Available statistics reveal that out of the 109 senators in the National Assembly, only nine are women, while only 27 out of the 360 members of the House of Representatives are women.
Besides, out of the 990 members of the state Houses of Assembly, only 54 are women.
The picture markedly depicts a lopsided membership of the legislatures in favour of men and observers say that the story is similar at the local level, where only a few women function as chairpersons or councillors in local government councils.
The observers say that no woman has ever become the country’s president or vice president.
They, however, note that the first female governor in Nigeria, Dame Virgy Etiaba, only functioned as Anambra State’s governor for six months, following the impeachment of her boss, Gov. Peter Obi, on November 2, 2006.
They lament that Nigerian women are obviously marginalised in all the country’s democratisation processes, saying that in spite of the fact that many women are literate, they still hold less than five per cent of important decision-making positions in the country.
The whole scenario tends to validate widespread concerns that women are grossly under-represented in the legislative and executive arms of government across the country.
This is regardless of the fact that a National Gender Policy has been formulated to promote a 35 percent affirmative action for women – a policy that demands 35 percent involvement of women in all governance processes.
Several researches have shown a strong connection between women’s ability to participate in governance and their economic, as well as educational standing.
The studies also attribute women’s exclusion from political participation in most African countries to poverty, stressing that most African women live below the poverty level of less than one dollar (about N150) a day.
Some United Nations (UN) studies indicate that a clear majority of economic activities in developing countries are ascribed to men, whereas women actually perform 53 per cent of the work.
Besides, the studies signify that women also feature prominently in the informal sectors of the economies of most African countries.
Mrs Oby Nwankwo of the Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre (CIRDDOC) says that the women’s under-representation in the political scene can be reversed if they are empowered economically.
“Increasing the income of women gives them more confidence; women are better stewards of economic capital, as research has shown that women are more likely than men, to plough profits of economic activities into human capital development.
“The implication of this is that well-educated women are better suited to participate in a society’s decision-making processes,’’ she adds.
Nwankwo explains that women, who are empowered economically have fewer difficulties in playing active roles in politics because they can truly assert themselves, while they are unlikely to become pawns in the hands of political godfathers.
She describes the exclusion of women from participating in the country’s economic and political spheres as “an insult to the spirit and values of democratic governance and free market economy.
“In fact, the society is worse off for it, as women are always expected to play their socially ascribed roles of shaping an entire generation.
“The onus is, therefore, on the youth to take the centre stage in overturning perceptible barriers to women empowerment. Women have nothing to lose by participating in the country’s socio-economic and political spheres; the gains are limitless,’’ she says.
Stakeholders have been striving to mobilise the citizens to become agents of change in efforts to redress the situation and promote the interests of women in the country.
For instance, the UN Women, formerly known as the UN Fund for Women (UNIFEM), recently organised a conference in Abuja on how to attain the 35 percent affirmative action for women in the April general elections.
The agency stresses that the commitment of the entire citizenry, particularly the male dominated political class, is required in the efforts to achieve the affirmative action.
The Officer-in-Charge of UN Women, Adekemi Ndieli, says that the UN Women are aware of the fact that there are no easy quick-wins from this advocacy, adding: “But we are more confident that we can achieve a great deal with the joint resolve of all the stakeholders.
“I respectfully call on all the policy and decision makers within the political parties to bend backwards to ensure that a critical mass of eligible women emerge as candidates for the 2011 elections,’’ she says.
Ndieli’s appeal, however, seems belated, as all the political parties held their primaries in January and the outcome indicate no marked change in the status quo.
Commenting on the dismal performance of women in the political parities’ primaries, Mrs Josephine Anenih, the Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, says that the much desired 35 percent affirmative action for women in elective positions may be unrealistic, going by the outcome of the parties’ primaries.
She, nonetheless, concedes that there has been an increase in awareness around the issue of women’s participation in politics and governance, noting that the number of women aspirants was unprecedented in the recent parties’ primaries, when compared with the previous years.
Dr Joy Ezeilo, a UNIFEM Consultant on affirmative action for women, says that even though about two-thirds of Nigerian voters are women, electoral and power-sharing arrangements fail to consider the interests of the women, thereby rendering them politically powerless.
She argues that the number of female legislators across the country is very low and faults the Electoral Act as “being gender blind and biased’’ for not allowing INEC to compel political parties to act in line with the requirements of the 35 percent affirmative action for women.
Ezeilo, who is the Head of Department of Public and Private Law in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, expatiates that the Act tacitly allows candidates to spend huge sums of money during their campaigns, giving the men undue financial advantage over female aspirants.
“The government should adopt special measures and mechanisms for achieving minimum standards for women’s participation in political parties and in government,’’ she says.
Ms. Ene Ede, the Executive Director of Equity Advocates, a women’s rights group, stresses the need to create a wider room for women’s participation in governance.
“Already, there is what some people call ‘democratic deficit’, where women are not accorded their right of place in the polity. What is wrong with attaining the 35 percent women representation, as prescribed by the National Gender Policy?’’ she asks.
Tosin writes for NAN