The time is now: Time to ramp up the struggle for Nigerian women workers’ rights


Today marks another epoch in advancing and championing the cause of women’s rights, equality, safety and justice worldwide. This year’s theme, Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives, references past struggles, the progress that has been made, the tenacity of those who have made the achievements possible and the challenges of the future. Women have recorded giant strides and made great advancements in several spheres over the past decade, but significant gender inequality and widespread discrimination still persist in the world of work.

Employment is central to empowering and emancipating women.  Qualitative jobs, positive work environments and good employment conditions are essential for women to self actualize, maximize  potentials, enhance status and contribute to development at all levels. A clear evaluation of the dynamics of the average Nigerian work setting reveals that women workers still have a long way to go in terms of enjoying basic rights and dignity and participating fully as stakeholders. Working women in Nigeria disproportionately and frequently encounter stunted promotion progression, lopsided hiring practices overt discriminatory policies, sexual harassment/violence, working conditions disparities, limited training opportunities, poor employment security and are concentrated mostly in three D jobs.  As a result, Nigeria is losing out on utilizing women’s skills, ideas and expertise.

Women workers face a war on their rights on all fronts. Nigerian Labour laws are outdated and do not contain enough provisions to protect women workers’ rights and address their issues. Weak remedies in these laws enable employers to impugn and assail women workers’ rights. Nigerian trade unions fail to protect women workers’ rights, advance women issues and promote qualitative participation in trade unionism. Nigerian women routinely cater for their children, sick family members, and elderly parents, a mass of unpaid work which they combine with paid work. Meanwhile, the employment policies of majorities of public and private sector establishments in Nigeria fail to take these into consideration.

Nigerian women workers have issues organizing and mobilizing themselves and using the power in their numerical strength to change their situation. They have failed to maintain a united front against their oppressors at work. For example, Nigerian women workers cannot even produce the national president of trade unions in sectors that they dominate, such as the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria, National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives, National Union of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Employees, National Union of Hotels and Personal Services Workers, National Union of Textiles Garment and Tailoring Workers and Nigeria Union of Teachers. The necessity for the mass spectrum of women workers in Nigeria to unite and lead the campaign to fight for their rights is long overdue.

In some Nigerian workplaces, pregnancy can translate to demotion, punitive transfers and even termination of employment. The Labour Act Cap 198 LFN 1990 54 (1) stipulates a maternity leave of 12 weeks, but many Nigerian enterprises deny women workers this basic right. In some cases, companies have served women termination letter four weeks after giving birth or during their confinement or after delivery. Others deny women of the benefit of enjoying both annual and maternity leave in the same year. In some cases, marriage, childbirth, weight gain and aging have also been sufficient grounds for overt discrimination and maltreatment.

Women workers habitually endure overt and covert sexual comments, innuendos, provocations and unwarranted sexual advances in Nigerian workplaces. Even married women are not left out, as the “sacred institution of marriage” is no longer a hindrance to sexual harassment. Women are viewed as part of the perks of the job for the pleasure of some ogas at the top. It is an open secret that several public institutions and private sector firms demand some form of gratification in kind from women workers to earn promotion, get favourable postings and obtain positive reviews.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017 affirmed that globally gender parity is shifting into reverse this year for the first time in a decade. Nigeria also witnessed increasing gaps in participation, remuneration and advancement between women and men in the Education participation and opportunity sub index with a decline from 118th position on the 2016 Index to 122nd position in 2017. The 2017 International Trade Union Confederation’s Workers Rights Index rated Nigeria among the world’s worst countries for workers. In the same perspective, Walkfree Foundation’s Global Slavery Index  2016 classified Nigeria among the ten countries with the largest estimated absolute numbers of people in modern slavery in the world. The linkage between the three reports and the situation of women at work in Nigeria and the fact that women bear the brunt of the results of the reports cannot be controverted.

The negative multiplier effects of the assault on the dignity, rights and person of women are evident in terms of heightened employee turnover, development of inferiority complex syndrome or depression, strong resentment and loss of self worth, creation of hostile work environment, non utilization of potentials due to by passing qualified women for promotion, positions, employment, general lethargy through loss of motivation and morale necessary to work. Denying women basic rights hurts their long-term earning capacity, on-the-job performance and professional integrity. As noted in the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, as the world moves from capitalism to an era of talentism, competitiveness on a national and organizational level will be decided more than ever before by the innovative capacity of a country or company. In this new context, the integration of women into the talent pool becomes a must. But when women are being oppressed and unfairly treated, how possible is it to maximize their limitless potentials and utilize their assets?

