Empowered Women Empower Women
Attending an all-girls high school offered several lessons on feminism, though not always in the traditional sense one may imagine.
Surrounded by young women who occupied any and all leadership positions on campus, my peers and I were not immune to the presence of gender roles and the objectifying lyrics sprinkled throughout popular music. Some girls, informed single-handedly by their own experiences, began to keep quiet and learn about intersectional feminism from more-informed peers. Others gleefully provoked those conversations. Through it all, we proved resilient.
However, nearly simultaneously, I observed an ungeneralizable culture of competition between young women that was not an inherent quality of women. Rather, it was an emblem of stringent self-expectations and the pressure levied on women by a society brimming with inequity.
This inequity, or disproportion, is exemplified in several realms. Of them all, the condition of millions of rural Nigerian women speak to me, a Nigerian-American privileged with reliable access to basic health and safety needs. For many in the Nigerian healthcare system, however, the reality is much different.
In Nigeria, over one in ten children will not live past the age of five, and nearly one in twenty women die in childbirth. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and these figures are largely impacted by higher mortality rates in the northern and eastern regions.
Seeking to empower women and confront the devastation of maternal mortality, an issue that inherently affects women, the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) developed the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme: Maternal and Child Health Initiative (SURE-P).
The Initiative recognized that maternal and infant mortality rates were influenced by a shortage of trained midwives, high costs, and “low awareness of the importance of prenatal care and giving birth with a midwife or another trained health worker [present],” explained the World Bank.
In order to spread awareness in an accessible manner, midwives and community health extension workers were trained and equipped to enter thousands of understaffed health facilities. There, they educated women, like themselves, on the necessity of maternal and child care, which could be understood as foreign and hence dangerous by several of the women in the villages targeted by SURE-P.
The project involved other schemes that included conditional cash transfers and non-financial incentives. But for me, the most impactful measure of the initiative was the empowerment mindset behind it all.
Through SURE-P, women who were otherwise unemployed or untrained were employed and equipped to support fellow women, who were pregnant and lacked access to prenatal and child health care services.
I had the opportunity to visit several of the health clinics and meet several of the village health workers while in Nigeria during the SURE-P initiative, and interviewed dozens of the women who directly benefited from the program. The sheer exuberance of the shared gratitude and sincerity in the relationships between the health care workers and the pregnant women and mothers I met was enough to fill an auditorium.
The correlated NPHCDA Midwives Service Scheme (MSS) involved mobilizing midwives -- including newly qualified, retired, and unemployed midwives -- to deploy into primary health care facilities in rural Nigerian communities. According to the World Health Organization, MSS achieved progress in its aim to decrease maternal mortality in childbirth, a common yet preventably killer of women in Nigeria.
This recount of health care initiatives in Nigeria that involve a women-driven response to a mortality crisis affecting women, and of my own experience interacting with compassionate and emboldened women who committed to serving their fellow Nigerian women, serves two purposes.
First, it is a reminder of the impact to be had when women support other women. Although most readers may be unable to relate to the described challenges of healthcare access in Nigeria, let alone the implications for women, SURE-P and MSS serve as testaments to potential. When women support other women in responding to issues they uniquely face, the solutions and results are remarkable.
Second, these accounts are a call to action. In today’s globalized world, there are critical political, social, and economic necessities for women’s empowerment. The marginal uplift of a select group of women must not obscure the greater challenges facing other groups of women, themselves uniquely disprivileged.
Reflecting on my experiences with women’s empowerment from my high school education and research of women’s health initiatives in Nigeria, it is clear to see the subtle obscurities that hinder social progress on several of these issues. There is no space for self-imposed limitations and the internalization of society’s calamities in today’s strife for women’s rights.
Unhealthy competition driven by an insecurity with one’s own status, in a world of disempowerment, is a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, in collective empowerment lays an antidote.