By Vivian Onyebukwa
Women are the pioneers of every nation. The varieties of roles the women assume in society are numerous. According to a report of Secretary-General of United Nations, António Guterres, women constitute 50 per cent of human resources. Women are the key to sustainable development and quality of life in the family and society at large. They play the role of wife, mother, leader, manager of family income. They also perform the role of partner, organiser, administrator, director, re-creator, disburser, economist, disciplinarian, teacher, health officer, and more.
However, women face so many challenges in life. The challenges are absolutely enormous in every aspect of their lives, globally. From education to healthcare, the right to have logistical protection from violence, rape, and abuse. Also, top socio-economic issues faced by women include lack of financial empowerment, poverty, lack of access to quality education, insecurity, and political problems.
In commemoration of this year’s International Women’s Day, with the theme: “Women In Leadership: Achieving on Equal Future in a COVID-19 World,” wife of the President, Nigeria’s First Lady, Aisha Buhari, in her goodwill message to women, stated that the day offers yet another opportunity for humanity to review and reflect progress made on issues of women and girls.
She described the theme of this year’s event as a strong call to appreciate the efforts of women and girls in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic: “COVID-19 has had a huge impact on women; disrupted education and careers, lost jobs, descent into poverty, and proliferation of domestic violence. Many have also died or suffered due to lack of access to basic information on the pandemic, It is therefore important, not just to continue spreading the message of the COVID-19 protocol, but to remember and support those who have been affected negatively by the pandemic in one way or another.”
The First Lady noted that women and girls in Nigeria have continued to suffer abduction in the hands of insurgents and bandits. And, as a mother, she shares the sorrow and agony of the victims and their families: “I am also not unaware of the impact that these abductions could have in reverting many successes we have hitherto achieved, especially in terms of girl-child education and early marriage.”
She, therefore, called on all stakeholders to continue to exert their different levels of influence and bring these abductions to an end and to assure us that girls are safe anywhere they may find themselves.
She expressed her wishes to women all over the world for their resilience, hard work, and commitment to the progress of humanity.
The First Lady is not alone in the fight against the plight of women in Nigeria. The Minister of Women Affairs, Dame Pauline Tallen, in a press briefing to mark this year’s International Women’s Day, she advocated that one-third of all elective positions should be contested by women in party structures as well as inclusion of more women in leadership positions. Dame Tallen, who was the Deputy Governor of Plateau state, revealed that in several meetings with President Muhammadu Buhari, including leading a delegation of Nigerian women across party lines and other walks of life, late last year, some of the requests were the need to address the issue of quota and Affirmative Action in the appointment of women in public office. Part of the request is that one-third of all elective positions be reserved only to be contested by women in the party structure, as applicable in many African countries, such as Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa. So, as the giant of Africa, Nigeria should take the lead in this respect. “As the Nigerian Minister of Women Affairs, I am elated to witness a renewed commitment by this present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari to redress the persistent disparity in participation of men and women in decision making positions.
Also reacting on the issue of challenges facing women, Barr. Ngozi Ogbolu, immediate past chairperson, of International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Nigeria, Lagos State branch, decried the situation where women are regarded as the weaker sex whose primary domain is the home and child rearing when it comes to relationships. This, she said, is also reflected in the upbringing of the children within the family so that right from childhood, the male and female children are fully conscious of the difference between them. She mentioned the situation where the male child plays outside while the female stays indoors to help with chores.
Ogbolu equally referred to Article 7 of the Protocol to the Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa which, provides for both parties of a marriage to enjoy equal rights within and after the marriage, in issues of custody and access to an equitable share of the joint property deriving from the marriage, but this is not the case: “Three forms of marriages are recognized in Nigeria – Customary, Islamic and Marriage under the Act.
The reality of women married under Customary and Islamic law has not yet been affected by the protocol. A woman married under customary law is entitled to be provided with a home by her husband as long as the marriage subsists. She is also entitled to use her husband’s property but cannot dispose of it as her own. The right to be provided with a house by her husband terminates upon divorce. Upon divorce, a woman married under customary law has no claim over a house jointly owned with her husband. Her position is not helped by the provisions of the Matrimonial Causes Act in respect of maintenance and settlement of property, which expressly excludes the application of its provisions to marriages under customary and Islamic law. However in the case of women married under the Act, where she is able to produce documents showing she made a contribution to the property, she is entitled to the part of the property commensurate to her contribution. Many women are denied custody and access to their children. Among those under Islamic law, child marriage is still prevalent”.
