As in most parts of rural Nigeria, Ikot Akanma women are relegated to the background. They are seen but unheard.
As a result of this they were denied not just social recognition but suffered economic disempowerment. Things however started changing when a new trend in women organising commenced in the Nigeria South South community.
Ikot Akama is a remote rural village in the Oruk Anam local government area of Akwa Ibom state, located in the southern white mangrove forest of Nigeria. Their major economic activities include petty trading and peasant farming, with palm oil production being their most important means of family and community income.
Here, like in most parts of traditional Africa, women are discriminated against, even though they form about 50% of the over 3,000 population.
Women and girls are regarded as the weaker sex in many communities in the Akwa Ibom state. They do not have a voice in family or community matters and neither can they inherit property or land.
They do however have many responsibilities, such as preparing meals, looking after the home, raising children, fetching water, and working in the fields, work which remains unvalued by the dominating patriarchal society. This means that many issues specifically affecting women and children, including access to water, healthcare and education, are not deemed important by the community decision makers: the men.
Patience Johnson, 52, is a widow and a mother of 8 children; 5 girls and 3 boys. She has lived all her life in Ikot Akama and has this to say: “Right from when I was born, men have always been the only ones to take decisions in the family and community. Also, it is a taboo for a woman to inherit land in this village.
“If a man has only female daughters, he has to immediately look for another wife that can bear him a male child. If not he stands to lose all his lands when he dies; daughters are not allowed to inherit land or buildings.”
Further analysis of the situation with the women in Ikot Akama revealed that factors reinforcing these inequalities are quite complex.
Firstly, because they are not organized they could not speak with one voice and be heard. Awareness and skills to take on their issues as part of the community is lacking. There is no common platform that propels their concerns and promotes their rights as members of the community. This is continuously compounded by the strong mesh of local beliefs and cultural systems that promote ignorance and wide spread misconceptions about roles women can or cannot play in the community.
For example, it is considered a taboo for a woman to be seen near the place where major community decisions are taken. The men believe that they will lose their lands and properties once a female inherits it, as it will immediately become property for another man when she marries. They also believe that their ancestors will make palm fruits rot on the trees once a woman is involved in deciding the harvest days.
This unequal situation over the years had come to be respected and instituted by the traditional patriarchal elites and this had perpetually widened the vicious cycle of poverty, promoted low self- esteem, aggravated ignorance and powerlessness and increased fear and resignation to fate among the women.
ActionAid and partner had been working in Ikot Akama for the past four years.
We began by working closely with the women groups in the community, bringing them together to form larger interest groups to discuss the issues affecting them and their children in their community.
These groups also form platforms for women to unite to put pressure to influence decisions made in the community by the traditional authorities that are discriminatory.
We were able to support the emergence of two women groups with over 60 women as members.
These groups were sensitized on a continuous basis about women’s rights issues, training in leadership skills, advocacy and planning, as well as commodity project management for improved household incomes.
Further to this, ActionAid and partner deployed REFLECT in Ikot Akama. REFLECT is ActionAid’s unique methodology that helps people discuss important issues that affect their community and develop plans together to overcome them. Over 110 women and 40 men are participating in the cycle.
ActionAid Nigeria and partner supported the women groups in Ikot Akama to organize empowerment and advocacy activities that brought them together more often, and to embark on a series of visits to speak with traditional village heads and other chiefs in council. These visits were aimed at raising awareness among other community members and the leadership about the importance of involving women in community activities such as decision making, skills training and community meetings.
These visits were designed to reinforce efforts in drawing attention to the importance of women realising their rights and the tremendous benefits female participation and involvement in community decision making would bring.
They were also shown how granting land inheritance and ownership to women would positively influence family income, as women can freely engage in farming and selling of farm produce to increase household earnings.
After two years of repeated meetings on the identified issues affecting the rights of women, a new dawn is unfolding for the women and girls in Ikot Akama.
Women are now elected into the village council which is the highest decision making institution in the community.
Men have started allowing their wives and daughters to exercise the right to own land and buildings
According to Chief Moses Jackson: “I do not have a daughter, but at least I have a mother and her good advice has seen me to where I am today. I believe that women have so many things to offer. It is good to have them in the village council and I will encourage other village heads to admit women into their councils”.
Patience Johnson, who lost her husband in 2009, stated: “Before my husband died, he made sure he shared his lands among all our eight children including the girls. Although my eldest daughter is married, she is using her land to farm now. I am very grateful that we were able to fight this injustice.”
Eighteen year old Iboro Johnson is one of the first girls to own land in Ikot Akama. She is so excited and has high hopes.
“When my father decided he was going to share land to his daughters, his friends warned him against it, saying that the land will end up in the hands of a stranger, my future husband. I am very proud of my father and I am happy that men in our village understand that a girl is as important as a boy” she said.
Iboro hopes to be a lawyer in future and plans to lease her land to raise funds for school. When asked why she wants to be a lawyer, her answer was: “So I can help my family and make sure all women are treated with respect.”
In Ikot Akama, women were not just nominated into the village council, they now participate actively and are given opportunity to share their experiences and perspectives, which are heard and respected accordingly.
Esther Umoette, a female member of the village council for the past two years, commented: “Our group has already been recognised by the village council, which is a huge achievement.
“Even though we may not be able to change some traditions right away, we at least do have a voice now. I remember from time that the village council decided everything for us, from personal to community issues. They naturally decide when the villagers would harvest palm kernel fruits from their farmlands at such seating.
“Oil palm is the most important income generating produce from our area and the women as well as the men depend on the sale of the palm oil, kernel oil, kernel meal or even the kernel fruits for some sustaining income, therefore everyone anticipates with great hope the declaration of harvesting days.”
According to tradition it is a taboo to lay hands on the palm fruits before it is declared fit for harvest by the village leaders. However, when harvesting days and time are declared by the village council it was often at time when it clashed with women attending markets, being engaged in joint events at church, or having gone to different farmlands. Therefore only the men got to know the right days and time.
They would quickly book the few available expert palm fruits harvesters and arrange to cut down the biggest and most juicy palm fruits, while women lost out from enjoying a greater part of the harvest at the end of the day. There are many other such practices against women in different communities.
On the current situation in her village, Esther smiled with an air of excitement and stated: “We are really happy now, because currently we can speak as women in Ikot Akama and what we say is being considered by the village head and other council members.
“This has made it possible to change and negotiate the days selected for harvesting palm kernel fruits in our community last year to days that are suitable for us women to participate fully. We now have equal opportunity to participate in the palm fruits harvesting. However money to bid for more harvesters is not really there, we are trying and will continue. This was made possible by the active involvement of women in the village executive council meetings.”
Increasing numbers of women are joining the women’s group in Ikot Akama community, knowing that together they can make other changes happen.
They are proudly sharing their success stories with other women to stimulate thinking and popular action. The challenges ahead however are still enormous. Even in Ikot Akama, there are still pockets of resistance and slow cooperation.
We are just beginning and the community is one of numerous villages where disempowering and discriminatory practices against women still thrive.
So much more needs to be done about promoting and protecting the rights of women. Nigeria is a signatory to many international and regional charters aimed at ending violence and elimination of discrimination against women and girls. T
These charters must leave the shelves and get into the towns and villages to aid groups like the women of Ikot Akama.