WOMAN & HER PLACE: WHERE DOES SHE BELONG? A pertinent question on my mind is, “Where does a woman belong?” Doesn’t it look like she is neither here nor there? Yet, her place and her role in every tiny family unit cannot be disputed. Many sons and daughters, at the peak of their life’s work and achievements, very often attribute the foundation of their successes to their mothers. So, where do we get it wrong when it comes to her very own place and her concerns?
A Woman’s Story of Belonging
It is commonly said and insinuated: “That one? She belongs to another family. She will soon be married off and she will be gone.” Yet, when you ask mothers and fathers who need care and love, they will tell you that in practice their daughters never really leave home, especially in the care of their parents.
My father’s place and my husband’s place – Tribe or State, where do I belong? Do I fully belong to any part of those places or tribe? As a woman, I regard these with a pinch of salt. I have also come to accept that my identity does not necessarily hang on either of these places. A woman just seems to have a third identity which keeps her going; and she finds herself neither here nor there.
Having a sense of belonging to a specific tribe and place feels great but not in a culture or society where you cannot be sure that the people you think are your people will stand for you when ‘push comes to shove’. This is generally the life of the vulnerable and women in particular. The vulnerable here include children.
As a kid, I experienced this sense of “Where do I really belong?” How did that happen? It happened like this: my father was from one state and my mother was from a different state. During vacations, we would go to my mother’s place. Our relatives there would question our knowledge of the language and would speak English to us. We were loved by them but that feeling that we did not fully belong there never left me.
This same thing would play out when we visited my father’s side of the family. We were seen as children from a woman from another tribe, so we didn’t seem to fully belong. There were comments we heard from both sides which we just kept to ourselves as kids. Afterall, we were in the middle of it all. Yet, each side of the family loved us dearly and cared much for us. Nonetheless, I always nursed that non-belonging fully part of the experience.
Such is the life of a woman or a girl-child waiting to grow and be married off.
My own experience and observation of the place of the woman seem to tie in with a recent happening in the corridors of power.
The Story of Justice Akon Ikpeme
We heard the story of how Cross River State House of Assembly rejected the confirmation of Justice Akon Ikpeme as the Chief Judge (CJ) of the State. First, came the controversy over her nomination as the Acting Chief Judge after the retiring Chief Judge, Justice Michael Edem, left office on 29 November 2019 at a colourful valedictory court session.
The State Governor Ben Ayade inaugurated a separate State Judicial Service Commission (JSC), which nominated a junior judge, Justice Maurice Eneji to the National Judicial Council (NJC) as Acting Chief Judge.
Nonetheless, National Judicial Council (NJC) in December 2019 nominated Justice Akon Ikpeme as Acting Chief Judge, as presented by another JSC headed by the then Chief Judge of the state, Justice Michael Edem. This was supported by Senior Advocates of Nigeria in the state.
Justice Akon Ikpeme acted for three months and it was time to get her confirmed. Controversies again arose. The issue of her confirmation as Chief Judge of the State divided the State House of Assembly members. This is because the Committee on Judiciary that was tasked with presenting a candidate for confirmation had two factions and they each presented two separate reports. One group presented the Acting Chief Judge Akon Ikpeme for confirmation while the other group rejected her.
What are the reasons we know of for this decision by the State Government?
Basically, the reason was this:
That she is a non-indigene from Akwa Ibom State even though she is married to an Efik husband who is from Cross River State. So, Justice Ikpeme was denied confirmation as Chief Justice of the State because “She is not from Cross River State”.
So, a young girl does not fully belong to her family because in the future she is going to be married off to another family where she would belong. Then, as a married woman, she is faced with the question: “Where is my state of origin in Nigeria. Do I belong to my father’s state/tribe/community/ethnic group or do I belong to that of my husband?” At a time when she needed her place of belonging fully recognized, she is told that she does not belong there either.
The life of a woman! As a widow, when the property of the man she was married to is sold, in many cases, not a dime goes to her. Children (sons) who grew up right under her watch and care decide whether she eats, survives on meagre sums, stays hungry or remains on the verge of life and death. She is an outsider in her fathers’ household and eventually in the home she is married into.
