Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi is a lawyer and the Executive Director Women Advocates Research and Documentation Center (WARDC). She is a leading human rights advocate in Nigeria with specialization in International human rights. She has won several international and national awards for her works on gender equality and fight for women rights. In this interview with ORUKPE NELSON, she extols the joy of motherhood and how women can be amply represented in our society.
How do you think women have fared so far especially in the dispensation we are in right now?
I think a lot happened with respect to development of Nigerian women. If we look at where we were in 1960 and where we are now, while there are still a lot of challenges and impediments affecting us as women, I think Nigerian women generally have recorded a lot of successes. We have moved from voiceless to having voices although the voices are still not pronounced as we would want but there has been a lot of shift from where we used to be to where we are now.
In terms of politics, do you think women are fully represented in the current election?
In terms of politics, we have not been able to achieve what is expected. Given the fact that Nigeria is committed to a lot of national, regional and international polices that ordinarily should have bettered lots of women. In 2007, Nigeria adopted the National Gender Policy which speaks for the need to increase the number of women appointed in political positions. While at the national level in terms of the number of ministerial appointment, there has been an improvement when compared to 2007 or when compared from 1999 till date. However, that still remains tokenism in a way. It does not speak to representation across board. We can start from looking at the political parties. Hardly will you find a woman as the chairman of any political party. Oftentimes women are given positions like woman leader and that is the only thing that makes a woman a member of the political board.
So you only find one or two women in leadership position in the political parties and that in itself is a problem. Where you have about thirteen to fourteen people making decisions and you have one or two women representing the bulk of the women. If you also look at the manifesto of the political parties, while there has been some attempt by some political parties to engender their constitution but there is still a lot of challenges. While we may see some trickles of their engendering in their manifesto and constitution, but when we look at it generally, we still see a lot of lapses. I also think there is a need for us to begin to do some accountability within the political parties. There is a need for us to begin to do some positive reading. In the process of reading them, I realized that almost all of them in order to be in line with global standards of what is expected of them in terms of manifestos and constitutions; they have claimed to be adhering to gender equality. If we begin to look at that in terms of positive reading, we can take parties like APGA PDP and APC and begin to investigate to what extent they actually put in place the structures that can support gender equality in the political parties.
Another challenge we see in the political parties is that they claim that women constitute the majority but our findings reveal that while you see women in such gathering in large quantities clapping for the candidates; majority of these women are either hired to do that for that particular period but they are not card carrying members of those political parties. Unfortunately, we are not good at data. You cannot get to the secretariat of political parties and be able to find the data of the percentage of women who belong to their party. But from our findings, we need these women to become card carrying members so that they can be part of those making decisions within their wards and can change the leadership at any level and make impact. So there is a need for us to re-access our strategy. 2015 might be a little bit late, but for 2019, how do we need to enter into these political parties to reaffirm ourselves as women so that the political parties will begin to take into cognizance some of our issues.
How do you think lots of women in Nigeria can be improved?
The easiest way to improve the lot of women and girls is through education. Up till now majority are still out of school. With what is happening in the North East, young girls cannot go to school likewise boys but girls are in the majority. They are scared to go to school because of what happened to the school girls at Chibok and other places in Nigeria. So it is a very complex discussion. If we take a look at some states in the north there is not much increase in the number of women in political positions. Take South West for example, in Osun State; there is no single woman in the House of Assembly. The southern part of Nigeria is more receptive to gender equality. It is only in Lagos and Anambra States that we have women in large representation. In Oyo state, there is only one woman who is the speaker of the house. If we look at all these we can see that we have not really been able to affect positively gender equality despite the fact that Nigeria is committed to the convention on the discrimination against women which talks about women participation in political matters which Nigeria participated actively in 1995 at the Beijing conference. We have adopted some of the Beijing plans of action but we have now been able to achieve 30% which Beijing provided for.
The Nigerian woman and girl seem to have worse chances compared to women and girls in other sister countries like Ghana. We are moving, but moving at as slow pace and then become stagnant. If we look at all that we cannot say we have achieved a lot in terms of gender equality. You can see that we are reflected in the global gender index of the country as against other countries. In countries where there have been improvements, they made progress because they changed laws; they have created more institutions to address gender equality. Even countries that are just coming out of war, they have made more laws than we have made such as Sierra Leone and Liberia. They have laws that are national laws that speak to issues like women empowerment and gender equality. Nigeria apart of gender policy, we don’t seem to have laws. Policies are persuasive in nature whereas laws are stronger and can hold people more accountable to legal framework than policy framework. That is what we need to do to improve gender equality in the country.
How would you rate the government policies on violence against women in Nigeria today?
