LifestyleNewsNigeriaPolitics“There is No Limit to What You Can Be” ―Joy Smart Francis Reflects on Politics And Woman Empowerment

“And that is what we are talking about today, being the International Women’s Day where we all put our voices together to break the bias and include in the law, policies that protect the woman.” ―Joy Smart Francis 

The International Women’s Day, first celebrated in 1911, is celebrated every year on the 8th of March. The celebration is usually centered around the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and creates awareness about women’s equality in the world. One of the events taking place in Nigeria today is the One Million Women March- a protest against gender inequality in the country. The Nigerian government, like some other African countries’, has been faced with confrontations for the inclusion and equal rights of women in the constitution.

Joy Smart Francis, the Executive Director of the largest Entrepreneurship Network in Africa, speaks to our Staff Writer, Favour Ebube on the pressing issues to be addressed as individuals and as a country, regarding women.

  1. First off, let me begin by wishing you a Happy International Women’s Day. How do you feel about this day?

Thank you so much Favour for this wishes. So, it’s the International Women’s Day and I feel like there’s so much to be done; however, we have little done and so much stared. The conversation around women being involved in the affairs of the continent and of course, our different countries, is one that needs to be taken very seriously. We cannot say that we want to experience growth, true independence and freedom without engaging women who are the custodian of true revolution, true freedom, who give birth to nations and nurture these nations to become whatever it is that they want to become. This is just a reminder that we have women who are capable of changing the narrative of our countries and the continent and who should be given equal opportunities to be able to do that which they naturally do best. I join every other person to celebrate the International Women’s Day but most importantly, it is a reawakening to everyone who has either gone through the womb of a woman or who has a sister or a feminine figure around them to be able to stand up and also share their voice with other women around the world in celebrating the international Women’s Day- speaking for, speaking with, promoting, advocating, and supporting women across different hems of the society.

Also, I feel the topic for this year’s celebration is very very significant-BREAK THE BIAS. And it takes us back to my initial statement where I talked about we’ve said so much and we haven’t done so much. I believe that this is a call to action where we need to be able to start doing rather than speaking. I believe in a gender-equal world; a world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive. This year’s theme: break the bias, is one that is calling on everyone regardless of where they find themselves, either in the business world, in politics, in economics, in family wherever they find themselves, IN RELIGION, to break the bias. Enough of this bias. Women and men need to be given equal opportunities because at the end of the day, we are all humans and we are all fighting for the same course. We want to be able to share our views, we want to be able to be part of decisions that affects us deeply and affect our children and our generation. We want to be able to truly support where we can and give advisory if we have to. Enough of saying some men can; and women can’t. I believe that this year’s theme is a wakeup call to everyone especially the male gender to break the bias and make decision making inclusive. Make governance inclusive. Make board management decisions inclusive and make everything that affects the human race, this generation, the next generation, and of course, our economies, regardless of gender and where we find ourselves in the world, inclusive.

I feel we’re at that crossroad where the decision we make this year will affect what we do in the coming years.

Women have every right to make their demands known. They have every right to speak and be heard. They have every right to breathe, to freedom and of course, to request for the things that they deem fit for themselves, their children, the nation and those who are coming after them.

I feel we’re at that crossroad where the decision we make this year will affect what we do in the coming years. I call on everyone to join us as we break the bias across all boards because it’s important that we move forward as a country and as a continent. Enough of going around in circles. It is time for us to move forward and for us to do what we need to do to break the bias and build the economy.

  1. What was your childhood dream as a little girl and would you say you are living that dream?

My childhood dream as a little girl was to be happy; to live in a world where you’re safe, happy and just living your best life. I remember at different points in my life where, I think this is primary school, where my mom would say ‘Oh, that’s my pharmacist’ y’know, and I’ll say ‘yes, I’m a pharmacist’. And then I got into senior high school and I disliked physics and chemistry (Lol). So, the dream of being a pharmacist was crushed right there before I even got into Uni.

But I wouldn’t say that was my personal dream. I think my dream has always been to be extremely happy in whatever I do. And I kind of loved independence- being independent; being able to make my decisions; being able to do whatever I wanted to do. And that determined the course I embarked on in university which was Business Administration because I wanted to be able to venture into any field and do whatever I wanted to do and lead in any capacity. And I knew that I was going to be an entrepreneur at that point because I did a lot of businesses and I excelled. So, I think I have over time, evolved into different things but as a little girl, I believe I wanted to be happy- extremely happy- and fulfilled in a way that I am not defined by what I have in my pocket or where I live but by the people that I am able to help and the things I’m able to do.

