Nigeria at 61: Gender equality the unfinished business of our generation
We can no longer leave out the once invisible but now irrefutable powerhouses that are the women of the Nigerian story.
61 years after Nigeria seized the reins of independence, 1 October is a day of national reflection. The task of nation-building is a lengthy and laborious endeavour and honest introspection of our collective gains and losses must be undertaken as we map our path forward towards the goal of shared peace and prosperity.
Nigeria’s achievements in human-centred development are not in question. We have excelled and exceeded in a multitude of fields with legacies in business, sports, the arts and science etching the knobs and shifting the dials on the various indicators by which we measure national success. Yet these successes have an overriding common factor: They have been steered, achieved, and celebrated predominantly by male figures.
We can no longer leave out the once invisible but now irrefutable powerhouses that are the women of the Nigerian story. Icons and heroines of the past such as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margeret Ekpo, and Ladi Dosei Kwali pushed open the doors of female inclusion and representation in the national space.
Today, Nigerian women are the change agents and table-shakers in a multitude of diverse fields, leading some of the most powerful movements, industries, and sectors in the country and indeed, the world. In the male-dominated arena of finance, eight women currently serve as Chief Executive Officers or Managing Directors of the country’s leading banks. In the fields of human rights and social welfare, in which women remain the conscience of the nation, trailblazers such as Sadiya Umar Farouq continue to fight for increased intervention.
On the global stage, Nigerian women continue to shine, with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) being led by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The same level of global trust in Nigerian women’s ability has witnessed the rise of Amina J. Mohammed as Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, whilst Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie continues to keep the world spellbound, engaged and mesmerised in the field of literature.
We must recognise and celebrate the achievement of Nigeria’s women whilst engendering confidence and empowering them to break the glass ceiling to achieve their potential in which they have shown in abundance. As global advocates of women’s rights, health and well-being, the calls for equity and equality in all sectors, and especially in the health sector in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, have risen from murmurs to bellows. Women represent 70% of the 43 million workers in the global health care industry yet occupy only 5% of leadership positions. 90% of registered nurses globally are women, who remain the backbone of the informal workforce of unpaid caregivers of sick relatives, community members and children at home. Yet their immense contribution does not only remain generally unacknowledged; a women’s effort is yet to translate to representation on policy and decision-making tables.
Health is fundamental to national as well as global security. A gender-balanced health sector leadership in any nation, deliberately ensuring inclusiveness, while eliminating structural inequities, will deliver the population health essential to reaching the national goals of development and progressiveness.
Nigerian women in health have shown great fortitude and stellar results when present in the room. Signpost examples include women like late Dora Akunyili, whose immense work produced game-changing policies in the drug-supply chain, and the late Dr Stella Adadevoh whose foresight changed the trajectory of the Ebola pandemic in 2014 in Nigeria.
On a less national level, Nigerian women are at the fore-front of the health development programmes as they deliver life-saving health implementation activities of malaria prevention, nutrition, water and sanitation, essentially as household partners and implementers to the national health programmes.
In spite of these documented examples, the public health sector leadership in Nigeria is still male-dominated and far too much work delivered by women is not credited to them. The Nigerian health sector stands to benefit from the immense talent and perspectives that a more gender-balanced leadership will bring. Leadership at the frontline must also cascade to the household where social protection systems and networks that address the risks towards women and provide support for those facing situations of vulnerability or crisis must be strengthened. They play a vital role in protecting women from poverty and insecurity whilst helping them to cope and recover from shocks ultimately leading to the change in a woman’s outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate gendered impacts show the importance of creating a continent-wide force of women leaders who contribute to Africa’s growth, progress and prosperity by advocating on imperative causes such as reproductive health, gender-based violence, the rights of women and gender equality. This can only be achieved by elevating the status of women’s leadership in Africa and passing on the knowledge learnt by these leaders to the next generation.
The assessment of global progress towards achieving gender equality, 25 years after the Beijing Conference on Women, reveals that gains have been slow and uneven and in some cases, significant pushbacks to this agenda persist. The area where most progress has been recorded is in the adoption of laws and policies to advance women’s rights. In this respect, Nigeria’s record aligns with that of most countries.
Nigeria scored highly with respect to having in place legal frameworks that promote, enforce and monitor gender equality, according to UN Women’s Gender-specific SDG indicators. However, the greatest hurdle remains insufficient and proper implementation and follow-up.
Nigeria has continued to make gains in women’s active inclusion in social, economic, and political spheres- however more needs to be done. Recent data from UN Women indicate that in Nigeria, there is a 62% literacy rate of girls aged 15 years and above, and growing concerns over the school retention and transition rates. With all the gains made, it is crucial that gender-disaggregated data is available so as to enable effective gender programming and budgeting.
Gender equality is the unfinished business of each generation. A key action of the movement in Nigeria was to facilitate intergenerational exchange between Nigerian women leaders who were present at the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995 and today’s generation of Nigerian young women. Thanks to the 1995 generation, the Ministry of Women Affairs was born and because of the 2020 generation, women and girls issues continue to be placed at the forefront of Nigeria’s agenda.
This is the generation that tirelessly spotlighted the plight of sexual and gender-based violence in learning institutions and across leading to the declaration of a State of Emergency on GBV. This is the generation that has organised and mobilised civic action on important issues of democracy and governance. In response to the State of Emergency, at least 23 states have now domesticated the Violence Against Person’s Prohibition (VAPP) Act compared to less than 10 in 2018. Already, ahead of the 2023 elections, youth are the highest constituency group already registering to vote and contest. Generation Equality recognizes the important roles of next generations in being changemakers and working together with gender equality advocates in their local communities – in raising awareness on gender equality with the goal of leaving no one behind.
Nigerian young women are the movers and shakers of political and civic leadership, culture and thought as well as entrepreneurship and innovation.
To paraphrase the National Prayer, they are the generation that is ensuring the labours of Nigerian women heroes are not in vain. Concerted efforts must be made to ensure intentional intergenerational exchange to sustain the gains made since the Beijing Platform for Action.
It is time for the nation to embrace a leadership shift, through an enabling environment – from politics to business and society – that opens the space for young and old to have a transformative impact on our ability to make social change happen.