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‘I was attending political meetings as a nursing mother’

By Nkechi Onyedika-Ugoeze
02 July 2016   |   4:05 am
However, for a woman like me, I think it is a place worthy of being because I love to talk. I love to fight injustice, I like to say it as it is. I am an extremely vocal person.
Senator Grace Folashade Bent

Senator Grace Folashade Bent

Senator Grace Folashade Bent is not neophyte in Nigerian politics, having worked as a journalist and served as Political Adviser to former National Chairman of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh.In 2007, she was elected senator representing Adamawa South District on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party. In this interview with NKECHI ONYEDIKA-UGOEZE IN ABUJA, she shared her experiences and challenges as a politician, mother and gender activist

What was your experience being in the Senate alongside men?

It was quite exciting and at the same time extremely challenging. It was very traumatic at times because of pressure from your constituents. There are times you go into a very low mood because of situations in the country that you are handicapped about. They make you feel helpless because you know that you are in the Senate to help the ordinary person and your constituents.

However, for a woman like me, I think it is a place worthy of being because I love to talk. I love to fight injustice, I like to say it as it is. I am an extremely vocal person. It is so difficult for you to gag me especially when I believe in a particular course and it is my conviction that this stand I am taking on an issue is in the interest of the generality of the people.

You were quite vocal while in the Senate, was you ever intimidated?

I was not brought up to be intimidated by anybody. My father had a very positive and tough impact on me. He brought me up to be an extremely bold person, and not to see myself as a woman that is less in class to a man. He brought me up to believe in myself and to know that one of the greatest assets I have is my feminine nature that has helped me to a large extent.

Nothing intimidates me, except God’s impression about me. I am an extremely humble person because I am a very deep Christian. I believe that humility can take one to any length in life, so I never allowed my position, fame or success to get into my head.

I hate being undermined by anybody because I don’t undermine people. So while in the Senate, some men may feel threatened. They may not show it but their body language at times, may show that these men don’t like your forwardness but you don’t allow that to bother you because they were equally elected the way I was elected to come and represent my people.

I was not elected to be a benchwarmer. I was elected to come and speak my mind and also make laws for my people. I was determined to carve a niche for myself and to do my constituents proud and that was my driving force.

How were you able to combine your role as a wife and also a lawmaker?

That has been a major issue for married women in pursuit of their political careers. I think as a married woman, before you go into politics, there must be very deep understanding between you and your spouse. Your husband must be part and parcel of such decision. Politics for a woman is a very tough thing. The political terrain in Nigeria and most places in the world is very murky for the women folk.

A woman must go the extra miles, do more than hundred times than what a man will do to get elected or appointed.  All these at times discourage the women.

I have an extremely supportive husband who believes in my profession as a politician, who believes that God has endowed me with a lot of potentials that people are yearning for and he wants me to express it. He helps me to express it and stands by me. I also have very good understanding children who know that I love playing politics. There are times my husband will miss me cooking for him but he understands. That understanding from my husband played a very critical role in my success as a female politician. This is because politics is a concentric circle of conspiracy for the men, not to talk of women who some men see as being nuisance in the political setting.

Some men still think that women are housewives and should go back to the kitchen. A man is largely unsuccessful if his wife cannot fulfill her aspirations in life. A real man stands by his wife. Every woman just like every man has numerous talents endowed her by God, so why should a man kill such talent? We are co-pilots in the house. My husband sees me as his helpmate. I help him to meet some of the needs and that is essentially what the political setting should be like.

Nigeria will continue to grope in the dark if the men feel they have the exclusive role of running the affairs of this country. It is not possible. I look forward to a Nigeria where we will have a female Vice president because a woman has more foresight. Nigeria needs credible and intellectual women with proven track records and great integrity to help drive the project called Nigeria. The men have not failed us but they have not taken us to the Promised Land for obvious reasons, “we can do it alone.”

In the Senate now you have about eight female Senators, and about 26 in the House of Representatives. It is a tragedy because it is like using a cup to take water from the ocean. Out of 109 senators, we have just eight female. What laws will they be able to make? What bills will they be able to sponsor successfully?

How do you react to the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill thrown away by the Senate recently?

It was obvious that some male senators felt intimidated by the bill. This is because people do not understand what gender equality is all about. The word gender does not presuppose the female gender alone, it has to do with both male and female. So when we talk about gender equality, it is to say that a girl child needs to be given equal opportunity to go to school alongside the boy child. It is to say that a woman should be given equal opportunity in terms of inheritance.

To say look, that my father does not have a male child does not exclude me from my father’s inheritance. God did not create women to be trampled upon, marginalised or sidelined. It is a culture that has evolved over the years. Women have proved themselves as homebuilders and are capable of working under pressure. For the men to have thrown out the people-oriented Gender Equality Bill showed a sense of immaturity on their part. It showed that their understanding of issues is very limited. People have gone beyond that, there is a paradigm shift and Nigerian men must move. We have fundamental issues to address as it affects women.

How do we encourage more women participation in politics?

These are issues we have discussed severally at different fora at the level of legislature and while I was the Political Adviser in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) when Audu Ogbe was the National Chairman of PDP. I saw the plights of women who want to go into politics. Lack of economic power, male perception and the cultural limitations were their major challenges.

We decided that women shouldn’t buy forms to contest for primaries which to me was okay but not good enough because contesting for political office is not just about buying forms, you need to market your agenda or manifesto, but unfortunately in the political setting in Nigeria, money is above conscience. Some of the electorate feel it is their time to feast so if a woman does not have the financial muscles to flex with her male counterpart, then it is a problem. Giving women a free form is not the issue, I have always been a very strong advocate of a conscious and deliberate effort on the part of our political parties to allocate certain percentage of positions to the women. This must be enshrined in the party’s constitutions.

How did you enter into Nigerian politics?

I didn’t jump into politics. I had always known there is something in me. My father had a lot of influence in my life. My father was the President of our town union in Kaduna then. Each time he would tell the members that I would read his speech for him. He helped me and I grew up us a bold and confident girl.

I was an extremely vocal girl and a goal- getter. That followed me up to the University where I became the Financial Secretary of the Students Union Government at the University of Calabar. I hate injustice and I could be aggressive about issues. I always weigh my decisions. If I am convinced that this is the best for me or my people, I stand by it.

When I graduated my husband didn’t allow me to work, he wanted me to have my children so I was more or less a full-time house wife, but there was something that was yearning for expression in me. Something in me told me that I was meant to be a full-time housewife even with first and second degree. But my husband said, finish having your children.

Incidentally, when I had my last baby was when I delved into politics. I was going for political meetings as a nursing mother. I travelled through the nooks and crannies of this country with my baby.