Nigeria: Women, Law and Political Emancipation

Increased role for women in politics is the goal of various campaigns by Women Rights Organizations in Nigeria. Nkoyo Rapu highlights the obstacles to women's political emancipation.

Women through the ages have been treated as inferior or sub-human to the men on the basis of sex differentiation. They have been treated as unequal in matters of human dignity and rights. One of the earliest articulated Human Rights were the political rights of man. In spite of this, the word "man" when used in relation to political rights was never expanded enough to include women. Even for the Greeks, who initiated democracy (a system of government by the ordinary populace), the plebeian public did not include women, as women and children were classified as minors, without the requisite intellectual maturity for participation in governance.

In this regard in AD 865, a conference was held in France just for the purpose of considering whether women were human beings! The conference concluded that though women were human beings, they were created purposely to worship men! Another misnomer. Some of the earliest struggles of women have however not been only political. Rather women have struggled also to obtain the right to be educated just as well as men. (Though there was resistance to women's education by men, it was not as severe as the resistance against the political rights of women). In the earlier struggle for education, women's education was geared towards providing them with skills for performing their social roles, which were fixated by gender. As far as men were concerned, women were only to be educated to acquire graces for the purpose of marriage or for a wifely and motherly career.

However, this left many women unfulfilled. Whilst education for success in marriage is not a bad idea, that is not all a woman was created for. She is often abundantly gifted to do a whole lot of other jobs alongside or apart from her wifely and motherly roles. And so with increased education and exposure, women began to band into groups to fight against sexual discrimination and express their mental emancipation. An example of such expression was evident in a letter written by a First Lady to be, Mrs. Abigail Adams, to her husband, the President elect, John Adams, wherein she cautioned him to remember women whilst drafting new laws for America or else risk rebellion on attaining the presidency. This was in 1776 and was the origin of the American Women's Liberation Movement. Despite that, the American woman did not even acquire the right to vote until 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the American Constitution provided such a right.

Harriet Taylor Mill on the enfranchisement of women in England in 1857 claimed "that women have as good a claim as men have, on point of personal right to the suffrage, or to a place in the jury box, it would be difficult for anyone to deny". For over half a century, women in Britain had to struggle to be allowed to have political representation through the vote.

The efforts of Nigerian Women for the advancement and recognition of women are just as significant in an examination of women's rights as human rights. We remember Amina, Queen of Zaria, in 1576 before the attempt to submerge women's roles in that part of the country after the advent of Islam. Amina was the Queen of the Hausa people of Zazzau (now Zaire) at a time when women were free to take up political appointment within government. The office of the king was also open to females as well as males. Similarly, we remember Daura. The Queen of Daura was a descendant from a lineage of queens who possessed the totality of the political power reposed in their office.

Amongst the Yorubas in Southwestern Nigeria, there were traditional chieftaincy institutions for women e.g. the Iyalode, Iya-Afin, Ayaba and Erelu. Thus, every governmental cabinet witnessed the presence of some women. The Iyalode's office was equal to all other chieftaincy offices just as today in the Yoruba tradition, daughters inherit equally from their fathers just as the sons. In those days, the Iyalode was seen as the voice of women and she represented their constituency upon regular consultations with them. Governmental decisions were generally taken by consensus and historical evidence suggests that the constituency of women was not easily ignored as this paved way for rebellion. Women were considered indispensable for a proper running of the Kingdom.

In the east (particularly Igboland), women were not and are still not regarded as equal with men in political issues, inheritance and succession. However, the women grouped themselves (and still do now) in women's associations and had a woman leader known as Omu. They often used that as a threat to male dominance. Some used to apply collective sanctions against the male community, e.g. threatening to leave the village en-masse.

Thus, examples cited above illustrate that Nigerian women have always been aware of the rights of women to equality and effective participation in the social development of their societies. The struggle for women's rights in Nigeria, did not just start with the introduction of the Western conceptualized human rights.

Against the backdrop of increased agitation of women round the globe for recognition and self- determination, the United Nations General Assembly declared in 1948 that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

However, this failed to have much significance on the validation of the struggle of women for certain rights and this led the United Nations to adopt the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on 18th December, 1979 which came into force on 3rd September, 1981 after the 20th country had ratified it.

Women's participation in politics is the most crucial aspect of women emancipation, because if women have political power, they will be able to fashion out things generally in society that would favor women and improve their quality of life.

Women around the world at every socio-political level find themselves under represented in government and far removed from decision-making. Whilst the face of politics in each country has its own peculiarities, one feature remains common to all; it is not proportionately conducive to women's participation. Women who want to venture into politics find that the political, socio-economic and socio- cultural environment is often unfriendly or even hostile to them.

