Women in public life
Being keynote speech delivered at The Guardian’s International Women’s Day Summit 2012 held at Harbor Point Event Centre, V/Inland, Lagos on Saturday, March 27, 2021
It gives me great pleasure to be here this morning. I thank the leadership of The Guardian newspapers for inviting me to address this forum. During this season of International Women’s Month, like many other women in this room, I feel weary. Weary of going around saying the same thing over and over to usually the same people. Logging in to Zoom after Zoom. It is very easy to feel tired of doing and saying the same thing. Then I remember that over the next 24 hours somewhere in Nigeria:
• A little girl is going to be violated by someone she trusts.
• A woman farmer is going to be kidnapped by terrorists and criminals.
• A woman is going to bleed to death trying to give birth to a baby.
• A family is going to make the choice to marry their fifteen-year-old daughter off so they can afford to pay for her brother’s education.
• A baby girl is going to have her clitoris cut off in the name of culture and tradition.
• A widow is going to have to answer questions about how her husband died because she is the main suspect
• A female student is worrying about how to avoid the demands of one of her male lecturers.
Every year, governments and citizens of the world gather to mark this month which has been set aside to celebrate, acknowledge and identify with women of the world. It is a time for reflection on how far we have come in raising the status of women, fighting for an end to all forms of gender discrimination and ensuring that women play full and equal roles at all levels of society.
In spite of the many efforts at ensuring that women are empowered and that they have equality of opportunity, Nigerian women still live-in dire poverty, they suffer many forms of discrimination, they are mostly excluded from key decision-making positions, they lack access to water, shelter and adequate nutrition and they struggle to access qualitative healthcare services. Nigeria continues to record unacceptably high levels of maternal and infant mortality rates, one of the highest in the world. There are approximately 10.5m children out of school in Nigeria and 60 per cent of those are girls.
All these issues continue to hinder the progress of Nigerian women due to entrenched patriarchal power, violent conflict and displacement, endemic poverty, lack of political will, and the use of culture, tradition and religion to render women voiceless and choiceless.
Some good news
TWENTY-five years after the Beijing conference, we can lay claim to the following as Nigerian women:
• Nigerian women and girls have more access to educational opportunities than they did before in parts of the country. Not only is the enrolment of girls in schools at high levels in Southern Nigeria, in some places their enrolment in schools exceeds that of boys. In addition, girls are doing very well in some tertiary institutions, graduating with top degrees, winning prizes and excelling in areas such as Science Technology, Engineering and Medicine.
• There are legal, policy, and constitutional frameworks in place to ensure that women’s human rights are guaranteed and protected. The Sustainable Development Goals (2010) the Child Rights Act, the National Gender Policy (2005, revised 2015) the Violence Against Persons Act of 2015, State Gender Policies, State laws against violence, and many others.
• The notion of women as leaders has been popularized, and it is no longer strange to see women in senior positions in public life in Nigeria. We have a good number of women in leadership positions in the public, corporate and academic sectors.
• We have role models who have shown the difference women can make.
• There is now more willingness to address gender equality and women’s rights issues as part of gender mainstreaming initiatives to aid developmental agendas.
HOW do we sustain the gains we have made with women in public life? Six strategies for a road map towards a better world:
1. Advocacy For Political Will
This is demonstrated through, amongst other things:
• Clear statements of intent from political leadership (Literal language, body language, mansplaining, appointments).
• Deployment of requisite financial, human and technical resources.
• Establishment, restructuring or reforming of institutions, institutional culture.
• Requisite rewards and sanctions.
2. Legislative and policy frameworks to break barriers
In the past three electoral cycles, Nigerian women have gone from bad to worse. We now stand at less than 5 per cent of women in the National Assembly, and there are some State Houses of Assembly where there are no women at all. Nigerian women will continue to beg and appease political leaders if we do not ensure that there are constitutional guarantees for effective representation and participation specifically through affirmative action and quotas. We should always remember that in spite of the many constitutional guarantees of equality of citizens, there is no level playing field out there. Without concrete and proactive measures such as affirmative action and quotas, we will continue to see dismal statistics of women in business, politics and decision-making. Where we do have legislation for example on GBV, we need to see implementation.
