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Agnes Ushang Ingwu

7 November 2009

For many activists there is often some personal experience that drives them to dedicate their life towards a particular cause. For Ushang, it was watching the struggles of her widowed mother. ‘After my father died, I saw my mother struggle to get the basic things in life. As the first daughter, I saw the pains she went through, which opened my eyes to the many injustices women face in our community,’ says Ushang. ‘Because you are a woman you have no rights. You are not qualified and have no access to your own income. You have no access to your husband’s property either,’ she adds. Agnes Ushang Ingwu is the founder of the Abanbeke Development Association (ADA) in Cross River State in South East Nigeria. ADA is a small community-based organization that works mainly on women’s rights issues amongst the Bette people in Nigeria.

Ushang faced many personal struggles growing up as a woman in her community. As an adult, she is highly critical of the patriarchal structures in the community. ‘For me, if I am to buy my own land, if I want to own it, I still have to go through my brother, even if he is younger than me,’ she says.

Her success, motivation and ambition lies in her sheer determination. She was an exceptional student, and when she finished school, she looked for opportunities to study in a foreign country. Facing funding constraints, Ushang, applied for scholarship after scholarship until finally she was awarded a Ford Foundation grant to study at Reading University in the UK. Unlike many people who get such an opportunity to study and work in a developed country, once she finished her education, Ushang chose to return to her village and work to improve the lives of women in her community.

The Bette are an agrarian community. Women engage in farming, clearing the fields and harvesting. The women enjoy virtually no rights within their community; they have limited access to resources and are not given leadership positions. What troubles Ushang most about her community are the cultural and traditional norms that contribute to the oppression of women.

‘When the husband dies, a woman does not come out for months,’ she says, in reference to the community’s mourning laws, which requires women to stay in seclusion for 6-12 months (it was originally up to two years). According to Ushang, the woman wears a black cloth waist-downwards. When the mourning period is over, she has to invite all her husband’s family, cook a meal for them and seek their permission to come out. She is then taken to a stream to be bathed, and her hair is cut off before she is allowed to get back into society.‘You need money to do all of these rituals and women have no income while mourning.Why does she have to perform these rituals? It makes women feel humiliated,’ she adds. ‘Most women feel they are slaves, they accept it because it is tradition.’

Ushang also refers to the tradition of wife inheritance, where, once a woman loses her husband and completes her mourning, she can be inherited by another male member of her husband’s family. Because polygamy is commonly practiced amongst Bette men she may become a second or third wife. ‘The widowed woman has to perform a sexual role for the man who inherits her, but he is not obliged to provide for her and take on the husband’s role,’ she says.

Ushang uses several different methods to advocate for the rights of women in her community. She runs leadership training programmes amongst women and helps them to improve their negotiation skills. One of the interesting techniques she uses that is slowly beginning to have an impact is to challenge traditional laws through dramas. The dramas are acted out by members of the community in public places and viewed by leaders and the villagers.

Ushang is particularly keen to get women’s voices heard in the village governing committees, which are currently all-male. She questions why half of the population in her village are unrepresented in the governing committees and how men are allowed to take decisions on issues and problems that affect women. She has had some success: she herself has addressed members of the governing committee and continues to advocate women’s inclusion to the leaders.

Ushang’s efforts have not been without challenges. She has been criticized and called names, but she continuous to persevere. ‘I keep hoping. I think of Martin Luther King; what he fought for, he didn’t achieve in his life-time.’