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Where Are All the Women in House?

By: Sandra Aigbinode
Published December 2nd, 2010

Nigeria has had 50 years of independence and 10 years of democracy, yet gender inequality in politics remains persistent. How long will it take our country to realize that without an adequate representation of women in the National Assembly, the full measure of society cannot be said to be reflected in public policy. In any inclusive democracy, political power is perhaps the strongest tool to eliminate all forms of inequality yet we have not taken advantage of this. It is time to not only get more women to take part in the political process but also to get them involved at an earlier stage in life so they can see this as a viable career choice. My recent experience in November 2010 with the Women in House Program run by McGill University in Quebec, Canada, informs the proposals presented in this article.

According to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in September 2010, Nigeria ranks 117th on the world scale of gender inequality in politics out of a possible 186 countries. This statistic reveals the lack of interest of the government in improving Nigeria’s democracy through investing in processes that allow for the inclusion of the opinions and perceptions of women. Even worse is the reality that countries not renowned for their achievements in gender equity rank much higher than we do. For example, Iraq, Angola, and Sudan, all countries where securing basic human rights for women remains a major concern elect far more women than Nigeria. This matter has become urgent.

It is no accident that Nigerian women are not getting the legislation they need. The UN mandates that women need 33% representation for their voices to be heard; thus, with women’s representation in the Nigerian parliament at 0.05% today, Nigeria is failing its women. Women in Nigeria constitute approximately 49% of the population, yet as stated we only have 0.05% representation in both houses. No country can afford to ignore the skills and talents of half its population. Although the illiteracy levels of women are worse than that of men with 60% of the illiterate population being women, we still need to consider that on the literate end, 41% are women and 63% men yet these statistics are also not reflected in Parliament. Rather than wait on the snail pace initiatives of the government, it is high time we invest in civil society initiatives to address this issue.

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Currently, the government-led Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) is one initiative that could possibly have a positive impact on women’s representation in parliament; but, will this reform be ready before the upcoming 2011 general elections? The work of NGO’s such as Gender for Affirmative Action (GAA) is remarkable as far as the ERC is concerned. Their pressure on the government to mobilize women, create gender sensitive policies that foster women’s participation, and their push for the implementation of the ERC, are all commendable. However, with nearly three – quarters of Nigeria’s population under the age of 30, special attention should be given also to the involvement of young women in politics. We need to motivate and encourage them to see politics as a feasible career choice since this is very important for changing the face of politics in the near future.

Created in 2001, the Women in House Program undertaken by McGill University in Quebec, Canada, is one of such model initiatives that we should learn from. The goals and achievements of this program are commendable despite being a small student run program with a very limited budget. The Women in House program focuses on encouraging the participation of young women in politics through fostering a desire and enthusiasm for Canadian politics among young women.

For two fully subsidized days, thirty – five of us female students visited Parliament in Ottawa, Ontario where we got an opportunity to shadow female Members of Parliament (MP’s) and Senators in order to share in their experiences and understand the challenges these women face in a male dominated sphere. On the first day, besides touring parliament, and observing question period, panel discussions were held with different MP’s and Senators on issues including, the difficulty of financing one’s candidacy, the importance of networking with other women, the importance of having women in parliament, and current policy debates such as the implementation of a quota system that could aid in having more women in parliament. Towards the end of the day, one of the female MP’s emphasized the importance of sharing with others all we had learnt that day; “it’s all about breaking the silence” she said. Speaking out lets others know that the status quo where women are underrepresented is not okay.

On the second day we got an opportunity to shadow our assigned parliamentarians. This included attending committee meetings and press conferences with them; doing research on various issues; assisting with office duties, and observing the debacle of question period from a VIP restricted area. This gave us unparalleled insight into the hectic lives of women in parliament. Albeit a very challenging career choice, the opportunity to effect real change in the lives of Canadians, and more specifically in the lives of members of their individual constituencies, gave them the determination and boldness necessary to embark on such a career. Something that struck a chord in me was the statement made by a female MP to us that evening: “the people you see in parliament were not necessarily groomed for office; I am confident that all of you here are all eminently qualified even without knowing you personally.” With a good education and genuine interest in politics we young women could very well become parliamentarians; it does not take any special gene that only men possess. These words were truly empowering as many of us on the bus ride back keenly discussed ways in which we would get involved politically upon returning home.

The successes of this program are truly remarkable. This mere two day program has served as a stepping stone for many alumni of the program since some have become staffers on Parliament Hill following this experience. Of greater importance is the fact that this program continues to raise awareness on the importance of getting more young women involved in politics. Lastly, this program continues to ignite a passion for politics in those fortunate enough to participate. This experience inspired my new personal motto - ‘apathy is boring.’

Some might ask, what is the importance of having women in politics anyway? Well, the short answer to that is two-fold. Firstly, it is our inherent right. In a democracy, parliament should be representative of the population for which it represents; thus we need to see close to half of those in the National Assembly be women. Secondly, key issues of importance to women are more than often ignored simply because there is no one there to advocate on their behalf. These issues include but are not limited to pay equity, employment equity, childcare funding, and abortion rights. Furthermore, they not only bring to light gender issues, but can also offer gender perspectives into all areas of political life.

In conclusion, the lack of representation of women in parliament is not an ‘interest’ issue but an ‘action’ problem. More needs to be done to encourage women’s involvement in politics and to enable them see this as a viable career choice. Rather than wait on the government, civil society – led initiatives such as the relatively inexpensive Women in House Program need to be invested in. As Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice told us during our visit to Parliament, ‘if you won’t be her, then you have to support her.’ This is a call to both female and male parliamentarians, as well as others in powerful positions to invest in such initiatives so we can put an end to this unjust silence.

Sandra Aigbinode

BA Political Science

BA Criminal Justice and Public Policy

MA Candidate in Political Science

McGill University Montreal, Canada.

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