In this interview the Executive Director, Open Society for West Africa (OSIWA), Ayisha Osori, speaks on the significance of the International Women’s Day and the need for a truly inclusive political process:
What does this year’s theme of the IWD, think equal, build smart, innovate for change, mean to you?
I view it as a useful guide for navigating professional and personal life. Human first. That’s what I am; that’s what we all are.
And everything else is secondary and as such we are equal and our states, our governments our society should ensure all humans are treated equally, provided the same access and opportunities and equally protected.
Build smart is tied to think equal – if we are going to build for the future – we have to be smart and efficient and use all our resources – men and women, young and old and ensure everyone is being productive and making the best use of their individual and varied talents and this in turn i.e. build smart is tied to being innovative for change.
Our world is changing, both within and outside our homes, societies across the world. How can we be innovative if our unequal societies are not ensuring that its most valuable resource – human talent and capacity – is not being fully tapped and not fully rewarded for the roles they play?
If half the human population is limited by culture, rules, lack of basic social services and the protection of the state, we will not be able to overcome the challenges we have.
Is the call for balance just an aspirational slogan or does it genuinely reflect one of the major concerns of women in Nigeria, and perhaps Africa, at this time?
A mix of both. It is aspirational because it is a vision of the world that we would like to see. It is a vision of a society that we have seen working enviously well (Scandinavian countries, Rwanda, Ethiopia) etc.
The translation of the aspiration among women and men might be different across different realities but in every human there is a desire, a yearning for the balance of justice, equity, equality, harmony, equilibrium in our homes, at work, on the streets, in representation and in the decision making centers.
The struggle for better economic conditions, access to finance, for seeds that will grow and produce that will get to market for a decent price is an aspiration for balance in a world where inequality is escalating.
The struggle for reproductive health rights, for better maternal and infant health care is an aspiration for balance and the struggle to raise above the poverty level, to create a better world for the future generation is an aspiration for balance.
How can we be innovative if our unequal societies are not ensuring that its most valuable resource – human talent and capacity – is not being fully tapped and not fully rewarded for the roles they play?
In your experience, are there aspects of culture that must be addressed to speed up improved gender relationship?
Yes. And this is a tired and old question that I do not want to answer anymore. Women (and men) have talked for years about how culture and the interpretation of religion impacts negatively on the well-being of women, girls and young boys who are predominantly cared for by women living in unequal societies. On IWD, please ask the men in decision making positions this question and what they plan to do to erase negative elements of culture for half the citizens they are responsible for.
What small, practical steps should employers take to improve gender balance in the workplace?
Employers (and labour laws) can ensure there is a consciousness about recruiting, rewarding and promoting and training.
Don’t pay men and women differently for the same work. It would also help to have humane and understanding employee benefits which are generous about time off for parents of babies and young children would also help – maternity and paternity leave.
Employers who can afford it can also provide subsidised child care and finally – be strict and deliberate about preventing sexual harassment and being unforgiving about it – it destroys lives and, in many cases, completely derails the career of those who have been exposed to it.
By February 23 when the Nigerian presidential election held, not one out of the few women that stepped forward was left on the ballot. What do you think happened?
What happened is what always happens. We need meaningful electoral and constitutional reform in Nigeria to design the type of country we want (including the right incentives for productivity and what attracts people to public office (both as civil servants and as politicians).
When we have a blue print for the type of country we want, we will also decide on the type of electoral system we want and the type of elections we want. Since the fifties, our elections have been characterized by rigging and violence and many variations of these two elements.
Sometimes we take a few steps forward, but mostly, we are treading water when it comes to electoral reform and until we have the right conversations and design a framework that will work for the majority of Nigerians – not a handful of men who have a different and detrimental-to-development sense of what Nigerian means to them – women will remain off the ballot, the same way most Nigerians are off the ballot metaphorically speaking.
Our elections are not about us – we are extras in a very expensive, yet low quality movie, props arranged to give legitimacy to a process that in reality, we are still not quite part of.