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The power of Nigerian women’s #WhiteBlouse

Greg Odogwu

“We (women) have to mobilise to add our voices and assert our right as citizens, as mothers, as women and as one half of the population of this nation in pursuit of peace, dialogue and de-escalation”

 –Dr. Priscilla Achakpa, Executive Director, Women Environmental Programme

Lest we forget, a lot of Nigerians literally prepared for war just a couple of weeks ago. However, when the dreaded date finally came on the first day of the fourth quarter of the year, no gunshots were fired. Instead, many Nigerian women donned their white blouses and took to the streets and to the social media, preaching peace. It spurred an atmosphere that was almost contagious, and tuned our ear drums to the voice of Mother Nigeria. This, we must celebrate!

This year’s Independence Day celebration on October 1 was significant. Nigerian women came together and mobilised for peace, against the backdrop of general angst and pervasive uncertainty in the country. Just before the D-day, on September 7, women from across Nigeria met in Abuja to discuss two needs: A platform for women to voice their concerns about key issues which negatively impact women, their children and their families; and need to organise women to promote a stronger sense of ownership and belonging in the country and build their confidence to contribute positively to making a difference to the trajectory of the country.

That was how the Nigerian Women For Peace was born. It is a coalition of women and women organisations representing all parts of Nigeria, concerned with the current state of affairs and focused on ensuring that Nigeria remains a country of peace, prosperity and participation for all, having observed an increased wave of hate speech, numerous inciting statements, increased spate of violent conflicts around the country; and recognising the fact that women, who bear the brunt of the violent conflicts, are generally not consulted when ethnic, religious and political groups publish their statements which threaten the peace and security of Nigerians.

Come to think of it, I did not see any woman among the Arewa youths that issued a quit notice to the Igbo living in the North, neither did I see any South-Eastern women respond to the notice. It was all about boys and men, spitting fire across the ethnic borderlines. But when the chips are down, it is women that bear the brunt of the potential outcomes and unforeseen imponderables.

This was why last Independence Day is a watershed. The NGWomen4Peace in partnership with women in Nigeria and in Diaspora, launched the first ever White Blouse Day campaign to mark the country’s Independence Anniversary. It was done across the six geopolitical zones of the country. All women were urged to dress on white blouse especially on October 1, to show to all that women in Nigeria want peace, and to re-ignite the spirit of hope among all citizens.

They said, “The campaign seeks to notify Nigeria and the international community on Nigerian women’s demand for peace and zero tolerance for violence and hate speeches. We do not want to relive the negative consequences of the Nigerian civil war in 2017! Most of the contemporary events in our country have gradually led the nation to a state of anarchy, violence and impunity. We do not want our blouses stained with the blood of our loved ones or fellow citizens!”

They demanded an immediate cessation of all hostilities across the country and a demand for all stakeholders and state and non-state actors to begin a process of de-escalation and dialogue that will include women in proportional representation as active participants, negotiators, referees, observers and peacekeepers. They also specifically demanded increased women’s active and full participation in politics, peace and security negotiations, decision-making, and conflict resolution and peace agreements, especially in the newly formed House of Representatives committee on fostering national unity; the Project Steering Committee for the implementation of the 54.5 million Euros support project for the North-East; and the newly established Corruption and Financial Crimes Cases Trial Monitoring Committee.

In my view, with the formation of the NGWomen4Peace, Nigeria just entered a new epoch – unveiling of the country’s feminine side. Indeed, we need peace and mother-care more than ever before; we need a feminine force to gather us like the proverbial hen which gathers her children under the warm cocoon of her spread wings in times of danger. We need a re-awakening of our underlying female consciousness, fully mobilised for national cohesion. We need a touch of the feminine mystique.

History has shown that nature listens when women moan. Even, here in Nigeria, we always tell and retell the story of the famous Aba Women’s Riot of 1929. Ironically, after that intervention, our women never really showcased another concerted platform for national action. Nevertheless, with the calibre of women that convened the White Blouse movement, we can only wait to see if our hunger shall be assuaged.

The western world has had its own feminine movement, which played a great role in the world’s socio-political evolution. The same can also be said of South East Asia. As of today, the environmental development of the Far East is solely tied to the grassroots women empowerment policy of most poor Eastern governments. The Nationally Determined Contributions of such countries in the fight against climate change is heavily dependent on the clean development mechanism initiated and managed by mostly rural women.

In the west, the book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963 by Betty Friedan, marked a turning point in the development of (second-wave) feminism globally. Whereas the “first-wave feminism” focused mainly on suffrage and overturning legal obstacles to gender equality (e.g. voting rights and property rights), “second-wave feminism” broadened the debate to a wide range of issues: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities. It also drew attention to domestic violence and marital rape issues. The “third-wave feminism”, starting in the 1990s and continuing to the present, encompasses several diverse strains of feminist activity and study in a post modern world of alternative lifestyles.

Nigeria, being a nation of diverse cultures and intellectual leanings, is always stuck in the middle of a global inter-cultural crossfire. So, we naturally find in our midst a potpourri of women liberationists, feminists and activists with multiple, and sometimes diametrically opposed, demands. It is therefore, refreshing that our women come together for peace. If Indian women are known for environmental sustainability like the successful Barefoot Academy, the Nigerian women could be known for Peace-Building.

Research shows that involving women in peace building increases the probability that violence will end by 24 per cent. Africa produced Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, who with her fellow activists won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Wangari Maathai of Kenya also won for her projects on environmental sustainability. Much is known about the victimisation of women through rape, trafficking, female genital mutilation and early marriages, but much has yet to be discovered about how women can be empowered in conflict settings to bridge the gap towards peace. Nigeria is set to redefine this niche.

Since our transition to democracy in 1999, we have witnessed a mirage of violent conflicts ranging from increased electoral violence to ethnicity, religious, herdsmen versus farmers, climate change from the far north to the Middle Belt region, the activities of Boko Haram sect, etc. and now, the clamour for separation by secessionists from various regions. The resultant effects of these conflicts are displacement of millions of people especially women and children, loss of lives and properties, economic activities coming to a standstill, forced migration, and the dog-eat-dog struggle for political recognition. This is indeed worrisome to women and mothers.

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