The state of low level of education and consequent exclusion of women from wage-earning economic activities is also worrisome. According to Ogbolu, most women in Nigeria are poor: “Politics everywhere particularly, Nigeria is a game of money and influence which most women do not possess. Women do not have an easy access to loans or company shares, landed property as men.
“Politics, organizational structure of political parties is another. The main decision-making arm of any political party is the executive council and it is rare to have a woman or women amongst them. Political activities are generally conducted in a manner more suitable to men. In other words, the political arena is more men friendly. For instance the venue and circumstances of most caucus meetings do not favour women because of their roles as mothers and wives. Such meetings are usually held at midnight,” she said.
Another issue raised by Ogbolu is the branding of women as “the weaker sex”. This has resulted to a strong inferiority complex in most women. “They have accepted the lie that men are better suited for politics and this has made them so timid to take up leadership positions and are not quite willing to vote for their fellow women who are bold enough to take the step. This may be termed jealousy, envy and role conflict.”
Organisational structure of political parties is another. The main decision-making arm of any political party is the executive council and it is rare to have a woman or women amongst them. Ogbolu said political activities are generally conducted in a manner more suitable to men. In other words, the political arena is more men friendly. For instance the venue and circumstances of most caucus meetings do not favour women because of their roles as mothers and wives. Such meetings are usually held at midnight.
“Politics, thuggery and intimidation has made some women refer to politics as a dirty game and therefore, would prefer not to venture into it. Politics has become a do or die affair. Incidences of assassination of political opponents, has made some women to view politics as too rough for them. Nigerian women should no longer accept the oppressive tendencies of the men. They should come out en mass and contest every contestable election from the councillors to the presidency. If they fail, they should get up and not give up”.
Dr Janefrancis Duru, Founder, Gender Care Initiative (GCI), an Non Governmental Organisation interested in health, reproductive health, gender, gender based violence and women empowerment, and entrepreneurial development, in her opinion listed many challenges affecting women in Nigeria. They include poor health, lack of financial empowerment, gender-based violence, discriminatory employment practices, poverty, lack of access to quality education, gender inequality. These challenges, she said, threaten the very existence of women, hinder their capabilities and distract them from pursuing sustainable human development.
She noted gender-based violence as very prevalent in the country. “Thirty-five per cent of women in Nigeria have experienced gender-based violence. This implies that one in every three (1 in 3) Nigerian women has suffered physical and/or sexual violence. According to the 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, 31% of women between ages 15 and 49 have experienced physical violence while 9% have experienced sexual violence. Further, 36% of once married Nigerian women have suffered spousal violence.
“Female genital mutilation (FGM) is also prevalent in Nigeria with at least 20% of Nigerian women between ages 15 and 49 being circumcised as of 2018.”
Forced early marriage is also prevalent in the country. Drivers of violence against women in Nigeria include social norms, economic stress, family relations, patriarchal beliefs, and targeted assertions against female autonomy”.
“Poor health is another challenge faced by women. Duru noted that Nigeria’s 40 million women of childbearing age (between 15 and 49 years of age), suffer a disproportionally high level of health issues surrounding birth. While the country represents 2.4 per cent of the world’s population, it currently contributes 10 per cent of global deaths for pregnant mothers. Latest figures show a maternal mortality rate of 576 per 100,000 live births, the fourth highest on Earth”.
Economically, women, Duru said, are facing varying gender based violence. “Women make up nearly 70 percent of the global workforce in the health and social sectors according to WHO. They are regularly subjected to abuse and harassment from colleagues and patients. In times of COVID-19 pandemic, when mobility is constrained, social distancing measures are imposed, economic vulnerability increases, and legal (social services) are scaled back, challenges in temporarily escaping abusive partners are exacerbated.
Most women are self-employed, small business owners and as such are daily wage earners, but with the coronavirus pandemic, Duru said, they do not receive any income as they observe the lockdown and even when any family member is infected, she is expected to take care of the person despite infectious nature of the disease. “The higher mortality associated with this pandemic also results to increase in orphans creating more work for women who are the caregivers and draining their already lean purse. All these economically, cripples women the more. With no social security to fall back on, they face the dilemma of either returning to work or potentially getting sick. The Changing family structures, combined with school closures and financial duress, can result in higher rates of exploitative, transactional sex among adolescent girls and women”.
