Women constitute an expansive block of the electorate in Nigeria. In some countries in the sub-region, this is the case as well. They often take the lead in voting in elections.
For example, in the 2015 general election in Nigeria, 45,888,984 registered voters were women, while 22,944,984 were men. Despite being the larger block of the electorate, women occupy less than 7 percent of positions in government (elective and appointive) in the country.
According to Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) statistical representation of women in elective positions in 2015, women have only 6.1 percent representation in State Houses of Assembly; 3.89 percent in the House of Representatives and 7.34 percent in the Senate. And in the executive, women are also not well represented.
In Ghana, a country with enviable democratic records, women participation in politics is not very impressive. As of November 2016, Ghana placed 150 out of 185 in the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranking on women representation. Women representation in the Ghana Parliament is about 10.7 percent. In the executive, only 27 percent of women are cabinet ministers. This is commendable, but it is still below the desired threshold.
In Togo, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only 17.60 percent of seats in parliament are held by women. This is based on a 2017 ranking. And in the executive, only 18.4 percent of ministerial positions are held by women.
Based on these statistics, it is clear that women are not where they ought to be in terms of representation in government. It is for this reason that we must demand at least 30 percent representation at all levels of government. And we must push this advocacy with vigour and finality.
Although there are some women in the sub-region breaking barriers to successfully participate in politics, most women, especially those in the rural areas, and even those with required technicality and qualifications, are encumbered by socio-cultural and religious practices, inadequate financial resources, volatile political environment, political party discrimination, and absence of support from friends, family and the media.
As most of us know, some socio-cultural and religious practices act as a wedge to women’s participation in politics and inclusion in government. In certain cultures, women are not being heard or even seen. And they are not allowed to own property. This naturally shuts out most women with leadership potential from politics.
Legislation is imperative in emancipating women and freeing them from socio-cultural shackles. Laws deliberately aimed at improving the plight of women economically and politically must be promoted and passed. The laws must prohibit discrimination against women by political parties and engender their protection against political violence. Legislation backed by implementation is the vehicle to creating an enabling environment for women to participate in politics and thrive.
Recently, a bill popularly tagged “Gender Parity Bill” which aims to give women equal opportunity in the workplace, job, education and government was shut down in the Nigerian senate. Such a bill is necessary to break the socio-cultural and economic strictures against women.
Politics generally is capital intensive, though this varies from country to country. But the point is, many women lack the means to foot campaign bills. Without economic power, political power is difficult to attain. Women should be empowered economically to participate in politics – this could be by giving their businesses and pursuit necessary incentives for growth, including indiscriminate access to low-interest loans; capital bonds for development, and certainly 50 percent participation in government skills acquisition and enhancement programs. It is a fact that the empowerment of women is the empowerment of a nation.
Our countries will be the better for it if more women are empowered to participate in politics. We as parliamentarians, representing the women of West Africa, must make it a bounden duty to promote and sponsor empowerment programmes for women in our constituencies. For example, through my human capacity development programmes, I have empowered thousands of young women with skills and cash for business in my constituency, Anambra North.
We must also help those, with interest and leadership potential, in realising the dream of representing their communities and constituencies in parliament at the local, state and national level. It is a task that must be done.
Our countries will be in good stead in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if there is a deliberate policy and action in including women in government. Gender disparity can be reduced, if not eliminated, if women are given room to participate in government. We must continue the advocacy of ensuring more women representation in government. We must not relent in our effort, because that would mean failing in our duties as the voice of women.
Women are natural leaders, and their inclusion in government must be intentional and sustained. Again, empowering women is empowering the nation.
Excerpt of speech presented before the first ECOWAS Women Parliamentarians General Summit in Abuja
Senator Stella Adaeze Oduah
Senator Representing Anambra North Constituency
Vice-chairman Senate Committee on Women Affairs; President, ECOWAS Female Parliamentarians; Former Aviation Minister (2011-2014)