It is time to ramp up actions geared towards removing all systemic barriers to women’s employment status, ensuring that all women workers have a level playing field at work, curbing all forms of gender discrimination, putting an end to the systemic undervaluing of work traditionally performed by women, ending all forms of sex stereotypes, misconceptions and bias about women and their capabilities at work and discarding the notion that workplace policies are modeled on traditional male norms. It is time to stop the humiliation, assault and inhumane treatment women workers in Nigerian workplaces endure daily.

This can be done when all of us individually and collectively join forces as stakeholders to ensure that women workers are accorded their rights, treated with dignity, taken care of fairly and given unfettered access to employment opportunities. Male workers can take a pledge that we will not demote, discriminate against, take adverse actions at, intimidate, denigrate and sexually harass and then accord all respect and rights to women workers. Trade unions should do more to put an end to the abuse of women’s rights in Nigerian workplaces. NLC and TUCN as the central labour organization need to set their shoulders more firmly against the boulder of oppression that burdens women workers despite their immense contributions to national development.

Employers associations led by NECA have a big role to play by telling their members to curb unfair labour practices and workplace policies that obviate and abridge the rights of women workers. The Federal Government should double its efforts to safeguard the rights of women workers.  They should partner with the National Assembly to enact effective labour laws that can protect the basic rights of women at work, take special cognizance of and offer special protection for pregnancy, motherhood, childbirth, care and related issues.

Ramping up the struggle for women workers rights entails initiating changes to how people, associations, and organizations and society interface with, perceive and regard women,. It encompasses amending and expunging obnoxious laws that encumber women workers’ rights and dignity and involves creating effective and durable women policies, programmes and institutions that can protect women’s rights. Ramping up the ante for women workers rights entails involving everybody to stand up for and speak against this situation. The Executive Director of UN Women noted that healthy societies have a wide mix of voices and influences that provide the checks and balances, the differing threads of experience and perspectives, and the debate that shapes good decision-making. The silence of these voices bodes ill for any society.  The time is more than ripe for these voices in Nigeria to speak up and lead the struggle to end the retrogressive abuse of women workers’ rights and promote decent work, fair conditions of work and a level playing field for women in employment in Nigeria. The time is now.

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(Image Credit: Pulse).

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More than a single International Women’s Day, this is an international movement

Every year, since the 1900s, International Women’s Day has been offered as a celebration of women’s achievements. This year was different. Women went to the streets not to celebrate but to demand. The international women’s strike also called “a day without a woman” has been organized in more than 50 countries. Women took the streets in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

In 1975, Icelandic women showed that if women stopped all their activities at home and at work, the country could not function. That day started an important movement in Iceland, certainly, since the country elected the first female president, and elsewhere as well.

In October 2016, women in Poland, threatened by a total ban on abortion, organized. They were followed by women in South Korea, Argentina and Sweden. On January 21st, after inauguration of the new sinister president in the United States, women went to the streets and women around the world took the streets in solidarity.

On March 8th, women again showed their solidarity. They called a strike. The strike was a call to end unfair wages, austerity, inequalities and wage inequalities in particular, precarious work, patriarchal control of women’s bodies, femicides, and more.

It should be the responsibility of the state to bring these demands to reality. Instead, many states have moved away from their responsibilities, which is why women took the streets worldwide. The state is now more involved in supporting the neoliberal economic order than to be the guarantor of the well-being of women and men. Every year, the World Economic Forum publishes The Global Gender Gap Report. This year’s report says that the economic gender gap has regressed to the level of 2008. According to the report, equal pay between women and men is now unattainable for another 170 years.

There is no natural evolution to equality, justice and dignity for women. This strike is the beginning of an international organizing and solidarity movement for women.

In many countries, it is not always easy to strike for women. In the United States, many school systems shut down, as in Alexandria, Virgnia; Princes Georges County, Maryland; and many other counties, because women called in to take the day off. In the United States, with each day’s executive order, the danger for women and humanity becomes more real. Responding to this clear and present danger, the United States-based organizers aimed to repoliticize the day.

In Washington, DC, the crowd gathered wearing red, the color of active and political dissent. Among the marchers, women from Latin America talked to us in front of the Department of Labor where the march started.

When the march reached a plaza with a podium, people were invited to reflect on the importance of the work of women in unions and their role in wage negotiations and in stopping the abuse of workers, all workers.

