The minister of Women Affairs, Barrister Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye, had upon assumption of office in August outlined key areas of focus for her ministry to include protecting women against gender-based violence, alongside catering for children, among other key areas.
Ohanenye, who took over from Dame Pauline Tallen, has a lot of expectations to meet as Nigerian women expect her office to cater for their numerous needs, as well as be a voice for them.
While Nigeria ranked second worldwide in maternal deaths according to a 2023 World Health Organisation report, the number of out-of-school girls hits a record 7.6 million. The figures reveal a huge task for the country to address these and more critical issues impeding on gender parity and development.
Despite policies and interventions of past governments to provide better opportunities for women, hopefully closing gender gaps, Nigeria has ranked 123rd out of 146 countries in the 2023 gender gap report by the world economic forum.
This means Nigeria still has a lot of work to be done in availing equal access and opportunities for its female population especially in education, healthcare, politics and business, et cetera.
Created in 1995 to shoulder the responsibility of advancing women and women matters, the ministry of women affairs through successive ministers, has championed the causes of women through policies like the National Gender Policy (NGP, 2006), Women Economic Empowerment (WEE), VAPP Act (2015), National action plan on gender-based violence (2021), among others.
The current minister of Women Affairs, Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye, is saddled with the responsibility of ensuring sustenance and implementation of previous policies, as well as and creating new ones to suit prevailing challenges.
Daily Trust Saturday in this report categorised some front burner concerns of women and children in Nigeria that needs the minister’s intervention.
Five critical areas to consider
Political inclusion of women; Patterns in the country’s electoral processes and outcomes overtime suggest that only the passage of an affirmative action law can ensure gender parity in politics.
The inability to actualise a piece of legislation that provides women certain quotas in political and leadership spaces has made gender parity in Nigeria a task more distant than it has been in other countries.
According to the 2023 World economic forum, gender gap index, Nigeria ranked 142 out of 146 countries in political empowerment, which is a clear reflection of the dearth of women in its political arena.
Meanwhile, the failure of the Tinubu-led administration to fulfill it’s campaign promise of 35 per cent appointments to women had been frowned at by women groups who called for a reconsideration of the affirmative action bill by legislators.
The affirmative action bill sought to amend sections of the constitution to allow women occupy at least 35 percent of political party, appointive and other leadership positions in the country.
The current number of out-of-school girls in Nigeria according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is 7.6 million.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s educational attainment ranking according to the 2023 world gender gap report of the world economic forum is at 134 out of 146 countries.
Amidst programs like the Adolescent Girl Initiative for Learning and Empowerment (AGILE) and the Girls Education Project (GEP) among others, an inter-ministerial synergy will be needed to provide better educational opportunities for girls, thereby improving their quality of lives.
Top among the health concerns of women in the country is reproductive health.
Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR); According to the World Health Organisation, Nigeria has alarmingly been situated second place in the world ranking of maternal deaths, which is 15 per cent of the global toll of maternal mortality.
This however places deaths of women during or after birth at 821 in 100,000 live births. Following the Sustainable Development Goal in reducing MMR to less than 70 per 100,000 live births by 2030, there is need to heighten policies and programs to ensure a better and healthy life for the over 40 million women of reproductive age in Nigeria.
However, other health concerns amongst women include, Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF), cervical and breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, among other health threats to the female population.
Socio-cultural Practices Affecting Women; these constitute patterns or behaviours that bear negative consequences for a large number of people and needs to be addressed. These include Female Genital Mutilation—the traditional practice of circumcising a female is still predominant in some cultures in Nigeria.
Statistics according to a 2022 UNICEF report indicates that the practice is prevalent in the South East, with about 35 per cent, while the South West is second with 30 per cent; the practice in the north appears minimal as it is pegged at 6 per cent.
Child marriage: Despite joining the world in a quest to end child marriage by 2030, Nigeria ranked one of the highest globally in child marriage with an estimated 44 per cent of girls married off before their eighteenth birthday. The 2021 Global Girlhood report revealed a prevalence of this in the North East and North western states of the country.
Though there have been debates around reasons behind the cultural tolerance for child marriage, the baggage it comes with could be heavily weighty, leaving damaging impacts on these young girls.
A disease called Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) predominant among younger girls that married early is one among other effects of child marriage.
Daily Trust Saturday reports that there are between 12,000 and 13,000 new cases of VVF every year, with 70 per cent of these cases from Northern Nigeria.
Gender based Violence: According to the National Gender Based Violence Data Collation Tool, by UN Women, there were 6,668 cases of GBV reported in six states of Nigeria from January 2020 to May 2022.
Out of these, 33 perpetrators were convicted, 305 cases were closed, and 1,524 cases are open.
The growing figures of reported cases of GBV reportedly indicated that women were growing conscious of such violation and could report them, while the low conviction rates call for attention.
Economic Empowerment and Poverty Eradication
The 2022 poverty assessment report by the World Bank indicated that out of the 87 million Nigerians living in poverty, women constitute more than half of that number. The bulk of poor women according to the report are concentrated in rural areas. This should suggest that policies and programs targeted towards development and poverty alleviation be targeted to the right people to reduce poverty amongst women.
There should be a policy to end child marriage in Northern Nigeria – JMA
While noting that women in the north are still left behind socially, educationally, economically and politically, Hajiya Rabi Musa Saulawa, President of the Jam’iyyan Matan Arewa (JMA), pleaded that the Minister of Women Affairs should ensure there is a “policy whereby the girl child should not be given out in marriage until she has reached 18 years, which I know is going to cause a lot of problems religiously and culturally but if we have something like that, we can say okay, at least, let the girl child be an adult before she is given out in marriage, because there are so many health issues that she’s not physically ready to handle,” she said.
She added that girls in the north are even doing better than the boys in school, thus the need to make sure that girls go to “not only primary and secondary schools but also the universities and even after the universities they should be allowed to at least work, or they can acquire skills (for those that have not gone to school) to earn a living.”
Meanwhile, Saulawa urged the minister to pay attention to the political participation of women in the country while referring to the 35 per cent affirmative action.
“Politically, we need to help our women. You know we have been asking for 35 per cent; we should even get 50 per cent. If we don’t get that, there’s no way our women can get anywhere and most of the time, it is these political parties that are not helping matters. They only give us women leader and that is all. You will never see a female being a chairman of a party or treasurer or secretary and so on and so forth.”
Inter-ministerial synergy to address women issues – Advocate
Since women related issues cut across health, education and poverty alleviation, gender advocate and media practitioner Angela Agoawike has asked the Minister of Women Affairs to partner with other ministries to address women issues.
“Ministry of Women Affairs can also work with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health. In fact, it should be an inter-ministerial thing,” she said.
Meanwhile, Agoawike also called for the domestication of existing laws on FGM so as to eradicate the practice among cultures that still do it.
“I think FGM is something that ought to be stopped completely, there’s need for a national law against it and I know that internationally, there are rules against it. Maybe we should also domesticate those laws and make them applicable as a national law to all the states. Apart from having the law, there should be a lot of sensitisations about the side effects of FGM—how it negatively impacts the healthy development of a girl child. It’s one thing having a law and another thing ensuring that the laws are applied and adhered to, so we need a lot of enlightenment by the ministry of Women Affairs,” she added.