Advancing women’s rights in Nigeria: conversations with female leaders

ABUJA—Nigerian women have held the fabric of their society together for decades. From the likes of Fumilayo Ransome Kuti, who fought for women’s access to education and political representation, and against dictatorship—and was the country’s first woman to drive a car—to Dora Akunyili, who served as director of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control and ardently fought to eradicate the production and sale of counterfeit drugs and unsafe food, they have been at the front of societal transformation and progress. But women in Nigeria still lag hugely behind in quality of life, health and political leadership. How is it possible to achieve a developed and sustainable nation when half the population is left behind?

That’s a question I put to three women immersed in the ongoing struggle for women’s and girls’ rights in Nigeria who have succeeded in becoming top leaders. They have not only represented the voices of Nigerian women but also promoted inclusivity, peace and sustainable development goals. They have challenged and transcended cultural expectations and navigated the obstacles of a patriarchal society. Our conversations shed some light on what it would take for Nigerian women to achieve equal participation and representation, and be seen as valuable contributors to national development.

Amina Mohammed

United Nations Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed is one of Nigeria’s most prominent leaders, having previously served as environment minister, worked with three presidents as adviser on implementing the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and served as a special adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on development planning. As the millennium goals adviser, she and her team helped reduce maternal mortality in Nigeria by 30 percent.1 As environment minister, she developed a strategic plan of action and started the long-sought clean-up of the Ogoni land in the Niger Delta region, which had been polluted by oil. Still, Mohammed is not a household name in Nigeria.

When I asked another female leader in Abuja about Mohammed, her first response was “Who’s that?” But after I explained, she said she was actually aware of Mohammed and her ability to navigate the political landscape and patriarchy. That reflected a widespread view about her. Unlike other Nigerian politicians who have become well-known because of personal and political scandals, Mohammed has established a reputation for strong leadership thanks to an ability to engage citizens at the grassroots level and to develop strategic solutions to community problems, especially concerning the environment.

 

The author interviews Amina Mohammed

I met Mohammed in her office in the Environment Ministry headquarters in Abuja. Our meeting took place almost two months after I first submitted a letter requesting an interview—quite a quick response time for meeting with high-level personnel in Nigeria. That was thanks to her communications adviser, whom I bugged consistently. It’s routine to have to submit letters for any and every request and then return to the office to follow up. That tedious process often involves navigating multiple departments and people, and sometimes letters get misplaced—as mine was. When I entered Mohammed’s office, she was wearing a brown and orange Ankara (traditional fabric) outfit. She spoke intently and with ease, smiling at times.

The eldest of five girls born to a veterinary doctor from the Fulani ethnic group in Gombe state, in northern Nigeria, and a British mother who was a nurse, Mohammed stubbornly raised funds to study in Europe after her father refused to send her abroad for university. She returned to Nigeria in 1983 at the age of 22 to start her career in the private sector, working for an architectural engineering firm building hospitals and schools for 11 years.1 She left for the public sector after observing problems in health care and education. Growing up in northern Nigeria, she had experienced the discrimination to which families with only female children are often subjected. She told me about her female cousin who was denied access to education at the age of 11. “Today, she has as many kids as I do, but with her husband they have never been able to raise themselves out of poverty because of their educational background,” Mohammed said. “And she always says that ‘If only I had continued and not been taken away, you know I’d have had the same education as you did and the same chances.’”

When I asked how she balances personal life with a high-powered career, Mohammed said it was very difficult. A two-time divorcee and mother of six children—four girls and two boys—she admits she couldn’t make marriage work with her career, something she is not proud of. But she said support from her family helps. Most Africans are raised not just by their immediate nuclear families, she told me. “There is a mother and a father and kids and aunties and uncles and cousins and helpers in the house that become our family, that become that fabric of the community that helps to hold us.” Women and men must be willing to negotiate in order to preserve the family, which she describes as “the most important unit,” she added.

Despite working in a field dominated by men, Mohammed has gained respect and admiration from her colleagues. During a farewell ceremony held in her honor before she left for the UN, her boss, the budget and national planning minister, said she was “dogged and determined, very polite but stood her ground.”

“Initially, we thought we could intimidate her,” he said. “But it was not possible.” At the UN, Mohammed intends to focus on empowering women and girls with livelihood skills, especially in Africa. “Women and girls are who I represent by being an African woman as the number-two person in the UN,” she said. “What I hope I take out there is a good example of what it is to be the potential of a Nigerian woman and hope that girls know that they can do so much better than I can. This is not a bar or ceiling. These [are] things that can happen and you can do better.”

