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In the quest for liberation, the African woman was left behind

"A woman’s relevance in society will not be tied to her marital status, age, or the number of children she has. This has never been the yardstick to measure men’s relevance; it should not be the metric of success for women either"

While the life of a woman is extremely complex globally, the African woman is faced with a range of other challenges unique to her. Being an African woman entails swimming against the tide – politically, economically and socially.

Consider this. In most African countries, women battle the anxiety of finding a spouse in order to move up the social ladder or even be considered useful members of society. Also, it is common practice in some settings to recommend that a man who is struggling with all sorts of personal issues, including mental health issues, quickly get married to a woman as a cure. In other words, by virtue of womanhood, a woman is expected to commit her life and God-given potential to live as an anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, or mood stabiliser. What a burden! Unsurprisingly, a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime revealed that in 2022, out of the over 48,000 women and girls killed worldwide by an intimate partner or other family members, about 20,000 of these deaths occurred in Africa, thus ranking Africa as the continent with the highest rate of femicide and gender-based violence committed by a family member. This calls for urgent remedy.

Then, women in general must deal with hormonal fluctuations based on their biological cycle, menstruation, infertility, childbirth, miscarriages, stillbirths, menopause, etc. The list is inexhaustible. In Nigeria, for instance, the bulk of the blame for infertility is heaped on women. As if this was not depressing enough, society constantly infers that women are afterthoughts, as seen with the dominance of the word ‘man’ in every endeavour. At the workplace, a woman needs to work twice as hard to even be seen, heard or stay ahead. In such an environment, childbirth is a setback for years. Notwithstanding that the concept and success of maternity leave rights is a breakthrough, the fact remains that a 6-12-month period of nurturing life postpartum might create an irreplaceably huge gap in a woman’s career. In fact, some women will be lucky to still have a career by the end of their maternity leave because their default roles in nurturing a child compete with and might eclipse the need for a career. The troubles go on and on!

Woman, weave through life strategically

There are tested strategies for women to swim through the professional terrain effectively, that is, if African liberation means dignity for all and not just for some African people. To leap forward, we must take some steps backwards and ask pertinent questions. Where are we coming from, and what hurdles have been surmounted? The next reflective exercise hinges on the current state: where are we now in our journey to equal opportunities for women? Identifying the future or desired state is crucial, but an even more important question is: how do we get there?

In my country, Nigeria, women ‘keep winging it’ and arrive at deploying this reflective exercise mid-career when it appears they have hit the glass ceiling. They realise that to advance, most of the time, you need another ingredient: a blended career– one that requires knowledge in different, sometimes unrelated, disciplines. The power of a blended career is even more relevant for women because the future of work demands that those who remain competitive are lifelong learners. Indeed, the idea of being degree-educated and being set for life is dreamy, given present-day realities. Hence, for women, the motivation for continuous professional and personal development must be sustained through various corporate and publicly funded upskilling avenues – a move that would open opportunities for women in untapped territories.

Those of us whose thought patterns are upwardly progressive assume the role of pacesetters, charting their own course and establishing domains previously unheard of, becoming inspirational and aspirational for other women to either follow or be audacious enough to carve their own sojourn. In the workplace, it is even prudent to become upwardly mobile knowledge-wise by studying and predicting the future of work. Then, positioning oneself with requisite skills. A typical example of “when opportunity meets preparation.”

It is important to underscore that desiring a successful professional life requires intentionality. This also includes intentionally seeking out role models and studying their pathways to success. Women must be intentional about this.

The good news is that the financial burden for professional development, upskilling, or re-skilling does not always have to come at the expense of the learner or at the cost of ending work completely. Thankfully, in Nigeria and other African countries, there are fellowships, bootcamps and internships that provide the bridge for these skills gaps.

The other good news is that boardroom politics in many African countries has thankfully seen an increase in the number of women participants. Indeed, women need to sit at tables where decisions about themselves or others are being made. The objective of representation ought to be to advance politics that take into account the peculiar challenges faced by women (gender mainstreaming).

Beyond what we can do for ourselves and each other, we must always wear the attitude of “when life gives us lemons, we make lemonade.” The default setting surrounding our existence is to swim against the tide, and we must learn how to do so gracefully.

Society, count her in

You might agree that in the quest for independence, the African woman seems to have been left behind. In Nigeria, for instance, the pre-colonial era witnessed authority, economics, and spiritual power wielded by Igbo women. Advancing towards women’s empowerment might mean that we draw a lesson or two from our pre-colonial past and use these lessons to further improve the condition of the average woman in today’s society.

African culture and values have a role to play in that desired society. Africans place immense value on family life and communal living, which is a unique and admirable part of our being. In our culture, “community is considered an essential aspect of an individual’s existence, and a person born into a community will always be a part of it.” Hence, as Africa works towards progressing alongside the world on our own terms, we must also harness and tap into the potential of every member of our society, women inclusive. Indeed, nations cannot advance if half of their populations are excluded or held back. Attempting to advance our economy and forge our path to development with only half of the population (men) is akin to scoring an own goal.

In the envisioned future society, women will be afforded equal visibility, given a similar audience, and their relevance will not be belittled or hinged on any status other than the mere fact that they are excellent at what they do. More specifically, a woman’s relevance in society will not be tied to her marital status, age, or the number of children she has. This has never been the yardstick to measure men’s relevance; it should not be the metric of success for women either.

Further, the affirmations of women’s relevance should not end in mere words (virtue signalling) but should transcend to sustainable and enduring deeds. Every member of society should be on guard to pull down long-held stereotypes on women’s relevance. The movement should not pit women against men or vice versa but should strive to enable equal outcomes for everyone who puts in the same amount of work, irrespective of their gender. In the quest to create an equitable society, we must not forget that the benefits of our advocacy transcend generations, generations in which our daughters and sons will live.

So, this is the conclusion of the matter: inclusion for accelerated development is a joint effort – a partnership between the woman and society, so to say. Both parties must move in synchrony. After all, “you can lead a horse to the water, but you cannot force it to drink.” Therefore, women’s passion and drive for success need to be matched to an enabling environment provided by society. This is a sweet spot to live in, an era to flourish and blossom.

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