So, yes, the childhood dream has evolved over time and right now I am living that dream.

And would I say I am living that dream? I’d say yes, oh yes because I am extremely happy. I am not where I want to be because there’s so much more that I know I can do; that I want to do; that I want to be; but I am at a place whereby I’d say that yes, I am living that dream of helping people, being truly happy and of attaining the highest truest calling of myself. So, yes, the childhood dream has evolved over time and right now I am living that dream.

  1. What childhood experience(s) shaped you into the woman you are today?

Everything that happened shaped me into the woman that I am today and there are lots of experiences but I would say that as it has to do with business, leadership, going for what you want, I’d say my parents are a strong foundation to that. My mum is er…, I’ll say she’s a bookworm. She’s a lover of books and she likes to study. My dad is the entrepreneur who believed in hard work. Y’know, he believed that when you work hard and you do what you love to do, you will get the reward. So, it’s a balance of both.

I am driven. I want to rise to the pinnacle of whatever it is that I do and I got that from my mum. My mum would say ‘I want to be a doctor in ten years’ and she would go for it so, I think I got that from my mum. And the entrepreneurship spirit, I got that from my dad because my dad worked really hard till he passed on. So, my childhood experiences have to do with both parents and their drive for business, for education, for helping people. My dad helped everyone even when he had no resources to help, he would go out of his way to borrow to help people so those things that my parents did shaped me into the woman that I am today.

  1. I believe you’re also aware of the 1 million Women March commencing on this special day in a bit to end the constitutional bias against women. Besides this march, in what other ways do you think women should engage the system to benefit their interest?

I am aware of the One Million Women March that would commence today in a bid to end the constitutional bias against women. Now, besides this march, I believe that women need to begin to get involved in persuading their husbands to speak up for them because right now, we have the majority as men and the minority as women. But what I have realized from my personal research is that most of these men who make these decisions on behalf of the women are married. And if they are married to women who have a voice in the home, then it would reflect in their decisions when they come to the House. So, we need more of these women who are married to people in government to begin to speak up. Enough of being quiet. Enough of being, (like the word that is commonly used) ‘submissive” because I don’t think this is submission in my own opinion. I believe that these women need to get involved because their voices matter; their opinion matter and their influence would go a long way. Because if we don’t get that one representation, it then means that, if for example, only 35% of women can be part of the House, then even if we have a 100% that can actually sit on those seats conveniently, with all the skills and experience that is required, they still would not be given the seats because they have only 35% representation that has been allotted to women. Now, this does not have to be the case. The seat should be given to whoever the cap fits best and if we have to, at any point in time, come up with a ratio to define how many men and how many women sit in the House, then it should be an equal ratio. This would be my definition of no bias.

Because at the end of all the conversations that happen in the House, laws are going to be passed that will affect everyone, regardless of who you are. And it is good that we have a good representation so that whatever decision is reached, whatever bills are passed, whatever laws are put in the constitution, it is well represented and the interest of everyone taken into consideration. I don’t think that it starts and ends with the 1Million Women March. I think this is a brilliant move; however, it is to kick-start the implementation of some of the conversations that will be happening; that has always happened; and that will happen after this March so that this year doesn’t come and go like every other year where we have summits and conversations and meetings and interviews and nothing is being done.

Let’s put the best people in the seat.

This is a call to the women married to men in government to begin to speak up. It is a call to women who can take up these roles and responsibilities to begin to let their voices be heard and amplify it so that we know who they are, and we can vote for them when the time comes. And it’s a call to everyone- you and I- who goes out there to vote. Let’s not be moved by propaganda; let’s not be moved by the dangling of blinks and promises. Let’s be moved by the result that people have actually shown to us. Let’s put the best people in the seat. Let’s vote them in because the decisions they make when they get there affects us all and when it gets to that point, we cannot complain if we put the wrong people there.

  1. There have been arguments about how unrealistic the push for gender equality is in Nigeria. What can you say about this?

Yes. I hear this arguments but the question is ‘Is it valid? Is the argument valid?’

