The blue-eyed woman: a personification of the need for women’s economic empowerment- By Toyin Saraki

The lived experience of Riskiat, the blue-eyed woman from Kwara state, underscores the need for economic empowerment to also tackle unconscious bias and gender discrimination.

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Riskiat Abdulazeez and her daughters grabbed headlines and pulled heartstrings in Kwara state last week when she spoke out with a distressing story about being abandoned by her husband and rejected by his family. The 30-year-old mother of two was left alone to afford food and education for her children, all because of a scepticism surrounding her distinctive pale blue eyes.

 

When I studied Riskiat’s story, what struck me was not just the unique (and beautiful) colour of the eyes: it was the fact that her life story is that of a typical woman in Nigeria—a story that so many of the United Nations’ goals and resolutions aims to target, support and empower. She was a girl child who had every hope, but encountered every barrier.

 

As a child, Riskiat went to primary and secondary school, but didn’t sit her final examinations because her parents could not pay the fees, as she explained to PUNCHNG. Instead, her parents enrolled Riskiat in an apprenticeship, and following the apprenticeship, she worked in a shop where she met her husband, Abdulwasiu, in her early 20s.

 

After courting for a year, Riskiat and Abdulwasiu married, and Riskiat quickly gave birth to three children: five-year-old Kaosara and one set of twins, two-year-olds Hasanat Kehinde and Taiwo. The daughters, Kaosara and Hasanat Kehinde, inherited Riskiat’s distinct eye colour, while Taiwo, the son, had traditional brown eyes.

 

The family lived together in Abdulwasiu’s family home, and Abdulwasiu, a vulcaniser, struggled to support the children’s diet and education, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic brought Nigeria to a halt.

 

It is clear through Riskiat’s interview that Abdulwasiu’s family was distrustful of Riskiat already—but the trigger point that led to the family breakdown happened when the male twin, Taiwo, fell ill earlier this year. As Riskiat illustrates in PUNCHNG, the family could not financially support his care, and ultimately, Taiwo died from his illness. The grief and devastation eroded the family’s cohesion even further: distraught because of the loss of his son, poverty-stricken and pressured by his family’s scepticism about the fact that Riskiat and the blue-eyed daughters had survived, Abdulwasiu instructed Riskiat to move out of his parents’ home.

 

“He told me that his parents said they could not live with children with blue eyes. My husband also said his parents told him to marry a woman that would produce children with normal eyes,” she told PUNCHNG.

 

We have always known that unplanned point-of-care medical expenses can throw families into poverty, but Risikat’s story shows us the devastating effect that unavailability of medical coverage can wreak. It impacts lives negatively far beyond the original community coverage aims of health for all.

 

What Riskiat has yet to experience is self-sustaining autonomy via her own economic empowerment. As a child she was barred from further education because her family could not afford the fees.

 

As a young adult, she attempted to make a living for herself, but instead married young and then struggled to feed, educate and protect her family because she relied on her husband, who could not support them. At 30, Riskiat has fire in her belly and light in her blue eyes: she insists that she does not want her husband back, and is steadfast in her interest in finding the best path forward for her children.

 

“God who created us has plans for every individual. I don’t have any specific thing (planned) for her and her sister. I only wish that they would become great in future” she said to PUNCHNG.

Riskiat’s inability to control and plan her own life is the story of many women just like her, particularly in Nigeria. Country-wide, at age 20, less than 4% of men are married, compared to about 50% of women in rural areas.

 

In some areas, around 40% of girls are married and 11% give birth all before age 15, which robs them of their educational attainment, career mobility and earning power, and makes them vulnerable to dangerous pregnancy complications like fistula. Moreover, we know that when we invest in women and girls, they invest in everyone else around them. That’s why I was not surprised to read that Risikat took a decision to sell her small patent medicines shop to raise the resources to feed her family during trying times. Women typically invest a higher proportion of their earnings in their families and communities than men. Women’s economic participation and ownership of their own finances helps overcome poverty and improves children’s nutrition, health, and school attendance.

 

Reading about how Risikat lost her twin son Taiwo, due to not being able to afford the necessary medical care in Kwara State in 2020, shocked my core beliefs, advocacy and actions regarding universal health coverage. From 2007 to 2016, my Wellbeing Foundation Africa’s Alaafia Universal Health Access Fund had supported the Kwara State Government in its partnership with Hygeia and the Pharmaccess Foundation, in launching the Kwara Community Health Insurance Scheme (CHIS), providing a comprehensive package of healthcare to all indigenes, and mitigating the economic devastation of unplanned point of care expenses with a record-breaking and prize winning low capacitation fee recognised as recently as 2012, 2014 and 2015.

 

The Kwara State CHIS was renamed KwaraCares in late 2018, and shockingly, was inexplicably not accessed or not available to Risikat and her children in 2020 despite its strongly vociferous media presence.

 

So when I intervened in Riskiat’s situation with a token donation for her children’s education, it is not just because of compassion for a woman and children with striking eyes. It is because a small investment in Riskiat—allowing her basic economic empowerment, and the ability to make her own autonomous choices for her life and that of her children independently—has the potential to stop a cycle of disempowerment and negative dependency that Riskiat and so many others experience.

I made the donation as I continue to advocate that public health and education policies must deliberately, intentionally, and accountably replenish resources, reinforce learning and knowledge, embrace gender-data statistical values, in managing pro-poor innovations, to put people first, particularly women, newborns and girls, and leave no one behind, particularly in Kwara State where the Wellbeing Foundation, stakeholders and non-governmental organisations continue to work so hard and long to deliver the lowest under-5 mortality in the land.

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