From November 22-27, 2016, 86 sisters from about 25 Catholic women religious congregations gathered in Nigeria’s Capital City, Abuja for a training on social analysis and advocacy to enable them actively participate in the overdue and much needed transformation of structures which have failed to alleviate poverty and rid Nigeria of social injustice. Funded by the Hilton Fund for Sisters and the Base Communities of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the capacity building training session with the theme, “Service, Advocacy and Change: Reverend Sister and Nation Building”is part of the Africa Faith & Justice Network (AFJN) Women Empowerment Project. This project aims to mobilize African women religious towards changing the structures that perpetuate poverty and oppression. In his welcome address, AFJN Executive Director, Dominican Father Aniedi Okure remarked that the sisters have the vantage position to analyze firsthand the impact of unjust governance on the people as the sisters are the ones caring for the people neglected by the government. He reminded them that those in government are their employees and therefore accountable to the sisters as citizens of the country.
AFJN is convinced that sisters can become a formidable force for addressing the current socio-economic and political ills in Africa. It is a fact that African women religious have played a key role in social change, in building communities throughout Africa, especially through education, healthcare, and social services to the disadvantaged and vulnerable populations who are often neglected by the government. Furthermore, this effort is rooted in the recognition that in general, when African women galvanize for collective action, they bring about significant socio-economic and political change.
As part of the conference and motivated to take action, the sisters went to the National Assembly to bring their message to the law makers. However, due to the large number of sisters in their respective habits, security and gatekeepers found excuses to denied entry to the offices of the Senate President and Leader of the House of Assembly. Instead they stood by the side of the gate, sang, prayed, read speeches and held signs, some of which read “The moral test of a nation is how well it provides for the poor and the vulnerable,” “Stop wasting our resources” and “Justice and Peace for all.”
AFJN Women Empowerment Project Coordinator and key organizer of the gathering, Notre Dame de Namur Sister Eucharia Madueke, remarked that onlookers were surprised as they had never seen sisters in such large number in the public square making demands from their government. The sisters’ presence attracted attention as people came by to inquire and took photos.
The sisters also visited the National Police Headquarters where they were very well received. Through an open discussion, the sisters and the police officers promised to work together to find solutions to the issues they are concerned about. These issues include – but are not limited to – governance as it relates to corruption and the culture of waste, poverty reduction, violence against women and children, food security and sovereignty, protection of the most vulnerable who also happen to be in large number women and children, and the introduction of genetically modified crops into Nigeria’s food system without proper studies on its social, economic and health impacts. At the police headquarters the sisters also held prayer with the police for their beloved Nigeria in distress.
It is worth mentioning that this is not the first time AFJN has moved Nigerian sisters to action. In May 2016, an estimated 60 sisters attended a workshop designed specifically for them in Abuja to learn advocacy skills. This took place the day after they attended a larger conference spearheaded by AFJN in partnership with numerous Nigerian civil society organizations as well as our Brussels-based sister organization, the Africa Europe Faith & Justice Network. The theme of the conference was “Just Governance: The Nigerian Bio-Safety Law, Genetically Modified Organisms, and Implications for Nigeria and Africa.”
Sr. Theresa Ohani of Sacred Heart of Jesus who is the Director of Renewal Center for young Nigerian Women Religious was one of the attendees of this May 2016 conference. She left inspired, and upon returning to her community, mobilized about 30 sisters to march to the office of their local electric company and have their electricity restored after three months in the dark. Similarly, Notre Dame de Namur Sister Theresa Anyabuike held an awareness workshop on July 23, 2016, on land grab and genetically modified crops for a group of fifteen people comprising of farmers and civil servants. She works with the Community Self-Help Association of the Justice, Development and Peace Mission Commission in Ilorin Diocese in Kwara State Nigeria. Additionally, the immediate past Superior General of the Sacred Heart Sisters (in office during the May conference), Sr. Florence Nwaonuma, out of concern about genetically modified cotton seeds, ordered her sisters not to plant cotton seedlings suspected to be genetically modified until further notice.
Back to the conference hall in Abuja, in spite of being denied entry to the National Assembly, the Sisters were exceedingly pleased to realize that in Nigeria there is a space available for advocacy, allowing them to bring their concerns to the attention of government officials, a role currently played by only a few civil society organizations. To take ownership of this project, the sisters have created the Africa Faith & Justice Network Nigeria Initiative (AFJN-NI) which will be incorporated in Nigeria to enable them to legally conduct advocacy in their country. They have already constituted an executive coordinating committee to lead this advocacy effort.
by Ntama Bahati Jacques and edited by Lauren Rogers and Fr. Aniedi Okure