What If Women Couldn’t Vote?

In continuation of our select articles to commemorate this year’s celebration of the International Women’s Day, our guest columnist, Jenny Ubi, examines and outlines what benefits must be tapped with active female participation in politics.

By Jenny Ubi

This year, 2018, precisely in February, Britain celebrated 100 years of the suffragette movement. The movement began in the 18th century and finally culminated in women being given the right to vote for the first time on Feb 6th 1918. The movement spread beyond the shores of Britain, and today almost in all societies women have the right to vote. Many thanks notwithstanding to Emeline Pankhurst and many other women, who simply refused to take no for an answer. Others lost their lives in the process; Emeline herself spent many years in jail undeterred. Even Saudi Arabia is changing, women can now drive unaccompanied by men.

However, 100 years on, women are still campaigning, negotiating for political space. Hillary Clinton ran and lost the US presidential election. The UK parliament has less women and more men just like the Nigerian National Assembly and many state assemblies have less women. So what if women couldn’t vote.

I hold the strong view that women must be allowed to be part of the political spectrum because not only do they contribute to it, with their time and efforts, they also make it up. Without the presence of women the political spectrum will be boring and it will lack the enthusiasm, change, hope, and calming nerves that women bring to the political process.

In 1983/1984, very vividly, I remember that was my first time of seeing political activity and women’s participation. It formed my ideas about what I would later understand as participatory politics and development. As Shehu Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria, NPN, and Obafemi Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, the front line parties ‘battled’, it was interesting even in my small mind then, to see such active participation not least because activities centered around our household then with my late mother as a community women’s leader, but the seriousness, openness and cheer joy with which women got themselves ready for election campaigns. While they played somewhat minor roles, their efforts nonetheless ensured the smoothness of the male centred campaigns. It was women who did all the catering for the campaign officials; it was women who ensured other women turned up, often abandoning their farms and market activities on Saturdays for campaign. It was women who acted in so many ways as the foot soldiers, distributing campaign materials and publicising the next campaign activities. How times have changed and how sadly so.

So what if women couldn’t vote? On the 5/2/18, with all the tensions in Nigeria with looming elections in 2019, Akinlode, the current INEC chairman, released a statement to say that contrary to popular belief, women actually voted less in number in comparison to men in the 2015 elections. I disagree because women make up a larger percentage of the Nigerian population, and reports have it that women left labour rooms particularly in Northern Nigeria to participate in voting. It brings to mind OBJ’s 2003 census in which the population dimensions suddenly changed and there were more men than women in Nigeria, yet man shortage persists. Very funny indeed.

If we must take Akinlode’s word for it, then INEC needs to do more to encourage women all over Nigeria to register to vote, without drawing comparison between the sexes, because that suggests that women should demand less, afterall they voted less.

Our participation in democracy remains our ticket to liberation as women. When women vote, they use their voices positively and as such can and should demand more from the state. Women need to demand better maternal healthcare, it is unfortunate and barbaric that women still die in high numbers in Nigeria during pregnancy and childbirth. It is because women are not using their vote properly. They are simply participating rather passively instead of actively, forgetting the difficulties endured to get to polling stations. It is also very disheartening that security is a terrible challenge in Nigeria today, but more so worryingly for women. Yesterday was Chibok girls, today is Dapchi girls, the day before yesterday was Odi women and we can keep counting. Our votes as women should be used to not only show participation but to demand and negotiate on the issues that uniquely affect us most as women.

It is women who are least likely to make it through secondary education when poverty blights families. It is women who would be used as housegirls by other women without any prospect for education or skills training. It is women who would recycle poverty and have lesser earning power. It is women who would be drawn to make the perilous journey into the dessert, losing their lives in the process. So many ‘it’s’ if women couldn’t vote.

So, having been given the opportunity, it is important in the 2019 elections, for women to not only vote as a requirement, or a constitutional right, or as mere participation, but as a demand and as a negotiation. It is important that our votes not only count but act as our voices, demanding our full share of the Nigerian project. Our share is better maternal health, better access to free education, better access to steady employment, better access to safer schools for our girl children, better economic opportunities, more equitable distribution of our resources in our communities amongst many others. These are issues we must demand as soon as the campaign bells start ringing. These are issues we must collectively agree to demand. For instance are there adequate maternal services in your community? Are they safe? Are they adequately funded? Are they properly staffed?, are they fully functional? Women need to look at this issues and then consider how to use their voting power. It’s no use if we window dress our own issues and not ask the right questions before queuing to vote.

This is the power that Emeline Pankhurst and many other after her, left us, even our own Queen Amina of Zaria, who was long before the likes of Pankhurst and the suffragette movement, left us this power, to use our voices, to demand and to negotiate. So if women couldn’t vote, politics as we know it today, would be uninteresting, women’s voices would be unheard, women’s issues would never leave the back burner and women would have no representation.

Jenny Ubi is a gender and women’s activist by training and holds an M.Phil in Gender and Development from Hull University UK. Her many years research in gender development has focused on women’s cultural themes, politics and female education. She is a writer, fund raiser and a community events person and worked briefly with the NGO, Women In Nigeria before sojourning to the UK. Jenny is a member of many women groups both in Nigeria and the UK and helped found some of them, notably Women Accede in Hull, Widows Support Network, among others. She is married and lives in Hull, UK with her family. She currently works for NHS England.

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