19 August 2009

Nigeria: 'Nation Will Soon Have Female President'

Lagos — Part of her brief as Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development is to redress the low level of women participation in politics and girl-child education. As a lawyer and gender activist, Salamatu Hussaini Suleiman is quite passionate about this and she believes she can make a lot of difference. In this interview  the minister explains some of her strategies to bring about societal changes.

As the Minister of Women and Social Development, what are your mandates?

The Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development specifically has mandate for the following key areas, namely the issue of the advancement of women, child development and anything that has to do with the holistic development of the Nigerian child and people with disabilities. That is rehabilitation of people with disabilities and getting them integrated into national development and other less privilege members of the society like the elderly, the socially disadvantaged and family issues.

From your brief, it is obvious that your ministry has a great role to play in the MDG (Millennium Development Goals) programme particularly on the empowerment of women and girl child education, how far have you gone on that?

I will say so far so good. The MDG office has actually supported this ministry quite a lot in most of the things we are doing relating to women and the sector that we represent, for example they have been solidly behind us in coming up with a National Gender Policy that was approved in 2006 which specifically amongst others recommends 30 per cent representation of women in every elective and appointive positions and 30 per cent interest of women to be taken care in everything towards national development. They have also been supportive of our areas of child development, they have also supported us in doing analysis and situation reports and we currently have policy on child as well as national plan of action in the areas of orphans and vulnerable children.

The MDG office has been quite supportive and other areas they have supported us are in capacity building for women and economic empowerment as well as political because we are trying because you are aware of the Beijing declaration which proclaims 30 per cent representation for women in every nation, we are far below that but with the help of the MDG office we are trying to ensure that Nigeria makes that minimum standard. Currently we have set up six political offices in the six geo-political zones of the country, those offices are run by Non Governmental organisations so that there is no partisanship of government in it. The MDG supports us and we support them so that they are open to all political parties and the main aim is to ensure that there is greater participation of women in politics so that they get elected and come 2011 I believe that the representation of women will go far beyond the current situation that is less than 10 per cent.

What are your programmes and strategies to actualise that ambition?

We have a lot of plans and one of them is having a platform, like political summit for all women where all women from all backgrounds, all political inclinations, all political parties will be represented, we are going to invite all women leaders of all the current political parties in the country, we are going to invite even non political people who hope to go into politics or who hope to contribute to ensure that we meet that desired level. So we are planning to have a National Summit this year to come up with strategies for ensuring greater participation of women come 2011. That summit is not going to be one off, it is going to be followed up early next year by another summit, probably some plans of actions would have been agreed and we are going to work assiduously towards meeting those targets. We are currently setting up a concept pare ad we have almost finalized it and our own thinking and we are getting inputs from some Non Governmental organisations and stakeholders on what should be our lines of actions for getting greater participation.

Those plans would be tabled at the National Summit so that other people can make input and from there we will design the strategies. We are also going to approach the MDG office, we are going to make serious recommendations and submissions so that in their budgeting for 2010 they take into consideration the fact that 2011 is around the corner and they provide support towards achieving this all important mile stone. Of course without the inclusion of women who do not only constitute 50 per cent of our population but the bedrock of our society, without taking them and carrying them along no nation can develop effectively. I am happy that the current administration is solidly behind that. The president is committed, the Vice President is committed we are going to have support and the issue of women and their participation are going to be taken up seriously and come 2011, it is going to be a different story by the Grace of God.

So, when do we hope to have a female president?

Very soon I can assure you. Even now we have the material but due to other militating factors we are not yet there, but I can assure you that in the very near future. Some years back for instance we did not have a deputy governor now we have many female deputy governors, in fact a woman served in Anambra State for some period as the governor of the State. So, we have already reached that level, the next is the presidency and it will not be a thing of too far in the future. If Liberia can do it I believe Nigeria can do it.

I am sure that you are aware that the issue of political participation of women has so much to do with cultural barriers and how do you intend to go about this?

In fact, I will say that the issue of cultural barrier is not only a Nigerian problem but it runs across the entire continent of Africa and even beyond, unfortunately most societies regard the role of women as home keepers, they don't see why women should be involved in political participation or other areas of governmental participation. Of course that is in the old thinking, most developed and civilized societies have realized that women can actively combine the two and in fact when you have women managing or in charge of governance, whether at the corporate or governmental level they actually tend to perform better than their male counter-parts. So, we are embarking on massive awareness campaign and advocacy to ensure that we bring it to the fore to both the executive and legislative levels and even the judiciary to ensure that it is well understood that the participation of women is not only necessary but critical if we want to ensure holistic national development.

