Last year, I marked International Women’s Day in a way that I will never forget.
Myself and dozens of others had come together to celebrate Mrs. Pauline, a 33 year old graduate and married mother of two young children. As a teacher in Kogi State and member of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, her colleagues describe her as hard working and always in smiles. They speak highly of her dedication to providing schooling and hope to young girls in her community. She herself had struggled to acquire an education and now served as a role model for her women folk, both young and old. So on March 8th, 2014 – International Women’s Day – we came together to celebrate this inspiring woman and teacher. But it was not a celebration of a new job or a recent achievement, it was the celebration of a life well lived – albeit too quickly ended.
The state government has made efforts to provide health care in the rural areas of Kogi State, and Pauline indeed had access to such care, though I cannot help but wonder about the quality. You see, Pauline exited this world a day after she safely gave birth to her second child. They say she fell from her hospital bed. But why? How? What exactly happened?
No one could say.
What I remember most about that day, one year ago, was looking down at Pauline as she lay lifeless, looking beautiful in her casket. She looked as if she was having a nap and would soon wake up to feed her infant child. Tears came to my eyes and I just kept asking myself: What went wrong, how did it happen?
I remember too, how the teachers gathered round her grave site and recited their slogan: “If you can read, thank a teacher, and if you cannot, look for one.” Oh my, more tears.
As the village stood still for this young woman who has instilled in other girls a hope and a zest for education, we all watched her go down to mother earth. Tears followed freely. I heard someone ask how will her kids grow up without the warmth of their mother and I thought of my own mother, who passed on at the same age as Pauline. To this person I say: every woman has warmth to give; every woman is a mother.
The beginning of 2014 was a dark period. Within three months I witnessed the passing on of three women during or shortly after child birth. And as I sit here and write about Pauline, many more women across Nigeria are dying in just like she did. In fact, every fifteen minutes a woman in this country dies during pregnancy or child birth. We are the largest economy in Africa and yet the rates of women dying in child birth are worse than those of much poorer countries like Sudan, Mali and Togo.
The women of Nigeria deserve more. They deserve to be able to bring life into this world without losing their own. Where is the access to quality health care that is among the basic human rights of every man, woman and child? ActionAid and other organisations are working hard to bring clinics to rural communities and empower the people to demand more public services from the government, but wider support is needed.
Today, I will not allow my tears to have been shed in vain. I stand in salute of all women, living and deceased, who have inspired me. And I commit myself to continue working – professionally and personally – to ensure the Nigerian government provides its women and girls with the quality health care that is their right.
I ask you to stand with me. This election, use the power of your vote; demand access to quality health care from your government, and when they are elected – be it the party you voted for or not – hold them accountable.
Let’s adhere to the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day and “Make it Happen” for women in 2015.