1 February 2013

Nigeria: 'Society Treats Women As Second Class People'


Michelle Bachelet is a United Nations Under-Secretary-General and the Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). Bachelet who is also the former president of Chile was in Nigeria recently as part of her week-long official visit to Senegal, Mali and Nigeria. In this interview during her visit, she identified challenges faced by women and the way out, among others.

From your experience so far what do you think is the major problem inhibiting women's progress all over the world?

I think it is mainly the culture of the society, because women are seen as not capable, but of course they are capable. We see this in every society. Women are everywhere and they are building communities and their families, they are playing important, economic and political roles but they are always put at the lower levels.

There is need to ensure that women have presence where decisions are being made. So on one hand the society, government and parliament need to include the perspective of men and women as the society. There are some countries like Senegal where there are more women than men and still women are under-represented just like Nigeria and many parts of the world.

Probably there are few places like Rwanda for example where women have 56% representation in the parliament, so we know what women can do it. We have good experiences. We know that women can be good at any level and in any dimension but there is a patriarchal system that put women as if they are second class and this accounts for the kind of problems women and girls face through life'.

What do we need to do to overcome this? First of all, give girls the same opportunities as boys. We are not asking more for women than men. Just the same. We need to give them the same education, the same health, the same possibilities and afterwards a place in the economy and someday also more women participating in politics because that is the worst place of representation.

In Nigeria there is a lot of progress done by government. In this government in particular there is 33% representation of female ministers and ministers of states and other special advisers, permanent representatives, and secretaries of ministries, and this is important because it is also a good sign for other women to see women in powerful positions.

But it is not only about number, because you could have a good number of women in not very powerful positions but the interesting thing that I have commended everyone privately and publicly is that there has been a what I call the 'walk the talk' here because women have been put in very relevant positions, there is the Minister of Finance , it is not the only one in the world but there are few female Ministers of Finance , you also have the Minister of Defence , when I was the Minister of Defence in my country, I was the fifth in the world history and the world has been for so many years. There is also the Minister of Environment, Water Resources, Education, Women Affairs and ICT so these are very relevant positions for the country and for the goals it has set for itself.

Nigeria cannot be among the world's top 20 economies in 2020 if it does not have a 50-50 representation of men and women. If it really wants to get there, there must be equal opportunities, equal participation, and equal rights for women and men in the economy and all dimensions in life. The reason is simple you have a huge population, over 160 million and you can't make this leap into one of most the strongest economy in the world if you don't use these potentials, especially if all the talents, knowledge and skills is only in one half of the population. So it is not just a matter of human or women rights but also doing what the country needs to do to improve all its conditions. So there are reasons and many different factors, but things can change for the better and it will make Nigeria to be really able to reach that goal that is very ambitious as well as possible .

What is UN Women doing to provide enabling environment for the economic empowerment of women?

Well economic empowerment of women is one of our priorities in Nigeria and in all developing countries. In the Nordic countries we always say it is not because we are rich countries and can offer more rights and opportunities for women but we are rich because we decided as a strategy for development to include women. So from the beginning women have access to education, now we are benefiting from that because women are professional workers at all levels of the economy so economic participation of women is essential for the society, for the economy, for the women and their families, when a woman has an income, she invests 90% of her income in the family, in health education, security among others.

First of all, we make a lot of advocacy, we say without women it wouldn't be possible or to deal with all the challenges because if we talk about economy in 2020, we talk of food security, in this country women are at least 60% of the agricultural labour force and they produce 80% of the food, so we if don't provide women with all the access they can't increase the production, they can't be a very important part of the solution or food prices.

Aside advocacy, we also have projects for women. We also support specific more vulnerable women to do things better, be more productive, to increase responsibility and on the other hand we work with partners in the UN system, governments to encourage them to take measures for women economic empowerment. Like in Ushafa community where there is a pottery centre and the UN Women is providing bigger infrastructure, financial utilities and supporting the capacity to get closer to national and international markets .We also have other programmes in different regions of Nigeria supporting women's economic empowerment.

I think it is important that in 2012 the central bank decided to introduce 40 % quota for women as senior managers and 30% quota at the boards of banks for women in Nigeria and international experience show that this is very good because it improves the performance of any company and the banks.

I will also want to find out from my meeting with them if it is going to start three to four year funding projects for women who want to start business or women entrepreneurs. So though the problems are not all solved yet but there is a lot of progress done and I hope that these other measures are implemented so that the Nigerian woman can be economically empowered.

What are the main achievements of UN Women?

We have made achievements in a few years that have changed the history of hundred years of women and girls in discrimination and exclusion. The main achievement so far is maintaining and putting in a higher place the women rights and empowerment agenda. In many places we have started economic projects for women in the economic arena. We have made political achievements. We have supported since September 2011 and particularly in 2012 a lot of elections going on in the world. We have supported women candidates in Libya, we made campaigns for women to go and vote, and secondly we held workshops for women to feel comfortable and confident to run as candidates for elections. I am not saying we got them elected. That is between them and the people. We provided them with the tools, knowledge and support they needed. In Senegal in the last elections last year, there were parity laws against women. We gave technical assistance and advocacy et cetera and 43 % of parliamentarians elected are female.

In the area of violence against women, we have developed campaigns and we have been developing a lot of different materials to support the struggle of violence against women and we have pushed for laws particularly laws that outlaw violence against women .In the UN General Assembly in December , UN women played roles in making and clarifying two important resolutions. The first one is on violence against women, calling member states to accelerate progress on stopping violence against women and the second is on banning female genital mutilation.

There were other resolutions about human trafficking, as you know 80% of people who are trafficked today in the world are women and girls, 80 % for sexual slavery and the rest of labours. There are different areas, in some we make advocacy, in some we support particular projects and our work is always demand driven. We don't just come to any country and say this is the recipe, that is why you can decide, we share experiences, technical we respect and provide it requests, so we respect sovereignty and ownership of the country.

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