Our women and girls deserve a better deal

Against the background of the recent appointment of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the theme for the 2021 International Women’s Day could not be more apt: ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’. Okonjo-Iweala is not just a Nigerian, she is the first African and the first woman to hold the position in the 72 years history of the organisation, giving practical effect to the United Nations aspiration to have “women at every table where decisions are being made.”

As women all over the world therefore mark the 2021 International Women’s Day to celebrate their achievements, critical stakeholders in Nigeria must also come to terms with the fact that our women and girls deserve a better deal. They have proved wrong the erroneous notion imposed by patriarchy that women are inferior to men while gender equality is not just a human rights issue, it is essential for the achievement of sustainable development and a peaceful, prosperous society. Critical stakeholders must therefore come to terms with the fact that circumscribing access to opportunities that ultimately empowers women who make up about 50 per cent of the Nigerian population is counterproductive for the development of our society.

On a day such as this, not only do we salute our women, we join their efforts as they continue to fight all forms of discrimination. Doing that include adopting, strengthening and implementing legislations that will promote gender balance in all aspects of our national life. Beyond any proposed legislations, however, there are clear and definite constitutional provisions that entrench the rights of women that are being observed in the breach. Unfortunately, reminding some Nigerians of these fundamental guarantees seems futile while the people expected to defend or promote those rights hardly care. If we must include our women in the governing process, dealing with these issues is therefore important.

Meanwhile, for change to happen, it would take collective global action. That women are underrepresented, according to a recent UN Secretary General’s recent report, is reflected in the fact that women head government only in 22 countries while only 24.9 per cent of national parliamentarians are women. The glass ceiling, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “is perhaps most apparent for women in areas that challenge ‘hard power’. In politics, men and women vote at similar rates, but less than one quarter of parliamentary seats globally are held by women. This isn’t just a gender gap. It’s a power gap.”

This is particularly more so in Nigeria that is traditionally patriarchal. Nothing perhaps speaks to gender imbalance in the country than the number of representations in the various arms of government both in the states and at the federal level. Since the commencement of the Fourth Republic in 1999 (22 years ago), the number of elected women in both the executive and legislative arms of government has been abysmally low. At the level of the executive, no woman has ever been elected the president of the country or governor of any state. At the legislative level both at federal and the component states, the number of elected legislators is less than five per cent. We have had a female Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) who left a worthy legacy in the judiciary.

As Nigeria therefore joins the rest of the world to mark the International Women’s Day, we must celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of our mothers, sisters and daughters. But we also need an institutional mechanism to strategically address all the impediments placed against them. That is the only way to assure our women that we care about their welfare and the prosperity of our country.