Ayisha Osori

Avisha Osori believes many women don’t recognize   their fellow women have the capability to lead.

Deeply rooted patriarchy and the intersection of religion and cultural values have deprived many Nigerian women of their voices and dignity. It’s something Ayisha Osori has devoted her career to help overcome. The first CEO of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund (NWTF), Osori is a Muslim who studied law at the University of Lagos before pursuing advanced degrees from Harvard University. Like Amina Mohammed, she is a two-time divorcee, which highlights the challenges facing women who choose to pursue unconventional or high-powered careers. The NWTF was set up in 2011 by the Office of the Senior Special Advisor to the President on the Millennium Development Goals, the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to “increase the representation of women in Nigerian governance at all levels and address the growing concerns about the gender imbalance in elective and appointive positions.”1

I met Osori in her home in a quiet neighborhood in Maitaima, one of the exclusive and affluent communities in Abuja inhabited by politicians and home to several high commissions and embassies. She was dressed in black long-sleeved gym wear and appeared tired. She informed me that she had just returned from a trip to Lagos. Her home had the feel of a scholar’s residence, with bookshelves circling the living room holding African history books and biographies of global leaders.

Osori has promoted women’s political participation and economic empowerment. “When we talk about politics and women, we will always talk about economic empowerment because running for office entails cost,” she told me. “Having the courage to engage the public in a patriarchal society requires confidence which comes from education.” Addressing women in politics in Nigeria also entails talking about violence against women. Many of those running for office have experienced nasty incidents, including sexual harassment, and the lack of finances compounds the challenge. Economically, Nigerian women are suppressed because they don’t have as much earning power as men. Women are not getting equal pay for doing equal work.

Osori pointed to the example of her mother, who worked at the country’s central bank before retiring as a deputy director. In benefits, she did not earn as much as her male colleagues simply because as a woman, she was not considered the head of household. Although the gap is closing and women are now seeing more benefits, women still face discrimination over employment. Managers sometimes don’t hire women at all because of the worry they will leave to get married and have children. Some banks allegedly ask women to sign agreements promising not to marry for two years after they have been employed.

Part of Osori’s work with the NWTF entailed closing the gap in women’s political leadership. Nigerian women occupy just 7 to 9 percent of political leadership roles, compared to an average in Africa of 20 percent.2 The 109 members of the Nigerian senate currently include merely eight women.3 Only 19 women sit in the House of Representatives out of 360 legislators. Of the 991 seats in the State Houses of Assembly, women occupy only 59.4 There has not been a female governor in Nigeria.

Access to equal opportunity and protection under the law are the biggest challenges women face, Osori said. She acknowledged that Nigerian women contribute to their own marginalization because many don’t recognize their fellow women have the capacity and capability to lead. That is mostly due to a psycho-social belief and acceptance of male dominance. In a society guided by cultural and religious values, men are seen as leaders and women to be under their control. Women have only been able to attain the position of deputy governor, not governor, for example. And there are few examples of women leaders who have carried other women along or showed strong leadership in political positions. The current minister of women affairs and social development, Aisha Jummai Al-Hassan, has attracted criticism for her failure to use her office effectively to improve the lives of Nigerian women. In a conversation with an executive director of a human rights organization in which I asked about the women affairs minister, she responded with frustration in her voice, “What has she done?”

Although the government has adopted a number of international human rights conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which denounces discrimination against women based on sex and calls for their participation in decision-making at all levels, their implementation remains constricted by states’ autonomy and prevailing religious and cultural beliefs that do not recognize women’s role as leaders. The government passed a three-year National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security in 2013, which has yet to be implemented because, simply put, no money has been allocated for its implementation. It’s interesting that the NAP was recently revised (still with no funds) and extended to 2020. There’s also the controversial Gender and Equal Opportunities bill that granted “equality in marriage, education, and employment” but was overwhelmingly rejected by the Senate in 2016. Despite several CSO-driven attempts to re-introduce the bill, it has failed to make progress in the national assembly due to “religiously and constitutionally controversial aspects of the bill.”5

Eleanor Nwadinobi

Ayisha Osori (with yellow headscarf in the middle) with a group of beneficiaries of a legal aid clinic for women in Cote D’Ivoire during her time on the board of the Open Society Initiative West Africa

