Dr Abiola Akiode-Afolabi is a prominent voice of the feminist movement in Africa, advocating for gender equality, voice and participation of women and girls. Abiola is currently the Chairperson of the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), the largest civil society coalition on elections in Nigeria and acting secretary, West African Law and Religion Society (WACLAS), a former student leader and a 1999 recipient of the Defenders Day award in New York City in 1999, the 1st anniversary of UUN defenders declaration. She is a lecturer at the University of Lagos and executive director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC). In this interview, she spoke on politics, gender advocacy and other issues.
What is your assessment of women participation in politics now?
We need to press for progress in women’s participation in politics in Nigeria, as it is now stagnant, if compared to other African countries. Political empowerment of women in Nigeria ranks a lowly 111st position of 145 countries surveyed in the 2015 Global Gender Gap Report. A key structural factor responsible for this situation is the patriarchal system of practice and attitudes that reign in the country and within its political parties. The situation in the political parties is of particular importance because they serve as the principal gatekeepers to the governance process in a system of representative democracy. The dominance of gender bias in the governance and operations of political parties in Nigeria poses a serious obstacle to women’s entry and ascendance to leadership in the party and in government. In other countries where there has been progress, it’s due to the commitment of political parties and people in legislative offices that support transformative change for women. Nigerian women have tried to push for increase within political parties and through legislation but it’s been met with serious resistance.
Going by this 2019 election, women’s participation suffered more setbacks, as many women lost their seats during the party primaries and would not return to the national and state Assembly, many women were denied their tickets, even the twining methods, which used to contribute to the number of positions women hold and has gradually become a norm is being threatened by male /male tickets for executive positions as compared to the male/female ticket, for governorship, is gradually eroding.
Women generally this time around, have shown interest and have dared to contest positions which are seemly sacred to men at both federal and state levels also despite the challenges ranging from religion, culture (as the African culture has separate roles for men and women) and (the fact that) a lot of women do not have the economic power to finance themselves in politics. But be that as it may, women still have a lot to do in the area of organizing and building structures for themselves within the party system so they can also have a base to stand shoulder to shoulder and dismantle the structures in political parties that have kept women out. Without such tactics and strategy, we will continue to speak about marginalization.
What has your organization done over the years to change this narrative?
My organisation has over the years worked with women to actively engage the political processes at all levels, we have done series of advocacies to relevant stakeholders, advocating for increase in women’s participation, and lobbied for women to get party tickets, we organise women in parliament with the National Assembly Committee to support women lawmakers’ capacity to be more effective. We have worked on gender equality laws at the national level and state and have been successful in working with other feminists in government. In Ekiti for example, we supported the passage of the Gender based Violence Prohibition Law, we have also in the same state supported gender policy and the first law that supported 35% affirmative action in Nigeria . In Ogun, we have supported the passage of the Violence Against Person Prohibition Law. We have successfully built a 2500 grassroots women paralegal across Nigeria to support women in grassroots communities to address sexual and gender-based violence and promote peace.
Another milestone is the support for Safe School Initiative in Borno, modeling a school and community policy for safe school. We have explored legal interventions to give women a voice through legal aid for over 1000 women and girls yearly. We have also filed cases and supported girls to speak against violence including sexual harassment in schools. We have worked to mobilise women in agriculture to get the Osun State Government to support a policy for gender inclusiveness for women, which is still on the table of the executive governor. So many things have been achieved in our 19 years of existence. We are a feminist organization, rooted in feminist ideology and committed to building a mass movement to change the dynamics that continue to keep the society from gender democracy.
Tell us your memorable moments as an activist
I have many memorable moments dating back in my days as student union activist at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU). On one occasion, we went to Bayero University Kano and we were ambushed by some militants, I was the only woman in the midst of guys and at some point, these guys almost cought up with me and I only escaped with the support of my friends, who decided to risk their lives to support my escape by coming to rescue me from them. As a student leader, I had several experiences of threats of arrest, expulsion and suspension. I grew up to join the human rights movement in Nigeria and cannot forget how I joined other lawyers in late 90s to appear for MKO Abiola and other detained pro-democracy activists during the dark days of the military. I can also not forget the joy I had as an attorney to Monica Osagie on the sex-for-marks scandal and the fact that we were able to pull through despite the strong resistance for the order of patriarchy. Also we also won a case supporting a woman whose husband poured hot soup on her. The Nigerian government was asked to pay N50 million for violating her right to fair trial, for not handling her case appropriately.
Who would you say influenced you growing up, your mum or dad?
My dad particularly influenced my human rights orientation. Also witnessing some of the challenges my mum went through further propelled me to become a gender rights activist.
What lessons has life taught you as a person?
I have encountered some very tough challenges, which made me stronger and more resolute on my ideology that there is no barrier that can’t be broken and this can only be achieved through persistence and hard work.
How do you relax?
With my family at home having fun
Where is your favourite holiday destination?
A quiet and serene environment with a history of struggle and freedom
You are always on the move, how do you juggle what you do with the home front?
I have a very supportive husband and family who believe in my work and are standing by me to ensure that we contribute our quota to a better society.