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Now is a good time to re-evaluate individual and collective efforts at “making it happen” for women and girls. It is not enough to shout the slogan.

International Women’s Day 2015 [celebrated on Sunday, 8 March"> aims to encourage effective action for advancing and recognizing women. In a piece I wrote on this occasion in 2014, I argued for collective action within our spheres of influence for a better deal for women and girls. I return to that momentarily.

I think we have to step backwards to really make the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day resonate with a wider audience. It seems to me that the best time to begin acting for the advancement and recognition of women is when a girl child arrives. Everyone who can, should discourage the practice in some communities where the girl child is treated disdainfully. We immediately tilt the scales against them with such practices. Every child should be given equal opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Beyond individuals, organizations and particularly government should play a more proactive role in ensuring that access to health care, including antenatal and post-natal care, are available, accessible and affordable so that no woman or child is lost during childbirth. Nigeria ranks very high among countries where the beautiful act of “giving life” often ends up ending lives needlessly. At 145 women of child-bearing age and 2,300 under-five year olds, Nigeria is the second largest contributor to the under-five and maternal mortality rate in the world. Therefore, government – at all levels – needs to do more to get healthcare services to women and children across the country.

The same attitude should regulate education – the bedrock of development anywhere. Education for girls is so important because it implicates many other things including healthcare, nutrition and economic advancement. An educated woman could potentially save a whole community in that she can make better choices for herself and help others within and beyond her family to do likewise. Education offers the opportunity for girls to reach their full potential and contribute to the socio-political and economic progress of their communities and country.

At least three states in Nigeria – Bauchi, Kano and Katsina - took the important step of making “conditional cash transfers” to families that send their children, particularly girls to school. This is a commendable but difficult initiative as it has raised questions about mechanisms for accountability, monitoring and evaluation, inter-sectoral coordination and institutional capacity. Nonetheless, it deserves support. It should therefore be scaled up and complemented by more strategic and concerted effort to help people understand that education could potentially pull them out of poverty. As an investment proposition, the gestation period (the economists might prefer “turnaround time”) for education is much longer than perhaps other investments; however, it pays the most dividend (other things being equal). Making this argument using strategic vehicles, such as the mass media and traditional/religious institutions will go a long way in convincing more people to abandon obsolete ideas.

Historically, federal government investment in education has been significantly lower than the UNESCO recommended 26% of annual expenditure. In a 2012 report, the World Bank ranked Nigeria last with 8.4% of annual expenditure out of 20 countries. Interestingly, fellow West African country Ghana made the most allocation of 31%. I should make clear that increased expenditure on education will not necessarily enhance access and quality unless the relevant institutions take more seriously oversight, supervision and accountability.

Improved access to quality education for women means that they can better nurture and raise their children. It also means that children get better quality care, support and mentorship that helps keep them on the right track. Consequently, they can make informed judgment calls about what kind of future they wish to lead. The multiplicity of options that an informed mind has incentivizes better decision making because they have to weigh options carefully.

Beyond education and health, there is an equally important sector that women need to take more seriously namely, politics. Politics is important to the extent that it ultimately determines how our common wealth is made and applied. Women need to take positions so as to be in positions to have their voices heard when these crucial decisions are made for them and their children.

There is a huge community around affirmative action for women in politics. It is an important project but I think it relies too much on the good will of a few people – who often have competing demands to address. I think that nothing happens unless people take informed action. Perhaps, it is time for women to trade their votes for their aspirations. They must use their numbers to elect people who have a track record for providing equal access and opportunity to all sexes or a penchant for keeping their electoral promises. It is not time to gamble or assume that your vote will not make any difference because often it does.

When elections are concluded and winners assume office, women should continue to engage. There is no greater obligation than holding people to account for their promises. Therein lies the future that we aspire to. If politicians know that individuals and groups will be watching and could potentially end their careers, they will take people more seriously. Women must therefore keep their eyes on elected political office holders throughout their terms of office. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels if we must guarantee better lives and make things happen for and to our children, especially the girls.

Now is a good time to re-evaluate individual and collective efforts at “making it happen” for women and girls. It is not enough to shout the slogan. We must take steps within our spheres of influence to trigger the much needed change. There is a lot that can be achieved if every woman, at least, decides to be an advocate for this message. It is not time to think that our individual effort will not make any difference because as Margaret Mead famously declared: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” If you do your part and I do mine, then we can link up and make change possible. We cannot afford to do nothing.

* Okeoma Ibe is managing partner, Goodshare & Maxwells, a law/consulting firm based in Abuja, Nigeria.



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