The lack of peace and security presents major challenges to social stability and economic development. Chief among problems are the Niger Delta militant crisis and, more recently, the Boko Haram insurgency. Those issues have been fueled by competition for oil wealth and extremist Islamic beliefs, respectively, and have led to the deaths of thousands of people. The extremist Islamic group Boko Haram (translated as “Western education is forbidden”) continues to terrorize communities through bombings in northeastern Nigeria and is behind the 2014 kidnapping of 276 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, in the northeastern Borno state. Despite government efforts to rescue the girls, over 100 Chibok girls still remain in captivity, in addition to many others who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram. One of the key programs addressing the impact of Boko Haram and national security is the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Program (NSRP) funded by the British Department for International Development. Eleanor Nwadinobi is the manager of the program’s women and girls arm. I spoke with her about experiences and lessons from the program and her personal work with widows.

Nwadinobi at the launch of the revised National Action Plan 1325

Nwadinobi and I met at the British Council office in Abuja. Dressed in black pantsuit with a pink blouse, she smiled warmly as she invited me into a conference room. Her hair was plaited in large black and gold colored braids swept into a chignon that sat in the middle of her head. She spoke with a soft and gentle voice. Nwadinobi is a medical doctor who was born in the United Kingdom and spent part of her childhood and early adulthood in northern and eastern Nigeria. She is from the Igbo tribe from Abia state. As a child, she experienced the onset of the Nigerian civil (Biafra) war (1967-1970)—a catastrophic conflict involving the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria as they sought separation from the predominantly northern government of Nigeria. The war resulted in the deaths of millions of Nigerians, mostly due to starvation. Nwadinobi’s family lost everything it owned during the war. “We had to escape with only the clothes on our back,” she said. She was eight years old at the time and living with her parents in the town of Vom in present-day Plateau state, in northern Nigeria. Her father was director of the Vom Veterinary Research Center and her mother was a nurse. They relocated to Enugu and Abia states in eastern Nigeria.

Watching her parents start over from scratch and still give the very best possible education to their children inspired Nwadinobi to be resilient. She told me that her mother was frugal and always found a way around obstacles. “You need to learn to skin a flea to make a lizard a jacket,” she said her mother would often tell her. At the height of the civil war, her mother took Nwadinobi and her younger sister to the United Kingdom, leaving her father behind. She returned to Nigeria two years after the war, reunited with her dad, and completed her secondary and university education. She met her husband in university. They courted for six years before they got married because Nwadinobi wanted to bear her maiden name as a doctor, before taking on her husband’s name. She insisted on that as a tribute to her parents, for the investment they had made in her education and career.

For the early part of her marriage, until the birth of their second child, Nwadinobi lived apart from her husband, who was running his business in Enugu while she finished her medical specialization in Britain. She tells me it was a struggle having a full-time job and raising young children with no help. She finally decided to join her husband in Enugu. There, she started a private practice called the Tabitha Infirmary. It was while working at the hospital that she became acquainted with the treatment of widows in the southeast. “I realized that because I had grown up outside of the culture, I had not been faced with what widows of the southeast go through.”

Once she learned the women were subjected to harmful practices such as having to drink the bath water of their deceased husbands, the need to do something about it became a burden. She constantly thought about the women’s conditions. She described visiting a young girl who had lost her husband. “She was sitting outside, hadn’t had her bath for some days and hadn’t combed her hair,” Nwadinobi said. “When I asked people the reason for her condition, they said I should not talk about it; it’s a taboo subject.”

In 1994, Nwadinobi translated her unease into a research study on widowhood practices in four southeastern states—Abia, Anambra, Enugu and Imo. She summarized her findings into what she calls the three Ds:

Dethronement. In the southeastern Igbo-speaking culture, a young girl derives status or recognition solely from marriage. The symbolism of asking a woman to sit on the floor or a mattress following the death of her husband reflects the lowering of her status.

Defacement. In Igbo parlance, they say “Mma nwanyi bu di ya” (A woman’s beauty is for her husband). If a woman does her hair or puts on makeup or jewelry, she does not do those things for herself, but for her husband. Therefore, widows must indicate they are mourning by not bathing, not combing their hair, wearing jewelry, and by wearing only black. In some places, women are given something bitter to chew to contort their faces as part of the mourning ritual. Some are also made to drink the water in which their husband’s corpses were bathed or forced to lie with their dead husbands on the same bed.

Disinheritance. Women are not allowed to own land or houses. Anything they jointly own with their husbands passes to the eldest surviving male family member if the husband dies.

