By Joy Ngwakwe
There is a global realization that women’s leadership and participation in politics is critical to social, economic and democratic development. A realization that is much needed in Nigeria. In Nigeria, women make up almost half of the population yet are excluded from contributing meaningfully in our national development through their exclusion from virtually all elements of politics and leadership.
Despite a commitment to at least 35% representation, women are almost absent from decision-making positions in Nigeria. There are less then 10% of women in the Senate and only slightly more in the House of Representatives. This trend is seen replicated at both national and local elective and appointive positions in the country.
In Nigeria’s first democratic election of 1999, 3 of the 109 Senate Representatives were women and 12 of 360 House of Representative members were female. In 2003 there were 4 in the Senate and 23 women in the House of Representative. In 2007, we had 8 and 26 in house of representatives. in 2011 those figures were unchanged. Today we have 7 in the senate and 19 in the house of representatives - a decline in representation.
We have 6 out of 37 women ministers - about 16% down from the 31% representation in the previous cabinet.
We expect the president himself to set an example by adhering to the 35% target.
We are currently at the lowest levels since 1999 elections when we should be making steady progress to equal representation. If we are serious about development, then we need to take action now to right this imbalance.
Nigeria is a signatory to the Convention on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women which calls on countries to ”take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country”.
This includes ensuring that women, on equal terms with men, have the right to vote; to participate in the formulation and implementation of government policy; to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government.
In addition, CEDAW calls on countries to ensure women have the right to participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country.
CEDAW notes that "...the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require the maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields".
As a signatory, Nigeria commits to this maximum participation.
There are multiple implications, trickle-down trends and consequences of women’s exclusion from politics and leadership both for the women themselves and for the country. The evidence in this imbalance can be found in feminization of poverty. This is borne by research which shows that 65% of Nigerians - half of them women - live below the poverty line with very little access to basic goods, services and commodities. Nigeria’s deepening poverty profile puts an even greater burden on rural women whose issues are often left out of policy formulation because of their very limited representation.
Women are more likely to be unemployed, uneducated and have less access to resources such as credit. And, even when they are employed, they have less opportunities for promotion due to their reproductive role. Women are most affected by the conditions of our health system as they are the ones most likely to need to access primary health care as they carry out their reproductive and care-giving roles. Indeed, the HIV statistics show women are more likely to be infected and affected.
Their status in society makes it difficult for women to make critical decisions regarding their health such as negotiating safe sex or removing themselves from violent relationships.
Women’s issues are not represented in policy formulation as women are not represented there. As women are primarily the caregivers, this has a real impact on the status of the family.
These statics clearly show that women’s exclusion from participating in leadership, politics and decision-making impacts on our national development. In the end, everyone pays the price as the country fails to harness the energy of half of its population.
But, as we can see, commitment is not enough: Without a carefully planned affirmative action programme that is implemented by different stakeholders at various levels - including national and local - it will be virtually impossible to create a gender balanced leadership in Nigeria.
What should we do? As we gradually approach the 2019, we must act swiftly to ensure that women are not left behind on voting day. More than commitment, we need an action plan to provide various platforms for closing the existing gender-gaps.
These affirmative action programmes could include training on women’s leadership and political participation to ensure that women participate actively and effectively in party structures.
We need to start early to identify women and match them to the opportunities out there. Where possible, we must lobby for budget allocations to the issues that affect women in general, and specifically their participation in leadership and politics in the country.
We need only look elsewhere in Africa, to Rwanda to see the real development benefits to the society of women’s participation in leadership.
Nigeria has an opportunity to harness the power of its women. We should not squander it.
Joy Ngwakwe is Executive Director of the Centre for Advancement of Development Rights (CEADER) in Lagos, Nigeria. She is an African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) Fellow.