Women are under-represented at the top echelons of politics and governance in Nigeria. As we speak, 55 years after Independence, no woman has ever been elected governor in this country. That really and truly sums it up. We need not focus on the imbalances in gender representation at the National Assembly or even the list of commissioners across the states and the ultimate list, the list of ministers unveiled on Tuesday which contained only three women out of 21. Something needs to shift because if women represent about half of our population, relegating their role in politics and governance to tokenism will not simply cost women, it will cost us as a people.
The Nigerian Women Trust Fund was established in 2011 through a coalition of government and civil society organisations to address the growing concerns of the gender imbalance in elective and appointive positions in the country and drive strategies to increase the representation of women in governance at all levels.
Nigeria currently falls short of her National Gender Policy benchmark of 35 per cent minimum representation for women as well as global and regional benchmarks like the Beijing Platform for Action and the Maputo Protocol to which the country is signatory. Following the return to democratic governance in 1999, the number of women in parliament steadily increased from a paltry three per cent and peaked at about nine per cent in 2007 less than the average rate of female parliamentarians globally and in sub-Saharan Africa which is 19 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. Unfortunately, there has been a steady decline since then. Currently, only 5.5 per cent of women made it to the Eighth National Assembly.
In more specific terms, Nigeria had only three (2.8 per cent) women in the Senate in 1999; four (3.7 per cent) in 2003; nine (8.3 per cent) in 2007; seven (6.4 per cent) in 2011; and in 2015, only eight women (7.3 per cent) made it to the red chamber.
The narrative at the House of Representatives is no different with only seven (1.9 per cent) women out of the 360 seats in 1999; 21 (5.8 per cent) in 2003; 27 (7.5 per cent) in 2007; 25 (6.9 per cent) in 2011. Disappointingly, there was sharp a drop in 2015 as only 14 women got elected; representing 3.8 per cent.
Representation at the local government level is equally low standing at an abysmal 4.6 per cent in 2015, though state Houses of Assembly elections have seen a steady improvement unlike the National Assembly. In 1999, out of the 991 members of the state Houses of Assembly, 24 were women; making up only 2.4 per cent across Nigeria. In 2003, there were 40 (3.9 per cent). In 2007, it rose to 5.8 per cent (57 women). In 2011, there were 68 women out of the 991 legislators across Nigeria, a meagre 6.9 per cent. In 2015, out of the 919 seats contested, women won only about 46 seats, bringing it to 4.6 per cent.
This gross under-representation of women necessitated the establishment of the Fund with the ultimate goal to institutionalise access to resources for women in politics in Nigeria while the objectives are, among other things, to transparently provide aspiring female politicians with strategies and resources irrespective of political inclinations; identify and build a database of aspiring women politicians, elected women as well as those in appointive positions; to fundraise, invest and manage resources, to provide national and international networking opportunities; to undertake research and advocacy, and to enlist champions of change (men and women) to support their aspirations.
The Fund’s focal areas include Grant making, where it provides resources for female aspirants and candidates across party lines; Leadership development for skill building and capacity development for women; Research and communications, targeted at improving the data available for sustained advocacy. The Fund uses multimedia tools like radio, print media, online media and film, one of which is the short film, “A New Dawn”, which recorded over 5,000 hits on YouTube and featuring Nollywood matriarch, Joke Silva, Kate Henshaw and Nita George. Henshaw went on to run for the Cross River State House of Assembly during the 2015 elections; and Gender advocacy for political parity, fairness, and equity in government at all levels by addressing a range of issues which concern women with emphasis on moving election campaigns away from money and into issue-based campaigns that stress equitable access to political, socio-economic resources, as well as social justice and security for all.
For Nigeria to take its place in the comity of nations, there has to be a sharp paradigm shift in the representation of women in decision-making, internal party dynamics and a conscious effort by government and all stakeholders to close the gender gaps in governance at all levels through capacity building.
Several factors militate against women’s representation in the political space. These include but not limited to low level of education; cultural attitudes: married women need husbands’ permission to attend meetings; sacrifice political ambition to avoid domestic problems; lack of capacity, in political and interpersonal skills and knowledge; public speaking; organising and coordinating campaigns; advocacy and negotiation. Other challenges include the political environment: fear of intimidation, physical assault and name-calling, whisper campaigns and innuendos about moral standing. Financial constraints especially as nominations are priced for the rich. Reproductive roles also mean that women need to be home in the evenings and at night to feed and care for their children, etc. Aspirants cannot attend nocturnal and late evening meetings and therefore cannot be considered.
Though the Fund attracts support from development partners and civil society organisations to run projects, the scale is considerably low seeing the scope and mandate of the Fund.
Unfortunately, crowd funding for women empowerment is largely unpopular in Nigeria. It is however high time we considered the economic losses we suffer as a nation when we deny about 50 per cent of our population the opportunity to participate in decision-making. Hence, concrete steps need to be taken to ensure that women are mainstreamed into governance as we prepare a successor generation of women leaders who have the strategic propensity to be responsive and responsible leaders who can engage the political system and subsequently contest and win elections in the future.
In other climes, resources are being pulled together to support women’s political ambition. The United States-based Emily List founded in 1936 that has raised millions of dollars for American women including Hillary Clinton’s campaign is an example of how crowd funding can help put more women in decision making.
The 2015 elections have come and gone and the Fund was unable to support women aspirants and candidates. However, as the elections in Bayelsa, Kogi states and the FCT draw closer, it’s a sad reminder that women may likely be short-changed again unless drastic measures are taken and Nigeria will continue to play the game of development with half her team.