April 2,1998

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Nigerian chief asks us to sponsor women's businesses

Chief Bisi Onguleye, a Nigerian chief, spoke recently at Concordia under the auspices of the Centre for Community and Ethnic Studies and the Concordia-UQAM Chair in Ethnic Studies. Jane LeBrun, Administrative Assistant at the Centre, has written the following account of her talk.

Chief Bisi Onguleye is a distinguished activist for women through a number of African organizations and projects. She was a speaker at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, and at the 1997 Conference on Women in Beijing, and in 1996, she won the African Leadership Prize.

At Concordia, however, she spoke about COWAN, the Country Women's Association of Nigeria, and why she helped start it.

Rural women are the main food producers in Africa. They do more than 80 per cent of farm activities, and nearly as much of the food production and processing.

For many years, Chief Onguleye had been going to rural communities and teaching women how to feed their children properly. However, when she returned for follow-up, she noted that the situation had not improved. When she asked the women why they were not following the program laid out for them, this was the response:

"You came to us and told us that we must feed our children eggs," they said. "Then you left, and you didn't leave eggs. You also did not give us chickens to lay the eggs. Nor did you give us money to buy the chickens or the eggs. So how can we feed our children eggs?"

This was a moment of awakening for Chief Onguleye. She realized that development projects can't work if those affected aren't involved in the decision-making process. With the establishment of COWAN,
discussion flourished, and the constraints on women were identified.

COWAN has been working to right these wrongs, and at first, things looked hopeful. In 1997, when the Rural Women's Development Bank was launched at the big international women's conference in Beijing, the organizers were promised 2 per cent of the Nigerian government's budget and 2 per cent of industrialized countries' international aid.

Sadly, those promises have not been kept. But Chief Onguleye has found a solution that doesn't depend on the promises of men -- direct sponsorship by individuals. A one-time investment of $100 would fund a small business for a woman in rural Nigeria. It would enable her to become independent at last.

For more information about Chief Onguleye or COWAN, call the Centre at 848-8728.

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