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Gender Is Correct Politics

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Thursday, April 14th, 2016
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A good number of women politicians in Nigeria seem to shy away from gender issues. For them, the question of disparities between men and women is taboo, not because they don’t know that gaps exist, but they want to be seen as “serious” politicians.  Here’s a society where it’s incorrect for a woman in politics or any of the other so called “male” occupations to be comfortable in her own skin. She needs to flaunt male mannerisms and play down her femaleness, otherwise she won’t be taken seriously. Or  so she believes. By assuming an air of masculinity, she hopes to prove that her accomplishments are based on merit and not on feminine wiles or “sentiment.” The word “sentiment” is usually meant to cover any form of Affirmative Action or unethical conduct. This is why most successful women politicians constantly despise what they call “Gender Politics.”  Their opinion on Affirmative Action is usually that it encourages laziness and promotes mediocrity. In order to highlight their sense of achievement, they ascribe the gender disparity between men and women in politics to laziness on the part of the generality of women. It’s therefore quite common to read or hear this category of women politicians declare to the media with so much disdain that, “I don’t play gender politics.”  My question is always: Why Not?

Why do they think that gender politics  is less dignifying than, for instance, ethnic politics, or the politics of regionalism, resource control, Indigene versus Settler, true federalism, and  and so on, which they prefer to  play with so much aplomb?  The answer may lie in their understanding of Gender.

Quite often, it comes across from their utterances, that persons who condemn gender politics think that gender politics is the same as sex politics.  This error came out strongly when a former female Senator linked gender politics with sexual indiscipline in a manner that suggested that they mean the same thing. This is a common but serious mix-up.

It is more positive to see gender as it relates to politics, as the totality of societal attitudes, expectations, norms, rules, structures and traditions that has deprived women of equal participation with men in governance and decision making.  Gender politics should therefore be appropriately regarded as the politics of closing the inclusion gaps between men and women, and also the weak and the strong.  As a political agenda, gender politics is critical.

Gender equality is so fundamental to national development that many distinguished men and women across the globe have committed resources and time towards its realization. However, given the nature of the Nigerian society, it is not surprising that a politician may feel that gender issues are not likely to move voters. That fear is unfounded. The gender card works if a politician knows how to play it – that is, going beyond theorizing on equality. As a political tool, it’s more about action, at least here in Nigeria. It was action that got Ms. Sharon Daboh of Benue State into the House of Representatives in 2003, even though she was in a minority party, and despite opposition from her influential father who was a top member of the majority party.  She was able to pull through because of her passionate service to the women in her constituency.  Despite being young, she became like a mother to them, dedicating her time and resources to lift them out of poverty. In appreciation, the women persuaded her to contest the National Assembly election. When the majority party would not nominate her, the women asked her to join the minority party, and they did not not only give her their block votes, they got the youths to do the same.

People talk so much about giving back to society these days, which is a good idea.   Women who find themselves in privileged positions politically or otherwise, could take up the struggle for social inclusion as an act of social responsibility.  They need to create opportunities for millions of their fellow women who are still held down by poverty and patriarchal forces.  Call it gender politics, playing the gender card, or by any other name; there’s nothing incorrect about it.

The key point in playing any card at all in politics is to negotiate in the interest of whatever group the politician either represents or is in sympathy with.  It does not require lessons in gender to know that a woman in public office does not only represent her geographical constituency but also all women.  If taking actions that reflect this fact is gender politics, let women play it, so long as it brings more of their kind into public office.

Ada Agina-Ude is a journalist, women’s rights activist and community leader. She is an amazingly young 70 year old grandmother.


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