In Nigeria the violence against person bill which is supposed to address violence against women which is a major issue in Nigeria, nothing much is done in that regard. In WARDC, We get over twenty issues of violence against women such as rape, domestic violence on a weekly basis. Out of thirty six states, only twenty-three states in Nigeria have been able to pass the child right law. For those states that have passed it, enforcement is still very poor. When a woman is violated they don’t know what to do. The information ministry is not doing enough; the ministry of women affairs is underfunded. That is why we see the effect in the political landscape in Nigeria and also the economy where women remain the poorest. This also manifests in education and health. That is why Nigeria has the second highest rate of maternal mortality next to India. These issues are preventable if we have a government that is accountable to women.
How can mothers help themselves and the generation of women in future to ensure gender equality?
Up till now women still let their girls go to the kitchen to cook and their boys stay to watch football. We need to groom the children up in a manner that would make them to respect the girl-child. We need to create that gender equality environment right from the homes and it’s not about the mother alone, but both men and women would have to enshrine gender equality within their home environment. We need to put all these together so that there will not be any discrimination against the girl child or the woman.
What have been the contributions of WARDC to ensure that gender equality is sensitized in our society?
WARDC has done a lot in terms of laws and policies. We engage policy makers a lot in what we do. In 2007, we worked with women in parliament committee of the National assembly to establish what we call women in parliament summit which is an annual summit. We believe that women in parliament have a strong role to play in terms of policy change and law making. We are part of the advocacy on violence against women, which is group of civil society organizations pushing for laws against violence against person’s bill. At the state level we have worked with women parliamentarian and men in Ekiti State to ensure that the gender and equal opportunity law was passed in 2011 by Fayemi’s government. This year we organized the Lagos Gender Dialogue where we give gender pacts to candidates who are contesting election particularly gubernatorial candidates and also the presidential candidates to ensure they sign a pact with women which we can use to hold them accountable when they get into office. We also run hotlines where people can call us if they run into crises in their homes or need immediate help against violence. In the office we run a legal aid program. We have lawyers and people who are also trained counselors that speak to women who have been violated.
What made you go into advocacy?
I have been an activist seen I was a teenager and I was a school debater. Through that, I was exposed to discussions about the state of the nation. As a teenager I decided to add my voice into changing the society. With that exposure I got into the university and I went to Obafemi Awolowo University to study Law. I became the first female Public Relations Officer of the students union as an activist. I read law and I was leading activism. I was leading a huge number of students and the implication of that is that you have to be current and understand discussions at the national level. That imparted my being as a person and the work that I will do. After that I worked with a human rights lawyer Dr. Tunji Abayomi. I was working in the chambers supporting issues of human rights.
At what point did you get married with all the activism you were involved in as a young lady?
I got married at the age of twenty-seven, that was in 1997. I got married to a friend who believes in what I believe in. We were friends for over ten years before we got married. He is eight years older than me. He is a good friend of mine and we have been going along very well. That is why it is easy for me to do what I am doing because there is somebody who supports what I do. I remember that I got a scholarship in 1997 to go and study Masters of Law in the United States. I got married on the 15th of August and I was to travel on the 17th of August. So I left for the United States two days after I got married and I didn’t come back until two years later. It takes a lot of understanding to be able to part with a new bride two days after the wedding. This shows the extent the man I married understands what I do and ready to support me. We have two children and a step daughter. It has been a very interesting marriage. We understand our boundaries and we have been able to work together.
How do you resolve issues when they come up in your marriage?
We have not had arguments that last for twenty four hours. We understand our boundaries. We rarely have strong arguments but when we do, we leave the arguments and respect one another’s positions. It does not affect our relationship at all. You have a right to hold your positions and I have mine.
How do you balance your busy schedules with taking care of family?
On that aspect, it has not been very easy. I spend a lot of time with my kids when I have the time. Interestingly, they are very close to me more than their father despite the fact that I keep a very busy schedule. There is a space my family occupies that I cannot compromise. My mother is still alive and she also played a very strong role in my growing up and also in my being able to hold my career. I owe a lot to her. She has always been there for me. She was with me when I was in the US where I had my first child. She is a very strong woman and also hardworking and I also have that kind of perception about motherhood. When we established the shelter in Ogun state called the Margret’s Place after her because it was what I saw as a young woman that I am doing today. She is a typical epitome of the Nigeria mother who keeps struggling for their children and to keep their home. On special days like the mother’s day, I give her a cake and special presents to celebrate and appreciate her and to let her know that she represents that Nigerian woman who is a survivor.
Describe your fashion style?
I don’t think I am a very stylish person. I wear a dreadlock because I think it is convenient for me. I don’t wear wig because I think it is not African. I am a Pan Africanist and a feminist. I don’t put relaxer in my hair because I think the African woman is very natural. So I rather do braids. I decided about four years ago to start wearing dreadlocks. I lock it every six weeks to keep it neat and tidy. For clothes, I prefer to wear casuals. Being a lawyer, I have to obey the dictates of my profession by dressing corporate. On a good day I wear trousers and a loose top. I prefer African fabrics. I do a lot of things with Ankara and Adire fabrics. I also love to wear Aso-Oke.
And your signature perfumes?
I love perfumes but I don’t really have a particular brand and I do a lot of Forever Living products especially their perfumes and cream.