At the start of the Fourth Republic in 1999, it was intended that Nigeria’s democracy be a government of, for, and by the people – all people irrespective of gender, faith, or creed. However, the reality showed it to be very different: after the first post-military government elections to usher in civil rule, less than 2% of all elective offices were won by women despite about 49% of the population being women. The representation of women in elective office kept rising in subsequent elections up to a peak of 6.4% in the 2011 elections, but still far below the global average of 22.5 percent, Africa regional average of 23.4 percent, and West African sub-regional average of 15 percent.

This very low proportion of women is not exclusive to elective offices, but also appointive ones as well: between 1999 and 2015, only an average of 17% of each type of high-level government officials and senior administrators with decision-making power were women.

These proportions are a very far cry from the recommendations of the National Gender Policy for at least 35% of both elective political and appointive public service positions occupied by women in order to achieve a more inclusive representation of women.

Women in Nigeria have excelled in every sector in the country such as banking, health, education, and also distinguished themselves in various public and private-sector leadership positions. However, they are glaringly underrepresented in the political space dominated by men and have not been given the opportunity to contribute their full quota to governance in our country.

The reasons for this are wide-ranging, including a lack of effective government action, lower levels of female employment and education, sexist attitudes that cast women as incapable of leadership positions and sometimes derive from religious or traditional practices, and violence at elections, including against women candidates.

The effect of this is evident over the years: a glaring absence of women in decision-making positions which has often meant that the particular issues that affect women more disproportionately are not prioritized or even considered important at all. 

Two clear examples stand out: the length of time – 14 years –  it took for the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act, a landmark act intended, among others, to protect women from violent cultural practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and harmful widowhood practices,  to pass; and the failure to pass the Gender and Equal Opportunities (GEO) Bill, intended to ensure women’s right to equal opportunities to realize their full potential and provide protection for women’s bodily rights and integrity failed to pass at the National Assembly.

Although the proportion of women elected into government has declined over the past two election cycles, there are more women who are running for office across the country and all political parties, particularly young women enabled by the Not Too Young To Run Act, and in areas that have rarely seen women aspire for elective offices. In doing so, they are challenging the status quo that has insisted that leadership should be the exclusive preserve of men.

Take, for instance, Zainab Suleiman Umar, who was a candidate for the Kano State House of Assembly representing Kumbotso Constituency in the 2019 elections, a state that has never elected a woman to any office. Despite sexist opposition to her candidacy and harassment targeted at her, she pressed on with her campaign, employing new approaches to engaging with voters, such as door-to-door campaigns. 

Zainab was one of about 50 young women candidates that were part of SheWins, a support group for young women candidates that is a part of the broader Not Too Young To Run Movement. Although only two candidates from the group won at the polls, they all have contributed to gradually shifting cultural attitudes on women, particularly young women, in leadership and politics. These women represent a cohort who chose to challenge the status quo.

Not only that, young women who were successful in their elections have demonstrated their commitment to the particular issues affecting women in their communities. For example, Hon Favour Semilore Tomomewo who is the only female member of the Ondo State House of Assembly has embarked on a project in her Ilaje II Constituency to provide financial support for women who run micro-enterprises, a demographic that statistically have the least access to credit.

By running for elective offices, these women have chosen to challenge the status quo, gender roles, and stereotypes that try to limit women from full participation in governance and politics. Through their participation and performance in public offices, they have proven that women belong in all places where decisions are made. They have also chosen to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality.

It is only through actions such as these that can we help to create an inclusive world where all persons irrespective of gender can fully participate in our democracy.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it behooves all of us to create ways and support structures that allow for more women, especially young women, to choose to challenge and break glass ceilings for themselves and other women in politics and governance.

Mark Amaza is the Senior Communications Officer at Yiaga Africa, a civil society organization committed to the promotion of democratic governance, human rights and civic engagement.