Every four years, millions of Nigerians head out to the polling stations to cast their votes for representatives in the Presidential, State, and National Assembly elections. After the economic recession and years of sporadic violence around the country, Nigerians see the 2019 elections as an important forum to influence the country’s future.
Although I am a young Nigerian woman, I’ve never voted in a Nigerian election because I’ve been living and studying in the United States since I became eligible to vote. Still, the energy of election season pulls me in as it does those living back home: the air is equal parts alight and fraught with months and months of campaigns, fear-mongering, and an overworked rumor mill, all boiling down to one fateful vote.
Among the many pressing issues that will swing Nigerians’ voting priorities, is women’s rights. Women make up 47% of registered voters so there is an opportunity for Africa’s largest economy to receive an influx of eager, female voices in civic engagement. However, concerns about fraud and violence at the polls over the years have many Nigerians apprehensive about the risks and rewards of coming out to vote. This, combined with the last-minute postponement of the elections on February 16th, all contributed to a low voter turnout of only 35% this year. There’s still a lot of work to be done in assuring the electorate of both their personal security and the integrity of their votes.
For Nigerian women, low civic engagement is only one consequence of the larger societal challenges at play. Women in Nigeria can face significant barriers in education, employment, and politics. Issues like financial security, personal safety, and civic education all affect a woman’s ability to be politically engaged. Women account for almost 50 percent of the Nigerian population, however, only 6 percent of federal legislative positions are occupied by women. This year, with 73 presidential candidates on the ballot, only 6 of them were women. Plenty of attention was paid to Oby Ezekwesili, former Minister of Education and influential figure in the #BringBackOurGirls advocacy campaign, amid her sudden withdrawal from the presidential race. Many saw her withdrawal as a setback for women in politics in a climate that only produced its first female presidential aspirant in 2003 and has seen few since. Nigerian women in politics are a crucial voice in raising discussions on the issues that disproportionately affect women such as early marriage, land rights, and inheritance laws. If the problems facing half the population are sidelined in political manifestos and debates, that sort of disregard can affect women’s desire to become politically active.
Nevertheless, the conversations about women’s rights and equality are still being had by Nigerian women in places like the market, church, mosque, and at home. Herein lies an important opportunity for community support in amplifying women’s voices and concerns. Male engagement at every step of the way is essential for Nigeria to make any progress towards gender equality. By mobilizing women and their allies from the ground-up, we will be able to make significant change in attitudes towards gender equality and women’s rights.
Grassroots civic engagement is key to the work Women for Women International does in Nigeria. By training women in our Change Agent program, we support them to be able to identify and advocate for the positive changes they want to see in their communities. Our Men’s Engagement program also supports men as active allies for women’s rights, economic empowerment, decision-making, and rejecting harmful traditional practices.