In the run-up to Nigeria’s general election, starting this Saturday, more and more organisations are trying to turn the tide and get more women into elective positions.
Lois Auta’s foray into Nigeria’s male-dominated political space was, for her, a necessity.
“For too long, women have been excluded, discriminated, marginalised, and underrepresented in our government policies and programmes and we are tired of this exclusion,” says Auta who is running to become a member of the House of Representatives, Nigeria’s lower house in the parliament.
Last December, during a phone-in radio programme in which two male opponents running for the same position and 38-year-old Auta 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”, she recalls with a sigh.
That encounter is, in part, a reflection of common cultural stereotypes that challenge women’s role in politics. This, in addition to other 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, lawmakers and governors.
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.
Jolade Omede, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science in the University of Ilorin in central Nigeria, says women have been playing “subordinate roles”, and have not been “independent political actors”.
Although women constitute about 49 percent of Nigeria’s more than 180 million-strong population, currently only seven out of 109 senators are women and female members make up just 22 of the 360 members in the House of Representatives.
“Female politicians are often reminded of their cultural and religious obligations which require they cede governance to men while they concentrate on the home front,” explains Idayat Hassan, Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a policy advocacy and research think tank based in the Nigerian capital Abuja.
“It is this stereotypical gender role that gives basis for the marginalisation of women in politics as men are perceived to be the experts in politics.”
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.
“Most democracies are striving towards good governance and one of the key pillars of good governance is inclusion,” says Nkiru Uzodi, Senior Programme Manager at the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center (PLAC), an Abuja-based nonprofit supporting legislative process and citizen participation in governance.
“In decision-making spaces or platforms people come together and make decisions that affect everybody so having women on these platforms is very important.”
In the run-up to Nigeria’s general elections, starting this Saturday (February 16), more and more organisations are trying to change the trend and get more women into elective positions.
During the past two years, for instance, PLAC has implemented a programme with support from the Ford Foundation to improve women’s political participation and inclusion in decision-making processes. It has also produced a documentary -- UnderRepresented -- to encourage discussions and promote increased women’s political representation.
Another nonprofit, the Legal Defence and Assistance Project, runs a Women in Politics Project to create a platform where experienced female politicians can offer mentorship to young female politicians and also to offer insights to female candidates on how to execute successful campaigns.
At the end of July last year, about 150 aspiring politicians from different parts of Nigeria flocked to Abuja for the Women Aspirants Summit. The goal was to combine forces to ensure women are duly represented across all levels of governance.
For the first time in Nigeria’s history, six women are running for president, compared to the last elections in 2015 when Professor Remi Sonaiya was the only one female presidential candidate. Although popular activist and former education minister Oby Ezekwesili, of the Allied Peoples Movement of Nigeria, withdrew from the presidential race last month, the electoral commission insisted it was too late to remove her name from the ballot.
Over 230 women are running to become senators this year, more than 500 female candidates are vying for the House of Representatives, 74 are entering the race as governors and nearly 2,000 are fighting for seats at the state assemblies -- an indication that things are changing gradually. Out of more than 84 million registered voters for this year, about 47.14 percent are female.
Women-focused NGOs like Women in Politics Forum and the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund (NWTF) are also stepping up to provide much-needed mentorship and financial support to help young female candidates fight for elected positions.
To address this gender gap in the political space, Uzodi of PLAC believes that creating awareness to challenge cultural stereotypes is key, but argues that establishing a constitutionally-backed quota system would tackle the gender imbalance in Nigerian politics faster.
Countries like Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa, which have quotas for women in parliament, have seen a rise in the number of female lawmakers. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed decided to reserve half of the ministerial positions for women.
“When you use quotas it jump-starts the equality process, and it brings about an immediate change,” Uzodi adds.
But Idayat Hassan of CDD worries that political parties still constitute a major barrier.
“Political parties have been the stumbling block to women participation in politics,” Hassan explains.
“With little or no internal democracy, most appointments are consensus drive. While quota is a welcome development until we are able to fix the internal democracy in political parties, increasing the number of women in political offices may be a mirage.”
She calls for the introduction of a compulsory quotas in political parties. “This quota should not be limited to elective offices for women but inclusion in the hierarchy and leadership of the political parties,” Hassan adds.
Meanwhile, as tens of millions of Nigerians throng to more than 100,000 polling stations to vote for presidential and parliamentary candidates on February 16, Auta is hoping to be elected to represent her constituency in the National Assembly.
Auta, who uses a wheelchair after she was affected by polio when she was two, urged people to look beyond disability, gender, ethnicity, and religion when selecting candidates.
“If I am given a chance to become a lawmaker I would come up with bills that would help vulnerable groups in education, in health, in infrastructure and employment opportunities,” says Auta who founded the Cedar Seed Foundation in 2011 to advocate for the rights of people living with disability.