A speaker addressed the threat for women that the current “predator in chief” represents: “This regime cannot be taken lightly and the fight has to be taken to the next level.” The next level entails forming strong solidarity movements. Women are in thrall of the abusive patriarchal order that uses them as cheap labor, weapons of war, reproductive slave, and more. Solidarity must be international as well as national and local.

The sisters in solidarity from the restaurant industry reminded the audience what it means to work for tips: sexual harassment, and all kinds of assaults and threats. They called for fair wages. Some Congresswomen, who were in white for Trump’s first address to the Congress, came in solidarity with the movement.

The place was joyful and serious about forming new solidarities, conscious of the racial and social divisions that keep women in danger of being raped, killed, degraded, ignored, in their own rights and dignity.

Yes, Women’s Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous Lives Matter.

A number of women took the stage to honor the women who lost their lives in historical and contemporary struggles, shouting “Say her name!” Listen to their voices and say their names:

 

(Photo Credit 1: The Hill) (Photo Credit 2: Slate / Reuters / Brendan McDermid)

“International Women’s Day” in Paillaco (CHILE): A Story of Chiaroscuros

Basta de violencia

The active verb “to celebrate” is not the same as “to commemorate”. Commemoration implies the exertion or practice of our memory; it calls to the remembering of something that is significant to a single person or a group of people. I believe it is important to linger on this distinction considering that on March 8th I repeatedly heard these two phrases: “Congratulations on your day” and “Congratulations for being a woman”. Naturally I was not the recipient of these praises, since I am a heavily bearded and somewhat sturdy man; nevertheless I repeatedly heard these words both on the radio and in the cafe I usually go to work in. Even though they respond to the “International Women’s Day” –universally declared by the United Nations- such commemoration does not originally refer to all the women in the world. I believe March 8th immortalizes a bold, daring, and brave group of women who fought for a set of ideals and rights that were not yet enshrined in our modern societies. The 1911 fire in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the state of New York moved the hearts of people all over the globe, for this tragedy exposed the precariousness and fragility in which women exposed themselves daily in private and public spaces.

One hundred and five years have not passed fruitlessly. In Chile, women have conquered an array of political and social rights that have -in part- corrected their historically disadvantaged position in society. The multiple abuses and the asymmetrical circumstances existent between men and women have decreased over time, for these social anomalies have been present in our culture and social structures for far too long. Yet we can all agree that we have a long road ahead towards gender equality.

This year I had the privilege of commemorating “Women’s Day” with a wonderful group of peasant women in Paillaco: a rural village in the south of Chile. Paillaco uncovers the light and the dark present in the life of many Chilean women. This township, located in the region with the highest rates of violence against women in the country, drags a sad history of mistreatments and abuses. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that Paillaco became the first municipality in Chile to inaugurate a Center for Women (Centro de la Mujer), dedicated to support and aid abused women. During 2014, in less than two moths, two homicides alerted the community to act upon a situation that seemed untenable. This reveals the reality and the dark surroundings of rural Chilean women. It is a social pathology that befalls to one out of three women in the country according to the statistics of the National Service for Women or “Servicio Nacional de la Mujer” (SERNAM), victims of physical, sexual, and/or psychological violence. Due to incessant arrangements made by the city’s mayor, Paillaco has the first “Centro de la Mujer” in the country out of 23 “Centros” originated by the current administration led by President Michelle Bachelet to abused women.

Yet, the dark lives with the light; these atrocities coexist with a promising and enlightened local initiative. Paillaco now has the first public educational program aiming towards gender equality from preschool to high school: developing and implementing workshops involving students, parents, teachers, all following a solid curriculum that assess students undergoing gender issues. The proud city of Paillaco is commencing a profound path of social transformations through education.

If I had to tell a story that would reflect faithfully chiaroscuro phenomena in the present life of fighting Chilean women, I would speak of doña Rosa Barrientos Torres, a 90-year-old peasant. All of us, attendees to her commemoration, applauded in her honor due to her fortitude, tenacity and resilience against adversity. During the macabre coup of September 11th 1973, Rosa’s husband was killed together with 16 other peasants in the vicinities of Paillaco. The democratically elected president was being overthrown, and Rosa, alone faced distress and abandonment with nine children to be taken care of. Relentless in her struggle to feed, dress, and educate her children, Rosa managed to work day and night tackling deprivations, fear, and anguish for losing her life companion. The luminosity of her story comes with her message, which she shared with us that day: The struggle for a better living shall continue without hesitations. Forgiveness and reconciliation shall be our guide towards reaching true peace. Her wish was that her story served as an example of what shall never happen again, because life is a miracle that is well above all political, religious, economical or social considerations. At that moment, the room was static and speechless. I witnessed faces filled with emotion, watery eyes in all of us present. It was then when I understood the beauty, the powerful moral and righteousness of the courageous women that deserve to be commemorated all over the world. From her humbleness, doña Rosa shared with us a fraction of her wisdom and hope for humanity, and I was left with nothing but hope and gratitude.

