Mufuliat Dasola Fijabi has been a women’s human rights advocate almost all her adult life. From her days at the Baobab for Women’s Human Rights where she fiercely advocated for gender quality to now as the CEO of the Nigerian Women Trust Fund.
You were appointed as Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Women Trust Fund (NWTF) in April, how has the journey been?
Well, it’s been great and challenging. It is a space to continue with the advocacy for the rights of women, especially in politics and governance in Nigeria. The Nigerian Women Trust Fund is an organisation to provide the necessary support for Nigerian women and to close all the gaps in terms of gender at all levels of governance. So, we are working towards that and we have been collaborating and networking with other relevant stakeholders to ensure that we are on track and to also be able to keep our vision on track.
Which stakeholders have you been collaborating with?
We work with the Women in Politics Forum, we work with other civil society organisations, we also collaborate with relevant government institutions, development partners, and with the media.
Has the government been forthcoming with support?
When you say support, what kind of support?
Well the government is of one of those you collaborate with and that means…
That we collaborate doesn’t mean they are coming with some kind of financial resources. What it means it that we work with them to reach out to other parts of Nigeria. For instance, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), have electoral officers in all the 774 local governments in Nigeria. So, in conducting voter education exercises for women, they are the best government institution partner that one could work with. So, we use their knowledge and expertise in reaching out to women on voter education issues. We also collaborate with the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs.
So is their support usually readily available?
Not that we seek their support. We collaborate with them when necessary. It also depends on the kind of intervention we do.
Are there challenges in collaborating with these government institutions?
Of course, bureaucracy is always there. But that’s not to say where they are to offer their technical expertise they are not doing that. The bureaucracy is always there with government, most of the time.
Like you already stated the NWTF aims at bridging the gap for women, especially in politics and governance in Nigeria at all levels, do you think the women at the grassroot know about this? Do you think these women are aware that there is an organisation like this from which they can get support?
The Nigerian Women Trust Fund is an initiative of Nigerian women and to the best of my knowledge I can say that the organization is well known in different parts of Nigeria. Most of them have been reaching out to us to ask for technical support, they ask for resources in terms of finance even though we are not giving out financial assistant as I speak with you. We offer our expertise to support them in their mission to becoming elected representative or appointed representative. So, the NWTF is not a small organization that is not known, rather I would see it as an initiative of the Nigerian women and they are aware because they do call in and network with us. Some of them walk in into the office to seek for information, technical support and technical expertise.
Can you break down this “technical support”, the NWFT gives to these women? What services exactly do you offer them?
When we say technical support, we mean, for instance for women who want to go into politics we assist them with information on the levels they need to pass through to be able to come out as aspirants in their parties. We also build their capacity in the area of leadership. Some women have the zeal to occupy public office, but they don’t have the experience of leadership and technical skills. So, we have modules that we use in training them. Some of them are not very strong in managing campaigns so we invite resources person to provide the necessary campaign training for them. Some of them also need expertise in the area of mobilizing resource. Just like every other politician, some women think that to contest for an elective position, what you need do is to have more than enough money and going out on campaign. Rather we were able to provide them with information that in fact you start in your own constituency.
If you don’t have constituency and you have huge amount of money you may not even succeed because your money cannot buy your constituency. So, you need to be at home, you people need to know you and who you are before going out to say you want to contest for election. And for elective position also, we also work with women to ensure that they package themselves in the best way to be presentation not only for government appointment but for other leadership spaces where they can demonstrate their skills, knowledge. We also did a compilation of woman who have occupied important positions before who can serve as a reference point of how women could be leaders.
Women that serve as reference point, are there instance of women who passed through NWTF who successfully won an election or appointive position?
The NWTF was established 7 years ago, since its inception we have a number of women that we have worked with and that we are still working with. I cannot give accurate statistics now so don’t quote me. But then we have quite a number of women who are friends of NWTF. A lot of young people…
Can we have some names?
No. I wouldn’t be able to for reasons best known to me.
Since NWTF was established, do you think it has been effective in bridging the gaps for women in politics and governance at all levels?
We have been very effective to the best of our ability and based on available resources. I can tell you that since the time we started we have grown over the years, we are not where we started. We are an institution and we are projecting forward into the future. We are looking at a Nigeria where the NWTF will be a key stakeholder on issues of women political participation and on the issue of women’s leadership. We intend to do this by being a strong resource base that Nigeria woman can look back at and contact for information and see as a very string pillar when it comes to women political participation.
