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Celebrating International Women’s Day: Are We Really Embracing Women in Nigeria? By Matthew Ma

March 10, 2023

“We know we cannot solve the Nigerian crisis if half of the population is left behind. So, as we celebrate the achievements and contributions of Nigerian women, let us reaffirm our commitment to ensure that we lead women to realize their full potential.”

Our world cannot be complete without women because they are the epitome of strength, love, sacrifice, courage, and beauty. A society without women is nothing because our daily lives would halt. Our world would mean nothing if there were no women in it.

In other words, a world without women would be empty and boring. Women manage and maintain infrastructures erected and built by men. From working at home to working in the office, women shape the future of any given community or country. They play essential roles in raising children and harmonizing the world. Their courage, tenderness, and ability to move through life while conquering daily challenges are top-notch. Yet, they faced gender-based discrimination and violence in their families, communities, and the public. They lacked freedom and had no fundamental rights like other human beings. In the ancient era, women were politicians, spiritual and religious leaders, warriors, and respectable icons, symbols of fertility and prosperity. Somewhere along the line, the female-dominated culture of early social groups switched from a matriarchal setting to a patriarchal one, meaning that men took the front-row seat as leaders and kings. For thousands of years, men dominated our society culturally and historically.

Most scholars hold that there are no longer unambiguously matriarchal societies. It is well-known that women have not been placed on the same level since then, never on the same pedestal as men throughout the centuries but always covering minor roles characterized by submission. But the New Testament has its fair share of women to admire.

There were many of these women Jesus loved during His earthly ministry, a sign of how men and women are equal in the kingdom of God. Before the disciples wrote the New Testament, men did not treat women close to equally. And yet, Jesus loved women, taught women, and sought out women to share the Good News. Luke 8:1–3 lists Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna as three women who followed Jesus with the disciples. Although many scholars have contested the details of the relationship between Jesus and these women, they reflect the prominent historical roles women played as disciples in Jesus' ministry. There are female disciples at the foot of the cross. Mary Magdalene was the first woman to witness the resurrection of Jesus. She was not only a witness but also called a messenger of the risen Christ.


From the beginning of the Early Christian church, women were important members. They played a crucial role in the groups of Christians organized in the homes of believers. Those who could host the meeting were considered significant figures in the movement and assumed leadership roles. Some women often open their homes for worship and religious gatherings. Such a woman was Lydia of Philippi, a wealthy dealer in purple cloth. After listening to Paul, she and her household were all baptized. Hence, the earliest Christian church was attractive to affluent women and widows. Transforming a personal home environment into a public place of worship opens leadership opportunities for women. Pauline Christianity did not honor its wealthy patron; instead, it worked in reciprocity by offering leadership roles, dignity, and status to women. Through this gesture, the women felt relative authority, social status, political power, and self-respect in Paul's movement. We can notice this concept in the relationship between Paul, Phoebe, Chloe, and the mother of Rufus.

From precolonial times to the early 21st century, the role and status of women in Nigeria have continuously evolved. However, the image of a helpless, oppressed, and marginalized group has undermined their study.

The government has granted little recognition of the various integral functions that Nigerian women have performed throughout history. In the precolonial period, women played a vital role in social and economic activities. Division of labor was along gender lines, and women controlled such occupations as food processing, mat weaving, pottery making, and cooking. Men owned the land, but the women had access to it through their husbands or parents. Although a man was the head of the household in a patrilineal system, older women had control of the labor of younger family members. Women were also at the heart of trade. Amongst the Yoruba, they were the principal figures in long-distance trade, with enormous opportunities for accumulating wealth and acquiring titles. The most successful among them rose to the prestigious chieftaincy titles, a position of great privilege and power.


In politics, women were not as docile or powerless as modern literature tends to portray them. The basic unit of political organization was the family. And in the matrifocal arrangement, which allowed a woman to gain considerable authority over her children, a woman, and her offspring could form a crucial coalition in the household. Power and privileges in a family were also based on age and gender, allowing senior women to have a voice on many issues. Because the private and public arenas were intertwined, the ability to control resources and people in a household was the duty of the women. Through this power, she will command her children and influence men. She could evoke the power of the spirit or gods in her favor. Or she could withdraw and use the kitchen as her domicile for interaction with her colleagues, friends, and children. They used food production to gain respect.

