Dr. Ojobo Atuluku is the new director of the international department of UK-based international non-governmental organisation, ChristianAid. In this interview with select journalists, the gender rights, education and emergencies specialist who was formerly a country director with another international organisation, ActionAid and joined ChristianAid in July, 2021, speaks about how eliminating gender bias can get more girls and women into STEM and ensure the sciences contribute to national development. She also speaks about the recently shot gender bill, bias against women in politics and how these can be got rid of.
You are passionate about gender rights, amongst other things. From your experience over the years, how would you describe the place of women in Nigeria in our society? Has anything changed?
When you look at some aspects of our society, you will see that women have a very unique role. Traditionally, there are gender roles ascribed to women in communities.
However, when you come to the Nigeria of today, the place of women has become very insignificant. There’s hardly any respect for women or their rights. There’s a lot of gender inequality, some of them backed by law. This is the root of our agitation for gender equality on many fronts.
In the 19 states of northeastern Nigeria, women were not allowed to vote until the 1979 elections. If you look at that, [you’ll see that it] is very recent. The agitation of women before us was what brought about that result. There are many other areas [of inequality]; in health, safe motherhood is an issue. Why should a woman die because she is having a baby? In education, the girl-child has barriers in accessing education, right from that early age. Imagine the disadvantages, the rippling effects of that lack of access can affect her and her children – seeing as primary education has a huge influence on how a mother takes care of her family and the health of her children.
So, in terms of gender equality, Nigeria has a lot of gaps that we need to sit up and address. I don’t know if this is the time to talk about the recent rejection of the women’s bills by the National Assembly. Those bills are all based on the injustice women face in our society. The good thing is that there are several ways that we can tackle some of those injustices, even if the bills have been rejected because the law is not the place to start some of the changes that we want to see. The important place to focus is in places where these injustices have become accepted. It is easier to get the law to follow when changes have been made at that level. I think the battle has been on since Nigeria became a country and it continues, even now. This battle is one for all Nigerians who believe in the development of Nigeria.
So, in terms of the place of women, we are still far behind in what we want to see, given the degree of injustice and inequality, violence, discrimination that women face. It is time to change some of these things.
You’ve just touched on a trending issue. Let us look at the steps taken by the sponsors of that bill. One of the recommendations is that a seat is reserved for a woman in every senatorial district. Does that mean political seats which should be vied for by candidates be reserved for a gender; is this feasible? Would you say you are surprised that the bill failed?
I’m not surprised that the bill failed. I’m not surprised that it’s only a section of women that supports that bill. I’m not surprised that the vote for the bill, even in the National Assembly, was much less than the number of sponsors for the bill.
I think that there’s a reason for calling for specially designated seats for women and that reason is based on the fact that in all the processes that we have seen it’s been impossible for women to get a place at the table, especially in our parliament. Now, this is not because women cannot do it, but because the processes that lead to an election have all been tainted, unfair and one that women cannot participate in. Starting from the political party set-up and discrimination within communities as they identify who their nominees will be, there are various barriers before women [who are] running for elective offices.
Designated gender seats at the parliamentary level don’t mean that these seats are being ‘given’ to women. The seats will still be contested like every other seat. What it means, though, is we will have enough of the other perspective missing from the National Assembly – those who write our laws, control our lives by the laws that they write etc. That’s the perspective of the additional gender seats.
While that is clear, there is the need to work and identify allies because political party leadership has mainly been male-dominated and they certainly do not want any changes to the power structure that they enjoy. The National Assembly is predominantly male and they don’t want any woman to come up through the ranks.
Looking at the Nigerian situation, do you think gender equality is achievable?
Yes, I believe [achieving gender equality] is possible and that is why we are investing so much energy into it. The issue of gender equality has nothing to do with women taking over from men. I think that’s one of the major fears behind the resistance. People mistake our agitation for gender equality for equality of rights. No. All we saying is that women’s rights are also human rights and should be recognised as such. The fact that both genders should have equal rights as given by the constitution as generic human rights and that once women have and enjoy their rights, it doesn’t deprive men of enjoying theirs.
Now, to the issue of gender equity. The fact that women are different from men calls for analysis to be made in consideration of the peculiar needs of the gender in reference. And so, we need to know what it is that we’re looking at when we talk of gender equality. In many parts of Nigeria, tradition says girls are not important, boys are valued more than female children. Yet, when you look at the relationships between the female child and the parents, it speaks differently because most people appreciate female children. They believe their female children have capabilities that they acknowledge. This applies to society generally; yet, in public, women face discrimination and are regarded as weak. For us, this is a matter of conscientiousness, awareness and how we move to the realisation that our nation can use the capabilities of women for national development.
