Legal restrictions keep 2.7bn women from accessing same jobs as men – Asmau Leo

Asmau Benzies Leo is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of LeoSmart Development Consults and the Executive Director, Centre for Nonviolence and Gender Advocacy in Nigeria (CENGAIN). In this chat with ENE OSHABA she speaks extensively on the 2021 International Women’s Day and the protection of the right’s of Nigerian women.

What’s your take on theme of the International Women’s Day: Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world?

The essence of celebrating the International Women’s Day is to reflect on progress made with regards to gender equality and equity. Can we truly say we have made progress in this regard?

The day offers us the opportunity to highlight the achievements of ordinary women, who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The theme for this year actually depicts the roles women have or can play in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

How women leaders, women-led organisations and front line workers and emergency respondents have demonstrated their skills, knowledge and expertise to effectively lead in Covid-19 response and recovery efforts.

Today, more than ever before, women have proven that they can bring their various experiences, perspectives and skills to the table, and make outstanding contributions to policies, programs and laws that work better for humanity.

It is on record that majority of the countries that have been more successful in handling the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and its successful responses on health and broader socio-economic impacts are headed by women. Some of the examples are Heads of Government in Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Slovakia.

It is critical that women’s rights are upheld with the highest standards and the potential of women’s leadership in the new normal is realised.

Diversity and inclusion must be part and parcel of every policy formulation, implementation and programmes in all stages of pandemic response and recovery in Nigeria.

The world has made unprecedented advances, but no country has yet achieved gender equality. It is stated that it will take over 208 years to achieve gender parity in America, if that is the case what hope do we have for Africa/Nigeria.

In the meantime, legal restrictions have kept 2.7 billion women from accessing the same choice of jobs as men. Less than 25 per cent of parliamentarians were women, as of 2019. One in three women still experience gender-based violence.

Moving forward, all must work together to ensure human rights are realistically women’s rights.

So, is the Day worth celebrating in Nigeria?

It’s a mixed reaction for women in Nigeria as regards to whether to celebrate the IWD or not. In all, we thank God because of his faithfulness despite the challenges of the past years and the Covid-19 pandemic that hit the world in an unprecedented way.

Sadly, because there is still much to be done in order to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women we still have to use this year’s occasion to create awareness around the challenges women face on a daily basis.

There is still huge gender discrimination in the work place, female leaders are still lacking in key decision making processes, violence against women and girls is still on the rise, women still fall behind men in terms of economic opportunities, education and healthcare.

Last year, the UN reported that almost 90 per cent of people are prejudiced towards women globally. It is important on this IWD, that women in Nigeria and those from across the world come together to shine a light on these inequalities while equally celebrating the achievements of those women who have overcome these barriers.

Indeed, this year the need for celebration is more urgent than ever owing to the effects of the pandemic especially on women.

Global data released by UN Women suggests that the pandemic could put gender equality back by 25 years, as a result of women doing significantly more unpaid care jobs as domestic chores and family care.

The pandemic has also bought its own unique challenges for women from job losses to a rise in domestic violence and the pressures of home schooling making the need for this year’s IWD more pressing than ever. All the same, there are still very good reasons to mark the Day.

Could you share some of the reasons to mark the Day?

A lot have changed from last year to date. A lot of states have passed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act, Sexual Assault Referral Centres and Domestic Violence Response Teams have been established in some states, a State of Emergency was declared by the Nigeria Governor’s Forum on Rape and Gender Based Violence (GBV) and an inter- agency Gender Based Violence Management Committee under the leadership of the Attorney General, Ministry of Justice, the establishment of the sex offenders register for naming and shaming of perpetrators of rape and the national campaign on Zero Tolerance to Gender Based Violence, Toll Free numbers for Reporting of SGBV cases and the Data based on GBV at the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs under the leadership of the Minister, Women Affairs amongst others.

So, women’s demands are yielding meaningful results?

I would honestly say we are not where we want to be, but definitely we are not where we use to be. There has been slow but steady progress made over the years through massive advocacies and campaigns by women groups and feminist networks in Nigeria.

This has resulted in more girls going to school, fewer girls being forced into early marriage, more women are serving in parliament even though the ratio had declined recently and more women in positions of leadership, and laws are being reformed and policies formulated to advance gender equality.

However, despite these gains, many challenges remain such as discriminatory laws and practices, and social norms remain pervasive. Women continue to be underrepresented at all levels of political leadership, and 1 in 5 women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 report experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner and economically, women are the lowest earners thereby given poverty a feminine face.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have also reversed the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights.

The coronavirus outbreak exacerbated these existing inequalities for women and girls across every sphere, from health and the economy, to security and social protection.

What should be done differently to ensure women’s rightful place in the polity?

Simple, women should be given a place at the table if not then it is high time that women begin to construct their own tables themselves. We cannot wait forever for the needed change because power is not given it is taken.

I, therefore, employ women to build their individual capacities, capabilities and skills so as to compete favourably with their male counterparts thereby maximising their God given potentials.

Times have changed and women need to rise to the occasion and be counted. We cannot afford to live at the mercy of others.

The issue of women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms should be a birth rights, but across the globe and even in Nigeria we fail to accord human rights to women.

