‘Women are grossly underrepresented in decision making structures’
Rinsola Abiola is an advocate for gender equity and youth inclusion in governance and works at the intersection of politics and civil society to promote enhanced representation for marginalised groups in decision-making structures. A politician, communications specialist and government relations professional, she was Special Assistant on Media to the former speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara. She also served on the Board of Trustees of the All Progressives Congress from 2014 – 2018. In 2019, she ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and in 2022, she contested for the position of National Youth Leader at the APC’s National Convention, the first woman since the formation of the party to do so. She holds a degree in Statistics and a Diploma in Public Relations. She runs Derinsola Abiola Foundation, a non-profit outlet domiciled in Abeokuta, her hometown, and Equity Now Initiative, focused on gender mainstreaming in politics and governance. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she talks about her sojourn in politics, her drive and passion in advancing the cause of women.
Share with us key moments in your growing up and how it has influenced your passion for what you do?
The greatest defining factor of my childhood would be my father’s incarceration and eventual death. The circumstances in which these happened no doubt led me to place a high value on our democracy and view participation as something that is essential. My eventual participation in mainstream politics, however, happened more as a result of being encouraged to join a party by people whom I met during my days as a youth advocate.
I was reluctant initially because my father’s involvement in politics had rather tragic consequences for him and the family. Gender advocacy, I developed an interest in largely due to where I’m from. I’m from Abeokuta and notable women like the late Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Madam Eniola Soyinka were from there; these are feminist icons and I became interested in them and in the women’s movement as a teenager. I also grew up being aware of women being treated unjustly and girls being considered inferior to boys by many, and that just didn’t sit well with me.
And I’ve been able to blend my gender advocacy with my politics, and find ways to advance the gender agenda in other areas as well. Media, which is what I do professionally, I have fancied since I was a child. Having a mother who studied journalism and a father who owned a widely acclaimed media outfit definitely contributed in no small measure to steering me in that direction. I also grew up surrounded by journalists, so it’s no surprise really that I now work in their industry, even though I am more involved in shaping the news than I am in reporting it.
You are quite versatile, how are you able to hone your skills?
I love to read, and I would say that one habit has helped me immensely. Reading is how I deal with stress; it’s my go-to when I need time off work and I’m constantly reading books related to my core interests even though I read fiction as well. I generally love to learn, and I would say that has helped a great deal.
Take us through your political career journey?
With respect to politics, I joined the All Progressives Congress during the merger process back in 2013. I am an active member of the women and youth wings and I have served in a number of positions within the party. At the moment, I coordinate activities of the Progressive Sisters’ Network, a nation-wide platform for young women in the APC through which we seek the enhanced representation of our demography in party processes and mobilise our peers for the party. I also currently serve in the administrative, media and mobilisation committees of the Tinubu/Shettima Women Presidential Campaign Team.
As an advocate for gender equity and youth inclusion in governance, how are you achieving your goal and living your dreams?
Back in 2013 when youth organising began during the merger process of the APC, there were just a handful of us young women involved in youth activities. At the time, I worked as a media aide to the interim national women leader, Madam Sharon Ikeazor, who is now a serving minister, and she set up the APC Young Women Forum to serve as a platform for building the capacity of young women within the party and mobilising young women for the party. I was founding secretary then later, acting president, and it was such an uphill task back then to get young women involved.
Now, we have many young women groups within the party and our numbers have grown considerably, with many young women being active across the different chapters and some even occupying appointive positions in their states or working closely with leaders of federal agencies. We have also recorded a level of success with young people’s political inclusion and we can only press further, as it is with sustained advocacy that we can improve on the results, which we have so far gotten.
What has been your experience contesting for a political position?
In 2018, after the Not Too Young To Run Bill was assented to, I tried for a seat at the House of Representatives and in 2022, I ran for the position of National Youth Leader of the All Progressives Congress. Both experiences were similar in certain ways, namely the cost of running both campaigns, the extensive consultations required and the amount of coordination that campaigning for both positions entailed. Running for National Youth Leader, however, had a gender coloration to it as prior to my attempt, no woman had run for that position since the inception of the party.
The role is regarded as one that is meant to be occupied by a man, so I believe running for it and garnering the level of support I did has helped, hopefully, to drive home the point that the position is a gender-neutral one, and I certainly hope that the next time a woman tries, she will succeed.
What is your take on women’s political participation, how can we get more women to actively engage in politics?
I believe that women are grossly underrepresented in decision-making structures. However, there seems to be a lot of focus on elective positions when there are different pathways to power and appointive positions also matter a great deal, and so we should seek enhanced inclusion in both. Thankfully, we have been able to secure a court ruling in favour of 35 percent affirmative action in appointive positions at the federal level. It is my hope that the next administration abides by this, as the decision of the court is binding.
However, this does not extend to states, and we also need concerted efforts to ensure gender mainstreaming at that level. Some states like Kwara, Ekiti and Ogun have passed laws or introduced policies safeguarding women’s representation in appointive positions, and it is important that other states follow suit. This is particularly key because occupying appointive positions will help women gain much needed experience and insight into navigating not only government, but the party system as well, and this has the resultant effect of making it easier for women to secure tickets and emerge as candidates.
There must also be political will on the part of leaders of political parties to ensure that women are adequately represented on the ballot. At the last convention and primaries, concessions were granted to women on the cost of forms, for instance, but we need them to take it a step further by stipulating a set percentage of seats or tickets, which should go to women. It’s the only way to correct the underrepresentation once and for all. Women should also invest in engaging properly with the leadership of their parties and learning about internal processes, because while we seek enhanced representation, parties also want to win elections.
Stakeholders will thus favour those whom they think are most likely to be successful at the polls. Women in the race being regarded as strong contenders will, therefore, greatly aid advocacy efforts.
Share with us some of your social development activities, which you have carried out through your foundation?
The major areas of focus for the Derinsola Abiola Foundation are economic empowerment, education and healthcare. We have empowered indigent women with business grants and launched an education support fund named after my father, which seeks to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds – much like he was – and who attend government-owned schools.
What drives you?
I believe strongly that everyone has a role to play in making things better, and I seek to fulfill my obligations towards the world I live in and towards other people by doing whatever is within my power to make things easier for others. So whether it’s helping disadvantaged kids sit for terminal exams or supporting young women within the political system or helping other young people understand the political process and why it is key that they participate, I just feel like whatever it is I can do is something that absolutely needs to be done.
If you were to advise young women out there on building a career, especially in politics, what would it be?
I would encourage them to, firstly, understand exactly why they want to join politics, for this is what gives one a sense of purpose. I would also say that it’s key to do their research on which party they would like to join, and work to add value to that party after that decision has been made.
Consistency is key, and so they must be willing to work hard and smart over a long period of time, trusting that their hard work will pay off via the steady advancement of their political career. Networking is also important, so they must put in the effort to build their network, and they must work to sustain relationships through a mutual exchange of value. I would also urge them to be prayerful, as one must always seek God’s guidance in all their affairs and thriving in the political space certainly requires divine support.
What is your life mantra?
Be the change you wish to see.