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7 March 2015

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Caught in the Middle

Boko Haram Insurgency Highlights the Vulnerable Condition of Women and the Girl - Child in Nigeria

H.T Soweto

A few years ago, precisely in 2013, the "Ejigbo Sodomy" (a shocking case of brutalization of three women in the Ejigbo community of Lagos for allegedly stealing pepper) hallmarked the gender inequality and the unspeakable violence the female gender experience in a patriarchal Nigeria.

However today in Nigeria, there is probably no other more shocking and brutal signifier of the vulnerable condition of women and the girl-child than the Boko Haram insurgency which has dragged on for six horrible years. On the night of 14-15 April 2014, 276 school girls were abducted from Government Secondary School located in the town of Chibok, Borno State by the dreaded Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram. They were targeted to prove all the more strongly the Boko Haram's opposition to formal education and especially girl-child education. Nearly a year after, they have not been found. During this time, they are feared to have been subjected to the most brutal treatment including rape, forced marriage and indoctrination. But the terrible consequence of the Boko insurgency goes far beyond the fate of the Chibok girls. Scattered within Nigeria and neighbouring African countries are over 3 million displaced people, a sizeable proportion of whom are women and children. Some of these women have been widowed and have lost their savings and source of living. Living in refugee camps, many of which are ramshackle shelters with no provision of basic facilities, they are exposed to the most brutal conditions.

On the occasion of this year's International Women's Day, the fate of the women and children caught up in conflict as well as the women experiencing other forms of gender-based violence and discrimination should awaken our fervour to fight for a better society. The theme of this year's international women's day as announced by the United Nations is "Empowering Women - Empowering Humanity: Picture it!" Just like last year and previous years, beautiful speeches and promises would be made by government, businesses and Non Governmental Organisations on how to improve the lot of women. A few flash-in-the-pan achievements or tokenist steps would be showcased as evidence that the world is moving closer to a gender-equal society. Unfortunately not only is this not true but, as usual, none of the promises that would come out of this year's women's day event would touch the fundamental and root cause of gender inequality in society. The United Nations - a comity of Nations that defends the same system of capitalism that engenders and reinforces gender inequality and violence against women - is the least equipped to solve the problem of women and the girl-child.

Women, half of the world,s population, in their daily struggle to fend for the family and keep a job experience nothing close to empowerment. Rather the dominant picture of the condition of women is that of constant discrimination, humiliation and disempowerment. In countries like India and many countries in Africa, rape has become an epidemic. So also is domestic violence which now rises in line with the severity of the capitalist economic crises that began in 2008 and the worsening of the conditions of the working and middle classes since then.

What is particularly tragic in the anti-terror war in Northeast Nigeria is that women are caught up in a conflict in which both principal actors (the Nigerian capitalist State and the Boko Haram insurgents) harbour the most horrific and backward ideas about women''s role in society. While the Boko Haram insurgents want to establish a reactionary Sharia system under which the woman would be nothing more than an object of her husband's pleasure to be veiled and restricted to the kitchen and backyard of her husband's house, the woman suffers double exploitation under the capitalist system first as an object to exploit for profit and second as a victim of the backward patriarchal social relations.

Patriarchy is a social relation that affirms the dominance and superiority of the man in all things including in the family, school, workplace and society. Though inherited from Nigeria's pre-capitalist societies, decades of the colonial plunder of Nigeria's wealth and the entrenchment of the exploitative system of capitalism has done more to reinforce all the barbarity in social relations, particularly inequality between the sexes. Capitalism exploits the working class man and woman no doubt but it exploits the latter more. First is the free, unpaid labour which women whether as daughters or wives are expected to provide in the family e.g. cooking, washing, cleaning, taking care of the health of family members, looking after aged parents etc. This frees the ruling class from the cost of meeting these responsibilities which society should basically provide. The enforcement of this work on women is justified by patriarchal social norms, customs, culture all rigged in favour of men who are regarded as "breadwinners" of the family. For instance, there can be no pressure on government to establish state-funded old people's homes because this job is being done for free in millions of homes across the country by women.

By chaining many women to domestic labour, they are unable to have the time for personal development, build a career, go for leisure, engage in political activities or even have a respite, a holiday from family responsibilities. As such the typical successful and hardworking wife or mother in accordance with the norms laid down by our patriarchal culture is that one whose only achievements in life are making her husband happy and taking care of her family. This is what is called "family values". Any departure from this is considered a taboo.

