Organising Women is Complicated in Nigeria– Madam Ene Ede, Veteran Activist and Gender Advisor, SCG
Ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day coming up next week, (March 8th, 2017) Intervention went for an update on the state of gender activism in Nigeria from Madam Ene Ede, a veteran activist and the Gender Advisor at the Search for Common Ground, (SCG), the conflict intervention International Non-Governmental Organisation. But it was only to learn that organising women is next to impossible in Nigeria. She follows up on this claim with the details. Even without those details, the University of Jos trained economist has remained engaged with that realm for so long as to always speak authoritatively. Aside from initiating programmes as ‘Gender on Balance’, ‘Women in Parliament’ on the Nigerian Television Authority, (NTA), she published Women Today, a gender biased weekly from 1997 to 2010 before it had to be rested. Before her current appointment with SCG, she equally ran ‘Gender Audit’ as well as Women in Publishing along with six others.
You have been active on the gender circuit. What is the dominant framing of the gender conflict now in Nigeria?
A lot of the women feel or call it gender injustice, the feeling that they have been cheated and that men are responsible. Majority of the women believe men are responsible or are the perpetrators of injustices. But, sometimes, it is not that straightforward. At the preparatory function on International Women’s Day we had today, (February 2nd, 2017), some of the older women believe that the younger women lack the commitment, to themselves in the first case. The worst, however, is that the younger women, 15 – 30 years of age, believe very strongly that the older women have failed themselves as well as the younger ones. So, the inter-generational disconnect is even a bigger issue to deal with.
What is it like at the class level or there is no disconnect there?
From the women we see, it is the elite women, not even the middle class, not to talk of the bottom of the ladder. Elite women feel they are speaking for the other two who do not quite accept that.
So, there is no overarching framing of the gender question that one can take home in this country now?
Oh no. It is very difficult.
What is to be done?
What some of the stakeholders prefer is to turn to the men for the solution. That’s why you hear of gender male champions. The Ministry of Women Affairs has tried to do a pilot study of it, I think with two persons from each of the 36 states and the FCT. The last time I heard about that is about two years ago. By its mandate, it should have been bearing more results than we have seen if it has been that successful. The UN Women – the apex organisation coordinating women organisations for equality within the UN system have got their own approach just as the UNPF, (United Nations Population Fund). The UNPF approach is where I belong but is it working? There are those entering the problem from the point of getting young boys and girls to grow together in understanding the problem. I believe very much in that because it is working. That is what I see from here. In the Electoral Support of Civil Society Project we run here, we have tried to bring different women groups as part of our schedule. But it is tough. You see this if you want to bring certain groups like women law makers. That’s just an example.
The question could arise over who leads? Is it the female Senators or the members from the House who have got the advantage of numbers relative to the Senate? There are about seven women Senators out of 95 while the House has about 20 out of 360. These are tentative because there are still cases in court. At that level, you have monumental problems and it is worth mentioning because you don’t find that with organizing the men. Well, historically, the men have been in the power game, they have the advantage of time, financial resources, knowledge of the terrain and the contacts. So, coming together to speak as one is not a problem for them but it is for women. When Josephine Anennih was the Woman Leader of the PDP, (People’s Democratic Party), she even went beyond the party. She had a multi-stakeholder perspective and approach but it never worked. But we know it is working in other African countries – Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Ghana and so on. So, organizing women is the most difficult but it is only when you organise that you can discuss. Without much success there, the voice of women has disappeared. So much has been lost. The work of our founding mothers, development partners and other critical players are not bearing fruits because of that. Women are tough to organise. They do not agree on anything. It is a problem for donors.
You seem to suggest its uniqueness to Nigeria
I don’t know what to say. We tend to have strange governance structures in Nigeria that do not exist that way in other countries and I think the problem of organizing women reflects the complexity that defines power in our country. And I think it is important to add how existential problems have compromised many women, have weakened the appetite for political consciousness.
To what extent is the problem of organizing women in the urban segment applicable or not in the rural areas?
The unfortunate aspect is that the civil society, the church or religion, the media and so on are all not supporting the rural areas as is necessary. Even the Catholic Church have criteria for establishing parishes that do not make them go as far as one would have liked to see. And there are middlemen in everything anyone wants to take to the rural areas. We had a programme and a traditional ruler was asking: why don’t you people come to the rural areas? There is appetite there for lots of works. The big meeting we had today, the cost of hosting it can do ten of such meetings in the rural area but we don’t get to taking much of what we do there. So, the grassroots people are excluded. There is sort of an urban conspiracy against the rural. One would have thought the civil society could hold powerful stakeholders to account in helping the helpless Nigerians in the rural areas. I was excited when a newspaper such as Daily Trust was publishing rural news. I think it is a big challenge. If the community offices of both appointed and elected officers were adding values we could see, that would have been very good. But it is slow in coming. But somethings are coming up. Next week in Sokoto and for the first time, women would be marching on the International Women’s Day. It is not a protest but it opens the door to possibilities about enhanced visibility. Also in Sokoto, you would find what Alhaji Sani Umar, Sarkin Yakin Gaji, a UN/UNICEF Ambassador has achieved so much in his Gaji District about women’s freedom.
