Ene Ede, a renowned gender activist popularly called Mama Gender, has been advocating equality and equity in all sectors in Nigeria and in other climes. In this interview with ENE OSANG, she speaks on the increasing number of female cadets in the military, particularly the in the army, and calls on politicians and other stakeholders to take a lead on women inclusion from the Lt. Gen. TY Buratai-led Nigerian Army.
You have been advocating women inclusion in various sectors of governance but not much has been seen around the military why is this so?
It’s not so, there was a debate whether women would add value or not in the military because of their peculiarities but the debate was not strong enough to dissuade the current Chief of Army, Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Yusuf Buratai, to succumbing to the pressure of not encouraging women into the military because there was very serious pressure but it is not normal to deliberately slow down women issues.
I know that when President Goodluck Jonathan initiated the female cadet in 2007, I personally was excited because since the military regime I have been promoting women empowerment using one of the Beijing platform for action: Women and armed conflict as an entry point it didn’t work, when the issue of women, peace and security came up it also didn’t work because they were sympathetic to the course and several chiefs of army staff were not convinced, but compassionate – but that was not enough to drive the policy that will bring that to happen.
So, when President Jonathan proposed that and it scaled through. I was happy that even the navy for the first time were able to reconfigure one of their war ships to accommodate the women ratings and officers and other ranks. I tried with the Air Force it didn’t work, but, recently, we have a whole battalion that is an all women corps called Nigeria Army Women’s Corps (NAWC), which is unprecedented.
I was privileged to be at their first training week in Jos and I realised that we Activists, the media and other stakeholders interested in equity and diversity are stretching and stressing ourselves so much because we are not looking at other areas with so much progress.
Its not just about the number because the officers in the corps are just 303 corps apart from the soldiers, but something distinctive about it is that the coordinator of that corps is a Lieutenant Colonel and she plays a motherly role to younger officers.
I realised that for those officers who came through short service or direct service or other entry points have distinguished themselves they even drive the armoured personnel car (APC) and those female corps got awards for doing well and I think we are not celebrating this enough. The Chief of Army staff has done well by elevating the bar of womanhood, gender empowerment and equality.
Which areas in the military would you say have been reformed to the gender equality ratings?
Military is a tough and regimented area and so when we talk empowerment and equality it is not the general thinking of women empowerment everyone has because with the regimented nature of army over time it has not been possible to have women combatants who can go to the war front especially in this period of insurgency in the North-east and other areas. But, today, women can now aspire to be commanders at the battalion, brigade and corps level which was, hitherto, not attainable.
Also, more female soldiers can now fill leadership posts such as RSM and Chief Clerk that used to be dominated by men. We are beginning to see this happen within the context of security reform and governance, and for Lt. Gen. Buratai to locate gender in this area when achieving this in politics and other areas are tough is worth commending the Nigeria Army.
What are the benefits of having women as cadets?
It gives women in the military to aspire to the highest level in their career not like before when they can only go to war as support staff in education, nursing, and medical form, etc. Not that they are actively involved, but just support. But this has changed because the officers are also going through the combatant training now. Women are very active and with the AG corps commander, Women’s Corps, Brig. Gen. Preye Fakrogha, who is enhancing their capacity, women’s capacity is growing in the army.
I was at one of their meetings and I could see subtle resistance, suspicion and anger from male officers who think women should not get to the hierarchy and so at one of their functions a female general was introducing herself and of the male officers wanted to talk her down and I forgot I was in a regimented environment when I turned and replied the officer that a general is a general whether male or female. I went further to say what differentiates them is whether it is one star or two-star and he realised and began to smile. There is resistance for women in media, politics, etc, talk more or military.
It is good that women are rising in different categories in the studies, practical work, etc; imagine one of the female officers drove the army vehicle from Abuja to Munguno in Borno state.
What is your take on the issue of female officers not being allowed to marry or bear children until after a given number of years of service?