Outside the family level, men dominated power, while women received specific titles in many cases. The queen mother, a powerful title among Benin, Yorubas, and the Igbos, could be bestowed upon a woman or a free woman of considerable stature. In the palace, the queen's mother presided over meetings, with subordinate titleholders in a woman's support. Yoruba and Hausa legends describe periods when women were either queens or heroines. Women such as Moremi of Ile-Ife and Amina of Zaria are illustrious legends and famous queens in the history of Ondo and Daura.


During this era, the lives of Nigerian women differ substantially from those of most western women. Since precolonial times, women regained specific economic opportunities in social institutions. In fact, before the middle of the twentieth century, Nigerian women traditionally played a more significant role in society than western women. Traditional or tribal communities in Nigeria expect women to be essential wage earners in the household. They labored in farming, fishing, herding, and commerce (for instance, pottery, cloth-making, and craft work) alongside Nigerian men. Women traditionally had the right to profit from their work, though the money usually served as a part of a contribution to the family income. This economic freedom was much different from many western societies, where women had to fight for the right to work. These traditions are still alive in modern-day Nigeria. The most severe threat to the influence and privileges of women occurred during the 20th century when patriarchy combined with colonial changes to alter gender relations.

As male chiefs cooperated with the colonial administration in collecting taxes and governing, the position of female chieftaincy declined in importance. When the economy became increasingly geared toward cash crop production for export, Nigerian men dominated the distribution of rubber, cocoa, groundnuts (peanuts), and palm oil. Women pushed behind the scenes had no choice but to engage in the production of subsistence crops. A previous land-tenure system that had prevented land alienation gave way to land commercialization, favoring those with access to money gained from the sale of cash crops. Western-style education also enrolled boys rather than girls, thus excluding women from several new occupations introduced by colonialism. Hence, Nigerian men do not value the economic contributions of their wives. They do not view the job and household work of women as demanding. For the most part, Nigerian men consistently took their wives for granted. Furthermore, even with economic opportunities, Nigerian women lack certain rights. As a rule, women do not have legal responsibility for their offspring. They were abandoned women, while men assumed the financial burden on the family.


Today, even as formal education continues to be the most influential agent of change for the modern woman from which several Nigerian elite women have emerged, Nigerian women continue to suffer backlash as they pursue gender equity. Despite the influence of the most powerful women in Nigeria, such as Hon. Justice Amina Adamu Augie, Amina Jane Mohammed, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Ibukun Awosika, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Omobola Olubusola Johnson, Mosunmola Abudu, Yemi Adamolekun, and Chief Mrs. Felicia Sani, the story of women’s struggle for equality continues as Nigeria remains one of the harshest places in the world for women.

For example, in the 2019 election, 47.14% of registered voters were women. Only 13% of women contested the election. Women who want to participate in politics still face backlash from Nigerian men in the form of gender stereotypes assigning leadership to men, unpaid labor (housework/childcare), and sexual violence, all of which place them at a disadvantage. Before the 2023 general election, the Women In Politics Forum (WIPF) lamented the low number of female candidates that participated in the election. According to an analysis by the Forum, there were only 381 women among the total of 4,259 contestants for the presidential and the National Assembly election. Briefing journalists on the issues, the President of WIPF, Barr. Ebere Ifendu noted that the number of females in the election was 8.9 percent of the candidates. But after the election, the list of Senators-elect and House of Representatives-elect on February 25, 2023, released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) showed that among the 109 senators for the 2023 election, only three female senators-elect were on the list of successful names published by INEC as the incoming legislators of the 10th Senate. The three senators-elect are Labor Party Kingibe Ireti Heebah, representing the Federal Capital Territory; People's Democratic Party Banigo Ipalibo Harry, representing Rivers West; and Adebule Idiat Oluranti, representing the All-Progressive Congress of West Lagos (despite INEC stating that she was male on the INEC list). If women fail to emerge from the by-elections in which INEC plans to add about six seats, only these three women will enter the Red Chambers of the incoming 10th Senate.

