Political Superwomen (Part 2)

Sep 21, 2015|Ebehi Iyoha

This article is Part II of a series. Read Part I here

Even as we call for greater female representation in Nigerian leadership, it would be counterproductive to pretend that all female politicians are angels. After all, former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke has been the subject of many allegations of graft, most recently one involving $6.9 million diverted for the purchase of mobile stages for the Jonathan reelection campaign. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who served as Minister of Finance under two former presidents, Goodluck and Obasanjo was recently described by the latter as having "derailed" during her more recent term in office. And recently elected Senator Stella Oduah lost her position as Minister of Aviation last year amidst misappropriation and certificate forgery scandals. 

Apples and Oranges 

Given the controversy surrounding these high-profile female ministerial appointees, it might seem reasonable to conclude that women do not make good leaders, at least not in Nigeria anyway. Perhaps the low rates of female electoral success is down to their poor performance when in government. But this is a spurious line of reasoning. The truth is, going by sheer numbers, Nigeria has had many more good male politicians than good female politicians but it has also had more bad male leaders than bad female leaders. Simply because we have had many more men in power than women.

Making proportional comparisons is no better. For instance, if we referred to 25% of female senators in the 8th National Assembly, we would be talking about two women as opposed to the twenty-five senators who constitute the same percentage of men in the upper legislative house. Likewise, the statement: "50% of our female deputy-governors are performing well", means very little when we realise that we are again only talking about 2 out of 4 women. Smaller sample sizes allow us to make only limited inferences. Therefore, to make any meaningful statement about how more female leaders could impact Nigeria, we have to look elsewhere for useful evidence and anecdotally examine how applicable these examples would be in our country.

Rwanda's Wonder Women

A good place to study the impact of female leaders would be Rwanda, a country that sets the precedent for a female-dominated legislature in which women comprise 64%, far in excess of the constitution-mandated 30%. The tragic 1994 genocide created a 70:30 female to male ratio and also created a natural experiment that makes a compelling case for how a more gender-balanced political landscape can positively impact the fortunes of women in a hitherto male-dominated society. 

One of the landmark changes that has arisen from a more gender-balanced government is legislation that guarantees property and inheritance rights for Rwandan women. Laws and practices that prevent women from owning land or inheriting it from their husbands or fathers constitutes one of the most pervasive forms of economic disempowerment in Africa, particularly in countries like Nigeria where about 70% of the labor force is engaged in agriculture. Given the structure of the Nigerian land rights system, which combines government legislation with often patriarchal customary or religious laws, securing female ownership of land has been an uphill struggle since independence. Perhaps a greater share of women in the National Assembly and state legislatures could lead to some progress in this area.

And such strides aren’t unique to Rwanda. Research in India found that at the local level, the presence of female leaders served to raise the aspirations of both adult and adolescent females in the community, and made girls just as likely to attend school as boys. Other researchers also found that in communities that had both female and male representation on the village council, both male and female councillors tended to provide public goods that were more important to people of their own genders, not necessarily because they were more sensitive to these complaints but because their interests simply tended to already align in that direction. This points to why numbers matter – even if female politicians may not make any concerted effort to focus on women’s issues per se, the presence of substantial numbers of women in government will more or less guarantee they will impact on women’s issues simply because these issues affect them too. 

To drive the quantity argument even further, in a different study, female representation at local government level in India made female residents more likely to report gender-based crimes. This happened as a result of a large increase in the presence of women, even if the women were not in particularly high level positions. This effect wouldn't be difficult to imagine in Nigeria where, for instance, former senator Chris Anyanwu championed the Sexual offences Bill in the 7th National Assembly. Despite the bill's more controversial clauses, it aimed to close many of the gaps in existing legislation on sexual gender-based violence. 

Good for the Goose, Good for the Gander 

The broader picture goes beyond potential gains for women. Focusing exclusively on how female leaders improve female welfare overlooks how beneficial they can be to the society and economy overall. For instance, an increase in female political representatives in India has been linked to greater attainment of primary education in urban areas, for both girls and boys. A similar effect was found on a much broader scale in a study of OECD countries – the presence of more female legislators increased the ratio of GDP spent on education. Therefore, all genders stand to benefit from policies aimed at increasing the number of women in public office.

Aside from the economy, the political atmosphere could also benefit from a greater female presence. Female legislators have been found to be more collaborative than their male colleagues, and more willing to work across party lines. This is certainly something we sorely need in our national politics, where interparty tensions can often get in the way of actual governance. Perhaps, if we had more female legislators in our Senate and House of Reps, they could have helped to avert the crises that have beleaguered our National Assembly

On the whole, increased female representation in government stands to positively impact not just women but the larger body of Nigerians. And female leadership doesn't just have to be at the national level. In fact, most of the research already cited here actually find these effects at the local level, so the push for gender-balanced leadership needs to happen at all levels of government. However, a logical place to start is with national appointments because the high visibility of these roles would raise the aspirations of women interested in running for state and local government positions. At the same time, having more women leading at the national level will change local perceptions of women’s ability to lead, thus increasing the likelihood that they will be voted for.  

Finally, it's worth mentioning that gender equality should be viewed as important for the simple fact that females are entitled to just as much human dignity as males. The reality of gender-based discrimination leaves a large portion of the population highly vulnerable and unless this is addressed, Nigeria will continue to suffer the effects of such a system. A particularly grim example is the plight of the Chibok girls who have been missing for over 500 days. While the actions of Boko Haram cannot be blamed on our political system, the federal government's initial response was deplorable, symptomatic of a society that places such little value on the lives of women. And even as we grapple with these issues, Boko Haram has begun to practice its own perverted form of gender equality, through the recruitment or forced enlistment of female suicide bombers which has rocked our national collective imagination. As long as our legal, political and economic systems treat women and girls as second-class citizens, groups like Boko Haram will find them easy pickings, either as converts or cannon fodder.

This article is Part II of a series. Read Part I here


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