Seeking Legislative Framework for the 35% Affirmative Action

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Udora Orizu writes that clamour by federal female lawmakers for an Executive Bill on the 35 percent affirmative action formed the crux of discussion at a training and advocacy workshop organized by National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies

Since the return of democracy to the country in 1999, there has been growing concern over low representation of women in both elective and appointive positions.

Women constitute over half of the population of the world and contribute in vital ways to societal development generally. They assume key roles, which include; mother, caregivers, educators, entrepreneurs, political activists, just to name a few. But despite that, women are still being excluded, marginalised and underrepresented in political realms and other sectors of the society, due to some cultural stereotypes, abuse of religion, traditional practices and patriarchal societal structures.

Michelle Bachelet, Former President of Chile and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, once said, ”For me, a better democracy is a democracy where women do not only have the right to vote and to elect but to be elected.”

The significant impact on governance and nation-building, made by some women in Nigeria can never be overemphasized. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is one of the eminent Nigerian women on the global space. Okonjo-Iweala who served the nation as Finance Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, is currently on the verge of becoming the first female and the first African Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In Nigeria, the extant National Gender Policy (NGP) recommended 35 percent affirmative action and sought for a more inclusive representation of women with at least 35% of both elective political and appointive public service positions respectively.

Recently, female lawmakers in the Senate and the House of Representatives stepped up the push for greater representation of women in politics and other sectors of the society.

The lawmakers who expressed their views at a two-day training and advocacy workshop for federal and state female lawmakers on gender responsive legislation, in Abuja, called on President Muhammadu Buhari to forward an Executive Bill to the two chambers of the National Assembly on 35 percent affirmative action.

In July 2017, the Senate voted against a proposal to alter the Constitution to provide for 35 percent affirmative action for women in federal and state cabinets. A total of 49 of the 96 senators present during the electronic voting on the bill to further amend the 1999 Constitution supported the proposal. Despite the slight majority, however, the proposal still failed as it came short of the 73 votes required to approve the affirmative action.

Meanwhile, current statistics reveals that women constitute only 11.2 percent of the membership in both chambers of the 9th National Assembly, with seven females in the Senate and 11 in the House of Representatives.

Delivering his keynote address at the workshop, the Director General of NILDS Prof. Abubakar Sulaiman said the exclusion of women in politics has been identified in recent times as one of the major setbacks for economic development.

He noted that while several efforts have been made to address the low participation and representation of women in elective and appointive positions in Nigeria, these interventions have been hampered by patriarchal practice, stigmatization as well as religious and cultural factors.

The DG while commending the leadership of National Assembly for approving the partnership between NILDS and UN Women on the workshop,
said the workshop centres on gender-responsive legislation as a means to addressing some of the myriad challenges that women and girls face in Nigeria.

Part of his address read, ”I welcome all participants from the various state houses of assembly, who have had to travel long distances to participate in this exercise. I equally thank legislators from the National Assembly who, despite the busy schedule involving budget defense, have carved out time to participate in this opening ceremony.

”This affirms our combined commitment to mainstreaming gender into legislative business and processes, improving women’s involvement in leadership, decision-making and protecting women and girls especially in conflict situations.
As you are all aware, women are integral to the very essence of society. In Nigeria and other societies, women are the thread that hold the family together. They also play a central role in the economy and community management. For instance, women form the bulk of the informal sector, which contributes to 60% of Nigeria’s entire economy. The participation of women in the labour force extends to agriculture, which is the mainstay of Nigeria.

”However, the exclusion of women in politics has been identified in recent times as one of the major setbacks for economic development. In spite of being a strong pillar for grassroots politics, the participation of women in politics still faces many challenges, making it difficult for them to harness available opportunities for national development. While several efforts have been made to address the low participation and representation of women in elective and appointive positions in Nigeria, these interventions have been hampered by patriarchal practice, stigmatization as well as religious and cultural factors. As it stands today, women constitute only about 11.6% of the National Assembly in a country where they make up about 60% of the population.

”In addition, despite this central role played by women, they are also the most vulnerable and worst affected by violent conflict. The dimensions of violence against women and girls during conflict are reflected in their increased vulnerability to loss, violence and harm. Specifically, women and girls experience ‘reduced access to resources, livelihood inputs and basic services; increased family and social responsibilities; restricted mobility; unequal access to protective services and legal mechanisms; as well as inadequate political power at local and national levels.

”As recently demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls are equally disproportionately affected by emergencies. In Nigeria, the livelihoods of women were severely threatened due to lockdown measures and restriction of economic activities. This, in turn increased their exposure to risks, abuse and exploitation. A rapid assessment of the impact of the lockdown on women across Nigeria, indicated, among other things, that there has been an increase in reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence and related offences across the country. Additionally, there has been a spike in incidences and reports of violence against women within the household. This precarious situation of women and girls was further compounded by the absence of gendered-policy frameworks in state responses to COVID-19 at all levels of government. There were no clear measures to address gender-based violence (GBV) and child protection in COVID-19 response and recovery plans and ensure that plans are gender and age responsive and multi-sectoral.

”These and others underscore the importance of this capacity building workshop which is targeted at improving participants’ understanding not only of legislative and governance processes but also identifying areas for legislative intervention with regards improving women’s political participation. Gender-responsive lawmaking requires that legislators understand the impact of proposed laws and how they might be better designed to achieve outcomes which meet the needs of women.

