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Centuries ago among the Igbo people in Nigeria, women had a level of autonomy not experienced today. Amaka Akudinobi, who is an Igbo woman, associates the shift in women’s status with the British coming into Nigeria and instilling their values on the people there. Through the nineteenth century, certain aspects of European ideology were integrated into Igbo culture leading to the diminishing of women’s rights. Today, though the Nigerian Constitution declares certain rights for women, many of these do not trickle down to the villages, where custom and culture supersedes law. This is the world that Amaka grew up in, and today she works with a variety of organizations, including the Worldwide Organization for Women to promote women’s rights in Nigeria.

The work of women’s rights often focuses on women alone, but Amaka is emphatic about the need to “bring men to the table.” She says, “There’s no way you can talk about giving women more rights in today’s world without involving men because the men have all the rights.” She says this is something she knows from experience as a woman growing up in Nigeria. Rather than being bitter about this dynamic, Amaka seeks to work within the existing structure to promote change. For her, the goal is not for women to edge out the men, but to create dialogue between men and women. “Men are not the enemies,” she says. Her basic approach is to meet people where they are. She recognizes that, “just as we women are products of our society and societal norms with which we have all been raised, that’s the same thing with the men. We just shouldn’t assume that all men want to take away all our rights or do not want to give back some of the rights they have or share the rights with us.” She continues, “When we begin a conversation—a true conversation, not pointing fingers, not screaming at each other, but a true dialogue—between men and women, particularly in my culture, we begin to find that most men agree with us!”

The dialogue only works if both men and women are present. Amaka’s mother was the first female chief in her village. This change was critical because, as Amaka says, “If women are not at the table who is going to speak for us?” A change that has been made through the kind of dialogue that Amaka promotes is a revising of female mourning customs. Traditionally, when a woman’s husband dies she shaves her head, wears black, stays at home, and doesn’t trade. This is not functional because women need to be able to care for themselves and their families more than ever after they lose their spouse. In response to this problem, the culture has now shifted so that a woman is able to provide for her family after her husband dies.

Amaka has found that a focus on family is another key to fostering these dialogues. Speaking in terms of family connections—improving the lives of mothers, daughters, and sisters—helps the men to understand the importance of recognizing and responding to the evolving needs of women in their community. Amaka uses her own father as an example of the positive impact men can have in the lives of women. She says, “There’s nothing I can’t discuss with my father.” He held her to the same standard that he held his sons, and he provided her with the same opportunities. Amaka’s children tell her, “Mom you’re privileged because grandpa is such a darling.”

A model of male and female harmony is something that Amaka first experienced in her home and now seeks to promote in her village and the broader community. What her work reveals is that what is in the best interest of the women is also in the best interest of the men. The greatest good comes through the mutual work, concern, and understanding of both men and women.

Written by Elisabeth S. Weagel