interviewBy Ruth Choji and Richard Abu
Zainab Maina is the Minister of Women Affairs, and in this interview with Richard Abu and Ruth Choji, this former president of the National Council of Women Societies, sheds light on her mandate. She also commends President Goodluck Jonathan for increasing the United Nations' protocol of 30 per cent affirmative action to 35 per cent for women in his cabinet.
Are you comfortable with the number of women in political offices today?
Let me first say that the United Nation's protocol pegged the percentage of women in political offices at 30 per cent, but Mr. President during his campaign promised us 35 per cent; and I think he is almost reaching there. If you look at the federal cabinet, I think we have almost reached 31 to 33 per cent.
Look at the appointment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, for the first time, we have a woman in that position. It's a big plus. If you look at the different government offices, we have so many women leading in executive positions and in the cabinet. You will see that it is the women that are driving the economy of this nation.
This administration made some promises, and we are delivering gradually; and they are all done by women. We will still have some other appointments, because we have a President who is gender sensitive. He has a human heart, and he is very sensitive about the plights of women, children.
What is the ministry doing for the less-privileged in the society?
My ministry is working to empower people with disability and the elderly. We have training for the elderly, and we have also supported them with some token so that they can start their own business. We are doing it at the zonal level. The last one was done in Abakaliki in the South-East. I will say, we are satisfied.
Nigerian women will like to know what has happened to the trust fund that was set up for women who were seeking political offices in the general elections?
It was a fund that was mobilised about two years back, for women who are seeking elective positions. The government supported us through the MDG and other people who had sympathy for women, and it was being administrated through the trust fund. During the last elections, the money was given to women who had succeeded in the primaries and emerged as candidates for their parties. It wasn't meant for just aspirants.
The money is still there, and of course, we will continue to raise more funds, because what is there will not be sufficient for everybody. I want Nigerians to know that the ministry has made so many efforts to assist women to come out and participate in politics. It has established six political zonal offices with zonal coordinators in every geopolitical zones with the mandate to first and foremost mobilised women to see the need for them to come out and participate in politics; educate them about the way to campaign and vote; and the need for them to support women candidates, and also try and identify those women that are interested and can win elections.
They also teach them how to build capacity and confidence in themselves. They need to know whether they have the capacity, the acceptance of their people, and then, they groom you.
Is that still ongoing, or has it been suspended?
It is still ongoing. I just had a meeting with the zonal coordinators some few weeks back, and there is only one state that we will replace the coordinator. We are really encouraging them, and I'm hoping that by 2013, we will go round the zonal offices and visit them, meet with women from these zones and also talk to governments that are zoning the political offices.
Tell us more about the trust fund...
The trust fund has its own executives, and the office is there. It is not even within the ministry, but the ministry is the driving force, to empower woman politicians and to support them when they contest to win. It is an ongoing programme.
But would you say it is a success, considering the way women lost in past elections?
Well, I will say it is a success, because we have to start from somewhere. So many women benefitted, even though women didn't do well in the last elections. It is not because we didn't work hard. The trust fund is not meant to take care of their entire campaigns. It was just a token to support them.
In 1998, during the UNCP days, I was the national president of NCWS. We did almost a similar thing with Erelu Dosunmu Awolowo as the chairman of the fund. Alhaja Bashirat Naihibi was also part of the committee. We raised funds, and gave women as much as N75,000 for those contesting for the Senate, and those for the House of Representatives, we gave N50,000.
As a ministry that has the mandate for women, what is it doing on the plights of widows?
Maybe because the widow was not specifically mention in the mandate of the ministry, but I can assure that, we work to support every woman in Nigeria. Maybe the widows have not come out to say, we are here, people do not need the governors to influence them on that. I know that widows association recently paid me a courtesy call, and of course, we are open to any organisation that brings in a reasonable programme. If they initiate any programme and they want support from the ministry, we give it to them.
Even before I became a minister, I knew what the ministry had been doing to support women's cause, because, at one time or another, I had been involved. Any minister that came to the ministry, I worked with in my capacity as NCWS president in those days. We worked with many women organisations and have given them maximum support. The ministry might look small, but we have enormous responsibility.
Everybody comes to the ministry, and within the minimal resources we have at our disposal, we give the support that we can, and we work closely together with them. We focus on empowering women in forms of training, like soap-making, hairdressing and others. As soon as that is done, we give you a token to start your business, and most of them are running their business successfully. And those that apply for support, like sewing machine and grinding machine, we do give it to them.
