Yesterday was #InternationalWomensDay and the theme for this year’s event is #PressforProgress. A lot of discussion has come up the woman as an agent and contributor in nation building ( for example, the 35% affirmative action for women in Nigerian politics) and why she needs to be more involved the social, economic and political processes of politics and governance, and also on the need to examine and question gender roles and practices that limit the woman’s agency and her ability to reach her potential. As much as these discussions on the agency of the woman in politics and governance are critical, there is no point having them if we do not have the most critical discussion of all, which is how to ensure that the woman, particularly the Nigerian woman has agency over the most important resource of all- her own body. Here is where family planning comes in.
It goes without saying that the female (to use the general term) has a critical role to play in a family. Hers is the function of childbirth and the most critical aspects of childcare, and without her there would literally be no continuation of the species. Given that the task of giving birth to and ensuring the physical, economic, and social wellbeing of a child is not an easy one, it is important that the woman, who is heavily involved in the process, be allowed to determine how best she can perform this task without adverse effects on her own physical, emotional and social wellbeing. This is why family planning is such a critical exercise, not just for the all-round wellbeing of the mother, but for the better access to economic resources of the whole family.
When my siblings and I were younger, our late grandmother used to tell us stories of her experiences in giving birth to and raising my father and his siblings. Of course the stories didn’t make much of an impression on me back then, given that I didn’t know the gravity of some of the things she went through. Now that I know a little more about maternal and child healthcare I have come to understand that a lot of the experiences which she usually describes as if they were just minor inconveniences were downright painful and terrifying. This understanding was reinforced by a thread I saw on twitter some time ago, which the tweep that started it called on women who have given birth to children to share their unique childbirth experiences. The conclusion I managed to draw from the thread and coupled with my grandmother’s stories is that childbirth and child rearing takes a physical, mental and emotional toll on the woman’s health. Given that these health challenges often take months, sometimes even years to get over (and that is not talking about raising the child, which takes far longer), it is critical for the woman to have a say in how often she wants to be subjected to the stress and risks of childbirth, because that decision for her could be the difference between life and death.
Unfortunately in the society we live in, traditional gender roles have limited the female and how much agency she has over her own body. That is why a lot of women cannot practice family planning even though they can clearly see its benefits. It is an established fact that the more the number of children within a family, the greater the effect on the family’s economic (and social) status. Since as has been mentioned earlier, the process of childbirth and childcare is energy sapping for the woman, it is almost impossible for her to juggle the duties of motherhood with her day to day economic activities. With so much draining her physically, mentally and financially, the woman’s economic capacity reduces. This affects her ability to improve her lot economically, and ensures that she does not have the economic power (and by extension the social standing economic power brings) to compete with her male counterpart for positions of leadership. Not just in terms of economics, even in terms of physical strength. It has been established that the more children a woman gives birth to, the physically weaker she becomes. Therefore a woman, who is already at a distinct disadvantage physically, becomes even less equipped for the rigours of leadership when she does not practice proper maternal health and family planning practices.
As some experts in politics, governance, and leadership have said, it is impossible for a nation where more than fifty percent of its citizens contribute little or nothing to its leadership process to develop. That is why as people, especially men, we must press for progress in terms of allocating leadership roles to women in our communities. It is our roles to not just try to get women into leadership positions, but also to ensure that they get the required ability and qualifications to perform well in those roles. A woman who has been physically weakened by childbirth, or who has to constantly divide her time between childbirth, child rearing and leadership cannot be an effective leader. The best way to achieve this is to ensure that women, not just married women, but even young girls who are of sexually active age have the ability to determine what is best for their own bodies and their long term physical and emotional wellbeing, so that they can develop themselves socially and economically. The first step to achieving this is cooperating with them on better female/maternal health and access to family planning services.