If all the things we see as obstacles are made right by policies, then men and women can contend evenly without asking for additional seats for women. Don’t you think so?
Let’s not forget that this agitation for more women in political office is decades old and with each generation of activists, there’s been a different task.
There’s been a lot of attention focused on political parties and the internal workings of political parties but the political parties are invisible spaces.
The electoral law has refused to give powers to INEC to insist on democratic practices within political parties. Political parties have their constitutions and their manifestos, but I think somebody just sits and copies and pastes, so it’s not part of the ideology of those parties.
So, if a political party is a space where women do not even have room to act, to be [present at the table] to discuss, how are you going to influence that space? But the constitution is a law that covers political parties. It covers Nigerians in all spheres; so, the idea behind the additional seats is that if the law prescribes it, there are people who will ensure it is respected – I say this because there are many laws. There is a law that prescribes how much we can spend on political campaigns, but that law is also not being implemented.
This generation of activists requested an additional number of seats. Given the support from the sponsors in the National Assembly, it sounded reasonable and logical for the times that we are in. Well, the outcomes have shown that we are not ready for that. The battle just got more interesting.
There have been accusations of these requests being elitist. I think we need women in all spheres of life, in all parts of the country (whether rural or urban), to know what it means to have female representatives at the National and state assemblies, executive roles, public spaces etc. Men should know that it is a sign of development to have women in that space. It is not an agitation of a select group of women but that of a nation that needs to see more women in public offices. Holding onto the cultural notion that women should be seen but not heard is something that will derail our development. We will be wasting the capabilities of half of our population.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day celebration is ‘#BreakingTheBias’. How achievable is it?
The experiences we’ve had with the gender bills on the eve of March 8, 2022, International Women’s Day, shows that this is a theme that has substance. This is a theme that we need to begin to consider. Breaking the bias cannot be done just by speaking gently to people. Activism comes in many forms. I think that if we have women in every sector identifying the bias that they face in that sector, we will have a whole range of activists working at different levels to ensure that they bring change to the levels in which they will create.
Beyond the political sphere, it only also includes economy, health, education, agriculture etc. If we can mobilise ourselves and our allies to ensure that we identify the bias, results of that bias and losses recorded by the nation because of those biases, we can build a movement for gender equality in Nigeria. We are on course. Also, experience has shown that this is a theme that should not just be for this year but one that should continue, until we can do away with the bias, discrimination and injustice that women face which keep them from contributing to society.
Following up on the gender bill that was rejected and the patriarchal nature of Nigerian society, the message is clear that there’ll be no more freebies in politics. Going forward, what will your advice be, given your experience?
I think the number one advice is to refuse to have a victim mentality. Refuse to be the victim of discrimination, even if it’s clear that you are experiencing injustice. Continue to achieve by merit, do the right thing continually and be determined about the direction you are heading. Support structures will arise. Look to them and be prepared to be a support structure for others as they also come along.
The thing about success is that despite the hurdles you are focused and you are determined that you want to get to a certain place and you continue trudging along. So, don’t be a victim. Rise above that.
In terms of politics now, what will be your advice to women in terms of pulling the younger ones up, mentorship, rallying support etc.? How can they do this differently, seeing that men are not ready to give them free spaces?
There’s a group I’m so proud of, called Women in Politics. It is an organisation of political practitioners across political parties in Nigeria. It is set up for women to support themselves, regardless of their political party. They look at how they can work together and learn from their experiences to overcome hurdles.
Also, we are aiming to build trust, seeing as the practice of politics in Nigeria is a selfish one where trust is difficult to come by, we need to build that trust amongst ourselves. It is easy to see a group of male politicians who have it within them. So, we aim to build that trust amongst the womenfolk across the party line, to know that as I am nurturing a younger female politician, that younger female politician also trusts me as I trust her and we are loyal to each other, we look out for each other’s interest in spaces where the other is not in and in spaces where it will be beneficial.
…and for women in specialised fields like science, technology, engineering and mathematics?
I think there is a lot of discrimination in our educational systems, starting from the primary schools where teachers give preference to boys in mathematics and science, students choose which direction they want to go at the end of their junior secondary school year and they are advised against [choosing] some of these STEM courses.
We need to have special attention given to the kind of educational training that our teachers received to remove the bias that they hold against the girl-child in the classroom. That’s where we need to start from because it’s been proven that this is not about the female brain being different from the male’s but a factor of what we are teaching the girls in these classrooms.
Every science teacher who works with boys and girls need to be conscious of what bias they are spreading in the class, without using actual words. There was a time when there was a lot of attention on STEM and getting more girls into STEM. We need to find more resources to continue that investment and deepen it. Only then can we expand the frame for the girl-child in the classroom to be able to pick up those things.