I did not watch Sarah Jibrin’s address to the PDP delegates on Thursday January 14 2011 but when I first heard about it, it was being spoken about derogatively. The women talking about it said her lack of political astuteness embarrassed them. They expected her to have the sense to ‘declare’ for Jonathan (not Atiku) and thus align herself with power. Instead she sang about overcoming and secured only one vote; the vote she cast for herself.
My first and enduring thought about this was ‘were there no female PDP delegates’? Then other questions tumbled out. Did she not campaign (what match could she possibly be for the dollars allegedly disbursed by President Jonathan and Atiku Abubakar)? Would it have made a difference if in her address she spoke powerfully about the plight of Nigerian women in our society today and the suffering of all Nigerians? Did the female delegates not empathize with what Sarah Jibrin was trying to do? Did the delegates not know that since it was a secret ballot nobody would know how they had voted after they had safely collected their share of the dollars? I thought; maybe there is honor amongst thieves after all. But it turns out, it is only fear – there was someone allegedly stationed to physically watch how each delegate voted.
Although women officially make up almost half (49%) of the Nigerian population, they constitute only a small fraction of the decision making process. Nigeria’s National Gender Policy of 2006 recommends a minimum of 35% representation of women in public office and I believe the wording ‘public office’ is deliberate. It is to make it easier for government to support this policy if they really wanted to by skipping the hurdles and prejudices of political participation and appointing women to positions where they can influence gender friendly policies. Today, generally accepted data says women make up only 7% of those appointed. Five years after the policy was finalised President Jonathan has 6 women in his cabinet – 15 percent of the Federal Executive Council; need we say more?
In politics, women do not fare any better and although some of the political parties pay lip service to keeping 30-35% of electable positions for women, this rarely translates into reality. Today, on the eve of the 2011 elections, only 8 out of 100 elected representatives are women. And if the recently concluded party primaries are any indication, the number of women in elected positions might be even lower after the April elections.
We should care because what happens in our domestic lives is what translates into public life. Women and men say ‘when a woman runs for office, she is considered immoral’. News flash – whether we participate in public office or not we are still considered immoral, just watch any Nollywood movie and you will see fiction supposedly imitating fact. However, if women will not care for themselves, if we are not tired of the disempowerment, discrimination and deprivation on every social, economic and political facet of our lives, then let us care for the sake of our children.
What future do we want for our daughters? Why must their education, inheritance, right to property, domestic rights all be subject to the whim of men even when the law favours them? What future do we want to leave for our sons? Why should they be used for political mayhem and destruction and yet be incarcerated for years without trial for flimsy reasons? Shot at by police at every turn, scoffed at by old politicians who never want to go away and sacrificed by a society which values an inequitable peace over honest dialogue and development? Why must our children struggle to get the questionable quality of education most Nigerians are condemned to and then spend years trying to get employed?
There is no better place on earth for us than here in Nigeria. There is growing unrest around the world and immigrants are finding it harder to settle and belong. We need to make Nigeria the haven we seek out in other parts of the world and women have a big role to play in making this happen.
The verdict is still out on Sarah Jibrin’s participation. Some say she is not the type we need representing women but these same people concede that the ‘right type’ will not find it worth her while to participate. I don’t understand. What could be more worthy than striving for equity and growth and inclusion in your own country? Do these people not read history? What great enduring change has been handed down on a platter?
Sarah Jibrin stood up to be counted to encourage women, young girls and even young men who have not fully swallowed the misogynist pill, to participate and aspire. It was not about winning but it should not have been such an absolute loss. Out of more than 60 political parties we had only one female presidential aspirant. She should have received more votes to trigger the understanding that women, who constitute the larger number of voters, can vote as a block for politicians who care about the issues women care about. Just imagine…what if Sarah Jibrin had locked enough votes to be the tiebreaker between President Jonathan and Atiku Abubakar? Then she would have been in a powerful position to negotiate for herself and for women. And for those who are transactional and not transformational, just think…maybe female delegates would have commanded a higher ‘fee’ for their vote. We need to start thinking more strategically. Should we vote for a person just because she is a woman? Not particularly. Should we vote for a person because she symbolizes something bigger than ourselves, a stand against oppression and a hope for the future? Yes, we should.
Jan. 19, 2011