I’ll take a home as a typical example. When you’re in a home, there are certain things that the woman does best; there are certain things that a man does best. In some homes, the men are the best cooks. I have a friend who is a chef. He cooks at home and the wife probably does the cooking when she wants to surprise her husband or when it is a wonderful day for her. But the husband does the cooking because he’s best at it. There are some men that do the cleaning because they are best at it. When do we get to that position as a country where we realize that it is no longer an argument of who is better-male or female? It is a question of who can get the job done. Is it the man? Then give it to him. Is it the woman? Then give it to her. I don’t think this is an unrealistic push for gender equality; it is only saying ‘give everyone equal opportunity’. Let them prove themselves. We need people that can get the jobs done. We need people that can transform the economy. We need people that have the interest of the majority at heart. We need people that can change the status quo; we are tired. Asking for gender equality is just the first leg in to say that ‘you know what? Give women equal chance’. What we are truly asking for is ensure that whether male or female, we get the best people to occupy the seat that affect the majority. We all want the best for this country. We need to be able to sacrifice our ego; sacrifice all the things that we are used to and embrace the new, embrace technology, embrace diversity, embrace gender equality. Because when we do, the outcomes will benefit everyone and not just a few.

  1. A couple months back, a scandal broke of a gospel singer impregnating an African American lady and trying to shut her down. People kept blaming him for trying to shut her down which led to the exposure. But one striking thing about the blame was how the words were framed “You don’t shut an American woman down. This is not Africa”. That statement says a lot and has some rooted implication that African women can be (permissibly) shut down. Please, can you speak on that?

Yes, I heard of the scandal that involved the gospel singer in Nigeria impregnating an African-American lady and was trying to shut her down but couldn’t and then it came out on social media. Now, the statement that says ‘you don’t shut an American woman down; this is not Africa’ is a big statement that we deal with every time because the African woman has been shut up, shut down, closed in, humiliated, you can think of all the words. That’s how the African woman has been for a very long time until recently where we begin to find women who speak up and who are very bold to talk about the things that challenge them and address those issues. Now, you may say that you don’t shut an American woman down but we are getting to, that’s if we haven’t gotten to the dispensation where you cannot shut an African woman down.

Because regardless of what the first word is- the first syllable that defines the country or the continent, the second is universal which is the woman; whether you’re American, Australian, Asian, it really doesn’t matter. A woman should not be shut down because we all have a voice. A woman should be embraced. A woman should be listened to, a woman should be given equal opportunities and a woman should be taken seriously. This conversation, y’know, just exposed how deep-rooted the injury –for lack of words- how deep-rooted the ache of the womanhood in Africa has been. We still have a lot of women who cannot speak; whose voices have been taken away from them. But we have a new generation whose voices are amplified and for those who cannot speak, they amplify the voice of those who can. So, the statement that says ‘you cannot shut another woman down because she is not African’ would no longer exist because we are getting to the place whereby the African woman cannot also be shut down. The African woman is empowered. The African woman is bold. The African woman is intelligent. The African woman is exposed. And when we ask for gender equality, it’s so that the African woman can be defended; can be protected and can be liberated. We say these things about other climates because they have laws that protect the woman. We need to begin to talk to our legislators who bring up all these different laws to be able to create laws that would protect women. When the woman knows that there are laws that protect her interest; there are laws that could defend her, then you would see how bold an African woman can become. And that is what we are talking about today, being the International Women’s Day where we all put our voices together to break the bias and include in the law, policies that protect the woman.

Joy Smart Francis: “The African woman is bold. The African woman is intelligent. The African woman is exposed. And when we ask for gender equality, it’s so that the African woman can be defended; can be protected and can be liberated.”

  1. As the Executive Director of the largest Entrepreneurship network in Africa, Africa’s Young Entrepreneurs Organisation, what challenges do you encounter in raising and empowering female entrepreneurs in Africa?

Some of the challenges I have encountered in raising and empowering female entrepreneurs in Africa is the lack of zeal to want to learn. As much as we find people advocating for women, I have also realized that most women do not want to improve on themselves. Most women do not want to learn. Most women are critical about opportunities. They want to remain in a safe place and manage the status quo. Most women are not driven and prefer the back seats. Last year, we had the Mission One Million Entrepreneurs Initiative (we usually call it M1ME) targeted at training 10,000 female entrepreneurs- at no cost to them.  Now, this training covered finance and accounting, business and commercial law, it trained them on HR management policies, on entrepreneurship development- how they can identify ideas that work and how they can grow those ideas. It covered conversations on social media management and leveraging digital media to harness productivity in their businesses. Now, it’s surprising that women attend and before the end of the programme, you realize that most of them had left. In fact, at a point, we had more men attend these programs than we had women. This is a major challenge because even when the opportunities are there, women are used to taking the backseat; women are used to being pushed towards making certain decisions that it has now become the norm for them not to take those seats that have been kept for them. We speak about women taking leadership positions in organizations; we speak about women taking leadership positions in government; we speak about women coming up and leading because they can, we need these women to prove us right over and over again.