You said a while ago that NWTF does not give financial assistant for now, considering that Nigerian politics is money-based politics, what effort are you making that, even if it is not now, that NWTF would be able to give women financial assistant or is that totally out of NWTF objective?
The NWTF as we speak today is basically dependent on donor funding. That’s why I said we collaborate with development partners and support enables us to provide leadership and capacity building to Nigeria women in whether in elective or appointive positions. In the future, I know very well that Nigerian political space is fiancé based. The cost of campaign is high.
As we speak, we are hoping that the kind of support that we give to women can assist in their campaign strategy and in their resource mobilisation but we are not giving out funds for them to run campaigns because we do not have such resource now and we cannot use donors funds to give to people to run for campaign. That would be partisan. They are women they belong to political party if we support them that means by the virtue of their political party we are partisan, which we don’t want to at all.
The quest to have more women in political offices was gaining traction until the little development made was lost in 2015 general elections that turned out to have more men being elected and also women got very few appointments, how do we reverse this trend in the spirit of gender equality and fair representation?
I agree with you a lot of women are worried about the number of women who may win elective positions in the 2019 general elections, this is simply because the 2015 election witness a drop in the number of women in elective positions. So, the worry is there. Like the NWTF we are already working with the women in politics forum to give necessary support, to give necessary technical skills to get them to reach out to different parts of the country, to encourage more women to come out as aspirants. We actually didn’t stop since after 2015 elections, so the preparation for 2019 general elections is not starting now. The fund, even before my assumption of office, has started working with women across political parties to get them to indicate and show interest in contesting. We have also worked with quite a lot of young women politicians, some of them have interest in contest for election in 2019 elections, so it is a call for worry but we are hopeful it will be better. When women don’t get appointive positions, it depends on the political will of the government of the day. If it is the wish of the government to bring in more women I don’t think finding Nigerian women to fill that gap is the problem. It depends on the political will.
How can we work on this, how can we lobby to get more women in appointive positions?
We are not even going to support the fact women should lobby for appointive positions. The reason is that we have a national gender policy which was put in place in 2006 with a recommendation that there should be a minimum of 35 per cent of appointive positions for women. Women should hold this document…
When the government is not doing it should we lobby?
Lobbying means we are begging. I don’t want to agree with that. We have been advocating, we have issued statements at civil society, we have spoken at different platforms and fora, saying that it is not good enough to have a government in place that doesn’t have a minimum of 35 percent women in position. So, it is not about lobby, it is about they respecting and obeying the national gender policy to make sure that we have 100 per cent cabinet, 35 percent of them are women.
In this instance, if you have advocated and issued statement and yet the government does budge, is there really nothing we can do?
If the government does not budge, it only goes back to the fact that the government does not have that political will to respect that national gender policy. If the government respects it, then we don’t we even need to advocate. The government is also a signatory to the Beijing platform for action, to the convention of the elimination of all forms of discrimination against Women (CEDAW). All of these international instruments speak to the fact that there should be 30 percent of women, the government of Nigeria pushed it to 35 but the 30 and the 35 none is being respected. In its wisdom, government puts it at 35 per cent in the national gender policy, but it is not being respected. And it is not that we don’t have competent women. Nigerian women are resources, vibrant, they have a lot of technical skills. We have them at the UN and World Bank, so why wouldn’t they do better in Nigeria?
Why do you think Nigerian government is so afraid of Nigeria women?
I don’t think they are afraid.
Then what is the problem?
I think also that it is the normal patriarch thinking that if you don’t put women it is not a big deal. They don’t see it as a serious business to ensure good number of women in government. The idea is still we have some women in government, after all. But for us having some women in government is not enough. Live by the minimum of 35 percent women in government. It is not that the government doesn’t have some women on board, but we are saying it is not enough. For them not to appointment more women into positions of power, I don’t know the reason why. But in my wisdom, I think the national gender policy should be respected. I have never spoken to the President to know why he didn’t appoint more women. As part of civil society, we have raised concerns, but we are yet to see his response to that.
What, in specific terms, are the strategies NWTF has put in place to ensure that women get fair representation in the next election cycle?
One of it is to continue with our advocacy to relevant stakeholders. The second is to ensure that we do more voter education ensure that more women are qualified to vote, they have their PVC and they are staying where they can perform their civic responsibilities on election day. And that when women come out to contest for any position, other women should support them. We also are building capacity of women to be able to create visibility for themselves. Whether in orthodox media or the social media, we assist some of them to package their profile that they can use for public purposes.
