Senator Stella Oduah is the Senator representing Anambra North in the National Assembly. She is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Cooperation and Integration in Africa, Vice Chairman, Committee on Women Affairs and President of ECOWAS Female Parliament (ECOFEPA). In this interview with OrderPaperNG, the senator bares her mind on a number of issues such as the role of women in politics, her values as a woman in regards to the celebration of International Women’s Day. Excerpts by Titilope Fadare:
What has been your experience in ECOWAS Parliament?
- It has been interesting and eye-opening to the extent that deprivation and marginalization of African women is something that every day has not ceased to amaze me. How we can disenfranchise ourselves; I don’t understand the logic behind it. Other than that, I think we are on the right track. We have identified what our focus would be. And because we cannot execute, we can only advocate, so we are mainstreaming and focusing on women empowerment and participation fully and ensure that women understand the essence of it all because if they don’t, the advocacy makes no sense. It is a good beginning and don’t forget that ECOFEPA is new to large extent, in comparison to ECOWAS itself. So, it is still a long way to go. We would do our bits and leave it to the next group to come.
How will you assess the role of African Female Parliamentarians in the growth of democracy in Africa?
- One must seek to ensure that we mainstream policies and laws that would strengthen institutions and build them as opposed to having strong individuals. We should have enabling laws to ensure the sustenance of those institutions. I think if we can accomplish that, then we are going to have a better society. I think the route the parliament has taken is a good one to ensure that we have laws put in place to outlive all of us and ensure the future of our children and their children’s children.
What are the contributions and efforts of ECOFEPA in terms of programs and initiatives to boost African women’s participation in politics?
- Advocacy, Advocacy, Advocacy, because it is important. Like I said, people that you are fighting for need to understand why in the first place you are fighting for them and enlighten them as to why they are a beneficiary of that fighting. It is very important. So the first amongst all would be that advocacy to the extent that you would have to plead to the executive to understand why it is important to mainstream women affairs. And to also explain to them that when you have to disenfranchise 60% of your population, by not having gender friendly policies and equality based laws, you are cutting your nose to spite your face. You are removing a chunk of your population from benefitting. It really has nothing to do with just women. It is a win-win for all.
There have been a lot of challenges relating to females, what is your message to women?
- Apart from having message for women, I have a message for men in particular. That men should remember that they are sons and husbands of women. That for them to have become what they have become, next to God’s grace is the woman’s strength, tenacity and steadfastness in ensuring that her children became human beings. And so you cannot at any point in time say that you are going to disenfranchise female for gender purpose. The men should always remember that the strength of a woman apart from the natural endowment is far valuable to discard. If you take a home for instance, very few homes can survive without the strength of a woman. Very few children would become responsible citizens without the tolerance of both the counsel and the strength of the woman. So, why can we not harness this and have them participate fully both in selective and elective scenarios. I think it is huge loss and men are just allowing these things to happen for reasons I don’t understand or they don’t understand. Sometimes, I think it is just conspiracy, maybe inferiority complex of that of man knowing that all a woman needs is just small glass to be broken and her potentials would just explode.
For women, I would say God has given us innate endowments and skills. We are the best economists, managers and we are very compassionate human beings. When you add these three together, you can see a dynamite skill and blessing for any woman to have. Then we need to go to the next stage where we need to ensure we have education because it is very important. We must ensure that our innate passion extends to our society and we take interest in what happens around us. We must participate and leave our comfort zone. For us not to do that, it is for us to deny ourselves of that which God has given to us. We are blessings. I do not believe any society can grow in a sustainable manner without anchoring that growth on women. It cannot work.
In Ghana, the number of women in parliament is 37 out of over 270 members and in the 8th Senate of Nigeria, the number is very low; not to talk of state assemblies. What message do you have for the women because 2019 elections are around the corner?
