I have an older friend who is from Zimbabwe. I will call her Hannah. She fought in the Zimbabwe liberation war in the 1970s. Then she was a young girl, but she experienced things people thrice her age could not even imagine. When the war was over and Zimbabwe became an independent nation State in 1980, she managed to go back to school to train as a Social Worker. The political movement she had served all her life was now in power through the political party ZANU-PF.
Things got a bit better for people in her country, but not for women. Women were still the poorest of the poor. Women were still victims of gender-based violence. Women could not inherit land. Women did not have much of a voice in decision making. The liberation struggles in the frontline states in the 1970s and 80s – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola and others caused massive upheavals in the Southern Africa region. This helped aid the spread of HIV/AIDS, as people moved from one part of the region to another, fleeing conflict as refugees or looking for work as migrants. When the HIV/AIDS pandemic hit, not only were women the most vulnerable to infection, they were the ones who had to care for sick members of their families. Entire households were wiped out, often leaving frail grandmothers to look after grandchildren, or worse still, children looking after children. Hannah and women like her had their hands full.
Hannah became a Member of Parliament in Zimbabwe. However, she refused to toe the party line all the time. She did not want to do business as usual. She wanted the government to be accountable to the people, especially women. Many of the people she was in parliament with had not been freedom fighters. They had been studying in elite schools abroad during the liberation wars. When all was safe and good, they came back home and rode to power on the back of a struggle women like Hannah had almost lost their lives for. They did not understand why Hannah was always ‘angry’, and ‘stubborn’. Why could she not be like the other women, quiet and amenable? Hannah left the comfort of her familiar political terrain and joined the opposition. Leaving the safety of her old party left Hannah vulnerable to attacks.
She was hounded, arrested, and put through all kinds of humiliation. All this did not deter Hannah. She decided to focus her energies on her civil society activities, whilst at the same time trying to influence government policies. Due to the fact that over time, women’s rights activists from the old frontline states became so disillusioned with their respective countries, a proactive movement for gender justice in the Southern Africa region became quite visible. This was driven mainly by the need for accountability to women. If women are good enough to carry guns and fight in the bush, why are they not good enough to hold positions of leadership in their countries? It has been suggested that it is the countries that have gone through violent conflict that provide the most opportunities for women to lead. Women are the first to join forces to demand for peace as we witnessed in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And in the case of Rwanda, as the country began the painful process of reconstruction after the 1994 genocide, it was done with an acknowledgement that women had to be key stakeholders if there was to be any meaningful future. Today, Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament in the world at 63%.
I decided to share Hannah’s story because I have been thinking a lot lately about the about the issue of women and leadership in Nigeria and the ten steps forward five back that we seem to be stuck with. By now we know all the issues. How difficult it is for women to run for office or become leaders due to negative gender stereotypes, religion and tradition. How expensive politics can be, or the culture of violence that has become so endemic. How women do all the work to sustain party machineries through their mobilization and coordination efforts, only to be marginalized when it is time to allocate positions. A question you will have by now is what needs to happen? First, there needs to be a consensus on the need for women’s voices to be heard, hereby popularizing the notion of women’s leadership. Second, Affirmative Action and Quotas is the key to ensuring that the number of women in decision making across all sectors continues to grow and not drop. If this does not happen, women will keep embarking on futile visits to political leaders asking for favours that are supposed to be rights. We cannot continue to point to the large numbers of women in leadership in South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda without taking into consideration the role constitutional provisions such as Affirmative Action have played in those places. Third, women who have been privileged to receive an education and other benefits owe it to other women to pull them up. Professional women continue to complain about poor leadership, but they do not go home to their communities to get involved in what is happening. They stay at a safe distance in the cities, and show up six months to an election wanting to contest. When they lose, they declare, ‘it is because I am a woman’. Fourth, women need to get actively involved in the leadership of political parties. That is where decisions are taken, at whatever unholy hour the meetings are held. Women should not be pushed into the positions of ‘Women Leader’ or ‘Welfare Officer’ only. Women can be Party Chairpersons, Treasurer, Legal Adviser and so on. When it comes to the Women’s Wings of political parties, we need to see dedicated women, the likes of Hannah, who are committed to promoting the cause of women and the vulnerable and not just seeking for positions that will accrue to them alone. Fifth, a major obstacle confronting women in politics is money. A Lawyer friend of mine in Kenya teamed up with other professional women towards the Kenyan elections in 2008. They set up an investment fund and used it to sponsor some women in the elections, something they have continued at every election since then. Let us channel all the money we spend on Aso Ebi (family uniforms), expensive clothes and jewelry towards creating political space for other women. Sixth, our political party leaders should do more to support grassroots female politicians. These are the women who do all the hard work of cooking, cleaning, organizing chairs and dancing at the rallies. When elections are won, they are ignored and more educated women are brought in to take up positions. This breeds a lot of resentment. A lot can be done to support these grassroots politicians such as local government positions, education opportunities and financing to grow their businesses. It breaks my heart when I see women labour in vain. Seventh, our electoral processes should have zero tolerance for violence of any kind. As long as politics is associated with thuggery and violence, good people will stay away. A famous politician from Ibadan, Oyo State, who passed away a few years ago, asked an aspirant who had gone to him for endorsement, ‘Can you lie, maim or kill? If not, you are not ready to be a politician’. If this is the perception people have of politics, we will continue to be ruled by thugs. Last but not least, while we continue to push for more women in decision making, we also need to emphasise that we are not pushing for women just for the sake of it. We should not be supporting women who are corrupt or anti-people, and who want to do business as usual with the boys. We need women who will nurture and encourage other women and not kick the ladder down once they have climbed up. We would like to see women who are able to leave concrete legacies behind to encourage the narrative that women can indeed lead well. In addition, I am sick and tired of seeing competent women leaders wasting their time on fringe political parties.
I am quite disappointed at the shrinking political space for Nigerian women. Sadly, it might not be fully addressed now, but the work can begin immediately after this electoral cycle. This narrative has to change for the better. The Hannahs of this world have worked too hard for so long, they would hate to see others behind them marching on one spot.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com