Right now, there are three processes running concurrently at the National Assembly: The Constitutional Reform Process; Electoral Reform Bill; and Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill.
These three processes will have profound implications for the involvement of women in politics and decision-making and will make a difference to the current dearth of women in key leadership positions at all levels in the country. We need to reach out to our friends in the NASS for more information and to let them know Nigerian women are watching.
As women in public life, we need to own the issues that have been of concern to women and use our platforms to address either the policy dimensions or practical interventions. These issues are: The right to Peace and Security; the right to economic empowerment and livelihoods; the right to freedom from all forms of sexual and gender-based violence; the right to participation in leadership and decision-making; the right to education and training opportunities; the right to qualitative health and reproductive rights services.
Pick one or a combination of these issues. Peg your legacy to this. Inspire yourself, then others to push for change. Let us use the platforms we have – give example of NGWA-GBV and the State of Emergency on GBV.
We are not powerless. We have platforms, agency and voice, no matter how limited. Let us use what we have. From the markets to the schools and boardrooms and bedrooms. Let us not collude in our own oppression, let us be the keys that can unlock the many padlocks that restrain us.
Be politically engaged
One of the main reasons why competent, qualified women keep being overlooked is because we hold political processes in disdain and we refuse to engage. Go home, to your constituencies and villages. Engage in community projects, award scholarships. You don’t have to have any political ambition in mind, we all have to actively engage in making change happen at community level.
There is a need to channel our positions of influence in the business sector into power in governance. Why are women in business not supporting other women to run for office? What stops us from identifying credible candidates who are women, with integrity and a track record, and backing them with our financial resources and networks? Why can’t we create and use our own ‘girls networks’ and use them to get other women into power the same way in which men use their ‘old boys’ networks? We will not resolve the leadership crisis in Nigeria today unless we get more credible women into leadership.
4. Mentoring and inter-generational organising
We need to keep mentoring young women in ways that nurture them and prepare them for the harsh world of business, politics and public life. In doing this, we need to be able to set an example for them because they will practice what they see and not what they hear from us. As we do this, we also need to be honest about the price to be paid sometimes for stepping up as a woman. The sight and sound of a powerful woman can be very scary to some people. If you are not prepared to be called names, vilified, lied against and the target of abuse, if you want everyone to love and like you, stay home and hide under your sheets. On June 11th 2020, I launched The Wrapper Network through which I interact with young women and enable them engage with other older women as well.
Bring out your wrapper for other women
Many of you are familiar with my metaphor of the wrapper. I use the wrappers as a metaphor for protection, responsibility, compassion, empathy, respect, all those values that make us human. Let us bring out our wrappers for other women every day, at work or in our private lives. Every woman has a wrapper and every woman needs one.
WE ARE STILL HERE
(In commemoration of International Women’s Day, March 8th)
Please don’t look for us, we are not lost
We have not all been stolen away
We are still here
Even when they came for so many of us
And shoved us into the deep belly of the devil
There are still enough of us left
We are still here
Our mothers and fathers wail and gnash their teeth
Hoping, praying, fasting, beseeching for our return
We are still here
We are here in the eyes of little Temi
whose innocence was bloodied by the hands of her favourite uncle
We are here in the pain of the once vibrant Jenny
who has become a shadow of herself because some boys wanted to ‘teach her a lesson’
We exist in the fear of the widow Ijeoma, who has been left with four mouths to feed
with no money, a temporary roof and vultures circling her home
We can be found in the sheer agony of poor Simon
Clinging to his wife Stella as she dies trying to bring their child into the world
One day every year, we are remembered
There are a lot of speeches, rallies and marches
We sing, dance and clap
And our big men and women come out to tell us a lot of nice things
Then we all go away till the next year comes
We are still here
Waiting for the day when the pain will stop
When we will not have to see the desperate hunger in the eyes of our children
We never want to see the day when the thought will cross our minds
to sell one so we can feed five
We are still here
In the bodies, minds and spirits
of all the millions who come together one day every year
We will always be here
We will no longer be silent while they steal us away night and day
We will no longer speak in whispers
We know there are enough of us to make a difference
With solidarity, perseverance, courage and determination
We will make sure that everyone knows
We are still here.
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