Why women’s rights lie at the heart of the 2015 Nigerian elections

2 March 2015

'The normal becomes abnormal, the abnormal becomes normal'
(Ngozi Eze, Country Director for Women for Women International – Nigeria)

Delays to Nigeria’s highly contested Presidential elections have attracted a great deal of international attention in the last couple of months. Accusations by the challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, that a failure to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency is being used by President Goodluck Jonathan as an excuse to prevent free, fair and safe elections for Nigerians dominates the headlines. Interestingly however, this reading of the political situation overlooks the fact that issues of women’s rights lie squarely at the heart of many of the key political challenges facing the country.

I had the opportunity to attend Women for Women International’s parliamentary briefing on women’s rights in Nigeria at the UK House of Lords last week and was struck by how high the stakes are for ensuring that tackling inequality, education outcomes and political participation reach the many women and girls locked out of national debates. Even where public declarations indicate that political will is there, such as around ensuring the security of girls in accessing education safely, women’s groups within the country are not seeing this followed up in practice. Consequently, the realities of daily life for many women are being distorted and made more difficult in unexpected and troubling ways.

The impact that Boko Haram’s aggressive and brutal insurgency is having on the country cannot be underestimated. Over 1.5 million people have now been displaced as a result of the conflict. Yet Virginia Comolli, a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IIS), chillingly illustrated that the knock-on effects of their assault on women’s rights goes beyond the horrifying kidnapping, forced conversions to Islam and rape of young girls and women. Boko Haram is increasingly using women to lure soldiers into position for attack, to smuggle weapons and, as was reported last week, as suicide bombers. Tellingly, the national and international reporting of these instances of women being party to Boko Haram activity paints them as passive participants, stripping women of motive, voice and agency.

The security force response has also exacerbated the position of women in this conflict, with wives and children (including babies) married to suspected insurgents being incarcerated for several months without charge and adequate access to health care. These infringements are leading to women’s rights being rapidly chipped away from both sides.

That said, much of the debate at this event concentrated squarely on some of the ways in which women are challenging cultural norms and reshaping politics progressively in Nigeria. Ngozi Eze, Country Director for Women for Women International’s work in the country, spoke compellingly on the achievements of women’s empowerment projects she and her team had been working on since 2000, including skilling up women on sustainable economic livelihood options, HIV/AIDS prevention and political participation in their communities. One vivid consequence has been to empower women to collectively support each other around domestic issues. Ngozi gave an example where the husband of a woman who had been beaten woke up to found their home surrounded by female neighbours who challenged him to try and beat them all.

More recently, Ngozi has pioneered a programme focusing squarely at men that aimed to sensitise traditional community and religious leaders around family planning, access to education for girls and the challenges faced by widows in negotiating their transitions into being head of households and obtaining economic security. Promisingly, many of these trainings were held with both Muslim and Christian men and are contributing to wider peace-building efforts within communities that have seen religious conflict.

Marina Narnor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy reported on efforts her organization has made to work with the small number of women elected as MPs at the last national election (a disappointing seven per cent in 2011). In order to support these politicians in effective representation and oversight of national policies, they have built links with civil society and academia to provide them with an evidence and analysis base that can strengthen their capacity to draw gender considerations into the political process.

I found this particularly heartening, as both myself and a number of other colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies are currently working on an element of the Voices for Change: Empowering Adolescent Girls and Women in Nigeria (V4C) programme called Gender Hub, which is establishing a portal where gender experts, activists and academics can find collections of research evidence and e-learning courses that speak directly to the Nigerian context, as well as encouraging the formation of strong networks and communities of practice. There are promising signs of spaces where we might be able to collaborate to support women’s engagement at many levels of the political process.

As it heads to the polls, it is easy to find much to be disheartened about when looking at the current political shockwaves that rock Nigeria. One thing is clear though: women and the issues they wrestle with every day have never been more crucial in the calculus of voters and politicans alike in deciding the outcome of this election. Whilst there is still a long way to go to force them to the front of the political and media agenda, it is hard to see these priorities (and progress in concrete policy terms) moving far from the spotlight both during and in the aftermath of this month’s national vote.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer in the Gender and Sexuality research cluster at IDS. He can be found on Twitter at: @StephenWood_UK

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