Why National Assembly must pass Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill -Bisi Fayemi

Why National Assembly must pass Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill -Bisi Fayemi

Wife of Ekiti State governor and chairperson of Nigerians Governor Forum Wives, Bisi Fayemi, recently spoke at the just concluded first-ever National Progressive Women’s Conference. At the panel discussion with the theme: “Giving Voice to Women’s Visibility: Our Support”, she spoke on why female politicians must not abandon those who worked hard to put them in office, and why the women must up their demands ahead of the 2023 elections and hold party leaders accountable. JULIANA TAIWO-OBALONYE was there.

 

What does the term women visibility mean to you?

Women visibility, for me means three things. And I am saying this based on my own experience of engaging with women in my own state in Ekiti. First of all, it means I need to be an advocate. My background is in international development, specifically gender and women civil rights.

So when my husband became the governor of the state, my first port of call was to look at our legal and policy framework in the state. Without going into too much detail, I’m pleased to let you know that my advocacy has brought about five laws in the state for the promotion and protection of the rights of women and girls. The laws are:  Ekiti GBV Law (2011 revised in 2019 to domesticate VAPP), I Chair the Ekiti State GBV Committee as well as the Ekiti State HIV AIDS Control Agency, Ekiti GEOB (2013), HIV Anti-Stigma Law (2014), Treatment, Care and Protection Law for Sexually Abused Minors (2020) and Ekiti Mental Health Law (2021).

And again, through my advocacy, I have managed to secure positions for women in leadership, and not just appointing women into positions because the governor feels like doing so but to ensure that it is enshrined in our laws and policies. So for example, we have a Gender and Equality Opportunities law in Ekiti State and 35 per cent affirmative action is a part of that legislation in the state. I’m not saying that we have achieved the 35 per cent, but at least we used it to negotiate and to threaten, if I might use that word, our party leaders.

Second, I see my role as the need to empower our women. I need to able to provide support for those, for example, who might not be able to benefit from political appointments, who might not have the qualifications, because it always comes up. When women are mobilising for election, and singing and dancing and organizing Aso ebi, they are qualified then. But when it comes to giving out positions or appointments, that is when their qualifications are called to question. And so for those who can’t benefit from appointments, I try and ensure that they are empowered in other ways, with empowerment materials, education opportunities, training, and so on.

And the third thing that comes to my mind is being present, be there for our women. There is a proven accusation of women in leadership, whether we are talking about women who are parliamentarian or women who are ministers or First Ladies, that once we get into these positions, we are no longer there for the women. They invite us to their weddings, birthdays, funeral ceremonies, we are too busy to attend or we send a representative. If we can show up to ask for their votes and support we can be there for them when they need us when we get into office.  You don’t know what it means to a woman from a local community for a First Lady  to show up at her event and for her to let people know that yes, I am the one who brought the First Lady or even the governor  to my programme. So in summary, I believe, being an advocate, and empowering our women and always being there for them is very critical to those of us who occupy these positions, because as I said earlier, we are in this position, because these women worked hard to make it possible. And so we owe them.

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But speaking as a Nigerian woman  now, not just as a First Lady, I think we need to up our demand, and next year 2023, presents us with an opportunity. We need to hold our leaders accountable. All of us here in this hall, for example, we worked hard to mobilise for members of the National Assembly to occupy their position. So we need to go and ask, particularly the men, why are they still holding back on passing the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill? Why? On what basis are they going to come around next year to ask for our votes? So we need to ask them questions. And for those that are aspiring into the presidency, what are they going to do for Nigerian women that is completely beyond rhetoric? We have the National Gender Policy, for example, how many states in Nigeria have domesticated the national agenda? I could go on but we need to up our demands. It cannot continue to be business as usual.

How can women be encouraged to increase their participation in politics?

My response is that we need to mobilise intentionally. And for me, mobilization towards an election starts from the day the previous election ends. It doesn’t start couple of months before the election, when INEC releases the timetable as they have just released the timetable now. And so I would like to believe that all of us here have been actively engaged in mobilising women in our state through structures.

