This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria: Celebrating Two Decades of Nigeria's Better Life Programme: 1985 - 2005

opinion

Lagos — Over the past two decades it is interesting to note how gradually the issue of the relevance of the female person, to sustain development and for the purpose of creating equilibrium for human life, has spread like a wild fire, but particularly in the African continent which seemed to have received the baton last.

The reason we are gathered here today, I believe, is not only for the incidence of highlighting the women issue, which is well known already, but also for the speed and progress by which it has moved so far, taking into cognizance the triggers that kept it going and its erstwhile constraints, while celebrating the ingenuity of the human element that has sustained its grip on it, including notably, the organizers of this particular event; African Women Health Initiative (AWHI).

From the onset I wish to restate my continual appreciation on an issue which has stuck to me like second nature, ever since the sod of its initiative was turned about 20 years ago in Nigeria. The concerted effort to elevate the living standards of our womenfolk is the programme now popularly known as the "Better Life for Rural Women".

Indeed my nearest reach for a measurement of this celebrated development is the common "mudu" now used by our market women for measuring gari, rice, beans, soya, etc, which they have simply nicknamed "Better Life". From the length and breadth of this country, from Maiduguri to Lagos and from Sokoto to Calabar this is common language. This situation, though sufficiently gratifying, is nevertheless the barest but symbolic indices of successes, as there are so many other testimonies and at several levels too, some even intellectual, but all tending towards the same and one purpose, of adding quality to human life, especially with regard to the women.

Landmarks are the easiest evidence for acknowledging spectacular reality and to accord respect to progress in any human endeavour. The simultaneity of initiatives dealing with this same issue today be it women care; women visibility; women political action; women health, etc is undeniable echo of the initializing project of the BLP, which became the crucial rallying point for women in Nigeria only twenty years back. No doubt that that incident was a beneficiary of both circumstance and history.

HISTORY:

Long subdued, the cry of the African woman to be heard, to be attended to, to be respected, dated back to such living legends as Mrs. Margaret Ekpo of Nigeria, also other historic persons as late Mrs. Fumilayo Ransome Kuti and Hajiya Gambo Sawaba. But while these samples actually lived in civilian and traditional settings, it was under the military, ironically arrogated with stifling of civil liberty, that the woman voice was first heard, also allowed and later celebrated. This inexorable situation seems to compound the human plight and the possibility of when and how the best can come and to whom and at what particular time.

But the important thing to stress here is the inviolability of a reasonable structure to sustaining the human condition, as long as it is well conceived, planned for, and executed with precisely timed strategies, while at the same time applying control and monitor. I dare say that this was the case of the BLP. You will remember at that time also that my singular privilege was to be the First Lady of Nigeria, precisely of the Ibrahim Babangida regime, my husband. I believe providence walks hand in hand with history, while both of them make available opportunities which, I also have to emphasize, have to be grabbed with both hands and wisdom too. Evidently that was what I did and that is why I owe a measure of gratitude to those actors on stage at that moment.

Secondly, talking about circumstance, which is also partly history, we recall that a decade before then, 1975 - 85, was the United Nations designated decade for Women. This period served effectively in focusing attention on many issues confronting women worldwide. Although in Nigeria it could have meant little or nothing to especially the rural womenfolk, those were transitory years for many government developmental plans that were under a prevailing traditional attitude that did not prioritize women. Hence the women remained virtually unimpacted in their stereotype roles as mothers, housewives, farmers, artisans, traders and labourers.

Going by the trend of awareness of the world at that time, it was evident that a vacuum existed here and there was need to redress the situation. Fatefully that was the year that history threw me up as the First Lady (August 1985) and the realization of this fact multiplied for me. I knew that the family is the first institution that God created, with the woman as its locus (man is the head). Also I reasoned, if the situation of the woman were improved, then it means that of the family and by extension the nation herself would be improved. That became my hypothesis and we wove it into a proposal, which was presented to a group of women for discussion and subsequently for implementation. That was how in a spate of one year the Better Life Programme (BLP) for the Rural Women was born, in September, 1986.

OUR ACTION PLAN:

Conceiving an idea is not nearly as strong as what it takes to implement it. That is why some ideas are fated to be stillborn. But here I underline also a point I had mentioned earlier on; the essence of building a reasonable and sustainable structure when embarking on a project. The structure ramifies to every level of input of the contributory forces and resources necessary, both in terms of immediate and long term projection, so that at any time and at any point there is good coordination and easy reference. In building up the BLP project, we came down to this atomized level, and it worked, as I will briefly analyze: Following the first stage of Extensive Consultation, we inaugurated a mission for Fact Finding, because nothing can build like information. Then, through our visits, workshops, more Research and Seminars that followed we elicited Participatory Action of the people which ensured that the idea became concretized.

