Women, More or Less A Political Solution to Gender-Based Violence

To end gender-based violence start by including more women in politics. Women make up half of Nigeria’s population, but they have never held more than 15 per cent of elective offices. There has never been a female president in Nigeria.

Globally, gender-based violence (GBV) is a persistent problem, and women and girls remain particularly vulnerable to its various forms. In 2021, with a 33 per cent rate, sub-Saharan Africa was among the two regions with the highest cases of intimate partner violence. Between January and April this year, 335 GBV cases were reported nationwide in Nigeria, but Lagos State alone recorded 4,351 cases between January and November. For a crime that is egregiously underreported and often handled poorly, these numbers are concerning.  

There are efforts being made by the government, civil society organizations and active bystanders to end GBV in Nigeria, but they are not enough. Nigeria requires a stronger focus on creating and upholding legal frameworks against GBV that can be facilitated by political will and the increased inclusion of women in political positions.  

HISTORICALLY EXCLUDED

Globally, women are and have historically been underrepresented in political leadership. In 1975, women made up just 10.9 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide; ten years later this increased to 11.9 per cent. In 1985, the global community met in Nairobi and pledged to promote gender equality in all areas of political life at the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace. These promises were later consolidated in 1995, in the Beijing Plan of Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women 

In Nigeria, affirmative action is provided for in the National Gender Policy. However, Nigeria has one of the lowest levels of female political representation. Since colonization, women have been excluded from positions of political leadership; in the East and South, women did not have the right to vote until 1954, while women in the North gained the right in 1979, years after their male counterparts had it from the start of elections during the colonial era (1923). This disparity in the exercise of electoral rights is a contributing factor to the low participation of women in politics in Nigeria. Women make up roughly half of Nigeria’s population, but they have never held more than 15 per cent of elective offices. There has never been a female president in Nigeria.   

As Nigeria readies for its upcoming elections, the steady decline in women’s political participation is particularly concerning. In 2011, women made up 6.9 per cent and 7.2 per cent of the houses of assembly and representatives respectively, but by 2019, these numbers had fallen to 4.4 per cent and 3.6 per cent. Ahead of the polls, women make up 7.89 per cent on the final list of candidates; 10.27 per cent and 9.23 per cent running for the houses of assembly and representatives respectively. Five states have no women running for the senate and one state did not field any woman for the house of representatives. With these numbers, against the 50.6 per cent of registered female voters and instances of gender-based violence targeted at women in politics, it is difficult to believe that women can have a safer Nigeria.  

THE CROSSROAD BETWEEN FEMALE POLITICAL PARTICIPATION AND ENDING GBV

The direct link between reduced gendered violence and women’s inclusion in politics is in the emphasis female leaders typically place on the rights, development, and well-being of women and children. Such leaders can raise these issues in relevant spaces and recommend practical solutions. Women’s participation in politics and proximity to political power has played a crucial role in reducing gendered violence in Nigeria in the past. The first legislation in Nigeria to combat human trafficking, a form of gender-based violence, was pushed by Titi Abubakar, the wife of then-vice president, Atiku Abubakar. She set up a committee to draft the anti-human trafficking law, which was approved and put into effect in July 2003. The National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Related Matters is currently responsible for enforcing the law. 

In 2016, Senator Biodun Christine Olujimi from Ekiti sponsored the Gender and Equal Opportunity (GEO) Bill. This bill aimed to domesticate international treaties on non-discrimination based on sex and human rights issues specific to women and girls. Such treaties include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol). The bill was read in the senate for the first time in March 2016 and rejected; it was reintroduced and passed its second reading in June of that same year. However, it has not yet been passed into law because the majority of the male senators, 92.7 per cent, have said the word ‘equality’ makes them uncomfortable 

In 2020, as many as 5,769 survivors of sexual violence sought support from sexual assault referral centres as the COVID-19 virus outbreak—and resulting lockdowns—increased women and girls’ susceptibility to GBV. In response, Nigerian civil society organizations pushed for state-level domestication of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act through the #StateofEmergencyGBV movement. Support from the Governors’ Wives Forum saw the Governors’ Forum announce a state of emergency regarding gendered violence. Since June 2020, 18 states have adopted the VAPP Act.  

While Nigeria’s constitution, criminal code, and penal code all criminalize gendered violence, the VAPP Act addresses specific forms of GBV, including sexual, physical, economic, and psychological violence. It also makes provisions for counselling and rehabilitation services, as well as, in some cases, financial compensation for survivors of this violence.  

POLARIZED LEADERSHIP

Gender-based violence can be traced to persisting power imbalances and gender stereotypes that place women below men. Harmful gender norms, war, conflict and the long-masculinized political leadership in Nigeria need to be addressed so women are seen as equal citizens across the nation. A shift in power distribution can be achieved by enacting legislation that recognizes the socioeconomic barriers that prevent women from participating in politics, such as illiteracy, poverty, and political apathy.  

The Affirmative Action bill, which sought to ensure that women hold at least 35 per cent of administrative and appointment positions in political parties at both the federal and state levels, was sponsored by Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, a female lawmaker from Abia State. On March 1, 2022, the bill was one of five gender-related bills the National Assembly rejected during the constitutional amendment review. In response, Nigerian women protested for several days. I witnessed Onyejeocha’s support for the gender bills as she walked with us and vowed to speak to her colleagues on our behalf. The Governors’ Wives Forum and all seven female senators also backed the #NigerianWomenOccupyNASS movement.  

SOCIOECONOMIC FREEDOM

Poverty is a risk factor for various types of violence against women. Lack of economic independence can make it very difficult for women to report and leave abusive relationships; having access to economic opportunities helps women break free from this cycle of dependency. Gender-based income inequality is reduced in countries with a higher proportion of women in top legislative positions because female political leaders are more likely to support economic reforms, gender-sensitive budgets, and interventions that benefit women economically.  

Rwanda makes a compelling case on all counts, as seen in the WPS 2021–2022 index, with Rwanda ranked at 66 and Nigeria at 130, indicating that the former country offers a more secure living environment for women and girls than the latter. In 2003, women were elected to 48.8 per cent of the seats in Rwanda’s lower house; today that number stands at 61.2 per cent—the highest number of women in parliament in Africa. In 2006, a landmark bill was introduced to combat gender-based violence, the first time ‘rape’ was defined in Rwandan law. Like the VAPP, the success of the bill was due to the agitation of Rwandan women parliamentarians and support from civil society groups.  

Rwanda saw further improvement after 2015’s constitutional amendment made provisions for women to hold at least 30 per cent of the positions in decision-making bodies. By 2021, Rwandan women made up 43 per cent of supreme court judges and Rwanda saw gender-responsive systems, institutional mechanisms, and legal frameworks set up to address instances of violence.  

Equal rights for men and women in terms of inheritance and access to land, increased access to finance for women, and the creation of decent jobs are all outlined in Rwanda’s National Strategy for Transformation 2017–2024; all of these point to how having inclusive governance strengthens women’s economic power to make healthy decisions.   

Politics plays a major role in ending gendered violence, as it does with many things. Notable efforts have been made by the few women holding or associating with political power and civil groups like ElectHER, which unveiled eight female aspirants running for state and federal legislative seats at the 2023 general elections. Even though these efforts are not sufficient, they aid in the effective implementation of policies to end gender-based violence in Nigeria

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