One of the most important things I read this year was Anne Marie-Slaughter’s essay titled ‘Why women still can’t have it all’, in which she was brutally honest about the challenges career women face in trying to achieve a work-life balance; this differs sharply from what men have to encounter, and how the way society is structured contributes to that. I was struck that even though we might see places like America as the standard for gender equality, they are still struggling with many of the same issues countries around the world have to deal with, though not to the same extent.
She made the point that even with all the strides taken by women in the US in the last three decades, the promise of a ’50-50’ world is still far off, and she gave several examples of this. Condoleezza Rice, the first and only female National Security Adviser of the US, and two of the three female justices in the US Supreme Court have no family, thereby freeing them from the encumbrances of societally-ascribed gender roles. Just 20 (4%) of America’s Fortune 500 companies are run by women, and less than 30% of senior positions in America’s foreign policy and national security establishment are occupied by women. Globally, the situation is not much different. Women less than 20% of parliamentary positions and less than 20 countries in the world are run by women.
But perhaps we look too far afield.
In Nigeria, trends toward more participation by women in the workplace and in leadership positions are positive, if slow. In 2012, Nigeria has no female governor and less than 6 deputy governors out of 36 states. Even though it has risen over time, the numbers at federal and state legislative level are similarly poor. Just under 7% of federal legislators are women, with a similar percentage of state legislators. Women are more highly educated than ever with growing economic power, and with that comes more political participation, but even this is subject to where a Nigerian woman is born; There is a clear North-South divide, with only 4% of females in Northern states completing secondary school, and over half married by the age of 16.
A variety of structures and expectations conspire to give us the picture we currently have, which rely on the ‘men go out, women stay home’ model that is categorically outdated. In the North, it is early marriage, poverty, and giving birth to several children that are primarily to blame. In the South, women who may have done very well career-wise are told to ‘put the brakes on’ because it could make them ‘intimidating’ to potential suitors. Then there is the extreme work culture that puts activity over productivity, rewarding those who stay longest at the office – usually men – forcing women to once again choose between work and family. Not to mention the awful workplace practices that discriminate against nursing mothers. At the end of the day, they simply can’t keep up. It is still a man’s world.
The battle to change attitudes towards gender issues is a constant one. The right of women to determine whether to reproduce or how often to do so is still hotly contested in most places, with many lacking access to family planning methods. The UNFPA estimates that 222 million women still lack access to contraception, with most of them in the developing world. Melinda Gates argues that ‘Contraceptives unlock one of the most dormant but potentially powerful assets in development: women as decision-makers’, and cites a long term study in Bangladesh which says that access to and education about contraceptives contribute to a higher quality of life.
Unfortunately, access to contraception is very low in Nigeria, especially in the North. The result is that women frequently have more children than they can take care of, contributing to higher maternal mortality. For example in the North-West, contraceptive use is just 3% and that region has an average birth rate of 7.3 children per woman. In the North-East, the maternal mortality is 1,549 deaths per 100,000. Five times the national average of 545.
If so many women are economically disempowered can’t make their own choices, it is no wonder many women still live under conditions of physical and emotional abuse. A British Council report titled ‘Gender in Nigeria Report 2012’ reveals that ‘most 15-24 year old females think it is reasonable if he beats his wife if she burns the food, refuses sex, or goes out without his permission’, and ‘nearly half of all unmarried women in Southern Nigeria have experienced violence’. Violence toward women, in all its forms, has become part of our national fabric, and it thrives in a climate of silence and shame.
The victims are still blamed a lot. Questions like: ‘Why did you go to his house alone?’ ‘Why did you stay late?’ ‘What were you wearing?’ ‘Why did you provoke him?’ are still very common, giving abusers a way out. It is important that we as a society criminalise all forms of abuse, no matter where we encounter them, and encourage victims to speak up so they can get help. I recently interviewed a police officer who is working with NGOs to provide counselling services for victims of rape and domestic abuse. I hope more follow suit.
Nearly half of Nigeria’s population is made up of women, and it makes their low level of participation in all areas of our society even more cause for embarrassment. Empowering them, educating them, and eliminating discrimination and abuse is a firm foundation on which to build the future of our nation. They are the first teacher of the young and contribute significantly to economic growth. A more gender inclusive society is in all our best interests.