”At this workshop therefore, legislators will gain knowledge on how to analyse laws and policies through the lens of gender responsiveness. It is important that legislators are able to identify implicit and explicit gender issues; assess whether a law/policy will continue or change existing inequalities between men and women; assess patterns of gender relations; and determine whether and to what degree proposed laws/policies enhance the democratic rights of women.”

In her goodwill message, UN Women Country Representative, Ms. Comfort Lamptey said the workshop could not be more timely, happening in a period when Nigeria is undergoing a constitutional review process.

Lamptey said the achievement of gender equality and protection of women’s rights is critical if Nigeria is to meet its deepest aspirations in this decade of action as we race to attain the SDG targets.

She said this specific workshop for female lawmakers and female deputy governors in Nigeria as well as strengthening capacities of staff of the NILDS are intended to facilitate on gender responsive practices for both male and female lawmakers at the national and state level.

Mulling for an Executive Bill on 35 percent affirmative action

In their remarks, female lawmakers in both chambers of the National Assembly
bemoaned frustrations from their male counterparts whenever issues affecting women were brought up for consideration during constitution amendment exercises.

Senator Oluremi Tinubu said male politicians will continue to frustrate any move to give women a special place in government without the intervention of Mr President.

She appealed to Buhari to send an Executive Bill to that effect and persuade the leadership of the National Assembly to pass it.

Also, speaking, the Deputy Chief Whip, of the House of Representatives, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, said everything must be done to guarantee the place of women in politics.

She said, ”There are still too many obstacles restricting women in Nigeria. This is more prevalent and damaging in politics and governance. We keep women from participating in governance. The society suffers because of this. It often feels as if our best days are behind us. I wholeheartedly support women’s participation in politics. I support and endorse moves to help women in government.”

Meanwhile, their male counterparts who were represented at the workshop also advocated for greater representation of women.

President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila decried obstacles which restrict the ability of women to reach their true potential and to contribute to their societies to the full extent of their abilities, talents and ambitions.

Lawan, while declaring the workshop open said women have been outstanding especially in their input to National development and concentrating on them is a reminder of their value adding roles, which have additionally increased how we understand issues towards proper decision making.

Represented by, Deputy Chief Whip of Senate, Sabi Abdullahi, he lamented that
women incidentally are in an environment still dominated by men.

Lawan said, ”The legislature is the heartbeat of democracy considering it’s representational character and its ability to dissect issues from multiple perspectives, the legislature is therefore a meeting of minds coming from different geographies , cultures, backgrounds and world views. Crucial in the composition of the legislature are women. Women incidentally are in an environment still dominated by men, leading us to the need to canvass for improved representation of the women folk. The women we presently have achievers both in the chambers and out and have emerged as beacons of the girl child.”

On his part, Gbajabiamila represented by House Deputy Chief Whip, Hon. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha said women’s rights are the great unfinished business of the 21st century.

According to him, ”When, as is often the case now we keep women from participating in politics and governance at the scale they ought to, society suffers. It does not matter whether these restrictions are legal or cultural economic or religious. The end results are still the same we end up with a country where after sixty years of independence. I support this workshop wholeheartedly and I encourage all efforts to improve women’s participation in politics and governance. I endorse all well thought out efforts to support women who are already in government so that they can be more effective public servants.”

Also, the Clerk to the National Assembly, Ojo Olatunde Amos, in his remarks said, ”it is a known fact that Nigerian women are underrepresented in Nigerian parliaments and sadly, women and girls continue to suffer from inequitable enactment and policies all over Africa; Nigerian women and girls continue to suffer even the more because of shortage of legislations that would have ameliorated their plights. Therefore, talking about enhancing the technical capacity at female legislators to the enactment of gender sensitive legislations could not have come at a better time than now.

”It is altruism that gender inequality underpins many problems which disproportionately affect women and girls. these issues includes domestic and sexual violence, low pay; lack of access to qualitative education, inadequate health care; women reproductive rights; abduction of girls; under age rape etc.

”As female legislators in Nigeria, you should be able to equip yourselves with adequate technical capacity to handle the myriad of problems confronting the women and girls in Nigeria. Specifically, female legislators must be able to push through the necessary legislations that would give enough quota to women seeking political power in Nigeria; in order for them to compete significantly with the male folks.

”As leaders in your own right, the generality of women in our country are looking up to you eagerly to make them proud; hence, I eagerly call on all of you to make use of this wonderful opportunity to the maximum and acquire the absolute technical prowess to help lift the women and girls from the excruciating pit of irrelevance, pity, ignorance and stagnation.”

QUOTE

In their remarks, female lawmakers in both chambers of the National Assembly
bemoaned frustrations from their male counterparts whenever issues affecting women were brought up for consideration during constitution amendment exercises.
Senator Oluremi Tinubu said male politicians will continue to frustrate any move to give women a special place in government without the intervention of Mr President. She appealed to Buhari to send an Executive Bill to that effect and persuade the leadership of the National Assembly to pass it. Also, speaking, the Deputy Chief Whip, of the House of Representatives, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, said everything must be done to guarantee the place of women in politics