The development counters the calls for increased women's political participation and appointments. Barr. Ifendu explained that the process indicated the continual marginalization of women in the political space, noting that out of the 18 political parties in the country, only the Allied People’s Movement (APM) fielded a female presidential candidate. For the Senate, Ifendu observed that out of the 1,101 candidates vying for 109 Senatorial seats, 92 were women, representing 8.35 percent, while 288 women contested for the House of Representatives out of the 3,122 candidates. A state-by-state analysis by WIPF shows that of the 36 states of Nigeria, including the Federal Capital Territory, five states did not field any woman as a candidate for the Senate, and one State did not field any woman as a candidate for the House of Representatives. Ifendu listed the states lacking in this regard as Kano, Sokoto, Taraba, Yobe, and Zamfara for the Senate and Jigawa for the House of Representatives. Thus, 2.7 percent will have no female representation in the House of Representatives.


But why are women excluded from politics in Nigeria? In March 2022, Nigerian women suffered a backlash in their pursuit of gender equity. The National Assembly threw out five gender bills presented to it for deliberation. The bills sought to advance the rights of women on several fronts. They included providing special seats for women at the National Assembly, allocating 35% of political position appointments to women, creating 111 additional seats in the National Assembly and the state constituent assemblies, and a commitment to women having at least 10% of ministerial appointments. The rejection of the bills showed that the National Assembly is not interested in gender parity in politics. The 9th Assembly has 469 members. Only 21 are women.

This statistic is a tragedy for Nigerian women, whose political ambition falls short of the goal set by the National Gender Policy in 2006. The gender policy demanded that 35% of women be involved in all governance processes. A study conducted by Sharon Adetutu Omotosho and David Enweremadu reveals that women make up about 49% of Nigeria’s population. Their representation in the government is a far cry from what other countries have achieved on the continent. For example, in Rwanda, women make up 61.3% of the members of parliament. In South Africa, they make up 46.5% of the parliament. Women played important roles in the struggle for independence. They wrote petitions, staged protests, and mobilized and challenged all forms of oppression and suppression which permeated their economic, socio-cultural, and political spaces. Besides, during the military era, several Nigerian women stood their ground in the governing class and spoke the truth to those in power. Since the prolonged dictatorship ended in 1999, marginalized populations and segments of the country have gained the confidence to participate in governance. But the idea is slow for women. As their research shows, throughout the electoral process in Nigeria, there has been only a rhetorical commitment to gender mainstreaming. Their study highlighted the lack of women’s representation in parliament, security personnel, party agents, media, and voters during electoral processes.


Why are women so poorly represented in leadership positions in Nigeria? There are several factors for the exclusion of women in Nigeria. Some are related to the political party systems and structures. For instance, the high cost of politics prevents women from standing for positions. Often, women do not have enough money to pay for the mandatory expression of interest and nomination forms required by political parties to contest for office on their platforms. In 2022, the ruling All-Progressives Congress (APC) fixed the cost of nomination forms for the President at 100 million Naira, the Governorship at 50 million Naira, the Senate at 20 million Naira, the House of Representatives at 10 million Naira, and the State Assembly at 2 million Naira.

The leading opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), pegged 40 million Naira as the cost for Presidential nomination forms, 21 million Naira for the Governorship, 3.5 million Naira for the Senate, 2.5 million Naira for the House of Representatives, and 1.5 million Naira for the State House of Assembly. While the two main parties introduced concessions for women and a 50% discount for young aspirants, aspirants were still subject to paying other high sundry fees for administrative costs and state secretariat fees before submitting nomination forms for processing. Unfortunately, several woman aspirants could not afford these exorbitant registration costs. More than that, election campaign costs are outrageous. With little access to gainful employment, unpaid labor burdens, unequal inheritance rights, and outright discrimination, women are less likely to afford the exorbitant registration fees to get leadership positions.

