31 October 2007

Nigeria: The Challenges Women Face in Politics


Women in Nigeria have suffered a lot of degradation, traditionally, politically and economically. In some areas, they are considered as second class citizens with no rights of their own other than what their husbands decide for them. In this write-up, Richard Alkali tries to synthesize the agonies encountered by women in their venture into politics.

The middle class Nigerian women suffer greatly more than those of western world. Since pre-colonial days, women retained certain economic opportunities within the social system. Before the middle of the twentieth century, Nigerian women traditionally played a more significant role in society than did western women.

However, traditionally in Nigeria complex society, women are expected to be significant wage earners in the family. They laboured in farming, fishing, herding, and commerce (for instance, poultry, cloth making, and craftwork) alongside Nigerian men.

In fact, women traditionally had the right to profit from their work, although, the money usually served as a contribution to the family income. This economic freedom was much different from many western societies, where women had to fight for the right to work. These traditions still survive in modern Nigeria.

In that regard, Nigerian men do not value the economic contributions of their wives. They do not view the women's job and household work as especially taxing. For the most Nigerian men consistently take their wives for granted. Moreover, even with economic opportunities, Nigerian women lack certain rights. As a rule, men do not have any legal responsibility for their off springs, and they often abandon women, expecting them to carry the financial burden of the family.

Today, women play a minimal role in politics, although the 1979 constitution guaranteed their rights. In pre-colonial Nigeria, women had a much larger position in politics. Unfortunately, the western influences restricted women participation. Now, women have relatively little opportunity to become involved. The political parties do not look favourably upon female candidates.

As western values gained influence in colonial Nigeria, women lost some of their traditional rights. For the most part, women in Nigeria have not attempted to rise in their male-dominated society and patriarchy continues to thrive. But as time passes, women are beginning to demand some equality. Perhaps, they will be able to reconcile the rights of the past with the freedom of a modern age.

The question now is, how possible could this work when they constitute their problems to some quarters! Quite right, we know that they have been encountering problems while venturing into politics; there is a large scale discrimination from the men folk, both in voting for candidates and in allocating political offices.

More often than not, men constitute a larger percentage of the party membership and this tends to affect women when it comes to selecting or electing candidates for elections. Since men are usually the majority in the political party 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 most often tend to relegate women to the back ground. As a result, only very few men, even among the educated, allow their wives to come out and participate in politics.

This is mostly practiced in Northern Part of Nigeria where for instance, an important factor inhibiting women's participation is the purdah system.

Similarly, in some cases, it is lack of enough quality education. The women constitute a larger percentage of the illiterate group in Nigeria. This could be attributed to the fact that in most families, parents prefer to send their sons to school, instead of their daughters whom they feel would eventually get married and thus get incorporated into another family. Thus a larger percentage of the girls remain perpetually uneducated and unexposed and the damaging effect of it is mostly visible in the northern region of the country.

To some extent it is a deliberate attempt by some parents. Some use traditional values to cover up some of their abnormalities. Clumsy excuses are being made to cover-up for lack of financial stand in most families.

Lack of adequate 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 their male counterparts.

In a more developed areas, family responsibilities, and childbearing also hinders them from participating effectively in partisan political activities. During a sizeable part of their adult lives, most women are involved not fully in childbearing, but also in child rearing. Thus, much of the time they may have wished to devote to politics is taken up by their maternal challenges obligation.

Some more factors that undermine and militate against women active participation in politics is that most decisions and meetings are held at odd hours by political caucuses such that women would be lucky if they are not arrested for attempting to use the cover of night to engage in illicit sexual trade.

Besides, the other obvious factor that undermines the involvement of more women in politics is the negative act by some desperate male dominating politicians who forced many women to withdraw into their shell. According to a political analyst, Nkechi Nwogu, "violence and dirty tactics are often employed by unscrupulous men to ensure that their female counterparts do not get important positions".

Despite this negative attitude by male politicians, women must implore prospective and active similar tactics used by their males counterparts instead of waiting to be given some concessions.

New obstacles have teamed up with old ones to work against women in governance. Sharia as being practiced in some part of the northern states for instance, is obviously a draw back to the participation of women in politics. Women are not expected to mix with men in public and separate transportation has been provided for them and more politically relevant roles for women in the politics should not be viewed as a tea party.

Faced with these challenges, the future prospects of Nigeria women in politics is bright. The 1991 and 2005 census figure shows that women are almost now numerically at par with men. Moreover, some of the obstacles highlighted above are already being solved; for example, the number of educated women in Nigeria has increased geometrically over the years.

Many members of this new class are willing and able to participate effectively in politics at various levels. The ratio of girls admitted into schools, colleges, polytechnics and universities, reflects more females than male.

In the northern region which seems to be slightly conservative to traditions, there is quite significant social revolution taking place among women. It may not be very long before education reaches the corridor of the purdahs. Even nomadic men, women and their children are now receiving education which is invariably a source of political, economic and social upliftment for women.

With the emergence of the Better Life Programme for Rural Dwellers by Mrs. Maryam Babangida as Nigeria's First Lady during the reign of her husband, the initiator of the Family Support Programme (FSP) in the era of Mrs. Mariam Abacha, the establishment of the National Commission for Women, the formation of the Ministry of Women Affairs, and the increasing positive roles of Nigeria's present First Lady, Hajiya Turai Yar'Adua, one may confidently state that women organization are now beginning to find a rallying point for common action politically economically and socially.

However assessment carried out after the 2003 elections showed women fared badly, both in terms of the number of candidates and those who were elected. As at that time, only 3 out of 109 senators were women. In the House of Representatives the number has increased greatly.

Before the 2007 election there was an indication that more women would participate in politics at all levels. The project: promoting women's participation and access to politics and leadership in Nigeria towards and beyond 2007 was initiated to actively mobilise the women all over the country.

It was imperatively clear that the introduction of such metamorphosis by UNIFEM, Non Governmental Organisation (NGO), to motivate women to participate more actively in politics showed a comparative advantage. Women's political participation is a major pillar of UNIFEM's work as it was a prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy. In partnership with INEC, UNDP and other stakeholders, UNIFEM is working toward increasing the number of women at local, state and national levels and to encourage female citizens to take part in politics.

UNIFEM's expertise and experience in encouraging women's participation in politics and the electoral process in Africa has proven a critical and strategic resources in supporting the implementation of electoral programmes.

This also creates the leverage and impetus needed for UNIFEM to coordinate efforts towards women's effective participation. To this end, UNIFEM is engaging in capacity building and technical assistance.

All of these approach by UNIFEM in collaboration with INEC and other stakeholders (NGOs) during the 2007 elections was to assist INEC in building its technical capacity to mainstream gender into the electoral process while also supporting civil society initiatives that campaign for women's participation in politics.

That was done successfully. The media and donors were effectively used to target the negative practice associated with traditional and religious institutions, social support systems were built up for those women who participated in the politics as well practical training on how to succeed.

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