The Concerned Mothers of Nigeria and the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina live many miles apart in different worlds. Yet they have something in common. From their separate continents in Africa and South America, they took a stance that is making the history books to change the way issues of life and death are being handled In their different countries. They have decided not to stay silent and let their fellow countrymen women and children die in vain. Those responsible for actions that lead to the loss of innocent lives must be held accountable. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have been protesting painful issues over their loved ones for the past 25 years. The Concerned Mothers of Nigeria took to the streets to peacefully protest the spate of air crashes – in which men, women and children died recently. No matter something tells us all that we have not heard the last of them and that no amount of canisters of tear gas can stop the moves to put things right.

Horror and shock may have greeted the images which splashed across TV screens showing a group of women known as the Concerned Mothers of Nigeria trying to escape from the choking effects of tear gas, which had been hauled into their midst by members of the Nigeria Police. The women had embarked on a peaceful march in Lagos to protest the recent spate of air crashes in the country. The march purely on humanitarian grounds, however, turned into a nightmare as the women were dispersed with tear-gas. In the ensuing stampede, several of them sustained injuries and were hospitalised.

Ironically this unfortunate development came on the heels of a consultative forum on gender-based violence held for some members of the Nigeria Police under the auspices of LEDAP and Amnesty International. Does this mean that the workshop was merely an exercise in public relations and actions relating to the elimination of gender-based violence and its implications for us as a nation are going nowhere fast?

Civic actions by women is hardly a new phenomenon in Nigeria. The 1929 Aba Women’s Riots and the protests led by the late Mrs Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti are just two of the incidents recorded in history of Women lending their voices to effect changes in society. More recently, the women in Warri South Local Government of Delta State expressed their dissatisfaction with Chevron over the lack of jobs for their menfolk and bad environmental practices.

In fact, women rising up to protest over various social concerns confronting their communities is a global occurrence. The Mothers of Plaza de-Mayo have become a symbol of human rights activism through their daily protests to know what happened to their loved ones during the “Dirty Wars” in Argentina in the 70s and 80s.

In the United Kingdom, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp lasted from 1981 – 2000. The women’s protests against cruise missiles being held at the American airbase and its effects on the local community made the headlines in the 1980s.

In this most recent case in Nigeria, women as stakeholders in the Nigerian project answered the call to speak out for – and rightly so-the sanitization of the private aviation industry. Their action should be seen as a positive contribution to the expansion of civil society and its role in policy changes and calls for transparency and accountability in the business sector. Activism of this nature is significant because it is an essential ingredient to add to the building and sustenance of a young democracy.

Due to the actions of the Nigeria Police, there is a well-founded fear that the tear gas incident may discourage some women from participating in any future calls to civic action. If this occurs it may prove to be dangerous for the nation. The absence of the voices of women from the public debates implies that the valuable input of about half of the population would be left out from the nation-building efforts.

In this instance, the activism of the Concerned Mothers of Nigeria has demonstrated that some players in the business sector are long overdue for an audit into their operation indeed they should be held accountable for their business activities where they concern public patronage. It is clear that civic society can develop the capacity to further monitor the activities of the aviation sector to ensure that domestic air travel becomes safe and responsible for the nation’s citizenry.

The decision of the Concerned Mothers of Nigeria to take a stand on the spate of air crashes and the rot that has eaten into the aviation industry especially as reported by the media in the issuance of operational licences to domestic carriers is very similar to campaigns embarked upon by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp; the groups of women demanding answers to many questions to stem the flow of actions that are inimical to the growth of their societies.

Indeed the actions of the women would help to keep these sensitive issues on the front burner and in the public domain. It is expected that the Government, having felt the pulse of the people would take the appropriate steps to bring sanity into the operations of the domestic carriers.

Besides the fact that the courage of the women needs to be saluted and encouraged, the tear gas incident has drawn attention to another vital issue that the nation is yet to sincerely address: the fact that an act of violence was committed against a group of defenceless women by the law enforcement agents and no one is being held responsible. That several concerned citizens have voiced their dismay over the incident and the Inspector-General of the Nigeria Police, Mr Sunday Ehindero made a public apology does not prevent a reoccurrence of such incidents. The Minister for Women’s Affairs, Hajiya Maryam Ciroma was quoted as saying: ‘The Government would continue to protect and defend their rights as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution and in line with international conventions”. How? Nigeria is yet to domesticate the only international agreement that specifically addresses the prevention and elimination of violence against women. It’s been a case of constant pussy-footing over the enactment of a legal framework that deals firmly with gender-based violence.

The relevant international convention referred to by the Minister is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It serves as a tool for combating violence and abuse of women and was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. CEDAW is the most authoritative UN human right instrument to protect women from
discrimination and abuse. Nigeria, a signatory to CEDAW, is yet to domesticate it into law. For as long there is a delay in enacting it into law, women w6u d continue to be vulnerable to acts of violence with impunity. The question to ask is why is the nation taking so long do domesticate a law that would protect women’s human rights? Perhaps it is for this reason that the calls for the culprits in the tear gas incident to be brought to book came across as rather hollow.

Violence against women is a common practice and takes many forms. The tear gas incident is an act of violence against women who boldly set out to take up an issue that has for long been simmering. It is hoped that the tear gas incident would only have bruised the women physically but not dampened their spirits, and has only served to increase the resolve of the Concerned Mothers of Nigeria just like their counterparts in other parts of the world to carry on with their noble mission. The greater insult can be said to lie in the fact that a division for the police had just completed a workshop, which was widely reported in the media on gender-based violence. Indeed the tear gas incident makes a mockery of the entire
interactive session. If the efforts of the Honorable Minister on the Child Rights Law are anything to go by, then the nation can be optimistic that matters relating to violence against women may soon be a thing of the past.

One of the reasons that have been adduced for the lukewarm attitude to gender-based legislation in the country is the poor representation of women in the legislative arm of Government. Regardless, there are several female members of the House of Representatives and female Senators who must regard the enactment of this law as a duty towards their fellow women and the nation at large and be a part of a historical move towards positively influencing the establishment of a legal framework that would offer the protection for women against violence. The honourable ladies cut a pretty picture at the National Assembly but need to note that history would judge them harshly if they fail to push through the law that would protect the lives and human dignity of Nigerian women.

Originally published in DECEMBER 30, 2005

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