Some ask for one help or the other, and we now have the list and send our field workers to go and investigate. If we find out the genuinenesss, we support them. For the widows, I will say that if you want to do something, there should be consistency. I have run an NGO for a long time. If you are not consistent today, nobody will remember you tomorrow.
Nigerians expect women to take up issues that affect them to the constitutional review public hearing at the zonal level. What happened?
I was at the first hearing, and I did mention the issue of women indigeneship that affects so many women. I also made a case on discrimination, harmful traditional practices, girl-child education, and all other issues that women face, even in the hands of their husbands. We made a case for girl-child education, because in most cases, when a man has five children and two are girls, anytime there is no enough money to send all to school, he will leave the girls and rather sponsor the boys, because they think women will end up in somebody's house.
We have a home for battered women here in Karu (Abuja), and we have a serious case here. I will use those medium to plead with women to come out and talk, so that our voices will be heard. We also have a group that is working now; we call it stakeholders multi-dialogue group, with a team coming from outside the country. We went to the National Assembly recently and had a dialogue with them.
Constitutional review is a continuous affair, and when I look back to some 30 years, I will say that we have made a little progress, since we now have a ministry. When I started activism, there was no women commission or ministry; these ministries metamorphosed from the women commission of those days. When I was in NCWS, we travelled to some countries to find out how they did it, what machineries they put in place to get their women to where they were then, and in some countries, we were told that they had commissions.
In some, they had ministries, and our leaders in those days started fighting for a ministry. Mrs. Mariam Babangida in those days started with the National Commission for Women, and we had state commissions for women, where I also had the opportunity to serve for three years as the executive secretary in Adamawa State. From that time, we continued the commission until Abacha came, and it was upgraded to ministry. In those days, we had only one permanent secretary, and today, we cannot count the number of female perm-sec that we have had, and some are still in active service.
In those days, you can never hear of a woman becoming a chief executive of a parastatal; but today, we have so many of them. Anywhere you see women today, you will see positive changes, because women are dogged and committed. Because of the long discrimination that women in Nigeria suffer, whenever women are given position, we make sure that they are given three times much harder work than their male counterparts to make sure that they do it much better. Once a woman is given a position, she doesn't think of what she will get, but how she would improve the situation.
Recently, it was reported that Nigeria does not have data on poverty alleviation, can you tell us how you reach out to these women?
To start with, the ministry is involved in two major programmes that are mean to empower women. One is the Women Economic Empowerment Programme, and then, the Women in Business Empowerment Programme. We are running them in collaboration with two banks, the Bank of Agriculture and Bank of Industry, where the ministry and states save their money. They give loans to women that run small businesses to encourage them.
Recently, I approached the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria; women find it difficult to start big business, because when they go to banks to seek for loan, they are given stringent conditions, and the interest rate is very bad. So, it is difficult for them to assess. So, we met the CBN governor to see if there was any way he could reach out to the banks to reduce their interest rates for women who are interested in business.
For those in rural areas, this year was declared as Women Empowerment for Poverty Eradication, and the idea is to eradicate poverty and empower rural women. Our focus for this year is to make sure that we support the rural women. We are working in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, because women form the bulk of farmers, and most of them don't own land. Fathers in Africa find it difficult to leave land for their daughters, because he will prefer to leave it to his son, rather than a daughter who will go and marry somebody else one day. We want to see that women have access to farm inputs and even to tractors.
They have already brought the forms which we have sent to different states for women to fill, so that when the farming season comes, we will make sure that everything they need to develop their farms are given to them. All this could be free or, at least, they would pay half of the price. The first lady organisation - Women for Change Initiative - is also working hard in this direction to empower rural women.
What is the ministry doing in regards to girl-child education, child trafficking and so on?
We are working with NAPTIP to go round and talk with people on this issue. There are so many NGOs that claim to be working for child trafficking, because it affects the lives of young girls. I also know that WOTCLEF is doing very well in that area. But what we need more are advocacy, workshops and programmes.
We need to sensitise people on these ills and the implication of allowing their children to be trafficked outside the country, because they die on the way. So many, who set out to travel to places like Italy, never reached there. In case of a hundred ladies, it is difficult for 30 to reach there. These parents keep saying, it is poverty; but I don't think that poverty will make you sent your child to go and look for money for you.
I see it as a moral issue, because all this trafficking we see is peculiar to some few states. There are some states that will never send their daughters out because of poverty. It is always difficult to rehabilitate such girls and integrate them back to the society. I will appeal to parents not to allow their daughters to go out for any reason at all.