At the end of the day the BLP was able to enjoy an enthusiastic support from the national government and all the states and local government areas in the country. This is because our network of participants other gospel personally to the grassroots and right through to the treetops. With such support, allies through collaborating Agencies and other interests sprang up, propelling the BLP into a social force and later a movement. It is on record that its vibrant life span collaborated variously with Agencies like Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI), Mass Mobilization for Social Welfare and Economic Recovery (MAMSER) and National Directorate of Employment (NDE). All of them at respective times worked closely with BLP to realize the founding vision and subsisting goals.

Once the project began in full throttle, due to the fact that it became practically adopted by the people, its success was evidently quite clear. Its identity became synonymous with women and the chances of women in rurality. It is important to note that BLP cultivated a strong working relation with women from all walks of life who got involved mostly on a volunteer basis to support the programmes. They partook in visits to rural women and local leaders and gave local credibility to the work of BLP. They employed this participatory technique for the identification of projects in different locations. This enabled us to factor in from the onset the involvement of key stakeholders in project design and subsequent implementation.

Not only this, during the periodic reviews and reflection on projects, the broad participation of people from the community provided a realistic check of what was working or not working. It was also our check proof for near perfect results, based on what had been projected. These control mechanisms vis-a-vis performance form the basis of our confidence later.

In our approach there was a strong dependence on evidence based decision making, in which case data collection, analysis and synthesis were constantly sought. No wonder that as a result of all these, one year after, there were volumes of information, good practices and personal interest stories, that became an overwhelming evidence of a vibrant and dynamic cultural channel for change.

All the strands of development that happened in the lifetime of the movement were later polled for a one spot articulation, which was why a National Workshop was organized in September, 1987, to pool all these benefits together. It was hosted in Abuja. Its purpose was to work out effective strategies for making the rural women the beneficiaries of any BLP fostered development. The forum also served to exchange ideas on how best to maximize the productivity and effective utilization of rural women's contribution to the development of their respective communities. From the far reaching recommendations arrived at, the coordinators went further and took on additional responsibility of going back to organize similar workshops at the level of the state and local government areas.

The rest of the positive consequences of that 1987 National Workshop are living with us several years after. Across the country a sporadic splurge of many activities involving rural women began to happen and these to make important statements on the way women were perceived and also their contribution to the community. The National and State Organizing Committees formed took on different projects, some relating to Adult Education, Primary Healthcare, Cooperatives, Agriculture, Food Processing, Cottage Industry, Crafts, Trade, etc. This resulted in a massive volume of engagement for people with a corresponding resultant of productivity. Thereafter the women wanted those successes to translate from local achievements into national goals and projects. Hence in 1988, about one year later the first BLP fair was again organized, in Lagos and received visitors from all over the country. Hence the movement was in full swing.

I have taken time to dwell briefly in the last segment, in order to emphasize to you how great idea, good planning and follow up zeal can translate into massive success. It is predictable, it is not by chance or magic. And it is still the same women, who only in 1985 were dis-included in the scheme of things now leading proactively in the affirmative action, with results! Let me pause here and say Congratulations!!.

The greatest achievement of the Better Life Programme today is probably the fact that it is a household name, a benchmark for national development programmes, a corpus for research into women affairs and of course a bonafide component of governance at the highest level in Nigeria, represented by the Ministry of Women Affairs. For a symbolic monument, the edifice of the National Centre for Women's Development in Abuja, which I had the honour of establishing with a memorable Hall of Fame for Women of distinguished enterprise, is also living with us today.

ACHIEVEMENTS:

In precise terms, the main achievements of the BLP, in consonance with its long standing objectives are as follow:

- Stimulating and motivating rural women towards achieving better living standards;

- Educating rural women on simple hygienic family planning, the importance of childcare and increased literacy rates;

- Mobilizing women collectively in order to improve their general well-being and for them to seek and achieve leadership roles in all spheres of society;

- Encouraging recreation and enriching the family life;

- Inculcating in women the spirit of selfdevelopment, particularly in the fields of education, business, the arts and agriculture. Since inception in 1987, the Better Life Programme has recorded numerous successes some of which can be enumerated: It has laid the foundation for the empowerment of rural women in particular and the Nigerian women in general. These women have been equipped with relevant skills and resources to embark on self help projects and small private enterprises.

