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Women’s participation in politics: Matters arising
The participation of women in Nigerian politics has, over the years, been less than encouraging. Rotimi Ige, in this report, examines the challenges faced by Nigerian women in politics, as well as their prospects.
THE nation's political landscape is agog with activities. Each day, more aspirants are coming out to declare their intentions to contest the 2011 general election. As most of the aspirants are men,this is fuelling the question: Where are the women in the scheme of things in the country popularly called the “giant of Africa”?
The wife of the president, Dame Patience Jonathan, recently raised the issue of low participation of women in politics, particularly in elective positions. At a sensitisation workshop for women in the North-East geopolitical zone on the 30 per cent affirmative action for women in politics in Jalingo, the Taraba State capital, she raised a lot of issues militating against women's realisation of their full political potentials.
Top female politicians who graced the occasion included the Minister of Women Affairs, Josephine Anenih; Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and National Women Leader, Inna Maryam Chiroma, and Senator Grace Folashade Bent ,as well as wives of the governors of Taraba, Gombe and Adamawa states.
The first lady had cited the pull-down-syndrome among women as responsible for their marginal roles in politics. She observed that to achieve the desired women's representation in elective positions in the 2011 elections, they must eschew their differences and desist from the "pull-down-syndrome".
Lamenting the issue, Dame Jonathan warned: "We have to stop the pull-down-syndrome if we must achieve the affirmative action for our women and we have to encourage and support women aspiring for elective positions. I urge the wives of the governors in this zone to take up the challenge by encouraging women to participate in politics because they are more visible in political activities -voting and campaigning."
She lamented that only eight women were in the Senate and 36 in the 360-member House of Representatives. She challenged women to work harder to achieve their dreams in the next elections, stating that the 30 per cent affirmative action "will not be derived on a silver platter."
While speaking at the same gathering, the Adamawa State First Lady, Zainab Murtala Nyako, also observed that the marginalisation of Nigerian women in politics dated back to the colonial era when they "were not even allowed to vote in Northern Nigeria until 1976.” Nyako also identified party barriers, cultural, social-economic, religious barriers and violence as factors responsible for poor women's participation in politics.
The House of Representatives member representing the Ebonyi/Ohaukwu, Elizabeth Ogbaga constituency equally expressed displeasure with the low participation of women in the nation's politics.
Reacting to this issue, the Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Mrs. Josephine Anenih, has promised to cross party barriers to ensure that women seeking elective offices in the 2011 general election are empowered to adequately match their male counterparts.
In September 2009, the former Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Salamatu Hussaini Suleiman decried low participation and marginalisation of women in the Nigerian political system, attributing it to unfavourable political climate in the country. Suleiman said that violence and male chauvinism in the political climate, plus lack of financial capability, were some of the reasons why Nigerian women are discouraged from contesting elections, resulting in low percentage of women public office holders. She explained that women needed to be empowered and, for that reason, two funding programmes, the Women's Fund for Economic Empowerment and Business Development Fund for Women, were created to assist women in accessing soft loans at lower interest rates without the bureaucracies associated with bank loans.
Nigerian women have encountered a number of problems while venturing into politics. There appears to be a large scale discrimination from the menfolk, both in voting for candidates and in allocating political offices. More often than not, men constitute the larger percentage of the party membership and this tends to affect women negatively. Since men are usually the majority in any political setup, they tend to dominate the party hierarchy and are, therefore, at advantage in influencing the party's internal politics. Women usually constitute a smaller percentage of political party membership because of the social, cultural and religious attitudes of different Nigerian societies which often tend to relegate them to the background.
As a result, only very few men, even among the educated, allow their wives to come out and participate in politics. In Northern Nigeria, for instance, an important factor inhibiting women's participation is the purdah system (i.e. house seclusion of women). This has greatly reduced the women’s participation in active politics in the north.
Another problem facing women is inadequate education. Women constitute a larger percentage of the illiterate group in Nigeria. This could be attributed to the fact that, previously in most families, parents preferred to send their sons to school, instead of their daughters, whom they felt would eventually get married and thus get incorporated into another family. Thus, a larger percentage of the giris remained uneducated and unexposed.
Inadequate finance is a crucial hindrance to effective female participation in politics in Nigeria. A large portion of the Nigerian female population is not as financially strong as the male population. Family responsibilities and childbearing also hinder women from participating effectively in partisan politics. This reduced participation is, according to many, a form of self-censorship owing to low self motivation and self esteem, a situation which is believed to stem from poverty, and the general cultural belief that a woman's place is in the kitchen. It is also pertinent to note that the women who hold top political positions are usually nominated. Dora Akunyili, Okonjo Iweala, Oby Ezekwesili, Diezani Alison-Madueke and others have never vied for elective positions.
The limited conception of the political relevance of women could be said to be responsible, to a great extent, for their political marginalisation. While commentatoirs say it is important to increase the number of women in public offices, the more fundamental question raised is about the character of democracy in Nigeria. Many see Nigerian democracy as gender-sensitive. A lot of struggles have been undertaken by women in the recent past, targeted at altering the male-partisan political space, but the challenge ahead is felt to be enormous.
However, the prospects of Nigerian women in politics are quite bright. The 1991 census figures show that women are almost now numerically at par with men.
Moreover, some of the obstacles are already being removed. For example, the number of educated women in Nigeria has increased over the years.
Hon. Abike Dabiri Erewa, Josephine Anenih, Florence Ita-giwa, are few of the many women who have, in one way or the other, made vital contributions to the nation's political scene. Also, the number of girls admitted into schools, colleges, polytechnics and universities has increased phenomenally. In some states in the eastern part of Nigeria (e.g. Abia, Imo, Enugu, Ebonyi and Anambra), there are now more females than males in schools.
In the northern part of Nigeria, a quiet but significant social revolution is now taking place among women. It may not be very long before education reaches the corridors of the purdahs. Even nomadic men, women and their children (including females) are now receiving formal education, which is invariably a source of political, economic and social power.
On the 13th of June, 1985, the Federal Government signed and ratified the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.
Subsequently, the Federal Government began to initiate policies and programmes aimed at improving the lives of women. With the emergence of the Better Life Programme (in the era of Mrs. Maryam Babangida as Nigeria's First Lady), the initiation of the Family Support Programme (FSP), in the era of Mrs Mariam Abacha, the establishment of the National Commission for Women also in Mrs, Babangida's era, later the Ministry of Women Affairs; the positive role of Mrs. Stella Obasanjo, Turai Yar'Adua, and now, Dame Patience Jonathan, women are now beginning to find a rallying point for common action politically, economically and socially.