 

(Photo Credit: Benjamín Elizalde)

Black women prisoners haunt International Women’s Day

BobbyLee Worm

Stacey Lannert grew up in the middle of the United States, in Missouri. Her father sexually abused her, starting when she was eight years old. On July 5, 1990, at the age of 18, Lannert walked into her father’s bedroom and shot him, twice, killing him. The `final straw’ was her father raping her younger sister. Two years later, in December 1992, Lannert was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In January 2009, at the age of 36, Stacey Lannert was released, thanks to the outgoing Missouri governor, Matt Blunt, who commuted her sentence: “After eighteen years, I was allowed to be Stacey Ann Lannert instead of Offender #85704. I’ll never completely shed the number, but I did start over.”

Wilbertine Berkley would like to start over as well, but the State of Florida has other plans.

In the United States, over five million people cannot vote because of past criminal offenses. One million of those people live in Florida. In one state alone, a million people who have served their time are disenfranchised. Of that million, almost 300,000 are African American.

Wilbertine Berkley is a Black woman in Florida who struggled with drug abuse, spent time in jail, turned her life around, joined a program, got clean, went to college, and gave back to the community in volunteer work. She was awarded the Presidential Volunteer Award. She did everything she was supposed to do and more, and the State response has been to `alienate’ her, to identify her as frozen in the past. Her good work counts for nothing.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, March 9, 2011, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency will vote on whether to make it even more difficult for former prisoners to be re-instated. The proposed change would include a five-year mandatory waiting period before being able to apply for `clemency’. Florida’s Attorney General sees this as a fight against entitlements: “I believe that every convicted felon must actively apply for the restoration of his or her civil rights and that there should be a mandatory waiting period before applying. The restoration of civil rights for any felon must be earned, it is not an entitlement…The burden of restoring civil rights should not fall on the shoulders of government, but rather it should rest on the individual whose actions resulted in those rights being taken in the first place.”

Wilbertine Berkley wants and deserves respect for who she is today, for who she has become, for what she has made of herself and of her world. She made a mistake. She worked hard. She paid her debt.

But for Black women, the debt of incarceration is the gift that keeps on giving.

Ask BobbyLee Worm. BobbyLee Worm is a 24 year old aboriginal woman prisoner in the Fraser Valley Institution, a Canadian federal prison that describes itself as “a multi-level facility for women…. Programs focus on the particular needs of women offenders, including Aboriginal inmates and those with psychological problems or learning disabilities.”

One of these particular programs is called Management Protocol.

Management Protocol is “a special program for handling women prisoners who have been involved in a major violent incident or threat of incident while in the system.” Established in 2005, seven women prisoners have been on Management Protocol. All seven have been aboriginal women.

Management Protocol is open ended, unrestricted solitary confinement. Twenty- three hours a day for as long as the prison deems `adequate’ and `necessary.’ How does one leave Management Protocol? One earns one’s way out. How does one earn? What are the wages? No one knows.

BobbyLee Worm entered prison June 7, 2006. She is a first time offender, sentenced to six years, four months. She has spent the majority of her time in segregation, paying off the debt of years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and trauma. For Black women, the debt of incarceration is the gift that keeps on giving.

These stories are typical of the conditions of women, and girl, prisoners around the world. Girls whose only `crime’ is being the daughters of asylum seekers, or of being born into oppressive communities, are stuck into detention centers, such as the Inverbrackie Detention Center in Australia. Once there, they suffer nightmares, turn violent, and refuse to eat. What is their crime, what is the debt to society that must be paid? They were born in Iran, they sailed to Australia.

Around the world, women of color, Black women, and their daughters, sit in prisons. Their debt grows incrementally by the second. Their numbers grow incrementally by the day. Today is March 8, 2011, International Women’s Day.  These women prisoners haunt International Women’s Day.

 

(Photo Credit: British Columbia Civil Liberties Association)