Political Obstacles

Men dominate the political arena. Men formulate the rules of the political game and they define the standards for evaluation. The existence of this male dominated model results in either women rejecting politics altogether or rejecting male styled politics.

Now, over 95% of all countries of the world have granted women the two most fundamental democratic rights: the rights to vote and the right to stand for elections. New Zealand granted the right of women to vote first in 1893 whilst Finland granted both rights to women first in 1906. Countries like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are yet to follow suit. Other Arab countries like Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan though having granted both rights to women, psychological factors still exist that hinder women politically.

Despite this however, the reality is that women's rights to vote remain restricted principally because the only candidates to vote for in most cases are men. This is true not only of partial and developing democracies, but also of established ones as well. Thus, we find that there's a low level of women's representation in some European parliaments and this should be considered a violation of the women's fundamental democratic rights as well as human rights.

Global statistics established by the Inter-parliamentary Union in 1998 show that in countries that had both Houses (i.e. upper and lower houses of legislature) men totaled 31, 137 whilst women added up to the paltry total of 4,004.

However it is important to note here that some countries have tried to evolve laws or a system of elections that would ensure a significant representation of women in government. Thus, the Argentinean law on quotas requires all parties to nominate 30% women on their list of candidates. Without such a law, mandating quota in Nigeria, the number of female governors, legislators and councilors is not likely to increase. Similarly, a system of elections based on proportional representation has been evolved in Germany and Australia leading to the result of tripling or quadrupling the number of women being elected. In Sweden, the Swedish parliament has a 40.4% representation of women because of the 40-60% ratio. As a result, the parliament has broader perspectives and better understanding between male and female parliamentarians.

Other Political Obstacles that Women Face

The lack of financial and party support for women candidates.

Limited access to political network.

The lack of contact and co-operation with other public organizations such as trade (labor) unions and more particularly other women's groups.

The absence of well-developed education and training systems for women's leadership in general and for orientating young women towards political life in particular.

The nature of the electoral system, which may not be favorable to women candidates.

Other factors categorized under the following broad headings also constitute hurdles that must be addressed in order that women may realize the fullness of their potential in politics and government.

Socio-Economic Obstacles

The socio-economic factor is extremely important for women's legislative recruitment in both advanced and developing democracies. It is very clear that the social and economic status of women in society has a direct influence on their participation in political institutions and elided bodies.

Some researchers have found that there is a correlation between women's legislative recruitment and the proportion of women working outside the home as well as the percentage of women college graduates. Socio-economic obstacles hindering women's participation in politics could be classified as follows:

Poverty and unemployment.

Lack of adequate financial resources.

Illiteracy, semi-illiteracy and limited access to education and choice of professions.

The dual burden of domestic tasks and professional obligations.

In the majority of countries, women's unpaid labor activity is twice that of men and the economic value of women's unpaid labor is estimated to be from 10 to 35% of the world's GNP (or $ US 11 trillion). A significant gap still exists between the status of women and men in all Nations.

Recent ILO (International Labor Organization) statistics show that even in a developed country like America, only 5.1% of women occupy "top line" jobs (that is positions as Chief Executives).

Surveys reveal increasing gender discrimination in salaries, recruitment and promotion, as well as growing professional segregation and the feminization of poverty. According to United Nations statistics, 1.3 billion persons in the world live in poverty and 75% of them are women. The gender gap in earning is registered all over the world. A woman's average wage is equal to 75% of a man's average wage.

Although the importance of women's biological and social roles is clear, their input in all spheres of life often goes unrecognized. Moreover, eradication of poverty has shown to have a positive impact on women's increased participation in the democratic process. The economic empowerment of women along with education and access to information will take women from the limitations of the household to their full participation in politics and political elections.

Socio-Cultural Obstacles

In many parts of the world, women are carrying a disproportionate share of domestic work. It is difficult for women to participate in political life when their major concern is survival and they have no choice but to spend much of their time trying to fulfill the basic needs of families.

Most women are of the opinion that having a political career is just like having a journalistic career, which involves choosing between a private life or a public one. No doubt, there may be a time in a woman's life when she could be expected to play the full role of wife and mother but at a later stage, it may be time also to get involved in a full-time career in politics without upsetting the home front. Life is long (i.e. is expected to be) and women can achieve many things at different points.

Yet, examples of remarkable women are abundant. One such woman is Baroness Helena Kennedy QC who appears to have struck a unique balance between a fulfilling career as a wife, mother and most accomplished lawyer. She also possesses several honorary doctorates as well as respected appointments in her profession and society. Such women almost always have the full support of their spouses.