On UN’s list, Rwanda was ranked first among country with most women in parliament in the world as of January 2017, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Mauritania, ranked 7, 9, 12, 13, 17, and 19 respectively, while Nigeria ranked 180 out of 190 countries, how can Nigeria improve its ranking in this regard?
One thing we can do is to have more women win elective position and also appoint more women. Giving women appointment also enhances the chances of they contesting for elective positions. Most times when women are profiled publicly and they demonstrate very well it enhances their chances and exposes them to be out there. Nigerian women generally we need support one another to ensure that in the next election that there are female candidates and we give them the necessary supports. We encourage ourselves and then government should put in place the necessary technical measures to ensure that there is security of life and property, to make the terrain safe for women and men to e able to go out on Election Day. Because when you talk about voting on election day and voting for a candidate of your choice, that security is very important. It is one of the things that affect women.
You talked about advocacy for women to vote for women. Why has it been a problem, women not voting for their fellow women? We have seen it in the past like in the case of Sarah Jibril who got just one vote, which was her own vote….
People keep talking about Sarah Jibril having just one vote, you didn’t talk about how many of the delegates were women. There were women and they went in there with a mandate of who to vote for. So, the question of delegates in political parties also affects how candidates emerge. The process is male dominated, it is patriarchal. The few women who are there may not be different from men also because of their own patriarchal orientation too. So, you don’t expect them to vote for women just like that. And that’s one area that the NWTF is working around to make women understand that regardless of the circumstances it is very important for women to be for women, for women to understand that women are good leaders, for women to know that women are capable of demonstrating good leadership if given an office or platform to launch themselves. So, don’t see women who did not vote for Sarah Jibril as the enemies. Rather we should look at the structure within which the women operate. They are not different from the kind of men there with patriarchal orientation.
So, it is actually to change that orientation, but are we changing it?
It is a gradual process. Some women are getting to understand better now. Before, we didn’t have women voting for women; but you can see that there is a gradual shift now.
Are people surprised that you are a modern Muslim woman advocating for women’s rights?
I would start with the fact that Islamic religion, looking at the Quran does not create room for the oppression of the Muslim woman. But you find in the interpretations of the provisions of in the Quran the oppression of women, depending on the interpreter. But if you look at the Quran close, it is not a book of oppression. Truly if you look at me as a Muslim woman, I don’t find a conflict in that because God created men and women equal. When you talk about gender equality it is about giving equal opportunities for both men and women in terms of knowledge, education, health, and in terms of social and political development. It is not about a man wanting to become a woman. It is not about biological change. Gender equality is sociological. It is about creating opportunity for both men and women. So, I don’t see the conflict.
Many tend to mistake advocacy for gender equality as opposition, hate and utter disregard for men. How do you as a gender advocate strike the balance for people to understand that it is gender equality you are calling for?
When you talk about gender equality it is not about the superiority of the sexes. It is not in any way about that. Rather, it is about asking for equal opportunity for both men and women, both girls and boys. If you send the boys to school, send the girls as well. It is not a call for equality of sexes because biologically they are different, anyway. It is not about going out to hate men or to hate women. It is about looking at our social structure removing the inequalities. In some instances, you may need to put some extra measures to ensure that you achieve this. That’s why you find a lot of advocacy around women’s right, around gender equality. It is not because it is a new phenomenon.
What legacy would you like to live?
A legacy of a very strong institution that is a reference point when it comes to political participation and in the closing of gender gaps in governance in Nigeria.
What motivates you?
That’s a tough question. A lot of things. Anytime I see progress for women I feel happy. When I say progress, as in, seeing a woman overcoming challenges as a result of efforts. You see the government doing thing is that support the rights of women I feel happy. And I feel motivated career-wise because I am very pleased with that. For me, as a person, I am passionate about advocating for the rights of women because women out of no reason and fault of there get relegated to the background. It is not a good thing to be oppressed. So, when you scale over that and you are able to stabilize as a woman, for me, it gives me some level of joy. My interest in women’s right advocacy is not by circumstance, it is out of passion and interest. It is not because I have gone through one form of oppression, but I see it. Having worked as a journalist before, I ask where are the women? In your reporting you can find women to give you their own view on different political issues, they have a lot of domestic baggage that they carry around.