When the argument about issue of marriage, child rearing came up with the debate of whether they should go beyond three years I said men cannot give birth; so, if women are not allowed to marry and give birth who will raise another generation of army? However, the military has defended this argument by saying that period of time is designed to ensure that the personnel give their best to the service of their country without the distraction that comes with family entanglements.
The women have contributed and should be enhanced in this area and the chief of army staff has given women maximum support by giving them their space by encouraging them; in fact, if women have such encouragement in politics Nigeria would have been better.
So, are you calling for a reduction in the three years period before marriage given to women in the military?
It can be debated and looked at, however, I know some women who have made up their mind not to marry. If many of us were guided I think that is where I belong because I have so many of their attributes and I remember my mother used to call me soldier.
In this country, there are many women who would not want to get married; this is a problem and a lot of people will people will be angry, but not many people want to marry, some want to live and defend their country in integrity. They are not flirts because a lot of people misunderstand them and call such women a group of lesbians; rather they are much disciplined and deserve to be celebrated.
I am excited and I think all human rights advocates should be excited too, for me, my excitement is that at a time when we have lowering percentage of women in all aspect of governance like in Ministerial position we have just five per cent women from a particular part of the country, the military, particularly the army is encouraging women and we have both boys and girls in different categories growing and making the country proud.
How will you relate this to the advocacy for full implementation of the United Nations Security Council (UNSCR) 1325, especially from the National Action Plan (NAP) perspective?
I have volunteered by putting documents together to take to the UN Women to see how we can support them because the greatest challenge we have is that we, the female activists, maybe feel it’s a no go area and so we don’t want to relate with them because even the female officers that leave the armed forces or paramilitary do not know how to relate with the outside world. This is because they have lived within an environment that is as if they are not women; so we don’t relate with them very well; so I am interested in the full implementation of UNSCR 1325.
You know the National Action Plan (NAP) will expire next year and I am interested in an accelerated implementation and I volunteer to really support to get that done.
What areas do you think should be improved on?
There is an aspect of the NAP that talks about partnership and it has not been done across different sectors. One of the pillars is partnership and we have not been able to do well with that because if we do the women in the army should be part of it. The Beijing Platform for Action will be 25 years next year, and I am interested in seeing how the armed forces will be supported to have a good number of their females and males be at the side events in New York. I have seen other women go there and I see them also training a crop of women journalists, particularly to be able to report this on a consistent basis as a rear area of achievement. I think the only area now that is really encouraging people looking at what we have done in investment over time to say resources is not a waste is what the army has done in encouraging women and politicians can take a lead from them.
We have proposed to the army that there should be peer learning where they can go outside the country, learn and come back, I understand that in Sri Lanka there is an all-women corps and they are doing very well so our women corps can go to such places and learn a lot more.
I have interacted with the women corps and they are intelligent and the issue of peace and security which is their constitutional role would have had less trauma and casualties and hardware approach to issues of security wouldn’t have been there because they would have brought a different perspective like they are doing now.
I was so excited when Brig. Gen. Nuhu Angbazo listened to the women cadets and saw their performance in pictures and videos he appealed to the Chief of Army Staff to help create an arm of the women corps in Plateau because when women protested there the male security forces didn’t want to use force on them because they are women. But this would have been easier with the women corps. These are approaches to peace and security or to insurgency that has great value with minimal casualty. So, they are doing so much and this is one of the greatest things that have happened to Nigeria; in particular the expression of skills and capacity of women.
Women go through a lot of things biologically from menstrual pains, ovulation, pregnancy, child bearing, hot flushes like for me who got into menopause early in life, and these don’t happen to men, but women are coping well. So, if you make arrangements for these in this service areas women is excel – the greatest thing is to motivate them and I call on all Nigerian women to celebrate General Buratai even though some people may say they have their perspectives for encouraging women and may think our own perspective in this issue is little or myopic. That little perspective can overshadow and bring peace as well as results to other areas because these female cadets have the right proportional deployment of power, authority and energy with respect not force or rebellion.
Governor El-Rufai even hailed them because the minimal casualties recorded during the election in Kaduna state was because of the women officers.