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Nigeria: women on the outskirts of politics

With only nine women senators representing 54 million women in Nigeria, international support should focus on the broader political cycle and the numerous obstacles to women's political participation, rather than on the election moment, says Lisa Denney

This year’s election in Nigeria saw some important gains in women’s political participation. President Goodluck Jonathon appointed 33% of cabinet positions to women (up from 10% in the last government), including the ministerial portfolios of finance and education. This is in keeping with Nigeria’s commitments to gender equality, encapsulated in the National Gender Policy, which sets the benchmark for women’s seats in Parliament at 35% - 5% higher than the international standard. Yet this achievement is precisely so remarkable because of the ongoing challenges women in Nigeria face in becoming politically active from the bottom-up through elections. As the Summit of All Women Politicians in Nigeria have declared: ‘women of Nigeria have noticed with utter dismay the almost complete deterioration of our political and social values, born out of more than three decades of continued male-dominated and-oriented misrule, and have concluded that enough is enough; the time for positive change has arrived.’

From 1999-2007 there were marginal but steady increases in political participation of women through election or appointment. Yet in 2011 women gained no more seats than at the 2007 election (and they lost many at the Federal level). This was a huge disappointment given that in each past election there has been approximately a 2% increase in numbers of women elected. While the outcomes of some seats are still being contested, meaning that the current 96 (of 1531) elected positions held by women (as reported by UNWOMEN) could increase slightly, the result will still be well short of the anticipated increase. So what are the primary challenges facing women in becoming involved in Nigerian politics? And why has progress to date has been so modest?

While it is important not to essentialise ‘Nigerian culture’, female political aspirants in Nigeria point to the challenge of patriarchal social norms, held in place by both men and women, which dictate that a woman’s place is in the home, not in public life. Women’s groups interviewed in Nigeria also suggested that discrimination against them can also be reinforced by religious sanction that deems a political woman to be immoral or unnatural. These attitudes also create disparities in educational opportunities, with women continuing to have higher rates of illiteracy and lower rates of school enrolment than their male counterparts across Nigeria. This means that not only do women with political ambitions face attitudinal barriers from their family and communities, but that they also frequently possess less educational qualifications than the male candidates that they will likely run against at election.

The nature of Nigerian politics also discourages women’s participation. Political meetings are often held late at night on an ad hoc basis, making attendance difficult for women, who face greater personal risk in travelling alone at night and often have to arrange for assistance to care for families. Women who do attend such meetings have, according to numerous anonymised sources, been labelled as prostitutes. More generally, politics is considered to be a ‘dangerous’ pursuit in Nigeria and female politicians are frequently considered of dubious moral character, given their desire to be involved in this profession.

Research by UNWOMEN and the Institute for Democracy in Africa has revealed worrying levels of violence against women aspirants and voters during Nigerian elections, distinct from other forms of gender-based violence. (This poses real challenges for women’s political participation, instilling fear and discouraging participation). Accounts from the above research include women aspirants and voters who have been kidnapped, beaten up, sexually assaulted and shot at in order to deter them from participating in elections. Nigerian politics is already considered a dangerous undertaking and the fear of physical violence further deters women from participating in political life.

There are also institutional obstacles to women becoming involved in politics. For instance, the voter registration process for the 2011 elections was described by anonymised interviewees as not being women-friendly. There were no separate registration lines for pregnant women or those with children who were not able to wait in queues for long periods of time. As a result, some women returned home without registering, which made them ineligible to vote at election time. Furthermore, electoral laws in Nigeria denote that women may only stand for election in the constituency in which their father or husband is registered. Particularly after marriage, this is frequently not the constituency where a woman has grown up or lived, meaning that her ability to build a support base is limited.

Nigerian political parties are renowned for their lack of internal democracy, with ‘godfatherism’ (or patronage) determining most party decisions, including who runs on the party ballot. As a result of this, interviewees with women’s groups and parliamentarians in Nigeria revealed that the greatest hurdle women must overcome in getting elected in Nigeria is at the party primaries stage, where political deals are made amongst male candidates and the party leadership in advance of elections and party delegates who vote on the candidates are overwhelmingly male. Such party structures ensured that in the 2011 elections, after the political primaries, women candidates constituted just over 9% of the total number of candidates contesting the polls.

The final challenge women face in getting elected in Nigeria relates to financial constraints. The costs of running an electoral campaign are high – even more so in the context of Nigeria where politics is highly monetised. Aside from paying for the campaign itself and the materials and coverage that go along with this, many candidates also dispense ‘patronage’, in the form of cash handouts, to voters. Women are at a disadvantage in this regard as they consistently earn less than their male counterparts and are usually not in charge of household finances, limiting their ability to make independent decisions. While many candidates receive donations from patrons, there are few patrons willing to risk their money on female candidates, given the low likelihood of them being elected. As a result, women’s campaigning is frequently smaller-scale, with less coverage than that of men. This helps to explain the lower success rate of women at the Federal, as opposed to State level, with the higher political level requiring broader advocacy efforts beyond their immediate locality and thus greater financial resources for campaigning.

It is doubtful whether the top-down changes that President Goodluck Jonathon has made through political appointments of women will transform the role of women in politics without similar results achieved from the bottom-up. This is a story that development organisations and donors should heed, given that most support to the electoral process in Nigeria is focused on elections themselves, rather than on the enabling environment that shapes the election. Interviews revealed an increasing recognition amongst donors, since the difficult 2007 elections, that support needs to be broadened across the political cycle, yet the 2011 election seems to show that support was once again focused on the election moment. In the wake of a relatively peaceful 2011 election, international support should consider shifting its focus to the broader political cycle and the obstacles that have a strongly determining effect on women’s political participation. As Nigerian Senator Patricia Akwashiki says, ‘how can 9 women senators represent 54 million women in Nigeria?’