Nigerian women still experience discriminatory practices while seeking employment. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), most Nigerian women are still discriminated against. Common discriminatory employment practices in Nigeria, according to Duru, include wage parity, inadequate maternity leave, sexual harassment, and slow promotion to top managerial positions” She referred to a recently published labour force statistics which showed that although women represent 51.6% of Nigeria’s working-age population, only 48.4% were in the labour force. “Also, only 40.6% of the total of 35.6 million fully employed Nigerians were women. Women also had a higher percentage in underemployment (52%) and unemployment (56%)”.
Education, as far as women are concerned is poor. She described access to education for school-age girls in Nigeria as also low. “Girls suffer more than boys in terms of missing out on education. In the north-east of Nigeria only 41 per cent of eligible girls receive a primary education, 47 per cent in the north-west. Statistics from Nigeria’s Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) showed that males had higher enrolment numbers for basic education as of 2018. Only 48.30% of the total number of candidates in the 2019 West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) in Nigeria were female”.
She also decried the situation where women are excluded in policy making. “In governance and decision making, most Nigerian women do not participate in governance and decision –making owing to lack of sufficient political strength and political vision. Policy making was considered a political activity and therefore required political strategy for engagement. Women have always been kept secluded from the political arena and sphere of decision-making; thus, in many situations they were unable to participate. Without a political platform, therefore, women are constantly on the margins of action and often lack the confidence in participating in the political processes”.
“In 2018, only 24% of national parliamentarians were women. In fact, the Nigerian political space lacks gender-focused inclusion. Nigeria ranks 181st out of 193 countries for female representation in parliament globally. For the 2019 general elections, only 5 of the 73 candidates who contested for the presidency were women. Also, women made up only 4% of the elected officials after the elections. Besides, only about 16% of Buhari’s ministers are women”.
Another challenge women face, Duru said, is lack of sustainability in political participation. “Once election period is over, women often would return to more traditional activities, losing their gains and public presence. Even their representation in policy making more often than none, does not necessarily mean meaningful and recognised participation that has an impact on substantial inputs in policy agreement. These losses made it very difficult for women to return to the public stage during subsequent political activities”.
“Lack of resources (material and financial) is another challenge to active political participation by Nigerian women. Most of the time women are usually not part of main fund raising channels and networks, as such do not have a budget for multidimensional activities and may be unable to get across to the media network to enhance their political campaign.
The present political landscape in Nigeria is not conducive for women with meetings taking place at odd hours of the night, on-going character assassination, slander, threats and killings. Any women desirous of participating in politics must be ready for these and many more. How many women are ready to go through these knowing that a woman’s reputation is one of her most valuable assets; hence disparagement is a powerful tool to keep women out of politics”.
Duru concluded by saying that Nigerian women undoubtedly, possess potentials to contribute meaningfully to the development of the country, as are evident from successes recorded by women so far. What is needed is equity, empowerment, and enabling environment for their sustainable contribution and the consequent increase in the level of harmony in the nation. “Ending all discrimination against women and girls is not only a basic human right, but it is also crucial for a sustainable future. It is imperative now more than ever to develop a comprehensive framework for women’s development and protection in Nigeria. This is because empowering women and girls helps economic growth and development. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) could grow by 23 per cent or $229 billion by 2025 if women took part in the economy to the same extent as men. Just as the International Monetary Fund noted that gender inclusivity could grow Nigeria’s economy on average by as much as 1.25% points. Thus, we cannot over emphasize the need for the Nigerian government to deliver more inclusion and real protection for Nigerian women’’.
Dr Olatokunbo Somolu, an Engineer, and former Group General Manager, Engineering and Technology Division (ETD) of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), in a nut shell, enumerated the challenges of women.
“Women face bias from birth that the female cannot carry the family name. There is also this societal views that the female cannot become a person of influence and wealth and therefore, do not deserve to be educated. Females have so many obstacles of possible, rape, pregnancy and finally becoming a property of one man and a life of near slavery. The female is therefore, not perceived as worthy of education. For those females who succeed in being educated, they are faced with the challenges of finding a good husband, being able to bear children, raising them many times singlehandedly. Women also face discrimination in the workplace. To climb the ladder of progress in an organization, the female will work many times harder. Marginalization of females in most situations in public life except in those areas like childcare where males have no clues is another challenge.
The physiological make up of the female anatomy makes the female to need a lot of care, welfare, compassion. And survival in any kind of weather may be difficult. The physical strength of males far outstrips that of females, so females are always challenged in many situations in life. The great emotional strength of females must be applied in most life situations for survival. Females are greatly challenged from birth but females must always demonstrate that God given inner strength to overcome in all difficult and trying situations”.