|Justice, Community, and Spirituality: A Conversation with Nigerian Activist Ngozi Iwere|
In 1992, Ngozi founded the Community Life Project (CLP) in the Isolo neighborhood of Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. Based on the belief that the community already possesses the organizations, networks, and resources to effect positive and sustainable social change and promote individual and family health, CLP partners with families, couples, trade associations, churches, mosques, hospitals, and schools, offering educational programs on health, gender, wellbeing, human rights, marriage, sexuality, communication, and life planning, among other topics. Ngozi is also one of four co-coordinators of the Nigerian Campaign Against Unwanted Pregnancy (CAUP), the lead group advocating for increased access to safe abortion in Nigeria, where restrictive abortion laws cause hundreds of thousands of women to seek the services of unskilled, illegal providers every year.
After traveling to the United States to participate in the March for Women's Lives in April 2004, Ngozi sat down with IWHC to reflect on her origins, successes, and struggles as an activist for women's rights and social justice, past and present.
Andrea Lynch, IWHC: How did you get involved in the struggle for women's rights in Nigeria?
Ngozi Iwere: I can't remember when I first had a consciousness of myself as a woman who lives in a society where women are exploited and oppressed, because I think it came from just living in that society and seeing what happens in the families and the extended families. I didn't get involved with women's issues officially until I became active in the struggle for the decolonization of Africa as a student. Being part of that struggle helped give me a radical consciousness about women's rights, because of all the debates we were having in the 1970s about how to go about changing the society. There were two big questions at that time: the national question, and the women's question. That's how it was presented then in the left ideology. And of course I was very interested in the role of women in the struggle for national self-determination—what happens to them afterwards?
AL: Can you say more about women's movements' relationships to other social and political movements, particularly in postcolonial and post-dictatorship contexts?
NI: In my view, you can't have a women's movement that will actually get women where they want to be in society without being part and parcel of the broader struggle for human rights and for access to resources for everyone in the society. At the same time, you can't have a movement that wants to bring about socioeconomic or sociopolitical justice for the weak members of society, the lower classes, without putting women's rights on the agenda. It's a real struggle because now, almost thirty years later, those divisions still exist in how we work and how we organize.
AL: What do you see as other major challenges facing the women's and feminist movements today?
NI: I think insecurity is one of the greatest enemies that we face in the social development arena in general—this insecurity that we have, in part because the movement has moved. I have watched it move from the 1970s to this point, from being a cause to being a career and a profession. In the 1970s you were a feminist because you were a woman and because it was a cause that you wanted to invest your energy and your resources in and spend your life doing, because you wanted to bring about social justice in society. And I have seen that switch from it just being a cause and a vocation to being a career. Now it's a job and a position, and I think dealing with the personal insecurity that comes from that shift-it's my job, my livelihood, my future-is part of the challenge that we face.
Related to this, I also think that there has to be a lot more mentoring than we're doing now. There's a lot of effort being focused on adolescent reproductive health at the moment, and I have my concerns about it. It seems as though there's always something new that's going to solve the world's problems, and so all the resources and all the programs go there, but then tomorrow it will be something else. So now we're giving a lot of attention to adolescent reproductive health, but that movement has also taken the wind out of the political aspect of reproductive and sexual health. We have become so health-focused, and intent on making sure adolescents are getting sexuality education and have access to services and so on, but in terms of a political consciousness, I don't think there's enough attention being paid to having young people be part of the rights movement, and the women's health movement.
AL: What inspired you to start the Community Life Project?
NI: In the early 1980s I got involved with Women in Nigeria (WIN), which was a women's rights activist group and feminist organization with men members as well. I was one of the founding members of WIN, I started the Kano state branch, and in the mid 1980s I was the national coordinating secretary. But even at that time I felt that focusing on women alone would never bring about the kind of radical transformation of the conditions of womanhood that we envisioned for Nigeria—whether we were talking about patriarchy, or our relationships with men, or our ability to exercise our reproductive rights, or even our ability to attain reproductive health. Focusing on women or on one single issue was not going to do it—we needed to work with men and young people and women together. So, I felt that only by taking a community perspective could we create the sociocultural environment necessary for her to assert or express her full personhood as a woman.
I didn't find much support for this idea among my colleagues in women's rights, so I started the Community Life Project [CLP] partly out of frustration. I thought if there was an intervention on the ground clearly demonstrating that a certain approach worked, then it would be easier to engage in the debates and the dialogues about what was needed, because there would be a model we could refer to. Right away, the challenge for me was to set up this model. It was driven by many things, including frustration I had with the development model that we had in Nigeria generally. I come from a political activist tradition that works for the transformation of society for all the vulnerable members of society, especially for the have-nots and those who are outside mainstream communication channels, and the weak members of society in general, of which of course women are a big part. That is why CLP is rooted in these sections of society that are outside mainstream communication channels.
AL: How does CLP engage the whole community in its efforts to effect change?
NI: We approach people through their networks, their existing affiliations, as a peer process, so that those networks will then reinforce the behavior that we are teaching. So we go into the trade union, or the association, or the company, or the church group, and ask them what they want to be educated about, and then provide them with that information. We take on difficult issues, and issues that are taboo, and teach people what they want to learn as a way of bringing them together, not pulling them apart. In this way we have been able to broaden the frontier of sexual and reproductive rights for everyone without addressing the issue directly, in a way that would create resistance and disagreement. And this approach has yielded some surprising results.
