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Nigeria: Women's Empowerment - 2002-02-06

Nigerian women are coming together to chart a new course to increase their participation and influence in politics. They say their goal is to play a more active role in the 2003 general elections. The latest initiative is from women in the northwest zone, including Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara states. It’s supported by the African Center for Democratic Governance, an NGO that is providing a platform for the women to exchange views. Zainab Ahmad reports from Sokoto.

Half of Nigeria’s more than one hundred million people are women. But they say they have been politically marginalized and are not well represented in government, even after the return to civilian rule.

Most analysts say there are more women in the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo than in past administrations. But women activists say that’s not enough. In fact they say it is a far cry from what they want. Women make up only three per cent of Senate, four per cent of the Lower House of representatives, and fourteen percent of ministers and special advisers. There are only two percent of women councilors nationwide.

A member of the House of Representatives, Florence Aya, says men have dominated the political scene for so long that it is taking the women a long time to break through. She says, "We have the cultural belief that women are just for the kitchen and raising children. some people still don't believe that women have other roles to play."

She adds that years of military rule have entrenched male-dominated governance, since most of the members of the military are men. And she says economic problems make it even harder for women. "We have financial constraints, " She says, "because women need empowerment to be able to participate in politics. You need some money for posters; you need some money for going round the constituency where they are going to elect you."

Another female activist, Hadiza Mohammed, says on top of that, many Nigerian men, especially those in the northwest, are not so keen on allowing women to play an active role in politics. Mrs. Mohammed, director of the Zamfara State Ministry of Women Affairs, says, "We are looking for support from our men. Then we are looking for financial support … with the support of our husbands who are political leaders, our society, even in our religion Islam, we are looking for our Mallams to give our men awareness on the position of women in politics."

The Abuja-based NGO, the African Center for Democratic Governance, held a three-day forum for women in the northwestern States of Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara. Jonathan Ogunlowo, who works at the center, says the goal was to bring women together to articulate their views and map out strategies for enhancing their participation in nation building and development.

"Programs like these," she says, "should bring awareness that women can now discuss the problems that hinder their participation to work out solutions so that women should be partners in development."

During the forum, participants called on the Federal Government to implement the United Nations declaration on women, which calls for women to be allowed to hold up to thirty percent of the seats in parliament.

House representative Florence Aya says the issue of gender equality attracted more attention than any other issue because the Nigerian Constitution has not adequately addressed it. Mrs. Aya says the Constitution should protect the rights of women and legislate against all forms of discrimination against them, including political discrimination.

She says for Nigerian women to effectively participate in the 2003 elections, they should be encouraged to present themselves as candidates. And she says they should vote for female candidates who will promote the interests of women. Mrs. Aya says that’s the only way women will gain access to the thirty percent of parliamentary seats allowed them in the constitution.

For VOA Africa Zainab Ahmad