I was 9 years old when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became president of Liberia.
I remember going to school and hearing that Africa had elected its first female president.
Someone who looks like me was the president.
The highest attainable political office in her country.
A country in Africa, a continent when at the time, gender equality seemed like such a far reach.
A lot of years have passed since then, but I still remember what that knowledge spurred in me. A realization that aspiring to become president was not just a dream restricted to boys. It was something I could aspire to. I myself could dream, pray, plan to, and one day become president of a country.
And just like that, a mindset shift began.
March 8 is International Women’s Day. A day set aside to celebrate the global impacts of women, and to further advocate for equality for women worldwide. As I reflect on how representation in politics has changed since that day 16 years ago, I am filled with anger, frustration, and a very grim outlook. This was further propelled when news hit that the National assembly voted to reject 5 bills that aimed to give Nigerian women more equality. Foremost among the bills was a bill that aimed to create a 35% quota for women in political parties’ administration and cabinet appointments.
Right now, in the Nigerian National Assembly, only about 6 percent are women. That is 29 seats out of 469 seats. And in the Nigerian cabinet, we have only 7 women, making up about 16 percent of the cabinet. This number and percentage hasn’t changed much from when I started paying attention to politics. And this is a country with over 106 million women! About 49.4% of the total population. This situation is not very different from what is happening on the global stage. So doesn’t it make you wonder, if half of the population is a particular gender, isn’t it only right that we have a similar percentage represented in the legislative and executive arms of government? Doesn’t it seem reasonable that women have a say in the laws that affect their lives and wellbeing?
But why the quota system you ask? What is stopping women from coming out to contest and vie for political positions? There are no laws against that. Why do we need dedicated seats for women?
The answers to these questions lie in understanding patriarchal systems and the disadvantages they pose to women.
Politics from time being has been a man’s game. In politics, there are so many structures that limit women participation. One of them is the financial costs of participation. Joining a political party and contesting for a political position costs a lot of money. Women are disproportionately affected by this due to their often-lower socioeconomic status. Participating in politics also involves a lot of late-night meetings, meetings at odd hours, and a substantial time investment into strategy sessions, campaigns and rallies. In the world we live in today, women are still the main caregivers in their homes and this time investment takes a toll on their domestic and childcare duties. Most political structures don’t have provisions for maternity leaves, child- care, or other incentives that will encourage women participation.
Then there is the issue of gender stereotypes and how women are portrayed. Women are perceived as weak, emotional, less intelligent, and incapable of making crucial decisions. These bias and stereotypes mean a woman contesting for political office often has to work twice, or thrice as hard to convince the electorate of her capabilities. Most of these gender bias and stereotypes are also internalized by women themselves leading to self- imposed limitations that cause inferiority complex, and reduce the pool of female political aspirants/candidates. Then in Nigeria, add cultural and religious beliefs to this mix and you get a political climate where the National assembly votes to kill pro-equality bills, and the president is not ashamed to share on the world stage that his wife belongs in the kitchen and the “other room”.
All these reasons show that women are already at a disadvantage. Incentives must be offered to socially disadvantaged groups to ensure fairness and equality. It is why there is such a thing as affirmative action in the United States. It is why we still have a ministry for women affairs. It is why there is a quota system for the different geopolitical zones in Nigeria. We have to be intentional about providing incentives to women to increase political participation.
Going back to the importance of representation, it is difficult to accurately express in words what representation does to a person’s mindset. It is also difficult to understand how powerful a force representation is unless you have personally experienced it. Apart from the mindset change representation offers, diversity, in this case gender diversity, in political spheres offers a different perspective. A new way of looking at and interpreting things. A fresh outlook. And most importantly, it gives women the chance to make laws that will positively impact their lives.
I have experienced the mindset altering phenomenon of representation a couple of times in my life. As a woman, a black person living in a majority white country, and an immigrant with a very distinctive accent. Sometimes you don’t even realize you need that mindset change until you go to class and see a professor that looks and talks like you, or you hear on the news that a black woman with immigrant parents has been elected vice president of one of the most powerful countries in the world. But when you have that experience, you recognize without a doubt the power representation has. And you understand why it is important to continue to fight and advocate for it.
Happy International Women’s day. Today, and every day, I hope we continue to work towards breaking the bias in politics.