The Woyingi Blog

About The Prudent Women’s Foundation in Nigeria

Posted in Nigerian Women, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on June 12, 2011

After learning of the Leading Women, Building Communities Award I was honoured with by the Government of Ontario, my father decided to introduce me to his neighbour, Ijeoma Chinakwe, the founder of The Prudent Women’s Foundation. We spoke on the phone and by e-mail and Facebook. I learned that Ijeoma has worked with Baobab for Women’s Human Rights, based in Lagos, which is a Nigerian women’s rights organization that I have been following with much interest for years. I have taken a great interest in the work of The Prudent Women’s Foundation as well after learning more about it from Ijeoma.

The Prudent Women's Foundation in Nigeria (Ijeoma is standing in the centre in a pink dress)

The Prudent Women’s Foundation came into existence as the result of personal experiences and research carried out by women’s rights and legal activists. The team is composed of about 25 people including women right activists, school directors, social scientists, doctors and religion workers. The Foundation aims at addressing on a grassroots level women’s rights issues in Nigeria such as  high rate of unwanted pregnancies among Nigerian women, some resulting in early death caused by abortion; the high school drop out rate among female children; the intimidation of widows; and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

According to Ijeoma “Our goal, to help youths and adults (mostly mothers and widows) to adopt healthy behaviour and sustainable life styles. Our mission is to equip the women with much knowledge and services that will improve their physical, mental and social well-being; also to promote and protect women, widows and young girls.”

For example, The Prudent Women’s Foundation conducted a workshop in Imo State, in Eastern Nigeria aimed at supporting widows. Widows who have no male children are particularly vulnerable to intimidation by their late husband’s family. According to Ijeoma, “ a case was reported of a woman with three girls without any male child. The woman was forcefully pushed out of her matrimonial home by her husband’s relatives. This is because she had no male child for their brother for the years they lived together as a couple. As a result of these, she was sent out with her three female children with nothing to fall back to.

While looking to learn more about Ijeoma’s work, I discovered a fascinating article about Nigerian sex workers and their allies.  On March 3 2011, Nigerian sex workers in Lagos celebrated International Sex Workers’ Rights Day by marching for their rights.

Celebration of the day began in 2001 in India when Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Calcutta based group whose membership consists of somewhere upwards of 50,000 sex workers and members of their communities, organized a sex worker festival. Sex worker groups across the world have subsequently celebrated 3 March as International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. For the first time in Nigeria, sex workers publicly teamed up with their counterparts in cities across Africa, mobilized by the Africa Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA), to celebrate the day.

According to Margaret Onah, founder of Safe Haven International which aims at supporting girls and women who are victims of violence and co-ordinator of the Africa Sex Workers Alliance in Nigeria, the day is important in order to put an end to “the human rights violations against sex workers and to build in its place an enabling human rights environment in which sex workers enjoy the full-scale of their rights. This include being afforded equal protection of the law and opportunity to practice sex work without fear of prejudice in their communities.”

The march culminated in a gathering under Falomo Bridge in Ikoyi, Lagos where Ijeoma Chinakwe spoke to the crowd and told the women to “be proud of what you are doing. Do not let anybody trample on your rights. Everybody passed through something before they became what they are today.”

I will continue to follow the work of The Prudent Women’s Foundation and Ijeoma Chinakwe.

Further Reading:

Violence Against Women Without a Male Child by Ijeoma Chinakwe, article from Baobab for Women’s Human Rights blog available online

Blessed are the Sex Workers by F. Adebayo 2011 article in Tell Nigeria’s Independent Weekly available online

2008 Interview with Margaret Onah avaiable online

Video of the 2011 International Sex Workers Rights Day march in Johannesburg available online

Baobab for Women’s Human Rights Website

Africa Sex Workers Alliance Website

African Women’s Lives: Fatimata M’Baye

Fatimata M’Baye is a human rights lawyer, co-founder of the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (l’Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme, AMDH) and vice-president of the NGO International Federation for Human Rights (Fedération internationale des droits de l’homme, FIDH).

M’Baye was born in 1957. She was initially not allowed to get an education because of her grandmother, however, her mother, who felt that her daughter was intellectually gifted, fought for her daughter to be allowed formal education. M’Baye was finally allowed to go to school when she was 11 years old, she graduated from high school at age 25. In 1985, after completing her law studies at the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania, Fatimata M’Baye became the first female lawyer in the country. M’Baye was first arrested for her activism in 1986, when she, along with her 14 year old sister, were arrested for distributing flyers protesting the arrests of Black Mauritanian Intellectuals who had written about the Mauritanian State’s racism against Blacks. She would be arrested again in 1998, along with fellow Mauritanian Human Rights activists, after a report on slavery in Mauritania was aired on French Television. After protests locally and outrage internationally from organizations like Amnesty International, M’Baye and the activists were pardoned by the Mauritanian President at the time, Ould Taya.

In 1991, she co-founded the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (l’Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme, AMDH). In 1999, M’Baye became the first African to win the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award. This award, created in 1995, is given out in the City of Nuremberg, Germany.

Over her career, she has defended fellow human rights activists, women wrongfully convicted under Mauritania’s “Sharia” laws, and has been an advocate for the rights of children and the abolition of slavery in Mauritania. Although her activism has focused on conditions in Mauritania, she has also challenged police brutality against Mauritanian migrants in France.

