Across West Africa, women and girls struggle daily to ensure that their rights are recognized. The question before the region is how can we build a movement where leaders take principled positions and exercise power to uphold the human rights of women and girls? I would like us to look briefly at three issues calling for leadership and action.
• Child marriage.
• Violence in the home and in the society.
• And women’s political participation.
Child marriage is a problem in the region. In Nigeria, according to a National Population Council Report, 48 per cent of young girls are married off before their 18th birthday. In Nigeria, a major advocate for women and girls’ rights and one of the most powerful religious and traditional kings in the country came under some controversy recently when he contracted a royal marriage with a princess from the Adamawa caliphate.
The king, the Emir of Kano, is 54. The bride, 18. Some critics were pacified to learn that the bride will not begin married life until after completing her university education in three years, by which time she will be twenty-one. However, many continued to express reservations due to the expected power difference between the couple.
To my mind, they missed a golden opportunity to highlight the fact that eighteen or twenty-one is not twelve or thirteen. Just six years at the minimum but enough time to ensure that giving birth doesn’t claim the mother’s life and to equip her with basic life skills.
Considering the challenge of child marriage, it is essential that we mobilize traditional and religious authorities to help foster a new consensus across the region that a girl is not a bride but a child whose right to an education must be secured.
Secondly, there is an urgent need for leadership to push back on the culture of violence in the home and in public spaces. Guinea, where government forces sexually violated at least 109 women during a peaceful protest in September 2009, inspires us all with the June indictment of the then president, Mousse Dadis Camaro, for this atrocity. In this case that saw the judicial system of Guinea supported by the United Nations, the region has been able to establish the fact that there will be no immunity for leaders who violate the rights of female citizens.
However, whether women and girls in the region can expect to live in safety and security depends significantly on ensuring that appropriate legislation is adopted and enforced, which depend on the political leadership and institutions.
This brings me to the third of the three issues – women’s political participation. We cannot claim to have a democratic system when half of the population – women and girls – are excluded from effective participation. Unfortunately, more and more, we see how women and girls’ ‘not belonging’ in the political arena translates into a diminishing quality of life.
Consider the crisis of Boko Haram’s insurgency in Nigeria. Partly caused by male politicians fostering armed thugs and by Nigerian government security officers’ bypassing the judicial process in the killing of the founder of a fringe religious sect, what started as a small rebellion has now mushroomed into a violent militant force that has claimed 20,000 lives and displaced 2.3 million people. Women and girls suffer disproportionately.
Of the 276 girls in the school in Chibok that were abducted by the sect in April 2014, 219 are still captive, 600 days on, along with thousands of other captives. And worse still, Boko Haram has started using young girls as suicide bombers.
Women need to step forward to help shape our public spaces toward a more responsible, performanceoriented, rights-respecting form of democracy and governance instead of suffering and dying because of failures in our national and regional systems. So it is on the need for women’s political participation that I would like to conclude.
It took a civil war that decimated Liberia before the people there conceded political leadership to a woman. Now President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is in her second term. She may not have a perfect record, but no-one can say her administration isn’t an improvement on the two predatory, murdering regimes that preceded hers.
While she stands alone as the only female president West Africa has produced, from Senegal we have had two effective female prime ministers, both of whom had served as Justice Ministers; the first had managed the process that produced a new constitution for Senegal while the other successfully prosecuted political office holders for corruption.
From Burkina Faso, we had a female interim head of government and in Nigeria, potentially the first female elected governor of a northern state. To boost the numbers, quotas and other methods should be adopted, especially at local government level.
Political influence can also be exercised outside of elected and appointed office. Women and girls must strive to put in place a platform that allows them to convene and agree on an agenda for action that they can present to those in public service. And, using this platform, they can engage all those who have a voice in our economic, political, traditional, and civil society spaces, to galvanize their constituencies to work for a more gender-equal West Africa.
Let us work together to make real the promise of democracy for the women and girls of our region