Guess what I realized: some of these women who have the capacity are also too shy to approach the chair or feel demoralized, feel incapable, and feel hindered by themselves and their thoughts from making significant progress in their lives. As the Executive Director of the largest Entrepreneurs Network in Africa, I have interacted with thousands of women entrepreneurs and this challenge is one that is deep-rooted and needs to be addressed by no other person but women themselves. We need to take away that cap that we are wearing that tells us we cannot be; we cannot do; that ‘can’t’ mentality; and begin to wear the ‘I CAN’ cap- (I can be the best at what I do. I can be the best CEO. I can be the best politician, I can be the best legislator, I can be the best president).

If you are confident enough and you know you have the skills, the resources, the expertise, experience, then we need you to put your foot forward. Put that best foot forward so that we can rally around you, provide you with the necessary support structure, and cheer you on until you achieve that level of greatness and success. This is a major challenge and I call on women to address this challenge because no other person can but you.

  1. What has been your proud moment (s) so far as an African woman?

Wow! My proud moment so far as an African woman is to see African women being recognized; is to see African women being treated like women around the world and not just Africans. My proudest moment as a woman, not just as an African woman, is to see that there are no limits; there are no boundaries to what we can become. We can be anything that we want to be and I’m looking forward to when history will record that the ‘Top 10 richest People in the World’ are women and it would be awesome if those women have some heritage in black history and black culture. We all are humans. We all should be represented. We all should be taken seriously. Until we can say that we are taken seriously by the West and by every other continent, then I would say that I am yet to find my proud moment.

When we can talk of influential people in the world and a woman is mentioned; a woman from Africa who has not been given equal opportunities is mentioned, that would be my proud moment. My proud moment would be when we have women calling the shots that define the country’s economy. When we find more women calling the shots that define the global economy, when we find more women seating on the round table in government, in military, in security, in corporate governance, in all sectors of the economy, then I will say I have found my proud moment.

  1. What societal narrative would you love to challenge regarding women in Nigeria and Africa at large?

The societal narrative that I’ll love to address regarding women in Nigeria and Africa at large is one that has made women feel special; that has made women feel different; and that has made them feel incapable. I believe that if everyone is treated equally and not differently, it will go a long way in defining the psychology of how women are seen in the society and how they see themselves. If we believe that we’re all the same; we’re all equal; we’re all working towards achieving the same goal, then our approach to how we carry out our responsibilities will not be special. I believe that women in Nigeria and women in Africa should be seen as women in the world. So, what defines a woman in any part of the world should define a woman in Nigeria or in Africa. And this narrative does not start when the woman becomes an adult; it starts from when she is a child. Boys and girls need to be treated equally. They need to be given equal opportunities. They need to be shown that both of them can do the same things and excel at it without any preference to the gender. They should be told that they can dream of anything and become whatever they want to be. They should be told that both the boy and the girl can become great cooks; can venture into any field, any business sector because they love it, because they want to do those beautiful things and they can achieve greatness in doing those things. If we all see ourselves from the same lens as equals; as the same and not different, I believe that the challenges we currently face would be a thing of the past.

Is this a myth?  I don’t know. But I think that we are always told that we are different, we belong to the kitchen, there are certain jobs that we cannot do, there are certain seats we cannot occupy, there are certain decisions that we cannot make. If we stop using that word ‘can’t’ and we encourage both the male and female gender in achieving all that they want to achieve, then, we would groom and breed a better society for ourselves because we have a healthier set of people released to the world.

  1. If you were to speak to the heart of that African woman encountering you for the first time today, what words would you send forth?

For those of you who are encountering me for the first time and you’re African, I want you to know that you can do all things through christ that has given you strength; through christ that has created you; and there is no limit to what you can be. So, spread your wings and fly because the world is waiting for your manifestation.

Favour Ebubechukwu (Staff Writer)

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