The high cost of nomination forms reinforces two unquestioned assumptions. One is how political parties use lavish fees to keep women from accessing the nomination form, making parties a rent-seeking enterprise that disregards inclusive democratic participation. Second, it affirms the inadequacy of ideological differences among Nigerian political parties. In other words, almost all political parties agree that money is the language of politics and should define leadership positions. The solution to the evolution of the plutocratic nation depends entirely on comprehensive and meaningful political finance reform, which surrounds finance and campaign finance. Fair competition should be the hallmark of a candidate contesting in political parties. Imposing high costs on nomination forms limits accessibility to political entrepreneurs with deep pockets and wide patronage networks, thereby shrinking the political space.

When money shapes politics, it assails the democratic right of citizens to contest for public office, where it determines who qualifies to participate in politics. As the Chairman of one party noted, if you do not have 100 million Naira, you have no business becoming President of the country. The implication is the evolution of a nation that serves wealthy elites at the detriment of popular participation. Inertia toward electoral participation is a knock-on effect of a commercialized political process that most politicians tend to ignore. As long as money, not competence, character, or popularity, operates as a fundamental variable in leadership recruitment of political parties, voters will refrain from voting because commercialized political processes are more likely to produce unpopular, unaccountable, and incompetent candidates. Of course, a highly monetized process hamstrings the political aspiration of youth and women. It also infringes on the spirit behind the Not Too Young To Contest Act.


There are also societal factors that impede women’s representation. They include cultural or religious norms surrounded by gender stereotypes such as marriage and indigenization – a concept that recognizes only ethnic groups native to a particular state – and the structures that portray women as subordinate to men. Nigerian women face hindrances. They find gender stereotypes that assign leadership to men, sexual assault, pay gaps, and unpaid labor, including child care and housework, placing them at a disadvantage. The media give poor coverage to female candidates. It is not the same as the coverage men get. Women candidates often encounter gender-related electoral violence, threats, and hate speech because of the perception that women want to get what is traditionally men. There is a lack of voter education. For decades, women have played various roles in elections. They act as cheerleaders at political rallies, run grassroots (often door-to-door) campaigns, organize protests against election misconduct, vie for political office, and serve as political appointees. However, most lack voter education. Voter education must take on gendered contexts. The Independent National Electoral Commission and civil society must conduct voter education to help our women. Women are disproportionately excluded from policymaking domains because more live in poverty than men. For example, women constitute a higher proportion of poor people in the country. This notion hampers gender equality in political representation because poverty denies women the financial and human resources required for leadership positions. The Independent National Electoral Commission on Gender Policy, which provides specific measures to deal with the marginalization of women in politics, should be revisited to ensure it implements gendered-based policies.


There is more moral scrutiny of women against corruption than men. There are several high-ranking Nigerian women caught up in the web of corruption. Amongst them are Patricia Etteh, the first female speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, accused of unauthorized spending of 628 million Naira; Stella Oduah, former Minister of Aviation, indicted for an alleged fraud of about five billion Naira; Winifred Oyo-Ita, former Head of Service of the Federation, accused of 570 million naira fraud charges; Diezani Allison Madueke, former Minister of Petroleum Resources, accused of money laundering; Kemi Adeosun, former Minister of Finance, accused of certificate forgery; and Adenike Grange, former Minister of Health, indicted for allegedly stealing public funds. Although each accusation against these women has its element of truth, for the most part, none of the cases has been brought to a legal conclusion. Some corruption cases against men have received sentencing or come to a legal conclusion. On top of this, several corruption cases involving men do not spark much attention as those involving women. And, in many cases, men indicted for corruption have escaped justice and returned triumphantly to politics. The reverse is not so for female politicians who, once indicted, withdraw in shame and mostly never return to politics.


As we celebrate International Women's Day, we call on Nigerians to avoid the patriarchal trap and promote opportunities for women so that we can strengthen security, stability, and prosperity for everyone. Let us recognize how far we have come with reference to gender equality and how much more we need to achieve. Let us recall that women are critical to the success and advancement of all aspects of our society. We know we cannot solve the Nigerian crisis if half of the population is left behind. So, as we celebrate the achievements and contributions of Nigerian women, let us reaffirm our commitment to ensure that we lead women to realize their full potential.



Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.