For example, we went to speak to a group of all male tire menders, and asked them what they wanted to know about, and they said breastfeeding. We were surprised, but they really wanted to know, for their sisters, and wives, and daughters. It was something they wanted to be able to educate the women in their lives about, and also participate in. So we went ahead and educated them about breastfeeding, and in this way we were able to address a number of different issues around reproduction and parenthood and childbearing—and also show men how they could participate in breastfeeding in appropriate ways, and bring them into that aspect of motherhood and women's reproductive lives. Men don't have breasts, but that does not mean that they can't be involved in something like breastfeeding—by holding the baby afterwards so the mother can rest, or giving the baby a bottle of breast milk, or whatever...we show them ways that they can be involved that support and engage the mother and the child. And in this way men can become advocates and educators for women's sexual and reproductive health and rights.
AL: Has the CLP experience turned out the way you thought it would? How do you feel the approach has changed people's lives, either in specific instances or in general?
NI: I think the experience of CLP has really transformed my life. So it's a good thing that I didn't go into it thinking that it would just transform the lives of the people in the community, because I'm the one who got transformed! I learned a lot about how ignorant I was. I had a lot of false assumptions about what the problems were, I thought I knew, and it has been a very fulfilling experience to meet people where they are, as they are. I think our outcomes show that that's the way to go if we really want people to become the guardians of their health and well-being.
For example, CLP has always worked with men to legitimize their own reproductive health concerns and needs and to help them express their sexual and reproductive rights in a way that doesn't cause harm to women and children. We wanted to engage men as whole human beings—not simply "involve" them in women's issues. In this way CLP was doing "ABC" [Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms] a long time ago, but taking a different approach to the "Be faithful." We argued that men shouldn't simply be told to be faithful, they should be supported to realize that being faithful is better for them too, not just their partners. Men can draw strength from making the choice to care about and invest in relationships with women—it can be empowering for them too.
In this process of exploring fidelity we've learned that impotence is a huge issue for men. It's something they want to know more about, and it's also one of the factors encouraging them to go out and start sexual relationships outside their marriages, in particular with younger women. So if you don't address this issue with men, and pay attention to it, and provide information, and give men a space to share their fears and frustrations, then the problem becomes much bigger for the whole society, and has a negative impact on more than just the man. So we try to teach men about sexual pleasure in the context of marriage. Some of the men say they don't want to be unfaithful but that they don't enjoy sex with their wives—so we teach them how to be better sexual partners to their wives, in order to increase their wives' pleasure and their own, and then make it easier for them to be faithful. We try to teach men that impotence is natural, that it's part of aging, that it's not a disease or a failure, and that they can allow it to happen gracefully and with dignity.
Overall, the whole CLP experience has been very fruitful; and I have become a better person than I was when I set out. I've learned to respect the universe that is the individual, the mystery that is the human being, that you think you know about because you've seen them go about their duties every day. You know she's a market woman or a mechanic, and that this is how she lives, but she's a whole mystery, and a whole wonder to be discovered. And working the way we do in CLP helps us connect to this wonder of different people and the way they do things, the way they behave, the way they solve their problems, the way they analyze their own problems, the way they wear their shoes, the way they deal with where their shoes are pinching. I draw strength from that whole education, the way that we work.
AL: What sustains you as an activist?
NI: I've always had a strong consciousness of myself as an individual and as a spiritual person, and I've always maintained a balance to make sure that there is no aspect of my personhood that is lagging behind. I think that helps me to look at challenges from a very strong philosophical perspective. It's helped me to put myself in perspective in relation to all humanity: I'm just one tiny speck that's connected to every other person, despite all the divides that we have in the world, and I can only do just this much as a person—we all have limitations. So I look at that and I feel that society is marching forward. Sometimes I feel as though there's so much evil in the world, but I never get in a situation where I may be paranoid or frightened by what I see to be negative, because I know that a lot of good comes out of something that is seemingly negative on the surface. Inside whatever seems to be negative are the seeds of the positive, and wherever there's degeneracy there's a seed of regeneration within it.
I also feel the dynamics of history. Just like the ups and downs in an individual's life, we have bleak moments of history, where I would say the negative forces seem to have the upper hand, but then there is also a process of decline, in favor of an advancement of what's positive in humanity. So I take that perspective, and I don't go to sleep with any problems. At the end of the day, once I step into the house and shut the door, I lock all those things out. It's not going to change anything because I tossed and turned in my bed. And I also have this historical sense that we do things when it's relevant for us to do them: if for some reason I have to leave CLP, it will be the right time to give it up, it will be time to do something else to add value, and I have to be able to let go.
And one last thing: coping with challenges and frustrations also comes from identifying with all of humanity, and expecting empathy and understanding at all times, and of course, transcending fear—all fears. There is a lot of goodness out there, even in those people that we don't like, there is goodness in everybody, so I just approach life expecting that I can connect with the goodness in everybody and in the whole world, and that helps me to just do the best I can, and leave the rest. And just like I have my limitations, other human beings have their faults. They see things differently from me, they don't have to see things the way I see them, they don't have to believe what I believe, I don't have to believe what they believe, and everyone is okay, really.
For me as an activist, the main business of living is to reduce the harm that we do to each other as we live our beliefs: how do we minimize the harm or the hurt that we can cause our neighbor because of what we believe, our convictions, or the way we live our lives?>>Read more about IWHC's colleagues in Nigeria