During a visit to Nigeria in January this year, the UK special envoy on gender equality, Joanna Roper told journalists 250 million pounds has been earmarked by the British government towards getting more Nigerian women get into political offices, mediation and conflict resolution roles.

Laudable gestures like this risk the unintended effect of the average Nigerian thinking the UK has achieved gender equality in politics. Not quite. Though women are more than half the population, UK has less than a 3rd women MPs and ranks 38th globally for parliamentary gender equality.

No doubt there are lessons to learn from the UK, however, if we really want to see a marked change, we must cast our gaze homewards, to Rwanda.

49 percent women 6 percent representation

Every four years,I pretend I've woken up to a different world where gender equality is now the norm rather than the exception, where women have an equal chance of being elected as the flag bearer of one or both major political parties in Nigeria and where they have all the support they need and deserve to mount a sustained campaign well into the elections and where they have a genuine chance of winning. Every four years, I am awakened from my slumber.

How did the world's most populous black nation and Africa's largest economy miss the zeitgeist of the mid-2000s as 12 sub-Saharan countries elected more than 30 percent women to legislative houses, five elected more than 40 and Rwanda elected more than 60 percent?

Women account for almost 50 percent of the Nigerian population, however, only 6 percent of federal legislative positions are occupied by women. Nigeria currently ranks 183rd on parliamentary gender equality index, with only 10 non-African countries trailing behind.

There's no denying Nigeria and Nigerian women need every help available to bridge the gaping inequality that exists in politics, however, a pause for thought is needed as we contemplate what barriers stand in women's way, what are the most sustainable solutions in surmounting them and whom we should model when crafting those solutions.

Barriers

According to Social Psychologist Alice Eagly, "The female gender role is based on the stereotype that women are nice, kind, compassionate. While we expect leaders to take charge, be assertive, tough". Ingrained stereotypes like these could leave women torn between being the stereotypical woman and be seen as nice but weak or leader and risk been seen as competent but unlikeable. This no-win dilemma is called 'the double bind'.

Well entrenched gender bias in politics makes it difficult for women to be nominated/selected/elected as flagbearers of their political parties. When they do get elected, they are often held to higher standards and are expected to prove they can do the job as a man would, effectively denying her ability to lead, setting her up to fail.

Women are more likely to be judged unfairly, harshly and inadequately for failing, thus, the vicious cycle of not daring to put ones head above the parapet is complete. Those who dare walk against the crowd are seen as stepping out of their traditional gender roles, this may lead to harassment or overt violence, more so in countries like Nigeria.

Then there's the money problem. Campaigns are expensive, fundraising requires skills some women may not have and can't afford to hire due to intersecting inequalities such as economic inequality, social inequality and structural inequality. Women may not be as forthright in asking for donations and may not have built the social capital needed for a successful campaign.  

More women in politics? Why?

When tempted to ask why we need women in politics or what impact more women in political offices has brought/can bring, we may want to rephrase and ask instead: what gains has there been since half of the population has held on to power for so long, denying the talents and skills, richness of solutions women can bring to leadership.

Politics, governance is not a birthright or privilege reserved for men. In a country where almost half the population is female, the abysmal number of women in political offices is certainly not representative of the reality and is definitely not indicative of modern day democracy.

Research shows when women are involved in conflict resolution processes, agreements reached are 35 percent more likely to last at least 50 years. In countries with a high number of elected women such as Ecuador, Senegal and Rwanda, women are more likely to introduce bills promoting education, health, safety and the environment.

Solutions

If there's ever a nonfiction story of a country reinventing itself and picking itself up from the ashes of all the things it once held dear, it is Rwanda.

The president recognised that rebuilding the country from the destruction the genocide left in its wake would require not just men, but also women. When a new constitution passed in 2003, 30 percent of parliamentary seats were reserved for women. Rwanda has since seen an increase in laws on violence against children and laws allowing women to inherit land have been passed. It is currently one of the most stable countries in Africa.

A 2018 report by Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) recommends Nigeria introduce electoral gender quota for the recruitment and elections of women, with strict sanctions for parties who don’t comply. There is merit to this, nine of the top 10 countries on the parliamentary gender equality list have legal or voluntary quotas in place. Some have adopted positive discrimination in ensuring more women are elected.

We need more stories of women told by women in the media. Though it may take another 217 years to close the economic gender gap globally, women, Nigerian women are leading businesses, charities, media corporations and representing their constituents as elected or appointed officials, these success stories need to be told, spotlighted, celebrated.

It is not enough to show up and vote for female candidates, supporting them all the way matters - donating our time, skills and resources as volunteers, donating to their campaign fund, setting up fundraising and social events, getting others involved too. 

Perhaps equal representation should not be expected to happen in one fell swoop, maybe it is about chipping away at the bias and barriers in women's path, deliberately, consistently, like the waves eat away at the immobile rocks in its path. And maybe, this is where the 250 million pounds could be useful: promoting or creating new media narratives about female leadership, where the stories of women leading in their communities, businesses, companies, in politics are told the way they deserve to be. Stories like these reinforce women's leadership capabilities and could begin to dislodge deep-seated biases.

By electing more women, Nigeria will be tapping into previously unrecognised and untapped, intellect, solutions, ideas. Every successful company knows these are goldmines.

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