I also ask myself where the disconnect comes from and why have we allowed the disconnect to come. In trivializing this, deliberately men have this conspiracy to allow it to happen and not have women participate. We actually harm ourselves and we are talking about 60% of our total population, how can you not have 60% of your population participate actively in governance? There is no logic to that. The major issue I think women have with participating in politics has to do majorly with economics because it is expensive. Our electoral system is expensive and very few women can afford that and equally you can hardly find men supporting women in doing so. Because of our innate shyness and inhibitions, very few women can also go the length men would go in participating in electoral process. Therefore, women must be held along the way and also pushed which can be done through women leaders and advocates to ensure we create forum for discourse. The discourse is to tell the younger ones why they must participate, the value of that participation and educate men on what that value brings to the table. Also, the law must be enabling and ensure we have in place laws for women and not have connotation that women in politics are wayward or not responsible. For me, that is just male tag to deter women from coming into political arena.
Does the electoral act support the cause of women?
- The act itself is fine but the implementation of the law becomes the problem. If you say that every political party must have 35%; it is okay but the process of attaining that 35% becomes an issue. The fund that must be paid and emergence. So if you just leave it for law, the law would not do so. That is where the advocacy, education and the push for women come in but most importantly, empowering women so they can participate. There must be fund for that. International communities I believe are doing that as we speak but even us we must have that collective fund that would enable women participate otherwise it would just be rhetoric.
Do you believe women hardly support each other?
- I don’t believe that; I think that is just male jargon that makes us to actually start believing that. In my place, they say until you have a female child, you don’t have a child. And when you take it politically, until you have a female group, you don’t have a group, because women sense of loyalty is not comparable to men. Their propensity to jump from one group to another is not there. A man would not think twice jumping from one to another. A woman thinks very hard before she does that. And so women are far more reliable as politicians and are even higher in number when it comes to politics. What we haven’t been able to do is to harness that number and say to men that we have the number. We are here, you must reckon with us. Otherwise, you won’t get our vote. We must speak with our votes.
Another problem is how we neglect our senior citizens. You belong to the committee on women affairs, what is obtainable in taking care of the senior citizens?
- I am very concerned because it is a privileged group that everybody prays that one day we would all get there. I think for our older citizens, we must have a discussion. That discussion should not be about old people but about us. What do we want when we get to that stage? What we want should be what should guide us on the laws that we make. I don’t think we should be in haste to make laws. What is key is that we must make sustainable laws that would cater and provide for them. A health care that would provide for their general welfare. And so when you spend 30 or 35 years working for government, you should have something to go home with. It is something we must prioritise and do it in a manner that is sustainable and in tandem with the global best practice.
What about the Gender Equality and Opportunities bill that was thrown out. Is there going to be a push from the female lawmakers on this?
- Unfortunately, in total we are just about 7% of women in parliament. That is sad. That is not true representation of our strength. It does not reflect us at all. Having said that, we will and those men who are sons of women will join us in that advocacy to make sure that the gender equality law passes. It is a fair and right thing to do and by God’s grace, we will see it come to pass.
How do you feel an average Nigerian man should value a woman?
- I think my answer would be how we value ourselves as women. Why do we need a man to validate us? We don’t need that how you value yourself depends on how you insist they value you. Therefore, when we start allowing men to validate who we are, then that puts us in the pits. And what we should do is to refuse that no man should validate us at all.
What would you say to those who look up to you as role model?
- I think our first role models should be our mothers because it is a difficult task to make. It is a non-paying job to be a mother. Mothers are wonderful, great and they give up all for their offspring. For them, nothing matters but the wellbeing of their offspring. All our mothers should be our mentors but it also would depend on where your passion is. If your passion is in politics, then you would know whose direction you would take. I think we have many good and uncelebrated women, the men kill us before we get to the altar, out of general conspiracy of men. They would tell you that a rich man’s wife is who you should look out for. That is not us. There is absolutely nothing a woman cannot do. All she needs is education, power and exposure. How do we get to that stage? And that leads to the question because we have allowed men to define us. We have allowed them to say who were, who we are not, who is bad or wayward or who is good or bad. For God’s sake, who made them judge of who we are? They do horrible things and unimaginable things but they get away with it. They set a standard on how we should be defined. No man should define a woman.