I am immensely privileged to be here today. As has become a tradition for me, permit me to start with an apology. For decades in this country, we (men) have treated you with disrespect. We have abused our privileges, held you down and diminished your importance. We refused to accept the inevitable truth that our world is completely hopeless without you in it. I am sorry for the many times we allowed our ego to cloud our sense of reason and decency. I am sorry for our serial stupidity in refusing to fight for you. I am sorry for the way we have messed up our beloved country.
I have been blessed by amazing women who have shaped my life. I owe them a debt of gratitude. My father never knew his mum. She died when he was still a toddler. But his step mum Muriweaku took him as her own. She didn’t have to. My grandfather was already gone at this time. But she nurtured my father. Gave him unconditional love. Protected him and practically saved his life countless time. My father’s face always glowed when he talked about her. My mother is an exceptional woman. She always came through in the most difficult moments. I recall in the early 80s when the then government of Jim Nwobodo in the old Anambra state refused to pay civil servants their salary for months. Both my parents were teachers. My family was facing starvation. Mum stepped up and became a trader. I cannot remember the items she was trading on but she carried the family through that difficult phase. In my childlike innocence, I couldn’t help but mention to my father how mummy was working too hard. My father told me that mummy carried the family the same way during the civil war at the risk of getting killed. Today, I am married to an amazing woman. She works long hours as the CEO of her organization, effortlessly keeps the home front and pursing an advanced degree all at the same time. I have two amazing daughters who are already showing signs of walking the Ilo women family tradition. Those two are the reason I wake up every morning.
You would then think that this issue we are discussing today is important to me because of my personal experience but you would be wrong. Women’s issues are important because women’s right is human right. It is not important because I have an amazing mother. It is important because we all share the same humanity. There is an inexplicable chord of mutuality that ties our destiny together. An injury to you is an injury to all. We ride and die together because our humanity is the same. What affects the nose affects the eyes.
John Donne captures this eloquently in his poem For Whom the Bell Tolls
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
It goes further to say
Each man’s death diminishes me
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Women’s right is existential. Our future, our life depends on it. A nation that disrespects women will never be able to reach its potential. I am here today because I acknowledge that if anything is going to change in this country, women would have to be the ones driving it.
We are in interesting times in this country. There is trouble in the land. Civic space is under attack. Our judiciary is cowed. Our legislators are serving every interest but ours. Our democracy is flawed. In this environment of executive dictatorship, women are bearing disproportional burden of our failing state. Therefore, this convening is timely and fundamentally important. We must rescue the civic space. We need to put the country on notice that sovereignty rest with us and we are taking it back. You are today by this conference speaking to the best of our values as a country and awakening the conscience of this nation to the hallowed promises of the constitution. We will walk with you on this journey. History will judge you kindly and we owe you a debt of gratitude for reminding us about what is important for our country and for our future. The issues outlined for discussion speak to the core of our challenges. But it also speaks hope, resilience and courage. You are not waiting to be handed anything, you are taking it. And that is the way to go.
OSIWA over the years has supported issues central to the liberation and empowerment of women. We have fought with you on issues of sexual violence. Today in an unprecedented move, the NHRC is sitting to hear about SGBV across the country. Who could have imagined this years back? What this says to me is that when we come together and fight for what is right. Something will always give. Yes, the issues and challenges are many, but I firmly believe that the potentials in this room today is bigger than any challenge we face. Together we will overcome.
I leave you with these words from my poem- Fiery Snow
The gems pale in the beauty of your wonders
The sky is blue only because you bloom
The stars dazzle the skies at night like you blaze our lives
Because you are our stars
You defy understanding but you define our standings
You are most unsung but you are our only song
Your strength and humanity sustain our universe
Your love sustains life
Your blood purifies life
Your sacrifice is our essence
Through strife and stress, you are so true
In life most difficult moments you are our rock
We claim to be strong but we know we are wrong
For in you we find our strength
You are our hero
You are our song and our stump
You are the finer lines in our canvas
We are because you are
And we say Thank You