So, the question remains, where does a woman really belong? Does she have rights as an individual person, or does she remain a ‘use and dumb’ in the lifecycle of human development?
What are some of the critical issues in this story?
- Our tendencies to bypass and/or bend laws, policies, constitutional arrangements and respect for the rule of law to suit personal interests.
- Independence of the three arms of government: It is paramount that the legislative arm of government can stand up to the executive arm of government and tell it what it needs to hear.
- Tribalism: One way tribalism works is that, when you think in a tribalistic way, you convince yourself that the other person is like that too and will also resort to that the going gets tough.
- Ethnicity and Disunity: Sowing seeds of ethnicity and disunity rather than following laid down constitutional laws. We forget that the younger generation are watching and will replicate in more dramatic ways whatever they see being done by the elders.
- Governance and decision making that is based on ethnic sentiments, personal interest and/or financial inducement. This makes a caricature of legislations and hence leaves the lives of people at the whims of decision-makers.
- Discrimination against women: The unequal regard and treatment of women and men and unequal playing field in matters of politics and economy is glaring in the story.
- Where a woman belongs is not decided for her: A woman has a right to decide where she belongs geographically, and that right should not be taken away from her.
The Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly) which binds almost a hundred nations, including Nigeria, highlights the following relevant points:
That States that are party to the Convention have the responsibility to condemn and take appropriate measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against Women.
- In the political and public life of the country so that women and men equally exercise their right to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government (Article 7).
- State Parties have the responsibility to accord to women equality with men before the law (Article 15).
- A woman is no addendum to a man. She is a human being with equal rights as any other human being, and it is the duty of the government at all levels to ensure non-discrimination of women and promote the equal rights of men and women to enjoy all economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.
- A woman chooses her nationality and so does she choose her state (locality). So, neither the nationality nor state of her husband is forced upon her or denied her. It is hers to choose where she belongs and that needs to be respected (CEDAW, Article 9).
Nigeria is a State Party to the CEDAW and so this is a reminder that we no longer live in the dark ages, but in an age where governments have the duty and responsibility to stand up for its individual citizens and ensure equal rights for all irrespective of gender so as to eliminate discrimination.
What is Required?
- That governments at all levels need to stand for the truth and do what is right.
- That constitutional provisions be followed and laws respected.
- That the various levels of government exhibit high moral standing and competence and take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person or establishment which may otherwise lead to legal, political and economic constraints on the advancement of women.
- That government must work towards and exemplify the modification of social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women which portray one sex as inferior or superior over the other.
- That institutions, organizations, all levels of government and individuals promote measures aimed at equal opportunity and equal treatment of women and men in every aspect of life.
- That the citizenry demands these right steps from government and from society and oppose all forms of discrimination against both women and men in all spheres of life.
This story of Justice Ikpeme confirms a major concern expressed in the Convention that despite various instruments that relate to human rights, UN resolutions, declarations and recommendations adopted by the United Nations and other agencies, extensive discrimination against women continue to exist.
A woman, with her heart of gold, is not a ‘use and dump’ by society. When she labours, she has a right to reap the fruit of her work in accordance with what is lawfully her due. As educated and enlightened as we claim to be, would you allow your mother and/or your sister to fight and struggle to get her voice heard and be seen just because she is a woman? Yet, this is the daily reality perpetuated by supposed educated and elite in the society.
Let’s get it right. A girl-child is no stranger in her father’s house. She is not a passerby. She is a daughter of that family and fully belongs there. When she gets married, she joins a new family, just as her husband cleaves to her and embraces her family. She fully belongs to the family made up of herself and her husband. Her being a woman makes her no less and she is entitled to equal social, economic, cultural and political rights.
- Linda Asimole Ellah
Linda Asimole Ellah is a development worker, writer, and Founder/Coordinator of The Living Woman, a platform for women focused on Personal Growth and Fulfillment of Purpose. She is currently doing an online Master’s programme in International Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid. Her Passion and Life Purpose is contributing to the development of women and girls to attain their fullest potential.