Through the programme, about 418 multi-purpose women education centers have been established all over Nigeria. These Centres have facilities for an integrated curriculum that focuses on literacy programmes, simple book keeping and accounting skills, childcare, arts and craffs etc.

A total of 7,635 Farmers' Cooperative Societies have been set up across the country. This being the core project of the Better Life Programme will be addressed through strengthening women's access to and ownership of land and provision of improved seedlings, thus providing the necessary food security. The rural women are taught better methods of crop production, processing, storage and marketing. It is expected that better yields in agriculture will lead to economic empowerment of the rural women.

The Better Life Programme (BLP) has contributed significantly to an increase in the awareness of primary healthcare issues including Oral Rehydration Theraphy (ORT), Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI). In addition, it has promoted among rural women while focusing on reproduction health and anti-drug abuse enlightenment in the urban areas.

Based on the adoption of the summit on the Economic Advancement of Rural Women of the Geneva Declaration, participating countries endorsed and agreed to ensure continuity in the formulation of government policy and the establishment of specific institutions dedicated to women development. The Better Life Programme in Nigeria worked hard to ensure the establishment of the National Commission for Women which was later upgraded to the Ministry of Women Affairs at the national level. This trend was followed by State Governments throughout the country. These institutions have endured and have become permanent features of the structure of government in the country. The crowning effort of the struggle was the establishment of the National Centre for Women Development in Abuja, the Federal Capital.

In addition, the Better Life Programme emboldened the law reform Commission to review all discriminatory law against women and children in the status books of Nigeria. These include discriminatory taxation, child marriages, discriminatory inheritance laws, land tenure, naturalization and paternity rights among others.

We must, therefore, first acknowledge the progress that has been made while appreciating where we are coming from. I recognize that efforts such as ours have been taking place elsewhere in Africa in the last two decades. These efforts have emboldened our women to develop confidence in themselves and their immense abilities and potentials. As a result of the efforts of the United Nations and NGOs all over the world, the plight of women has attracted greater attention in the past decades. The roles and contributions of women in various fields are gradually being acknowledged in many organizations have been formed since the 1990s. In the process, the societies in these countries have been strengthened as the women have become more confident.

Challenges

In spite of the achievements of the programmes such as ours, there are new challenges and urgent needs. One of these is in the area of African women's health. I am glad that the initiative of this Consultative Meeting to celebrate two decades of the BLP is at the instance of the AWHI. The body deserves respect particularly for their focus the health of the African women.

In spite of what has been achieved however, we are aware of the task that still lies ahead. There are clear obstacles to the full achievement of the goal of women development in Africa. But it would seem these obstacles are inherent in the present state of African development. It is inevitable therefore that such a story of success be transmuted to cover the continent, in a world that is increasingly magnified by IT and globalisation into a modern village. While its numerous constraints are also manifesting accordingly.

From all indications, the vision to transform the BLP into a regional programme started years ago; although it is only materializing in the last one year. That vision is traceable to the many invitations the programme received from sister African First Ladies to extend the BLP experience to other parts of the continent. The invitations acknowledged the uniqueness of the BLP and the interest and respect it had generated within Africa and elsewhere.

It was no surprise that the 1991 Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger awarded to me at a colourful ceremony in London attracted many other wives of leaders of Africa. The Better Life Programme became a much sought after development model, which had been tested and proven to be successful in Nigeria. Its community focused approach to development and the efforts to integrate the huge assets and capacities of the rural woman and her family into development were lauded.

Tackling the problems associated with rural women can indeed become the entry point for addressing the many issues of growth, development and sustainability in rural African communities. It is therefore safe to assume that a repositioning of the Programme (with its well tested experiences working in a national context) into a continental strategy with appropriate institutional structures and identifiable local coordinates will generate significant progress for many of the women to be reached. There is no doubt that circumstances have changed and there is need for a more nuanced approach; however the capacity to utilize and promote knowledge based action will continue to inform future attempts to re-engineer and consolidate the gains of the BLP. From a national Programme, it is now re-establishing itself into a regional plan of action operating initially out of Nigeria and spreading into other parts of Africa.

Five years into the new millennium, the impact of globalization seems to have rubbed poorly on many countries in Africa. Globalization is one of the most exceptional forces of change of this millennium. Even in addressing the needs of local communities and rural women, globalization has to be seen as the point of departure for any programme. This is because, no individual, group or community can pretend to exist for any length of time outside the global effect of information and communication technology; neither can it ignore the far reaching capacities of global capital and investment. The Better Life for the African Rural Woman is conscious of the new world in which we live and aims to take advantage of the opportunities it presents to enhance the development agenda of Africa and its women.

