19 August 2003

Nigeria: Overcoming Barriers to Women's Leadership


Lagos — THAT Nigerians have accepted democracy as the best form of government is not in doubt. This has been demonstrated with the successful inauguration of the democratic government in May 1999 and the violence-free 2003 elections.

What, however, has remained doubtful is the quality of the political leadership thrown up by these elections. For instance, the quality of women's participation and representation in the key institutions of governance in the country is still perceived as abysmally low.

Compared to other democracies the world over, Nigeria's politics is said to be male-dominated and, therefore, it becomes difficult to say if women participation at the top political echelon would have been better than it presently is.

Interestingly, whereas women are very visible during electioneering campaigns, they tend to fizzle out as soon as elections are over. It is believed that institutional barriers stand between women and their emergence as political leaders.

These barriers were the focus of a recent gathering of university lecturers in Lagos which brainstormed on how such barriers could be overcome. The event was a national talkshop on "Gender, Politics and Power: Overcoming the Barriers to the Emergence of Women Political Leaders in Nigeria," organised by the Centre for Social Science Research and Development (CSSR-D).

The forum identified continued lack of gender equality in political leadership as a fundamental problem facing the process of democratisation. As a result of this situation, women at every socio-political level find themselves under-represented in government and far removed from decision-making.

Speakers at the workshop submitted that while politics in other countries of the world have their peculiarities, there was a feature common to all countries, especially in Africa and that is, that the political climate is not conducive for women's participation which creates a structure of inequality.

This structure, they said, leads to discrimination against women and could be traced to the pre-colonial society which was male dominated. However, women were even then, able to make their marks as shown in the history of legends such as Queen Amina, Moremi and others in Nigeria. But they stressed that colonialism served to deepen the problem of women's exclusion by the relative absence of women in the colonial state structures that were handed on to the post-colonial leaders of the country.

Professor Adigun Agbaje, Director of the CSSR-D, said in his remarks, that the biggest problem of Nigeria's democratisation process is that political power has been skewed in favour of men since independence. The problem of proper political leadership, according to him, remains a critical challenge of the process.

While post independence Nigerian governments have attempted to reverse this situation by including a number of women in government, the step has neither met the need for gender equality of representation in government or ensured stability through a diversified distribution of power, he said.

The problem of the persistent women disadvantage in political leadership, it was observed, is multifaceted in nature.

Dr. Abdulsalam Daud of Usman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto in his paper said he problem cuts across economic, political, socio-cultural and legal-factors, among others.

The economic factor is seen as the greatest of all the barriers to the emergence of women political leaders. It is the same factor identified as the cause of the new trend in the nation's politics called "godfatherism." This barrier is the most crucial factor hindering women's participation in politics because, according to Dr. Daud, women lack equal opportunities as men to accumulate wealth which has, so far, been a major determinant of electoral success.

He pointed out that huge sums of money are used virtually in every aspect of politics from party registration to campaigns, for elective positions, adding that in a situation where women's access to money is limited compared to their male counterparts, there is very little the women could do in competing with the men.

Dr. H. A. Labeodan, while delivering her paper posited that the feminisation of poverty was a global phenomenon. Women, she said, remained the poorest of the world's poor representing 70 per cent of the 1.3 billion who live in abject poverty. Poverty, in a way, should be seen as a denial of human rights to which Nigerian women have been subjected over the years, she stressed.

She also observed that men make the rules for political contests in the country and because they were already conditioned by the environment and past experiences to believe that politics is a men's affair, they made the rules without having women in mind.

According to her, this world view had affected political parties to the point of not fielding women for elections because they fear that the women candidates would lose to their male counterparts because, among the other reasons, they are believed not to have constituencies.

She stressed that over 95 per cent of countries of the world have granted women the two most fundamental democratic rights: the right to vote and the right to stand for elections, but regretted that "despite this, the reality is that women's right to vote remain restricted principally because the only candidates to vote for, in most cases, are men."

Politically motivated violence, corruption and socio-cultural factors were also identified as obstacles to proper participation of women in politics. According to Dr. Daud, most women see politics as a dirty game and therefore shy away from it. "Women are frightened by the very thought of violence, especially when it could be extended to innocent members of their families," he said, noting that "politicians even go to the extent of embracing evil powers, charms and all sorts of fetish things just to win an election," practices, which, he said, women were generally averse to.

Dr. Bola Udegbe of the University of Ibadan, for instance, acknowledged the dominant perception of women's role in society as that of being wives and mothers but described such perception as gender stereotype beliefs. According to her, such views of the role of women were much stronger and blatant in traditional societies such as Nigeria and have proved resistant to change.

Beliefs such as "a woman's place is in the kitchen, she is the adviser at the home front, marriage reduces her availability, women are harsh, selfish, rude and emotional, they are easily deceived and that they are weaker sex, have excluded women from politics," she stated.

Dr. Udegbe, in her paper, noted that another critical factor, which could constitute a major cog in the wheel of women's participation in top leadership positions is the psychological factor. She pointed out that the psychological obstacles were hinged on: how women are perceived by others; how women perceive themselves and their view of their chances of securing political leadership positions.

She submitted that the presence of very few women representatives at the top created psychological barriers to women's emergence as leaders.

On the strategies for overcoming these barriers, the participants were of the view that since the problems associated with women's low level of involvement in decision making and political leadership were multi-layered, so also strategies aimed at overcoming them must take this into consideration.

Dr. Labeodan noted that women must themselves be ready to jump over the barriers. To achieve this, Dr. Udegbe said that attitudinal change was the very first step that must be taken. According to her, this can be achieved through more gender sensitive socialisation experiences for males and females at home and at the larger society setting.

It was agreed that women must be ready to endure and be determined to overcome oppression. They must be ready to roll away the stories of economic injustice and exclusion.

Labeodan said that this new attitude must be complimented by women's readiness to stand by one another and their willingness to be more vocal in the campaign against all forms of discrimination.

To scale the economic barrier, Dr. Folashade Okeshola of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, counselled that there should be a deliberate policy of creation and development of better employment opportunities and higher income for women. She stressed that there should be design and implementation of programmes aimed at raising the socio-economic status of women through intensified training in both formal, informal and development education which would ensure that women are able to break into men-only jobs.

On what to do about cultural practices that constituted hindrances to women's advancement to top political leadership, Labeodan called on women to challenge and disregard them as they forge forward.

The participants agreed that the country's political process must be made gender sensitive if the barriers to women's participation at the highest level are to be totally dismantled.

Daud pointed out, for instance, that a process that encouraged caucus and other major decision-making meetings to take place at nights was not gender sensitive because it made attendance at such meetings difficult for women.

While advising against this practise, he still advised women with their eyes on political leadership to be prepared for the rough ride ahead.

"They must be immuned to political gimmicks. Women should become more committed and militant in their style without being rude, vulgar or violent. Militancy is more likely to influence our political leaders than pacifism," he stressed.

The media was also identified a critical factor in the struggle to redress the situation. In this regard, Udegbe said that the media could help in developing positive attitudes or changing negative attitudes towards women by promoting women agenda and popularising public consciousness of the notion of gender equality in all spheres of life, thereby removing gender bias.

Overall, participants at the event rose, satisfied that the problems had been identified and practical solutions to them preferred. The ball, one of them told Daily Champion, is now in the court of all the stakeholders in the democratisation process who have one role or the other to play in the effort to redress the apparent imbalance against women.

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