We are currently visiting all the States of the federation, when we visit a state we do not stop at the state level, we will go right to the grassroots, when we visit a sate we go to the Chief Executive Officer of the State who should be brought into the idea, which we believe will bring about drastic change or substantive change in attitude towards women. We also visit the legislatures of the states because a lot of states have laws that are anti women and more of cultural in some areas that prevent the participation of women in politics, we encourage the legislature to change such laws and where they do not have laws that support the advancement of women we propose to them to promulgate such laws. We also visit the traditional rulers because they are the custodians of our traditions, those people have a lot of influence when it comes to cultural believes and what men or women should do. So, we regard them as key and major stakeholders and we visit them and so far they have been so receptive and they are also close to the grassroots and what they think and what they direct matters a lot and if they say we believe that women should participate in politics and it is important for women to come out and they believe that will change the perception of women in that areas you will see a lot of women coming out.

We also go right down in all the Local Government, in all the states we visit we have a forum for interaction with Non Governmental organisations and other stakeholders and we get their inputs and we also give them our messages, which they take back and we believe that by the grace of God in the areas of economic empowerment and greater education, particularly girl-child education, enrolment and retention of girls in schools, in the areas of participation of women in politics, in areas of taking care of orphans and vulnerable children and elderly and other people living with disabilities, other less advantaged people in the society we are carrying the messages right to them; all tiers of government to the grassroots, to the traditional rulers, to the opinion rulers and we believe it is going to have the impact to change the per caption of going forward.

What is the level of the implementation of the Child Rights Act passed by the National Assembly last year?

A lot has been achieved in that direction'; it was a very laudable thing the National Assembly by domesticating that law. That law has provisions that take into cognizance the rights that will see to the advancement of our children at all levels. About 22 States currently have passed that law, which is very good. You know it is a law that needs to be passed both at the States and Federal levels for it to be effective in the states because as you know it is in the concurrent list. The few states that have not passed the law have a few reservations on some sections of that law due to religious and cultural believes. We are working very hard to ensure that those states pass that law with necessary modifications to meet their own local environment because even at the UN when those conventions come up, States, countries are allowed to look at areas that may have specific implications for them and to adapt them to suite their own needs.

We believe that with the massive campaign that is currently going on most of the remaining 14 States will pass that Act if not by the end of this year at least by the beginning of next year because those areas that we have constraints on have been looked into and recently when we met some Non Governmental organisations that have interest in this areas we came up with the recommendation that a Committee be set up that will look at the law, come up with a model that will be sent to these remaining states that has taken care of their concerns. A lot of them it is not that they do not want to pass them it is just that they have these concerns and they would not want to go against their believes but when they have somebody simplifying it and bringing you will see how fast it is going to work.

It is generally believed that most of the opposition to that legislation is coming from the north, why is this so?

Yes, basically the reservations has to do with the definitions of a child because as you are aware under Islamic law an adult is somebody who has attain puberty so it is not defined by age but by physical development. The Child Right Act says that anybody below 18 years is a child, so there is some reservations that can you say that somebody who below 18 that has already reached puberty can still be described as a child? So we believe that those are genuine concerns because those are stated by the Holy Book and we have to go by what the Holy Book say. But there are some Islamic countries like Sudan and Egypt that has passed that Act and they modified it to suit their local environment. The issue is what did they do? Because they also have the same beliefs and how did they modify it; what kind of issues did they bring up that they were able to meet these international conventions. Once we have those clearly addressed to the satisfaction and acceptance of the remaining states, I believe they will pass the Act. The states that have passed it have to meet with the implementation because it is one thing to pass the Act and another is to implement it.

The issue of girl-child education is one that has on the front burner for some time now, how far has your minister gone in advancing the policy?

Girl child is one of our special focus and happily enough part of the assistance given to us this year by the MDG office for advocacy is specifically targeted towards girl child education and enrolment so all our advocacy visits pay special focus on the issue of girl-child. We have realized that the girl-child is very vulnerable due to our cultural beliefs and the mail preference syndrome. For instance in a family where the resources are very scarce it is the mail child that gets to go to school and the girl stays at home whereas if the girl is educated her impact in the society most of the time is more than that a similar boy child educated and this has even be supported by a recent World Bank report came out with a position that when you educate a girl and you empower an adolescence girl the impact on the society is far more than doing the same thing with a boy.

We are trying to ensure that in every community, every society at both States and Local Governments the issue of girl child education is taken very seriously, where we need to partner with other ministries we do so. Recently I was in Borno State to represent Her Excellency the First Lady at an event and one of the things the Governor's wife told me was that Borno decided that in every Local Government Council there must be two female councilors, and that the change that that brought in the enrolment of girl child was amazing because at the Local Government level they see the councilors as the epitome of achievement. So when they saw that a woman can actually become a councilor everybody goes for it. So, we believe that if every State for example can emulate such and that is why it is critical to have women in very important positions, they serve as role models. Once you have a woman occupying a high level at especially the local level it would serve as big boost for parents and the children themselves to take to education.

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