Glimmers of Hope

Africa is certainly making some progress but not at the speed it needs to. The statistics tell the fuller story. Africa has been going through economic crisis and is replete with the effects of unfulfilled promises of global development strategies. Currently the continent comprises of 32 of the world's 48 least developed countries (LCDs) and 34 of the 45 lowest ranked countries for human development in UNDP's Human Development Report.

Poverty reduction efforts in many African countries are important but inadequate to engender incomegenerating assets and increase access to markets. The situation remains largely weak with over 70% of Africa's population working in rural areas and depending on agriculture for their livelihood. Similarly, over 85% - 90% of the food produced by the vast majority of the farmers, mostly women is for family consumption and this restricts their scope of income creating activities to the periphery of the market economy. At the sixth African Regional Conference on Women to review progress made in the implementation of the Dakar and Beijing platforms of action, 41 out of the 43 countries present identified poverty as the most critical area of priority for women. Poverty has many faces and for rural dwellers it is complicated by the lack of social services and poor access to facilities, which should support livelihood programmes in rural and semi-urban areas.

Model for Africa's Rural Women

The mission of the next phase of the Better Life Programme is to reach the rest of Africa with a peoplecentred community development strategy which will foster the creation of an enabling environment where the public and private sector operating with the people of the continent work towards more viable and sustainable economic prosperity at national, subregional and regional levels. Such economic growth will become the real springboard to ensure that rural women of Africa have access to and are involved in all the facets of the developmental processes of the countries.

The BLPAW believes that it should support governments in Africa to identify and address the problems of rural communities and dwellers. It also believes that there are several assets which rural dwellers have and that by respecting the knowledge and experiences of the rural peoples of Africa, BLPAW would be promoting agents of community empowerment who can identify and develop (for the benefit of the community) these assets and knowledge.

The BLPAW has a vision to see that Africa is poverty free and the living conditions of rural dwellers, particularly women is significantly improved and they are able to participate actively in all strata of social, political and economic development.

To achieve this vision, the BLPAW has set missions for itself, starting with the need to; Address the income and other human development problems of rural women in Africa.

BLPAW recognizes that poverty is at the root of much of the problems of rural communities and is seeking actions that will impact on the woman, her family and community; it is actually addressing a much broader context.

It is also looking at ways to harness the resources of communities, through mechanisms that would contribute to the overall development and advancement of the continent.

Goals of the BLPAW

The repositioned Better Life Programme for the African (Rural) Woman aims to reach the broader social context of communities through the empowerment of women economically, politically, socially and educationally.

Parts of the immediate steps resolved for BLPAW are:

- To work to reduce hunger and absolute poverty among rural dwellers particularly women through economic empowerment programmes.

- To reduce gender disparity in economic, social and political life of men and women through empowerment and capacity building programmes which also involve basic literacy and education.

- To influence rural development initiatives in Africa to incorporate an integrated approach to service provision which covers better health education and awareness, improved social facilities that reduce the daily chores of rural women and their children.

- To advocate for better governance at the rural level so that the issues of poverty area addressed in a holistic way and that reduces the incidence of feminized poverty.

- To identify, foster, link and encourage agriculture related programmes that have huge trade and investment potentials.

The repositioned Better Life Programme for the African (Rural) Woman aims to reach the broader social context of communities through the empowerment of women economically, politically, socially and educationally.

In conclusion, I say the plight of African women has become a major part of the global discussion about the future of humanity. Daily, film footages from conflict and natural disaster zones of the world are beamed to all corners of the globe. The images of women refugees in Darfur dying from malnutrition while watching their children expire from common diseases indict our common humanity. Similar images of urban squalor and decay in parts of Africa remind us of the work that needs to be done to improve our environment. Ancient traditional practices that target African women for inhuman treatment remain and frequently assault our sense of decency. In my view, the contemporary needs of the African woman, especially in the rural areas is sufficiently desperate and urgent as to qualify to be declared a global emergency. This is perhaps one way which African governments and the relevant international agencies can begin to rise to the challenge of women development in the continent.

The beauty of greater advocacy and urgent actions towards improving the plight of African women is that is in the long-term interest of the development of the continent. There is today a more compelling need to touch on the numerous empowerment initiatives currently being enstaged on behalf of women and build a synergy that will bring a positive fruition to the efforts of a half century journey. This will be enhanced by using times tested models, eliminate waste and error while adding speed and finesse to the women project in Africa and harmony in the context of the rest of the world.

Dr. (Mrs.) Maryam Babangida is Founder/Executive Chairman, Better Life Programme for The African Rural Woman.

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