21st Century Woman and Role in National Development: Challenges, prospects for women political participation in Nigeria


With Bolaji Abdullahi

About 20 years or so ago, feminists and feminist scholars began to
seriously engage with the idea of bringing men into the gender
conversations. Since then, we have witnessed increased interest in the
study of men and masculinity as a distinct category of social
analysis; as well as a complement to the study of feminism anda
pathway to forging strategic alliance forfurthering the feminist
The subject of women and political participation has interested me
since graduate school. But that interest has since grown beyond just
the academic. I am also a father, who desire to see a world where my
daughters would not suffer discrimination on account of their
reproductive organs. I do not deny my patriarchal privileges. But I
also know that those privileges were not naturally conferred on me.
Instead, they were granted by a system, a society that encouraged me
to study economics and pushed my sisters to study home economics. A
system that asked me to study agricultural science and asked my
sisters to study food science. A system that looked at me and saw that
I was smart and asked me to study law; but looked at my sisters and
only saw how pretty they were and herded them into secretarial
studies; where I was taught Fortran and Cobol, they were taught
Pitman’s shorthand. A system that wrote my name in blue at the top of
the class list and my sisters’ names in red at the bottom of the list,
not because I was smatter, but because I happened to be born with a
I am here because I want to change the story for my girls. I want to
be part of the efforts to build a more civilised Nigeria where all
girls will be free to nurture and express their God-given talents and
participate fully in public life as equal citizens of this country. I
am also here because I recognise that embracing gender equality is a
pathway for me becoming a better man.
Gender equality in political representation is not just about equity
and justice, it is the very definition of democracy itself, which
derives from the notion that the representative group of any society
should reflect its diversity. Therefore, a major parameter for
measuring the quality of our democracy would be the extent to which it
reflects the diversity of our population; recognising gender as a
distinct social categorisation, even when this intersects naturally
with other identity formations like ethnicity, religion or region. If
we take women representation in parliament as a proxy for measuring
female political representation generally, it would be clear that even
after two decades of representative democracy, we have not done quite
well in both the global and the regional contexts.
My contention here is that gender inequality may be a reflection of
general social inequality, which in turn may be an enabler or driver
of gender inequality. However, by linking gender inequality to general
inequality I do not intend to dilute or de-particularise gender.
Rather, my argument is that in constructing our theory of change for
gender equality, we would need to pay closer attention to the overall
parameters for inclusion and exclusion in our society, which have made
the particular exclusion of women in the political arena possible or
even normal in the first place.
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria declares that
its objective is to “promote the welfare of all persons in our
country, on the principles of freedom, equality and justice.” This
would suggest that thegrundnorm upon which more equal societies like
Sweden or Denmark have been built are not altogether alien to our
country. The same Constitution went further to state that the Federal
Republic of Nigeria “shall be a state based on the principles of
democracy and social justice” and went on to prohibit discrimination
against anyone “on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion,
ethnic or linguistic association or ties.”
If we take the specific challenge of women political participation; we
can argue that there is nothing in our laws that prohibits a woman
from aspiring to any political office. Every adult woman in Nigeria is
guaranteed the right to vote and be voted for. In addition to this, no
political party would officially pursue a policy that keeps women out
of public life. What this would suggest therefore is that the problem
is not in our laws per se.
The Nobel Laureate, Armatya Sen’s capability theory notes that the
“functioning of each individual, the activities that one may
undertake, depends on the set of actual capabilities with which one is
endowed by a broad constellation of social factors.” It would
therefore bespurious to argue that women have the right or freedom to
participate in politics or public life when indeed they lack the
actual capabilities, whether in terms of resources or other factors,
to exercise such right or freedom.
In dealing with the capability challenge, we would need to pay greater
attention to what happens in the domain of policy and how this could
be used to empower or disempower women. The laws are there to protect
your rights, but the laws would not always be able to give those
rights to you. That’s what policies do. Every Nigerian has the right
to build a house, or buy a car or travel on holidays. But your ability
to do all these would depend on so many other factors, like you having
a stable job, access to mortgage or credit at affordable rates etc.
A gender policy therefore will take over where the law stops, taking
into consideration those factors that would enhance or deliberately
aide the consummation of those constitutional rights. The laws say
there should not be discrimination on the basis of gender. But a good
gender policy would recognise that a gender-neutral ban on
discriminatory practices would only allow equal treatments of
unequals. Rather than non-discrimination, a policy of positive
discrimination would recognise the patriarchal privileges enjoyed by
men and the relative disadvantage suffered by women, especially in
terms of material and social capabilities. This is not about lowering
the bar for women; it is about acknowledging existing male privileges.
However, any affirmative action that does not challenge
institutionalised basis for male power and privileges would only come
across as favours granted to women by the male custodians of power and
If women are less educated, it is only natural that men will outnumber
them in public life. The same if they have less access to resources.
And if women have to also devote more time to domestic and family
task; it is only natural that they will have less time for productive
economic activities. In the last two decades or so, we have seen women
venture into so many sectors, including some that were traditionally
regarded as male domains– banking, fashion, agriculture,
entertainment, mass communications, sports etc. However, for so many
of these women, the choice still always has to be between family life
and public life.
Over the years, we have also experienced the so-called state-derived
