Thursday, March 24, 2016 1:14 pm
By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
In my article about the ‘Foot in Mouth’ Senators in Nigeria for abovewhispers.com, I wrote about the patronizing attitude of some of our male Senators towards Nigerian women. I did not expect that the distinguished gentlemen would take up more time and space this week, with the dismissal of the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill that was presented by Senator Abiodun Olujimi representing Ekiti State. There has been a huge outcry following this and rightfully so. The Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki, sensing a lot of trouble ahead, has stated that the Bill will be re-presented. That is fair enough. We will ‘sheathe’ our swords for now, and pull back our troops to strategise for the battle ahead.
I have been in New York for the past one week, attending this year’s United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. This meeting is popularly known as ‘CSW’, and it is the time of year, usually February-March, when the United Nations receives reports from member states around the world on the status of women, and when non-governmental organisations, governments, corporate sector partners and other interested parties organize side-events to share information on various issues. Usually, before the annual CSW meetings in New York, there are regional Ministerial meetings around the world to prepare positions for the next CSW. After the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing, the CSW began to use the annual meeting to focus on implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action.
Every five years there would be a wholistic review of progress made at national, regional and international level. I started attending CSW in 1993, when I was based in London working for AMwA, an international development organisation for African women. Over the past twenty three years, I don’t think I have missed more than four CSWs. I have been involved in CSW in various capacities – as a member of the NGO caucus, an organizer of the African Caucus, a sponsor of parallel activities, a member of official government delegations and during my time as Executive Director of the African Women’s Development Fund, funder of many NGO participants from Africa. In addition, I have had to attend most of the relevant preparatory meetings at the Africa regional level, because there is no point going to the annual CSW without a regional perspective.
The CSW meetings usually start at 8am in the morning and go on till 8pm, after which there are dinners and receptions which are of course meetings all over again. There is a wide range of official and parallel activities to choose from, and except for when you have to speak at a particular program, you are free to use your time as you wish. For those who find themselves in New York with more of a tourist agenda than a commitment to duty, the city offers other attractions outside of the halls of the United Nations and the other venues where the meetings take place. Sometimes it gets a bit tiresome listening to the same debates year in year out, as new faces come on the scene from both the governmental and non-governmental sectors. The smart countries have a group of skilled Gender Specialists based in their UN Missions in New York, and on the official delegations, who ensure that their respective countries keep abreast of issues and remain committed to their obligations. However, many countries insist on re-inventing the wheel every time.
I have provided this context so that you can understand how, after twenty three years of attending this meeting to appraise the world of our progress, I found myself feeling very distressed, having to explain to my sisters, particularly from the African continent, why Nigeria finds it difficult to pass a Bill on Gender Equality. Other African countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda to mention a few, all have legislation that promotes and protects women’s rights. These laws include Affirmative Action to create a level playing field in the area of women and political participation. These are all countries with their own share of diverse religious, ethnic, political and cultural contexts.
They have however managed to wade through these landmines to arrive at a consensus that none of their development goals can be achieved without the full and equal participation of women. There are still large gaps between policy/legislation and implementation in all these places, but at least there is a baseline. Like all these countries, Nigeria has international obligations through the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action, and the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, amongst others. None of the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals which Nigeria is currently championingcan be achieved without the empowerment of women.
In Nigeria, our representatives keep beating the ‘religion, culture and tradition’ drum as if we are the only country that is managing a diverse heritage. When women are being coaxed out to vote in large numbers, when women fuel the political machinery to get these men into office, sometimes losing their lives in the process, their religion, ethnicity and culture does not matter then. However, when it comes to allocation of positions, passing legislation that will empower them, and generally acknowledging them as full and equal partners in governance, that is when the ‘religion, culture and tradition’ card is played. The annoying part is at every opportunity, these leaders keep saying, ‘We recognize women as equal partners in development, or ‘God created us equally’.
Why do we keep seeing women left destitute when their husbands or fathers die, because they cannot inherit? Why do so many women and girls keep being battered and killed? Why do we have such abysmal numbers of women in decision-making? Why does it seem as if misogyny and religious dogma have gradually but firmly become part of our daily existence? It seems as if in the case of women, all human beings are equal, but someare more equal than others.
If this is the case, why do we keep seeing women left destitute when their husbands or fathers die, because they cannot inherit? Why do so many women and girls keep being battered and killed? Why do we have such abysmal numbers of women in decision-making? Why does it seem as if misogyny and religious dogma have gradually but firmly become part of our daily existence? It seems as if in the case of women, all human beings are equal, but some are more equal than others.
I decided to become a Gender Specialist because after the Fourth UN Conference on Women in Nairobi 1985, as a young woman who had just graduated from University and was interested in women’s rights issues, I felt that I needed the necessary academic, research and analytical tools to frame issues and debates and take them out of the realm of ‘emotions and sentiments’ which is where the issues are usually consigned, even up till this moment. Over the years, I have learnt in theory and in practice, what works and what roads lead to nowhere. What works is strategic thinking and alliances, sensitization, listening, a clear articulation of issues, learning exchanges, partnerships, accountability and movement building. What does not work is preaching to the unconvertible, ineffective coordination and lack of communication. Hopefully, lessons have been learnt all round from what happened on the floor of the Senate in Nigeria on March 15th.
The Bill will go back, and next time we will claim a victory. In the interim, I am calling on all my Nigerian sisters tobe on full alert. Come to think of it, ever since we voted in the Senators, we have not paid them a visit. We need to find out if they are alright, if the food in the Senate is cooked properly, if their seats are comfortable enough or if their conditioning is working well. We cannot rely on the assurances of others to determine this, we need to see for ourselves. So I hereby suggest we kill two birds with one stone. When the Bill is to be presented next time, we will use the opportunity to take a few women to the Senate, maybe just one million out of the 84 million women we have in Nigeria. That should be modest enough to verify the welfare of our distinguished Senators. Amina Salihu, ObyNwankwo, Laila St Mathew Daniel, Obi Ezekwesili, Joe Okei-Odumakin, Saudatu Mahdi,BukkyShonibare, Kate Henshaw, Ayisha Osori, Funke Baruwa and my many other activist friends, what say you?
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 [email protected]