Recently, cheery news came the way of Nigerian women as the Ninth National Assembly pledged to expand political space for them in the ongoing amendment of the 1999 Constitution. They were also assured of more support to participate in governance, businesses, and other spheres of life.
These assurances were given at different fora in Abuja by the Senate President, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, and his deputy, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege. While Lawan spoke after he received an award of HeForShe by a group of women led by the Minister of Women Affairs, Dame Pauline Tallen, Omo-Agege own came when he hosted a delegation of a non-partisan organization, Women in Politics Forum, led by Ebere Ifendu.
Democracy is about fair representation of all interest groups in society and the low representation of women is a violation of the principle of democracy. But barriers like lack of finance, religious beliefs, violence, and weak internal party democracy, have held women back for several decades, and the corollary is that men have continued to dominate the political arena as presidents, governors, and lawmakers.
Since 1999, when Nigeria returned to democratic governance following years of military rule, no woman has been elected as president, vice president, or governor in any of the country’s 36 states.
The Senate President, therefore, promised that the National Assembly would give more support for women’s participation in governance, politics, business, and other spheres of life. “I believe we should give our women all the opportunities available for them to participate not only in governance but in all spheres of life because governance is limited,” he said.
Lawan went further: “The majority of Nigerians are women. It is not 50‐50, I think it is about 48‐52, and you need to unleash such a powerful group into your national development. You must have a conscious agenda and plan to get the best of this lot, and I believe we can’t wait for anymore.”
But Omo-Agege, who is also the chairman, Senate Ad-hoc Committee on Constitution Review, noted that since women represent 58 percent of the Nigerian population, their voices must be heard. He, therefore, charged them to take advantage of their numerical strength during elections.
It is a fact that Nigeria has been recording low participation of women in both elective and appointive positions whereas about 51 percent of them are involved in voting during elections. This is a growing concern for many Nigerians.
Available statistics revealed that the overall political representation of women in the government of Nigeria is less than seven percent. This shows that the country has not attained 30 percent affirmative as prescribed by the Beijing Platform of Action.
However, concerted efforts have been made by the government and non-governmental organizations to increase the level of participation of women in politics, in line, with the declaration made at the fourth World Conference on women in Beijing, which advocated 30 percent affirmative action.
In one of her papers titled: “Monitoring Participation of Women in Politics in Nigeria”, Mrs. Oluyemi Oloyede of the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, explained that the extant National Gender Policy, NGP, recommended 35 percent affirmative action instead and sought for a more inclusive representation of women with at least 35 percent of both elective political and appointive public service positions respectively.
She said: “The under-representation of women in political participation gained root due to the patriarchal practice inherent in our society, much of which was obvious from the pre-colonial era till date. 66
The national average of women’s political participation in Nigeria has remained 6.7 percent in elective and appointive positions, which is far below the Global Average of 22.5 percent, Africa Regional Average of 23.4 percent, and West African Sub Regional Average of 15 percent.
For instance, out of the 43 ministerial appointments by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019, only seven are women, representing 16.28 percent. They are the Ministers of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Hajiya Zainab Ahmed; Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Hajiya Sadiya Umar-Farouk; and Women Affairs and Social Development, Dame Pauline Tallen.
Others are the Minister of State for Industry, Trade and Investment, Ambassador Maryam Katagun; Minister of State for Transportation, Senator Gbemisola Saraki; Minister of State for Environment, Mrs. Sharon Ikeazor; and Minister of State for FCT, Hajiya Rahmatu Tijjani.
Despite their number and participation during elections, women currently have only seven out of 109 senators and makeup just 22 of the 360 members in the House of Representatives.
The female senators are Stella Oduah (PDP Anambra North), Oluremi Tinubu (APC Lagos Central), Aishatu Dahiru (APC Adamawa Central), Uche Ekwunife (PDP Anambra Central), Betty Apiafi (PDP Rivers West) Akon Eyakenyi (PDP Akwa Ibom South) and Biodun Olujimi (PDP Ekiti South), who came through court declaration to replace Senator Adedayo Adeyeye. Senator Stephen Odey, a male, who won the December 5 by-election in Cross River will now replace the late Senator Rose Oko (PDP Cross River North).
It’s on record that colonialism affected Nigerian women adversely as they were denied the franchise. It was also only in the 1950s that women in Southern Nigeria were given the franchise. Three women were appointed into the House of Chiefs, namely Chief (Mrs.) Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti (appointed into the Western Nigeria House of Chiefs); Chiefs (Mrs.) Margaret Ekpo and Janet Mokelu (both appointed into the Eastern Nigeria House of Chiefs). The women’s wings of political parties possessed very little functional relevance.