What would you like to see from the state on all these problems in the politics of gender?
I would like to see more interaction between the state and the gender movement. It will be better if the government does not assume that what women need is known. I think the lesson from what Bishop Kukah is posing is evident. He asked: Matan Arewa, mai kukeso? (Arewa women, what do you people want?). As a preacher and public interest analyst, I am sure he was speaking from experience and awareness of what could happen if these women speak their mind. It could be amazing if they do speak. Of course, it would be interesting if the state could contribute to the development of the civil society towards an enhanced capacity.
Let’s look at the organizational issue. When you said earlier that women have lost their voice completely, my mind went to the National Council of Women Societies, (NCWS). Where is it in all these?
It was a voice for women when it was established in 1958. They have the number, the structure is there and then the spread is excellent.
What is missing then?
I will say it is the power to recognise the power they have. What could be missing should be somebody who would go there to say, you have the network, there is energy here, the name alone is power and then the structure on the ground, so get up and let the world see you. That is what seems to be missing. The NCWS carries in itself a lot of power but power that has not been used. However, there is no need to trade blames. It is part of collective responsibility to find every player on the table. I was telling Chom Bagu about “Rebuilding the House of Eve”, his five page presentation in 2007. The paper is so rich that I think it will be great to lock ourselves and have a seminar over it. The donors, the men who release their wives, writers about women and beneficiaries of programmes will all be happy about it. But we are not doing that. Instead of that, look at the number of women who will be going to New York soon to attend the CSW, (Commission on the Status of Women). It is a whole lot of people – corporate women, indigenous women, girls, students, academics, civil society organisations. What if we put the hard currency to alternative use? What if we say we are not attending this year and choose to do our own reflection instead? Some are sending as many as twenty delegates. It is a lot of money.
Such trips are bound to have become routines but I just want to ask how the cultural dimension of the gender problem is playing out now. So much have happened, development wise, technology and the information society is here. To what extent is culture still a problem?
There is a strong impact of religion and culture. Oh, a woman is not supposed to be too visible, why should a woman represent us? These are some of the expressions one hears. So, much of whatever we knew about culture and gender are still around. In fact, if you are raped, you are not expected to say it. Some of the people will be saying, what took her there in the first place? But efforts are being made. There is a movement from generic hate speech to gender specific monitoring. A woman legislator was used to advising other women and she would say, look, if you will not develop thick skin to being called a prostitute, then don’t think about going into politics. a woman is a witch for going to a night meeting but not a man. Most of these are based on cultural expectations. But we are getting somewhere. Chief Alfred Diete-Spiff, the Amayanabo of Twon-Brass in Bayelsa State linked us with the queen mothers of the members of the state council of chiefs and it was a very good experience. We made it clear to them the implications of some of our cultural expectations for their daughters, sisters, in-laws and others. The Catholic Church has been very supportive too. Archbishop Onaiyekan, Bishop Kukah, the Bishop of Benin. I already mentioned how the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, (NBC) is helping to monitor gender hate speech.
What is the picture when we come to violence against women as things are now?
We did a pilot study in four states –Edo, Kogi, Bayelsa and Ondo recently. We were trying to establish the link between the volume of violence in electoral process and the participation of women. We saw scientifically that violence chase women away from participating. There are acts of violence targeted specifically at women. Before now, we didn’t have the data. Now, we do. When we presented it at the global for a where violence against women was reviewed, different continents accepted and endorsed it as good practice. If violence is reduced, more women would participate.
The Women wing of the political parties used to be the gender battle ground as in the case of the defunct NEPU and even the PRP which succeeded it. Existing parties in Nigeria do not seem to have such wings.
They don’t. They have the Women Leader who now represents women there. What it means is that her position can never win on any key issue in a debate within any of the party structures because she has just her vote. We have had very good materials in that position but nothing changed. I remember Sharon Ikeazor, the first Women Leader of the Congress for Progressive Change before it became All Progressive Congress, (APC). She was one of the most vibrant, knowledgeable, courageous and influential person. Knowledgeable lawyer! She did well. I have not seen any Women Leader that has done that, especially in relating with the media. The exception may be Josephine Anennih. But people like that do not last because of the way the parties are built.
Are people in the gender movement thinking of an answer in such a thing as a woman president in Nigeria?
It is not only thinking but working towards it. Someone called to ask which woman we were supporting. A lot of men believe that if we have a woman president, it will make a lot of differences. And the reasons they advance sound convincing. This campaign we are doing – “Not too young to run” is for reducing the entry age for women into all elective offices. It is happening in other countries and it is adding value. There is no harm in a trial.
What’s the last point you wish to emphasise on the conversation so far?
Women should prepare themselves with skills that gives them confidence to push on. It is not competition with men but competences. I have seen a lot of vibrant young women, they are innovative, they are confident, they have integrity and they believe in dignity of labour. That’s how it should be.