and timely outrage into concrete actions…. We desperately need to find ways in which to change our behaviour, change the patriarchal nature of our society and radically shift the existing power relations that make it necessary for men to be tough and violent in order to really be men.”