Moreover, women are often victims of human rights abuses. Women’s human rights are abused when they cannot participate in decisions that affect their lives and are denied political participation and fair representation, when they are prevented from going to school or receiving health care, when they face discrimination in employment, when they are denied equal rights to own land and property, when they suffer from violence within their homes and when they are subjected to harmful traditional practices such as genital mutilation or forced marriages. Things like this should not be heard of in the 21st Century Nigeria.

What about right of women and girls to safety, shouldn’t this be emphasised especially with the spate of kidnappings and other violent crimes across the country?

It is rather unfortunate that our dear country is gradually descending into a state of anarchy. Everywhere you turn there is one level of insecurity or the other, from the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-east to banditry in the North-west to herders, farmers conflict in the North-central and western part of Nigeria, to kidnapping and ritual killings in the South-south and South-east. No part of the country is exempted from this calamity.  To think that women and children are at the receiving end of this national catastrophe is an understatement.

Daily we hear of the news of women and girls been abducted in their schools or communities, women being raped and murdered in their farms and some kidnapped for ransom or been used for ritual purposes, this is unimaginable.

Nigeria is faced with a thriving political economy of kidnapping, banditry and insurgency that operates beyond borders. The problem is multi-dimensional and so are the solutions. It involves the political, military, economic psychosocial and interfaith solutions.

There’s need for a culturally specific and appropriate counter terrorism and de-radicalisation measures as well as a sustainable and long term psycho-social support services for survivors and their families. Otherwise we will be confronted with an unending circle of violence in this country.

The implementation of the National Action Plan on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and that of Countering Violent Extremism should be enforced as the appropriate authorities so that women and girls can enjoy safety and security in their homes, schools and in Public spaces.

It is sad, very unfortunate indeed. One thing we need to be aware of is that an attack on innocent school children is an attack on education and also to their future.

The target on girls’ schools is even more disheartening because that further increases the rate of out of schools children by the day. As it stands, Nigeria has the highest number of out of school children numbering over 13 million and more than 60 per cent of them are girls.

Our schools should be a safe space for learning and development but as it stands must parents can’t even send their children to public schools anymore for fear of their children been kidnapped on the way or in the schools.

And remember these public schools are the only ones in some of our rural communities and with the rate of insecurity going on, how do we expect the masses to cope?

The right to education is a basic fundamental human right for a child universally, but in reality, however, there are numerous obstacles to the realisation of this right.

While some of these barriers apply to both boys and girls, and apart from the issues of security there are other specific hurdles that girls have to  overcome in many contexts in order to equally enjoy their human rights to, within and through education.

Women have continued to be denied basic education and girls equally, as a result of cultural and social norms and practices that perpetuate harmful stereotypes about appropriate roles for women and reinforce the idea that education is ‘wasted’ on girls. Gender-related violence and other forms of discrimination within schools also contribute to a high rate of school abandonment by girls.

Alongside the socio-cultural factors that give rise to violations of girls’ human rights, there are other legal, political and economic obstacles that may limit the full implementation of the right to education for girls. Several recent cases of attacks against girls accessing education have highlighted the fragile nature of achievements in increasing the accessibility, availability, adaptability, acceptability and quality of safe and secure education for all. These events include the abduction of hundreds of school girls from Chibok, Dapchi and most recently in Zamfara state.

The government at all levels need to be proactive and take decisive steps to bring an end to these senseless violations of the rights of girls in Nigeria.

The protection of lives and properties is the sole responsibility of government. Our security architecture equally needs to be strengthened to ensure they deliver on their mandate of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) the lives and properties of all Nigerian citizens everywhere especially the most vulnerable populations like children and persons living with disabilities.

Shouldn’t women themselves do something to salvage the security situation since they are a major target?

Security consciousness is key to personal safety for women and girls. I encourage every woman, mother, teacher and young girls to learn the skills needed to defend themselves and not just keep mute and watch the aggressors keep oppressing their lives. Fight back.

There’s an age old myth that says “never let women fly free” meaning men are to be protectors of women and females. But what happens when this so called protectors act like sexual predators and haunt for the flesh and blood of those they were meant to protect?

Doesn’t it call for the time when the ‘weaker sex’ stands up and fight for what she deserves? Freedom! With rising cases of abuse against women in Nigeria and across the world, it is high time women must realise that evil-headed psychopaths will not let them wander free, work with dignity and walk with respect unless they shield themselves with courage, fearlessness and determination.

On this note what’s your charge on government as Nigerian women mark the IWD?

My expectation is action. Government should match words with action. A lot of polities are lying dormant on the shelves in many of the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) but there is no political will to implement such.

We need government that is proactive, sensitive to the plights of Nigerians, a government that will provide the basic amenities of life and infrastructures for the people; good roads, portable water, affordable and accessible health care system and education, boost agriculture and food production, ensure safety and security of citizens everywhere, create a level playing ground for citizens to participate in political process and make our democracy work. Is this too much to ask for?

As a concerned citizen, my call to government is to ensure the protection of the rights of women and girls to the highest attainable standard of living,  a life free from violence and discrimination, a system change that will amplify the voices and priorities of women, a Transformational leadership pattern that does not show nepotism or marginalisation to any group  of persons based on ethnic, religious or political affiliations.

A government that  promotes equality and  economic stability as a game changer which will lead to closing the gender gap, growth and productivity and encouraging entrepreneurship development amongst young people.

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