We can no longer put aside the once invisible but now irrefutable powers that are the women of Nigerian history.
61 years after Nigeria took the reins of independence, October 1 is a national day of reflection. The nation-building task is a long and arduous endeavor, and an honest soul-searching of our collective gains and losses must be undertaken as we make our way towards the goal of shared peace and prosperity.
Nigeria’s achievements in people-centered development are not in question. We have excelled and exceeded in a multitude of fields with legacies in business, sports, the arts and science that have etched the knobs and moved the dials on the various indicators by which we measure national success. Yet these successes have one overriding common factor: they were led, achieved and celebrated primarily by male personalities.
We can no longer put aside the once invisible but now irrefutable powers that are the women of Nigerian history. Icons and heroines of the past such as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margeret Ekpo and Ladi Dosei Kwali have pushed the doors of inclusion and representation of women in the national space.
Today, Nigerian women are agents of change and facilitators 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 finance arena, eight women are currently CEOs or managing directors of the country’s major banks. In the areas of human rights and social protection, where women remain the conscience of the nation, pioneers like Sadiya Umar Farouq continue to fight for increased intervention.
On the world stage, Nigerian women continue to shine, with the World Trade Organization (WTO) headed by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The same level of global confidence in the capabilities of Nigerian women has seen Amina J. Mohammed’s rise as UN Under-Secretary-General, while Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie continues to keep the world spellbound, engaged and fascinated in the field of literature.
We must recognize and celebrate the achievements of Nigerian women while giving them confidence and empowering them to break the glass ceiling to realize their potential in which they have shown in abundance. As global advocates for women’s rights, health and well-being, calls for equity and equality in all sectors, and especially in the health sector in the face of the COVID pandemic -19, went from whispers to bellows. Women make up 70% of the 43 million workers in the global healthcare industry, but hold only 5% of managerial positions. 90% of the world’s registered nurses are women, who remain the backbone of the informal workforce of unpaid caregivers of sick parents, community members and children at home. Yet their immense contribution is not only generally overlooked; women’s efforts have yet to translate into representation at policy and decision-making tables.
Health is fundamental to national and global security. Gender-balanced health sector leadership in any nation, deliberately ensuring inclusion, while eliminating structural inequalities, will ensure the health of the people essential to achieving national goals of development and progressivity.
Healthy Nigerian women have shown great courage and excellent results when present in the room. Leading examples include women like the late Dora Akunyili, whose immense work produced groundbreaking policies in the drug supply chain, and the late Dr Stella Adadevoh whose foresight changed the trajectory of the Ebola pandemic into 2014 in Nigeria.
At a less national level, Nigerian women are at the forefront of health development programs as they carry out vital health implementation activities of malaria prevention, nutrition, water supply and sanitation, primarily as domestic and executing partners of national health programs.
Despite these documented examples, the leadership of the public health sector in Nigeria is still dominated by men and far too much of the work done by women is not credited to them. The Nigerian health sector stands to benefit from the immense talent and opportunities that more gender balanced leadership will bring. Frontline leadership must also spill over into the household where social protection systems and networks that address the risks women face and provide support to those facing situations of vulnerability or crisis need to be strengthened. They play a vital role in protecting women from poverty and insecurity while helping them cope with and recover from shocks that ultimately lead to a change in a woman’s outcome.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impacts on gender demonstrate the importance of building a continent-wide force of women leaders who contribute to Africa’s growth, progress and prosperity by advocating for compelling causes such as reproductive health, gender-based violence, women’s rights and gender equality. This can only be achieved by raising the status of women’s leadership in Africa and passing on the knowledge acquired 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 progress has been slow and uneven, and in some cases significant setbacks persist. The area where the most progress has been made is the adoption of laws and policies aimed at advancing women’s rights. In this regard, Nigeria’s record matches that of most countries.
Nigeria has performed well in putting in place legal frameworks that promote, enforce and monitor gender equality, according to UN Women’s gender-specific SDG indicators. However, the biggest obstacle remains insufficient and adequate implementation and monitoring.
Nigeria has continued to make progress in the active inclusion of women in social, economic and political spheres, but much remains to be done. Recent data from UN Women indicates that in Nigeria there is a 62% literacy rate for girls aged 15 and over, and growing concerns about school retention and transition rates. With all the gains made, it is crucial that sex-disaggregated data is available to enable effective gender programming and budgeting.
Gender equality is the unfinished business of every generation. A key action of the movement in Nigeria has been to facilitate intergenerational exchanges between Nigerian leaders present at the Beijing World Women’s Conference in 1995 and the current generation of young Nigerian women. Through the 1995 Generation, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was born and through the 2020 Generation, women’s and girls’ issues continue to be at the forefront of Nigeria’s agenda.
This is the generation that has tirelessly shed light on the plight of sexual and gender-based violence in educational institutions and across the country, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency against gender-based violence. It is the generation that organized and mobilized citizen action on important issues of democracy and governance. In response to the state of emergency, at least 23 states have now domesticated the law on the prohibition of violence against people (VAPP), down from less than 10 in 2018. Already, before the elections of 2023 , young people are the largest constituency group ever registered to vote. and competition. Generation Equality recognizes the important role of coming generations as agents of change and working with gender equality advocates in their local communities – raising awareness of gender equality with the aim of leaving no one behind .
Young Nigerian women are the engines and agitators of political and civic leadership, culture and thought as well as entrepreneurship and innovation.
To paraphrase the national prayer, they are the generation that makes sure that the works of Nigerian female heroines are not in vain. Concerted efforts must be made to ensure intentional intergenerational exchanges in order to sustain the progress made since the Beijing Platform for Action.
It is time for the nation to embrace a leadership change, through an enabling environment – from politics to business and society – that opens up space for young and old to have a transformative impact on our ability to bring about social change.
Toyin Ojora Saraki is the founding president of The Wellbeing Foundation Africa. Comfort Lamptey is the representative of UN Women in Nigeria and ECOWAS. Dr Roopa Dahtt is the Executive Director of Women in Global Health. Olabukunola “Buky” Williams is Executive Director of Education As A Vaccine. Dr Adepeju Adeniran is co-leader of the Women in Global Health Nigeria chapter.