In 1960, Mrs. Wuraola Esan from Western Nigeria became the first female member of the Federal Parliament. In 1961, Chief (Mrs.) Margaret Ekpo contested and won the election, becoming a member of the Eastern Nigeria House of Assembly till 1966, Mrs. Janet N. Mokelu and Miss Ekpo A. Young also contested elections and won, they became members of the Eastern House of Assembly.
In Northern Nigeria, however, women were still denied the franchise even after independence until 1979 during the return of the civilian government. As a result of this denial, prominent female politicians like Hajiya Gambo Sawaba could not vote and be voted for.
But the Second Republic from 1979-1983, saw a little more participation of women in politics. A few of them won elections into the House of Representatives at the national level and also few women won elections into the State Houses of Assembly respectively.
In the early 1990s, two women were appointed deputy governors. They were Alhaja Latifat Okunu of Lagos State and Mrs. Pamela Sadauki of Kaduna State. The 1990 transition elections into local governments heralding the Third Republic also saw few women emerge as councilors and only one woman emerged as chairperson of a local government council in the South Western part of the country.
During the gubernatorial elections, no female governor emerged in any of the states. Only two female deputy governors emerged, namely: Alhaja Sinatu Ojikutu of Lagos State and Mrs. Cecilia Ekpenyong of Cross River State. In the Senatorial election held in 1992, Mrs. Kofo Bucknor-Akerele was the only woman who won a seat in the Senate. Very few women won the election into the House of Representatives. One of these few was Chief (Mrs.) Florence Ita Giwa later won the election into the Senate.
The return of democracy on May 29, 1999, gave hope for a new dawn in the struggle for more participation of women in Nigerian politics.
But Oloyede lamented that the challenges facing women are enormous and responsible for their huge marginalization in politics. She listed the challenges to include patriarchy, stigmatization, low level of education, meeting schedules, financing, political violence, religious and cultural barriers, etc.
Founder and chief executive officer of Cedar Seed Foundation, Lois Auta said her foray into Nigeria’s male-dominated political space was, for her, a necessity. “For too long, women have been excluded, discriminated, marginalized, and underrepresented in our government policies and programs and we are tired of this exclusion,” she said.
Auta, an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, had wanted to become a member of the House of Representatives during the 2019 general elections. She recalled that last December, during a phone-in radio program in which two male opponents running for the same position were invited to discuss their plans, a male listener called in, and in a matter-of-fact manner, told her to “go and sit down at home; you don’t have anything to offer.”
Senior Programme Manager at the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center, PLAC, an Abuja-based nonprofit supporting legislative process and citizen participation in governance, Nkiru Uzodi, argued that “most democracies are striving towards good governance and one of the key pillars of good governance is inclusion.” She added: “In decision-making spaces or platforms people come together and make decisions that affect everybody so having women on these platforms is very important.”
It was in recognition of the existing gap that the National Policy on Women was formulated in 2000 and later replaced by the National Gender Policy in 2006, which calls for affirmative action for the greater inclusion of women in politics. Yet, despite these key measures, progress has been slow.
Even the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill, aiming to tackle “all forms of discrimination” against women and consequently promote gender equality in politics, education, employment, marriage, and inheritance, has stalled in the parliament since it was introduced in 2010.
Explaining his reason for sponsoring a constitution alteration bill which seeks to reserve 30 percent of cabinet appointments for youth and women at the federal level and 40 percent at the state level, Omo-Agege said the intention is to expand the political space for them.
“We are determined to expand the political space for women. It is also good that you understand that we operate within the confines of the Constitution. That same Constitution has prohibited discrimination against anyone irrespective of gender.
“So, that is the challenge we have always faced with the Gender Equality Bill, sponsored by Senator Biodun Olujimi. Because inasmuch as we are very disposed to assist her to achieve the goals of those bills in consonance with the Beijing Protocol, the challenge is how do we achieve that without enthroning a new set of discrimination? And to strengthen women’s participation, something has to give,” he said.
Leader of Women in Politics Forum, Ebere Ifendu, had during the visit to the deputy senate president, called for the inclusion of Affirmative Action in the Constitution. She cited African countries like Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, Rwanda, and Seychelles to buttress her position.
“There is no better time than now to achieve an inclusive democracy. We need to move from civil governance to true democracy where women, youth, and persons with disabilities will have equal opportunities to participate in governance,” she said.
To achieve the mandated 30 percent affirmation as enshrined in the Beijing plan of action, Oloyede suggested that political parties should create a support network for prospective aspirant by pairing them with established women politicians who will be playing a key role as mentors and provide capacity building for young or aspiring female politicians as to enhance and develop them ahead of subsequent elections.
Also, if Nigeria is truly serious about attaining inclusive and sustainable development, gender equality needs to be brought to the fore of the government’s agenda and seen as a high priority issue by companies and civil society.
The Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill, aiming to tackle “all forms of discrimination” against women and consequently promote gender equality in politics, education, employment, marriage, and inheritance, has stalled in the parliament since it was introduced in 2010.
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