feminism; which ended up serving only the selfish interests of an
elite class. We have witnessed how the discourse of feminism was
hijacked by wives of strongmen who created all manners of ‘poverty
alleviation’ schemes that were primarily designed to mobilise women
for the legitimisation of military dictatorship in the country. We
have seen the same pattern continue in the last 20 years that we have
returned to democracy. However, as long as the few powerful women are
allowed to cynically interpret women political participation in terms
of how many women are dressed up in Aso-ebi and herded into political
rallies, women cannot have the right champions in the corridors of
Politics is the ultimate arena where patrimonialism meets with
patriarchy. Therefore, the level of compromises that politicians are
required to make to gain political power is so much that it is
unlikely that any woman would make such compromises and still see
herself primarily as a woman, who has a primary with the
responsibility to advance the cause of women in power.
Researchers have argued that there is little evidence that women in
power actually serve women interest. This is because embedded within
the concept of representation is also the reality of power. And even
if it was possible to see ‘gender’, as a distinct homogenous
constituency, it must be acknowledged that there must be different
locations of power within this constituency. It would therefore be
foolhardy to assume that a woman in power naturally represents women.
We must therefore pursue a more nuanced definition of female political
representation. The politics of gender equality is thereforenot just
about how men think of women but also about how women think of
themselves in relations to public and political power.
What should it therefore matter to women that a fellow woman is in
power if she is not likely to be represented by this woman? One way to
look at it is to see women participation as an end in itself, being
essentially a matter of justice and pertinent to our democratic
growth. However, a more useful approach would be to understand that
everyone ultimately benefits from female representation. It has been
argued that women in political positions tend to give priority to
certain issues different from men in similar positions.For instance,
evidence abounds that female and male legislators tend to have
different priorities. Therefore, greater participation in policy
decision making by women could see greater attention paid to issues of
child care, health and education, security and hunger, which are the
most important national development issues in our country today.
It is therefore logical to argue that if we are able to bring more
women into public office, we are likely to achieve a broader consensus
in promoting these issues to the top of our national political agenda.
Greater participation of women in politics is therefore in everyone’s
interest. This is why it is important that women are able to develop
the self-confidence to bring men into the gender conversation as
partners and allies rather than as adversaries.
Coming back to the question of whose reality counts? The reality for
most men is that the idea of gender equality would naturally translate
to the disempowerment of men and the distabilisation of their family.
These are the gender issues from men’s point of view, which we must
take into account as we seek to engage as we seek to engage. The word
‘feminism’ generates a deep anxiety in the hearts of men.
Unfortunately, it has also acquired considerable ideological and
cultural baggage over the years, viewed with deep suspicion if not
outright revulsion as a western agenda designed to destabilise homes
and society in Africa.
It is important to note that even men who actively defend the rights
of women start to demur when they have to make adjustments to the
power relationship within their families. This is where the issue of
rights of women get entangled in cultural values. The moment any bill
or policy ventures into the family arena; it is bound to step on
entrenched cultural toes and may never come out alive.
A major task going forward therefore would be how to build strategic
coalitions of support to help her manoeuvre around entrenched
prejudices and strongly held cultural values in seeking to pursue,
especially the agenda of gender equality. Cultural sensitivity
It is important to point out that, more often than not, when men
oppose any law or policy that seeks to alter the power relation
between men and women within the domestic sphere, they merely affirm
traditional customs and practices in relation to women. Therefore,
unless these practices, which are sometimes rooted in people’s value
system are themselves altered, any attempt to curb them with the
instrumentality of laws, would always be vehemently resisted.
Religion is a major minefield that we also need to be wary of. Let me
say upfront that if any law or policy contradicts the tenets of the
Islamic faith, Muslims have the right to object to it, just as the
Catholics would always be justified to oppose any law seeking to
legalise abortion. After all, a law is an expression of the values
held by a people.
However, we should be clear that there is nothing inherently
incompatible between Islam and gender rights, just as there is nothing
contradictory between Islam and democracy.
There are so many other provisions in the Qur’an that affirm rather
than deny the rights of women. I believe there would be women-focused
NGOs who have done some work in this area. For too long, people have
hidden under the banner of religion to give expression to their
syncretic traditions or practices. Their real cover however, is the
ignorance of the majority of what the Holy Books actually say or the
conspiratorial silence of men who should know. It is about time we
shined the light of knowledge in their hiding corners.
2023 will be another watershed moment in our politics. For the first
time, majority of the politicians and political leaders that have
dominated our politics since independence are not likely to have a
strong say in determining the direction the country would do. It will
therefore provide important opportunities to re-engage in redefining
the character of our politics. Therefore, this kind of conversation
could not have come at a better time than now.
If we look back over the course of the last 30 years or so, we would
see the incredible work that the forbearers of feminism in our country
have done; their intellectual contributions in articulating the
authentic African and Nigerian feminist agenda as well as the practice
of feminism in various civic and political spaces. The successor
generation must be willing to lean on their proud history. But they
must also develop the historical awareness, intellectual capacity, and
the ability to form broad coalitions across multiple spaces, including
with men. They must also have clarity in defining what success should
look like. Sometimes, it is more strategic to focus on the marginal
gains than the quantum leap.
Abdullahi, is a former Minister of Sports and Youth Development.

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