But a combination of changing attitudes amongst women and economic pressures have meant that increasing numbers of women work, whether in regular jobs, in markets or on the land. But this does not mean that women have been freed from exploitation, in fact they are doubly exploited. The special discrimination women face at workplaces is manifested in lower pay and different conditions for the same job as the man. There is also discrimination in terms of promotion etc. This is without cognisance of the condition of working women who are single parents. In addition to this is the lack of crucial facilities like crèche at workplaces to allow women play their motherly role at the same time they work. This means a lot of working women shuttle between creches located far away from their workplace everyday. This makes motherhood arduous for working women and forces most women to put the family first over their career. Of course by losing her source of living, the woman loses one means by which she can procure her independence in the family. Now reduced to a position where she depends on her husband for her most basic needs, the ground is prepared for the possibility of an abusive relationship in which the woman is the footrest of the man.

A similar situation of society hindering the ability of the woman to progress manifests in schools also. In a report in Guardian newspaper of Thursday 5 March 2015, lack of toilet facilities was reported to hinder girl-child education. According to the National School Health Desk Officer of the Sanitation, Hygiene and Water Nigeria (SHAWN) programme, Mr. Jide Dada, most female students prefer to stay at home during their menstrual cycles owing to lack of dedicated toilet facilities in their schools. This is said to be the leading cause of absenteeism in the Northern part of the country. In Nigeria, over 10 million children are out of school, a big proportion of whom are girls.

It will take the complete dismantling of the patriarchal social relation alongside with the capitalist system that reinforces it for hope to begin to rise for the liberation or the improvement in the condition of women in Nigeria. This would require that the labour movement takes up more energetically issues concerning gender inequality including the exploitation of women in the home and workplaces. Unfortunately the women's section of the labour movement in Nigeria has been turned into an NGO. It plays little or no role in the lives of an average working woman. This has to change. Specifically, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) must use the occasion of this year's International Women's Day to launch a campaign to stop gender discrimination in the home and workplaces, rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence and also to advance women's reproductive rights. This campaign which should include public workshops, protest rallies and strikes where applicable should also be targeted at factories and sweatshops where women are often subjected to the most brutal condition of labour for pittance by private employers of labour who rarely obey the labour law. The labour movement must insist on a minimum standard to be observed by employers in relation to their female employees. This minimum standard should not just be about pay but also about conditions and facilities to support female employees.

Just like racism, gender discrimination has economic and political goals. By reinforcing patriarchal social relations, capitalism is able to exploit the labour of women in most cases for free. We need a new and better society which places women in their rightful place as equals of men. This is not just about the number of women in public offices, but about the number of women who are in reality independent, fully educated, in gainful employment and free from gender discrimination and oppression of all shades.

Socialists are active in the campaign against women oppression and seek to mobilize women in struggle. The more women themselves are involved in both battles for their own demands and the general demands of Labour the sooner we can build a movement that can fully liberate women by breaking with capitalism and enthroning a socialist system that can ensure that Nigeria's wealth is democratically and judiciously utilised to cater for the needs of the mass majority, men and women inclusive. In calling for this programme we are also emphasing the socialist roots of International Women's Day. The first such day, in 1909, was organized by socialists in New York to celebrate a textile workers' strike the previous year. This led to a 1910 international conference of socialist women calling for an annual "International Woman's Day" to demand equal rights and the following year, 1911, saw simultaneous demonstrations for women's rights in a number of European countries. Then, especially after the 1917 Russian revolution began with a protest strike and demonstration of women workers marking International Women's Day, the celebration of this protest day spread tight around the world.

As women have become more active demanding both their rights and participating in broader struggles there have been attempts to bury International Women's Day's socialist origins and present the struggles of women as having nothing to do with capitalism.

This is a division which the DSM rejects. The oppression of women is rooted in the history of class society and is maintained today by capitalism. This is why we stand opposed to Boko Haram's reactionary ideas about the role of women as much as we oppose the existing capitalist arrangement which converts women into second class citizens. Ultimately, the struggle for socialism is impossible without the awakening into mass struggle working women who are half the world's population. The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) fights for a socialist Nigeria linked to a Confederation of Socialist Africa and the World built by working men and women in joint struggle against patriarchy and capitalism.