Nwadinobi’s research and experience with women in rural communities led her to start an organization called the Women’s Development Organization (WiDO) in Enugu state to educate people about harmful traditional practices. The acronym was chosen because the word “widow” had negative connotations. The Enugu State House of Assembly passed a bill outlawing harmful widowhood practices in March 2001 thanks to the advocacy of a group of activists to which Nwadinobi belonged. However, legislators called it “the law against the infringement of practices against widows and widowers,” she said, even though widowers do not experience the same discrimination. In June of the same year, the Enugu state governor signed the bill into law, making it the first law in Nigeria to specifically target harmful widowhood practices.

Although many of the customs have been discontinued, widows still suffer disinheritance. That’s due to several factors, including the culture of preference for sons, laws that discriminate against women owning land and lack of access to loans for women. It is still difficult for girls to inherit landed property from their fathers and for widows to inherit from their husbands in the southeast.

Despite improvements, the status of women and girls in Nigeria is best described as patchy. In a patriarchal society, even when women are employed in non-stereotypical professions, a glass ceiling still deprives them of opportunities to become CEOs or attain higher leadership levels. Violence in politics also affects women’s involvement in political leadership. The environment in Nigeria—where political meetings often exclude women because they take place in the middle of the night—is not conducive for women to campaign or to lobby. It’s ironic that although women constitute a large part of the voting population, their voting power has not translated into greater representation in leadership. When I asked Nwadinobi what Nigerians can do to improve women’s visibility, she suggested setting up a database, categorized according to professional and non-professional skills, of capable Nigerian women leaders and getting the mainstream media to profile them. Grassroots voter education is also very important, she said.

Thanks to Nwadinobi’s leadership, the Women, Peace and Security Network has been established in Nigeria. It is a coalition of local organizations that are advancing women’s participation in peace building. The group recently launched the publication Heroes in Peace Building, highlighting the work of 38 Nigerian women peace builders selected from each of the 36 states. Through her work with the NSRP, Nwadinobi uses peace clubs—which are run for 10-24 year-olds in communities around the country—to teach young girls and boys about women’s and girls’ rights, assertiveness, communication and entrepreneurial skills. She has seen progress as young girls with hidden talents have felt more confident to participate as leaders and advocates in their communities.

Still, all three women remain highly conscious of how much work remains to be done. “If you live in a society that’s unequal and patriarchal,” Osori says, “the men are going to be richer and more powerful and they will make decisions for the women.”


  1. Choosing a path of service: Amina J Mohammed at TEDxEuston. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RILDbPnjNfU. Accessed: 07/07/2017
  2. http://nigerianwomentrustfund.org/about-us/. Accessed: 07/07/2017
  3. http://nigerianwomentrustfund.org/about-us/. Accessed: 07/07/2017
  4. http://qz.com/642396/how-we-make-sure-nigerias-gender-equality-bill-passes-next-time/. Accessed 07/03/2017
  5. Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund. “2015 – 2016 Desk Review On Women In Parliament (States) – Supported By IRI.”
  6. http://gucaravel.com/nigerian-senate-rejects-gender-equality-bill/

About the Author

A Nigerian-American who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States, Onyinye has returned to her native Nigeria to examine the urgent issue of girls health, education, early marriage and, most of all, girls empowerment. Onyinye holds a Masters of Public Health degree from University of Washington-Seattle, as well as graduate-level certificates in the Global Health of Women, Adolescents and Children, and in Sexual and Reproductive Health Research. Describing the impetus for her project, Onyinye points out that, “Niger is presently ranked as the country with the highest percentage of child brides in the world with 76% of girls married before age 18. Nigeria holds the number 14 position with 43% of girls married before age 18. As a trained global health practitioner and advocate for adolescent sexual and reproductive health, I understand the power in a girl’s voice and the dangers associated with silencing that voice. During my ICWA Fellowship I intend to work with young people and their communities to understand the factors that propel child marriage and hinder girls education. My aim is to identify culturally-sensitive ways to address these critical problems.” In addition to her academic credentials, she brings field experience in project design and implementation, monitoring and evaluation, maternal and child nutrition and adolescent sexual and reproductive health; Onyinye has worked in both urban and rural/remote locations in Africa and in the US. An emerging young leader, Onyinye has been recognized by the Clinton Global Foundation as a Commitment Maker, was awarded a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship as well as a Global Opportunities Health Fellowship. Onyinye’s ICWA Fellowship began in August 2016 and will continue until August 2018.