Some general socio-cultural hindrances, which present a clog in the wheel of women's political ambition include cultural patterns and pre-determined social roles assigned to women, which result in women's lack of confidence to run for elections and consequently their lack of interest in personal political careers. The image of women as often portrayed by the media often doesn't enhance their respectability and could, in fact, destroy their public image. Women's image of politics as a dirty game (i.e. involving corruption) is also a major obstacle. Segregated roles for the sexes as enforced by traditional cultural values militate against the advancement, progress and participation of women in any political process.

Politically Motivated Violence And Corruption

In many countries women's lack of interest in politics and lack of confidence in political structures often stem from the "dirty' nature of politics. Corruption is rampant in many developing countries and the political sphere is not left out. People play 'dirty' by bribery and sometimes get involved in elimination of others seen to be opponents.

Most women are frightened by the very thought of violence more so when it could be extended to innocent members of their families. In some countries where they believe in voodoo, juju etc., politicians go to the extent of embracing evil powers, charms and amulets just to eliminate their opponents and win elections. Often these factors (i.e. corruption, evil practices) determine the number of women in relevant elective positions e.g. In countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, Kenya, Bangladesh etc. where these factors abound women are only between 3-9% in elective positions.

Whereas on the other hand, women rank between 30-40.4% in elective positions in countries like Norway, Sweden and Denmark where corruption is quite low. In fact, in Norway today, women constitute 50% of the parliamentary faction of the party and 50% of the Ministers when the party is in power.

In the Scandinavian countries, as earlier mentioned, quota systems were actually instituted in the political parties in favor of women only after thirty years of mobilizing and training of women by women in various spheres of life for political awareness.

Costa Rica had the same socio-cultural hindrances that are prevalent in Nigeria but such have been largely surmounted as they now have up to 30% active participation of women in elective political positions in the country up to the vice-presidential level.

In some cases though women have the same equal rights, freedoms and opportunities as men, they are grossly under represented in the upper echelons of state leadership. The constitutional rights often granted them, are more declarative than actual, mostly due to the under-development and inefficiency of the implementation measures. One such example is the Russian Federation.

Another case is India where women have been having a hard time making politics a worthwhile career and also in equalizing the gender gap.

Generally, Indian politics has in recent times been characterized by criminalization of politics and the threat of character assassination, apart from socio-economic factors that have been hampering female gender politics.

However, the 74th amendment to the Indian Constitution requires that 33% of the seats in local municipal bodies be reserved for women whilst quotas for women in other levels of government are being pursued.

Countries in Africa on the other hand have common problems which when put together make the advent into the political arena a race for only the very tough women. Africa is beset with on going conflicts, millions of refugees, fragile economies exacerbated by endemic corruption, HIV/AIDS, extreme human rights violations, looming food insecurity, illiteracy and unemployment and abject poverty more so for women. Women are also often denied the right to education and the right to own property.

Though several International Conventions, ratified by a number of African countries, have guaranteed women equal fundamental and political rights as men, the enabling environment for the implementation of such treaties is absent.

In sharing the view of a one-time woman parliamentarian of Zimbabwe, it is clear that one valid way in which women can curb these problems and effect changes in their various parties and elected offices, is for women politicians to come together and share their experiences. This in itself will inspire women and ensure that they feel less isolated from the process.


Women effectively constitute approximately half of the world's population and indeed half of each National Population. This is therefore a very important rationale for re-defining our laws, beginning with the 1999 constitution and overhauling the whole gamut of society.

Women are our partners' mothers, wives and daughters and studies have clearly shown repeatedly that women are not and should not be considered as a minority.

To conceptualize issues and develop policies which will affect, directly or indirectly the lives of citizens without taking into account the perspectives, needs, aspirations and realities of all those who will be affected is no longer credible in today's world.

To ignore or refuse to reckon with the force of women is tantamount to fanning the flames and embers of discontent and rebellion.

The world is beginning to become gender-sensitive and gender-friendly: from the U.S.A to Britain, from Canada to Australia, from Norway to Sweden and from India to Costa Rica.

Africa can not afford to be left out. We must recognize the change and demand of the times. We must endeavor to keep up with and indeed be pacesetters of the wind of positive change not only in areas of technological advancement and international democracy but also in the issues that affect our women. We must recognize and harness the latent power and productivity that lies in our women folk, which if utilized positively will result in the multiple progress of our people.

Other African countries can take a cue from South Africa, which currently has a commendable 25% of women in parliament and places seventh in the world in terms of representation of women and comes in third when ranked with other developing countries.

The 'new' South Africa has undertaken various and numerous measures to advance the position of women and to promote gender equality in all spheres.

It is my hope that our leaders in Nigeria will choose the right option, which is to make our constitution our laws and indeed our society gender-sensitive and gender-friendly for the benefit of all.

Mrs. Nkoyo Rapu