MARCH 8 every year remains an important date in the annals of women centred development initiatives globally.  According to the UN Women, it is the time to uphold women’s achievements, recognize their challenges and focus greater attention on women’s rights and gender equality to mobilise all people to do their part.
As Nigeria joins the rest of the world to mark the day, the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, a front-runner in championing the cause of women, is once again leading the pack.
The helms woman at the Ministry, Honourable (Mrs) Blessing Maigida, in this chat with our Principal Features writer, Ijeoma Umeh, reflects on the achievements of women and of course the challenges and gaps that still exist. Excerpts:
The drums of celebration are resounding again and you appear in high spirits.  Do you think there is reason enough to celebrate the International Women’s Day this year, considering how the present political atmosphere seem to weigh down on everyone, particularly women?
Oh, I think there is so much to be thankful to God for.  Every new day is life renewed.  Women have come a long way and they have survived all kinds of upheavals, all kinds of socio-economic and political hiccups, all kinds of emotional and health challenges, yet they have survived, surmounting all kinds of hurdles on their path to attaining self actualisation.  It is my candid opinion that anytime women have cause, no matter how fleeting, to be happy, to celebrate, they should let go of all inhibitions and willingly celebrate as we are warming up to do in my ministry to mark the day.  Life, they say, has no duplicate.  And unlike the cat with the proverbial nine lives, humans can only boast of one physical life.  For women too, life is even more fleeting.
So, I owe my radiant mood to all these reflections, to the considerations given to the fleeting nature of our mortality, to the way and manner of our survival in the midst of hardship, and above all, to how I have seen women standing tall and holding out their head even when the tides appear harsh and hitting hard.  There is every cause for celebration.
By your own estimation, has there been considerable progress in the socio-economic and political fortunes of women despite the general uncertainty that pervades national life due to the forthcoming general elections?
Yes, that is one very important reason to be joyful.  From the last time we celebrated the International Women’s Day and till now, the lot of women has improved considerably and we owe so much gratitude to efforts of various stakeholders in ensuring that women’s issues are perpetually brought to the front burner and all the focus given to ensure their resolution.
Despite the pressure in the political terrain, we have seen more women coming out for elective posts compared to 2011.  Again, despite the outcome of women’s participation in that election, that is when we had Serah Jubril who had just a lone vote, yet in 2015 women still trooped out to ensure they clinched one ticket or the other, to ensure they vote and are voted for.  That is highly commendable, if you ask me.
Would you also say women have mobilised enough for their fellow women?
You see, I always advocate for equality and equity beyond the way we all ordinarily understand it.  The chants of old is that women should galvanize efforts and mobilise around their fellow women during elections or major agitation but the new chant now is that both men and women should mobilise for the support of women.  So rather than find women alone queueing behind or beside their fellow women, we want to see both men and women vigorously supporting women.  I think I would rather have that as an all-inclusive participation ideology than anything less.  Truly, having everyone’s, or majority support would help build the confidence of the woman and boosting her shock absorber if there would be political mishaps and of course we do not in anyway pray for such disappointment.  Women will continue to come out tops.
The theme of this year Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity and the sub-theme; Make It Happen both evoke the feeling that there is still so much to do in the lives of women both in the rural and urban centres.
Has your ministry lived up to its billings in the mobilization process too?
I would say yes with all certainty.  We do not work in isolation here.  We work with the Women Development Chairpersons in all the 18 local government councils, so if there is need, of course, there is always need for women to be mobilised for their own empowerment because the empowerment of women is a continuous process.  It does not terminate somewhere; there is no full actualisation of the empowerment of women, no matter how hard you try.  You have to keep drumming it into everyone’s subconscious that there is need for women to attain economic self-sufficiency, there is need for women to receive equal pay for work of equal value with men, there is need for gainful employment, or engagement of the women who are daily becoming highest contributors to the family’s and nation’s wealth; there is need for women to be healthy and wealthy.  There is need for maternal and infant mortality to be scourges of the past; there is need for cervical cancer, breast and other forms of cancer which continue to ravage the womenfolk to be nipped in the bud through early screening, detection and prevention; there is need for Pap smear, breast self-examination and for women to properly understand the workings of their body; there is need for population control through family planning, and several other needs.  These are all efforts which a single individual, ministry or parastatal cannot achieve.  That is where the UN women’s recommendation for the mobilisation of all comes to play.
In the area of empowerment what gaps and challenges still exist considering that the empowerment song has been in the air.  For as long as the emancipation mantra  been  on? Are women still economically insufficient?
The UN women as an organization, recognizes the imperative nature of lack, women’s rights and gender equality and properly articulated that if there is equality, if there are no discriminations, if there are no marginalizations, if there is availability of credit facilities – micro credits or grants in itself, then the empowerment of women to be self-sustaining would be said to be nearly complete, however, I must reiterate once again that the empowerment process is a continuous one because most women have metamorphosed into bread winners; many have become widows or single parents by reason of the challenges many families are facing.
The Comrade Governor recently empowered widows . . .   Yes, I was coming to that.  Everyone’s hands, I mean, all hands, must be on deck-individuals, groups, corporate organizations, government and its agencies – everyone must contribute their quota to ensure that  poverty becomes history and that the palpable gaps that exist between one woman and her elitist counterpart are breeched.   We wish to commend the Comrade Governor for that giant stride in the empowerment process, the empowerment of close to 850 widows with various work tools.  That is unprecedented and we appreciate the effort of the Comrade Governor in that regard.
There are achievements too . . .
Ofcourse, there are very remarkable progress; there are achievements which are very integral in taking counts of women’s fortunes.  Many more women are leaving the “illiterate” bracket and entering the “literate” list.  This is very laudable, considering how illiteracy has been the culprit in women’s misfortunes.  Women can now hear about government programmes for women and understand the guidelines for accessing them.  No one wants to be left behind.  We have also seen women occupying very many seats in government and holding exalted positions; we have also seen women in their very humble background and doing very well in small scale businesses and enjoying the goodwill of micro finance and other donors.  We have also seen women improving themselves by going back to school, using the tool of adult literacy programmes, various skills in the skill acquisition centre.  We have seen women from that very humble beginning building their own homes and investing in solid future for their children.  These are all glad tidings that should make any advocate happy.  So we are indeed happy about it.
The political era has been women experiencing hard times alongside the rest of the society.  What advice would you give to women in such dire strait?
Hard times would come and go, but the woman who perseveres in the midst of hardship would survive with her family. That is why we won’t stop advocating for women to get their priorities right, to be focused on what they do.  Again, that is why we are asking women to ensure they vote right in the forthcoming general elections, to vote in the right candidates, to deplore their votes positively in making the difference to ensure we get the change we desire, the change that would change our economic, political and other fortunes as a people, the change that would help women actualise their potentials and attain equity, enforce  human rights.