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I, for example, I have had structures to mobilise Ekiti women in politics since 2006, when my husband first decided to run for office. And it is not as if Ekiti women were not organising before, they were but their efforts were not being recognised. And even when some of them were allowed to participate, there was always a reason why some could be pushed out. So I created a broad network of what we call women stakeholders, across all the 16 local governments in Ekiti State. And that structure still exists up to today. And we’ve continued to build on it and to strengthen it. And so we are always prepared for every electoral cycle. It is from these stakeholders that we have women who are capable of running for office. In these stakeholders, we have young women we push forward for leadership. And amongst these stakeholders, we have women who know what party loyalty means, and who are not just fair weather politicians and even the men say that female politicians are more loyal than men. So using our structures to mobilize is extremely important.

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Like I said, I have advocated for the inclusion of women in politics and governance. I supported four women into the Ekiti State House of Assembly in 2011 and I did it again in 2019 with four women in the State House of Assembly and one in the House of Representatives.  I have also recently got a significant number of women into local government leadership as chairs, vice chairs and councillors. In order to strengthen spaces for women’s leadership development, I established the Forum for Women in Development in 2012 and Forum for Spouses of Ekiti State Officials in 2011.

Second, again, speaking as First Lady, I think it’s important that we have a two-way process of engagement. It goes without saying that we need to continue to engage with our grassroots female politicians. But we would also like our women to engage us as well, regardless of whether you are at the grassroots or whether you are at the National Assembly. There are a lot of women with all due respect, because we can’t come to a place like this and leave if we cannot tell one another the truth, then it means we have deceived one another.

There are lots of states where the female politicians don’t have a really great relationship with the state first lady. And I think that needs to change. In most cases, the relationship might be a great one. But ideally, it needs to be better.

And again as First Ladies,  you can’t just demand respect, you have to earn it. And the fact that I have hand-held women and nurtured them to get party tickets, sponsor them, begged on their behalf, threatened on their behalf and done everything to ensure that they occupy office right from local government level up to the House of Representatives, I believe, I have earned that. So I believe all of us here, as First Ladies, should make that commitment.

What concrete changes are you making, or hoping to make to improve women’s visibility as a first lady of your state?

Again, I would like to go back to the issue of the policy and legal frameworks, because this problem we are trying to address is a problem that has to be tackled, with a pressure cooker approach. Pressure from below, and pressure from the top. Pressure from below comes with awareness raising that my sister Osun spoke of, and conscientiousness raising of our women from grassroots level. But there also has to be pressure from the top. And that’s where the laws and policies come in. We do need these laws and policies to ensure that we do not continue to beg. Because we have the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill (GOB) law in Ekiti State, every time there’s an election, especially local government, I pick up my calculator, and I sit with the party chairman. I’m not joking. I mean this. I sit with the party chairman with a calculator and the Chief of Staff, and I asked them how many seats are available and how many are you giving us? And that is how come in the last local government elections that we had a few weeks ago, in Ekiti State, we now have three women as chairs of local government, we have never had any before, 14 women as vice chairs, and 44 as councillors. It could still be better, but at least I was able to invoke our Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill (GOB) to say, if you can’t give us 35 per cent, what are you able to give us? You cannot give us nothing. And there are states in Nigeria where we have no women at all in the state of assembly or the local government. So those things need to change.

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What would be your final word to the women ahead of the elections?

We are determined at the Nigeria Governors Wives Forum to use our position to advance the cause of women. Our husbands got to where they are today because of the hard work of women put together for their political journey. So, women you have done more than we can ever repay. So if you ask us to do things to support you, we are not doing you a favour; we are doing what needs to be done. Be reassured that we are working with our husbands that women get what is rightly theirs. From this conference we should have a resolution that the APC constitution should be amended to reflect the need to have 35 per cent of women in positions, whether it is elective or appointment. Our women are very good at talking, mobilising and dancing and we have no apology to make on that.  But we can govern, we can rule, we can lead and now the time has come for us to show the men that we will continue  to support but they should not take our support for granted.

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