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Battle for gender equity

There are two groups that seem to be badly treated in Nigeria’s political space: women and youths. In virtually all the political parties, there are phenomena called “women’s wing” and “youth wing.” There are also “women leaders” and “youth leaders.” You may wish to ask why there are no men’s wings and men’s leaders in these parties. The answer is that these parties are dominated by men, big men, rich men, ambitious men, men who are ready to fight and possibly kill for what they want in these parties, men who are ready to break a bank and bring money for the running of these parties. And because money talks, and talks loudly, money gives the men all the important offices in the parties. And the women and youths are left stranded. Only the leftover meal is good for the women and youths. That is what they give them: tokenism. But it does appear that the youths are coming, if what they have done in the Labour Party (LP) in the recent elections is anything to go by. If they take the fight into their various political parties they may get more than tokenism, more than youth wings where they are assigned to play the role of thugs, snatching ballot boxes, burning ballot papers and seizing and tearing the PVCs of people they think are not likely to vote for their candidates. But we are more concerned today about women and how badly they have fared in the recent elections than on youths and their wings with which they cannot fly. If they have wings but cannot fly that is the equivalent of winglessness.

As you must have observed, none of the four leading parties named a woman as its presidential or vice presidential candidate. Of the 837 candidates jostling to become state governors, 24 were women, representing 18 states. The states are Abia, Adamawa, Akwa Ibom, Benue, Borno, Cross River, Delta, Ebonyi, Enugu, Jigawa, Kano, Kwara, Lagos, Oyo, Nasarawa, Niger, Rivers and Zamfara. All of them contested on the platforms of anonymous parties, except Aisha Binani, who contested with the ticket of APC. At the time of writing this piece, the result of that election had not been announced. If Ms Binani wins, that will be historic, the first time a female would win election to become the governor of a state. Dame Virgy Etiaba, who was the deputy governor of Anambra State when Peter Obi was the governor, had acted as governor for some months when Obi was impeached. However, several states have produced elected female deputy governors who had acted as governors when the substantive governors were on vacation.

Of the 423 National Assembly seats whose results have been announced, only 15 seats were won by women, down from 22 in the ninth National Assembly at the House of Representatives. Senate now has three elected women as against seven that it had in 2019. That means that the men have taken 96.5% of the National Assembly’s seats leaving a miserable 35% for the women. In the ninth National Assembly, 6.42% of women were elected into the Senate while 3.05% were elected into the House of Representatives. In a country where the population is evenly divided between the sexes the low representation of women in decision-making institutions is a crying shame.

However, the level of influence in political parties is determined by a number of factors chief of which is financial muscle. Those who have deep pockets and are generous in political party financing inevitably have a resonant voice in party matters. Most women who join political parties are mere cheerleaders who seem satisfied with the little fringe benefits that come in the form of wrappers, umbrellas, bags of rice and some coins thrown at them from time to time. Most of them are not investing their money in advancing the interest of their parties. They rather expect the party to support them financially to survive or to contest elections. Even when the parties reduce the fees they charge for nomination forms, many women still feel unable to compete with their male counterparts. They either drop out of the race or pursue it perfunctorily and when they fail they lobby for appointive offices such as ministers or commissioners or board members. But even for appointive positions, influence is also important, especially the influence of influential and or affluential members of the party.

In Nigeria’s governance, patriarchy remains a strong force. Many men believe that leadership is largely a male affair and that women are expected to be subservient. All the major political parties are run by men. The presidency has been a male affair since independence in 1960. The National Assembly has been headed only by males so far and there is no indication that the situation will change in the immediate future. Among the names of senators thrown up so far as potential heads of the National Assembly, no woman’s name has surfaced. The important thing that women ought to know is that men are not ready to surrender to them the privileges that come with these offices. So, the women must be ready to fight for them. I was told by a politician that one of the reasons why a lot of political meetings are held late at night is to keep women, especially married women, away. Many men would hate to allow their wives to go out late to, and return late from, political meetings. And women, to keep their marriages stable, do not contemplate engaging in such late-night outings. All of us are Adam’s children but we do not all think alike.

Some men in Nigeria probably think like Socrates that “once made equal to men, women can become their superiors.” It is believed that in the last National Assembly five gender equity bills were thrown out one after the other. Those who spearheaded the killing of the bills cited socio-religious reasons for their action. They do not believe that women ought to have equal rights with men even though the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) may be staring them in the face. Article one of the UNDHR says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Article two makes a more explicit case for equity. It says “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Even though this Declaration is there, even though the Beijing Declaration of 1995 is also there, equality is very far from being achieved in most developing countries including Nigeria. There is the strong presence of pervasive male chauvinism in Nigeria and the women, amazingly, have not waged the kind of battle that can convince the men that there is a serious problem that must be tackled for the sake of our society’s stability and progress. Amazingly, too, it was a woman who initiated the Aba Women’s Riots of 1929. Nwenyeruwa who led the riot was the first well known feminist in Nigeria. She executed the anti-colonial revolt with other women to redress social, political and economic inequality. This prompted the colonialists to drop their plans to impose heavy taxes on the market women. We have had courageous women leaders in the past in this country. Such leaders include Queen Amina of Zaria, Idia of Benin, Moremi of Ife, Margaret Ekpo of Calabar, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti and Gambo Sawaba, to mention but a few.

But Nigerian women have been appropriately recognised by the global community for their talents. Governments in United States, Canada and Great Britain have acknowledged the talents of a number of Nigerian women and appointed them into respectable positions in their governments. Apart from that, there are those brilliant Nigerian women who have been appointed into important positions in world bodies. Such women include Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Ms Oby Ezekwesili, Ms Amina Mohammed, Ms Aruma Oteh etc. It is not that the fight for gender equity has died. No. It hasn’t but their conversation seems to have very limited objectives. For example, the Bring Back Our Girls spearheaded by Ezekwesili and Co was a drive for the release of hundreds of school girls abducted by Boko Haram into captivity. Some of those girls are still in captivity but the campaign is dead. Only the parents of those kids mention the loss of those kids in the media during the anniversary of their abduction. Those who initiated the campaign seem tired but there is an African proverb that says that “the axe does not rest until the tree is down.”

There is also an initiative codenamed “No More” started by a Nigerian activist Ireti Bakare-Yusuf whose aim is to eradicate sexual abuse and impunity. Even these initiatives with limited objectives operate in an episodic fashion. You hear about them when there is an issue on the table. As soon as that is disposed of you don’t hear of them again. But of course, to be fair to the women, there are a few of them that have devoted considerable attention to gender equity consistently. Such women include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the well-known novelist, and Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, wife of the former Governor of Ekiti State. The blunt truth is that considering the enormity of the discrimination against women and disparity with men, the campaign for gender equity ought to go on, on a regular consistent basis. The eyes of all gender activists, men and women, ought to be on the ball all the time until substantial results are achieved. However, it is amazing to note that many women are satisfied with the way things are or feel that the situation is not remediable. Men in decision-making positions must join the fight if it is to record any considerable success. If men remain lukewarm despite the obvious inequities then not much can be achieved in the near future.

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