She is a mother of three, divorced, and currently living in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Fatimata M’Baye’s defense of Rape Victims in Mauritania

M’Baye’s work came to international attention when she was spotlighted in the 2008 documentary, Mauritania: A Question of Rape. This documentary was part of BBC’s Series Women on the Frontline. The Series, introduced by Annie Lennox and shot by all-women crews in Mauritania, Nepal, Morocco, Austria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Columbia, documents the personal stories of women’s rights activists.

The film documents the plight of women who come forward with accusations of rape and are then convicted of zina, sexual immorality, because this is a crime under “Sharia” “Islamic” Laws. Part of the problem is that within Mauritania’s Penal Code, based on a cultural interpretation not an Islamic one, a distinction which unfortunately is not made in the film, pregnancy cannot result from rape, therefore if a woman coming forward with an accusation of rape is pregnant as a result of that rape, she is accused of zina because it is believed that she could not have become pregnant without her consent. This is a truly hopeless situation. As M’Baye states in the film:

We want more than we now have, we want a law that protects us. When a woman has been a victim of rape, when she has lost her honor, when she has lost her future, and when she has no hope left to continue to live, it is the state’s responsibility to protect her.

Fatimata M’Baye and Police Brutality in France

According to a 2009 Amnesty International report on police brutality in France:

On 11 March 2008 she was arrested and held in police custody for 24 hours after protesting at what she considered to be ill-treatment by police officers of a Mauritanian migrant being forcibly expelled on the flight she was travelling on. During the period she spent in custody she states that she was subjected to degrading treatment.

On 11 March 2008 Fatimata M’Baye boarded Air France flight 765 at Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, bound for Nouakchott, Mauritania. She noticed several police officers on board but did not consider it unusual until she and the other passengers heard sounds of a man in distress from the back of the plane, who shouted “Help me! Untie me! They’re going to kill me!”. She says she saw a young man who had his arms strapped to his body with a belt, and was being forcibly restrained by border control police officers who were trying to silence him. Fatimata M’Baye and another passenger, a doctor, called on the police officers to untie him and protested that they were treating him in an inhuman and degrading manner.

The flight captain told the police officers to untie the young man as this was forbidden during flights. They refused to do so, so he ordered them to disembark. The passengers applauded this action. A few minutes later approximately 20 more police officers boarded the plane and one told Fatimata M’Baye and the doctor to disembark. Fatimata M’Baye said she would not leave the plane until she was told on what grounds she was being ordered to do so. She says the police officer told her “we have ways to make you do so”, and in response to what she perceived as a threat of physical violence, she disembarked.

Fatimata M’Baye was taken into police custody at the airport, where she was stripsearched. At around 6pm she was told that she had been arrested for “opposing a forcible expulsion” and would be held in custody for 48 hours. At 11.30pm she was taken to a detention cell in a different part of the airport. She was stripsearched again and, while naked, told to “spread her legs” so the officers could check that she was “not hiding anything”. She was deeply humiliated by this procedure which appeared entirely unnecessary as she had already been searched when she entered custody. She protested to the two police officers present and the search was finally halted.

Fatimata M’Baye remained in custody overnight and the public prosecutor was informed of her detention. However, she was released the following day at approximately 3pm and the public prosecutor did not pursue any charges against her. The doctor who had also protested about the treatment of the migrant being forcibly expelled, and had likewise been detained, was also released around the same time. He states he was never informed of the reason for his detention.

No further information is available on the fate of the young man being expelled. According to Fatimata M’Baye’s understanding, he was returned to Mauritania on the next flight.

A video interview, in French, with M’Baye about this case is available online.

Fatimata M’Baye and the Forced Fattening of Female Children in Mauritania

On Oprah Winfrey’s show about Beauty Around the World, the fact that in Mauritania a woman being fat is considered beautiful was discussed, and the fact that some women were being forced fed, particularly in rural communities was addressed. The practice of fattening young girls in preparation for marriage is called leblouh. According to M’Baye, as quoted in a 2009 Guardian article:

The fattening is done during the school holidays or in the rainy season when milk is plentiful. The girl is sent away from home without understanding why. She suffers but is told that being fat will bring her happiness. Matrons use sticks which they roll on the girl’s thighs, to break down tissue and hasten the process.”

“If she vomits she must drink it. By the age of 15 she will look 30.”

M’Baye asserts in the article that the fattening process is linked with early marriages, as young girls are plumped up, so that they look more mature and therefore can marry younger. She states:

I have never managed to bring a case in defence of a force-fed child. The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions. Rural marriages usually take place under customary law or are overseen by a marabou (a Muslim preacher). No state official gets involved, so there is no arbiter to check on the age of the bride.

Further Reading:

Portrait of Human Rights Activist Fatimata M’Baye 1999 Amnesty International article available in German online

Mauritania: Serious Attacks on Freedom of Expression and Association 1998 Amnesty International document available online

Tribute to Fatimata M’Baye by Chinese Democracy Activist Wei Jingsheng available online

Mauritania: A Question of Rape video available online

Amnesty International 2009 Report Public Outrage: Police Officers Above the Law in France available online

2008 Video Interview with M’Baye in French available online

Girls being force-fed for marriage 2009 Guardian article available online

Oprah’s Beauty Around the World: Mauritania Clip 16 and Clip 17 available online

Human Rights Issues in Mauritania

Fighting Slavery in Mauritania BBC Radio Documentary available online

Mauritania’s Campaign of Terror: State-Sponsored Repression of Black Africans 1994 Human Rights Watch Report available online