Gender Advisor to UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Sudan, Victoria Nwogu, shares her thoughts on women, equality and development with The Interview as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, today…
What does this year’s theme of the IWD, “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”, mean to you?
The theme of the IWD 2019 is significant because science, technology and innovation have become indispensable to quality of human life today.
Whether in the areas of agriculture, trade, health or leisure; even the enjoyment of human rights or assertion of identity, the so-called ST&Is are here to stay. According to UNWomen, the expected value of the digital economy in 2016, was $4.2 trn in the G20 countries alone.
Women’s representation in ST&I has value not only in ensuring that the unique and specific needs of women and girls are met, but also in empowering women and girls and achieving equality.
I was reading an article the other day, which presented a study finding that most of the common-place innovations we enjoy today were designed by men based on their experiences and perspectives about life.
For example, the breadth of the average smart phone is designed to fit comfortably in the palm of an adult man and can be manipulated by such a man with only one hand. However, a lot of women struggle with using the same gadgets with similar ease as men.
Indeed, women’s under-representation in science not only has consequences at a personal level, but impact negatively on economic progress and overall human development.
For example, it makes perfect business sense for a private company which develops household appliances to consult women and men (separately) and integrate their perspectives in the design and functionality of these appliances.
The WHO has found that when you consider infectious diseases, the dearth of women scientists often means a lack of diverse perspectives essential to addressing gender dimensions such as the care burden, which often disproportionately affects women.
This has potentially adverse implications for addressing and eliminating infectious diseases. ST&Is are forces for social change and the economic potentials they harbor demonstrate the extent of change that is possible.
UN Women found that if women farmers had equal access to fertilizers, technology and credit, a 2.5-4 per cent increase of productivity and 150 million fewer hungry people would be expected. ST&Is can therefore be used to disrupt the usual order of things and to challenge and transform inequalities.
The theme, “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change” to me, is a renewed call for governments and private sector institutions to back up their stated commitments to promote women in science and technology with commensurate resources and deliberate action.
Such action means: recognising the limitations that women and girls face in the sector and creating or expanding opportunities for girls in education and expanding access to information, communication and technology for everyone as a right not a privilege.
It means removing laws that discriminate against women and prevent them from accessing resources such as land and credit; adopting new, gender-friendly laws and policies; addressing issues of safety and security and making the traditionally male-dominated science and tech environments more accommodating of the presence and contributions of women; involving youth (male and female) in decision-making about the ST&Is.
It also means actively promoting women to take up learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with incentives if necessary; and recognizing and promoting women’s leadership in STEM.
If you are unhappy or dissatisfied with your circumstances, your status, your roles, your responsibilities and your opportunities relative to your male/female counterparts in any sphere of life, then you’re on your way to understanding the quest for gender equality
Which African countries do you think have made the most outstanding progress in creating the environment for equality and innovation amongst women?
Some good progress has been made by African countries in the area of promoting women’s rights and gender equality.
The OECD found in 2018 that Africa had made the most progress in adopting legislation aimed at tackling gender discrimination since their last assessment of global gender inequality indexes in 2014.
Within the period of four years, they found that 10 African countries had introduced laws against domestic violence, including Kenya, Angola, and Uganda, and five countries added legislation to delay the age of marriage.
Five countries also introduced quotas to increase the number of women in parliament. However, these legal reforms fail to foster real transformation in the lives of women because the negative social norms which drive gender unequal attitudes and practices are slower to change.
When you speak of innovation, education is key. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) report in 2015 recorded that above any other region in the world within the period of the MDGs, Africa achieved the highest improvement in primary education and women’s access to paid employment in the non-agricultural sector.
However, women and girls in Africa still face significant challenges to accessing quality education with gross enrollment in higher education by girls standing at about 26% for secondary and 2.5% for tertiary.
This means that women and girls do not get as much opportunities as men and boys to learn new skills or build proficiency in subjects such as STEM.
When it comes to environment for equality and innovation, we should not look to absolutes in terms of best countries etc., but to good examples that can inspire other countries to emulate them.
So, what examples can we look at in the region in terms of women in innovation? Complimented by regional level frameworks, many countries in Africa have adopted policies on science, technology and innovation and some of them even include objectives and actions that specifically address imbalanced representation of women in science.
The African Union for example, declared 2015 as the ‘Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Africa Agenda 2063’, and adopted the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa – 2024.
In education, Mauritius had 96 per cent higher education enrolment as of 2015. Yesterday, Ethiopian Airlines announced in a tweet that it will operate its fifth flight commanded by an all women in crew both in the skies and on the ground today, to commemorate IWD 2019.
In Ghana, you have the Ghana Code Club founded by Ernestina Appiah as an after-school digital fun club that equips children between the ages of 8-17 years with coding skills.
We may all remember Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin winning a place on the CNN Heroes award in 2018 because of her work empowering girls from the Makoko slum, Lagos to become coders and changing their lives through her organization Pearls Africa.
Similar examples abound all over the continent. These examples are uneven and not systematic in the sense that they are not easily sustainable if passion, time and opportunity do not align or if we lack the presence of champions for women’s representation in innovation as a worthy objective.
Is the Me-Too movement feminism gone too far?
The #MeToo Movement is a significant movement and it serves a very important purpose. Triggered by the “Weinstein scandal” the twitter campaign under the hashtag #metoo saw over 12 million men and women share their experiences on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms in a space of 24 hours.
Ultimately, the movement reached 85 countries making it one of the most viral and powerful occurrences in social media history.
The wind of #MeToo led to other exposures pointing to sexual harassment of women being commonplace not only in Hollywood, but also in sports, business, religion, the military and politics globally.
One key significance of the movement for me, was that it exposed hidden behaviors that were ironically, common knowledge within the world of work; namely sexual harassment and sexual assault.
In so doing, it stimulated a global conversation, improved awareness of the scale and magnitude of the problem and signified the beginning of the end of tolerance by men and women of behavior that is not acceptable in the workplace.
Against this backdrop, it appeared the tide had turned against gender inequality and its manifestations in the work place.
Finally, the world was sitting up and listening. Finally, we perceive the beginning of the end to patriarchy, as it were, or was it?
With sensational stories such as the “Weinstein scandal” specific predators may be brought to justice, but such excessive emphasis on a specific case can detract attention from the broader quest for gender equality.
The world rallies to such scandals because it is immediate, there is an identifiable villain, action can be swift and visible.
However, confronting long held institutional cultures of patriarchy and inequality present daunting challenges, so the more adverse and widespread impacts they have on gender inequality (under-representation of women in decision-making and gender pay gaps for example) continue unabated.
Put another way, victory for the women of Hollywood who accused Weinstein and victory for all the other cases that came to light as spin-offs from the Weinstein case, though important and significant, may not necessarily translate into victory for women in the face of overwhelming inequality that stem from the patriarchal foundations of corporate and political institutions.
Even more obviously, victory for the women of America against inequality, does not so quickly translate into victory for women in other parts of the world, such as Africa.
The #MeToo movement did not resonate as much in Africa as it did elsewhere, because of entrenched cultures of impunity, vicious stigmatization of women who survive sexual violence and other social pressures not to report such allegations.
Speaking of institutions, one of the striking aspects of the testimonies of many survivors in the #MeToo movement was that many had tried to stop sexual harassment and assault in the workplace by reporting to the authorities, but no one believed them, or their allegations were either swept aside or actively denied, and they suffered consequences.
Failure of institutions to respond to individual complaints of sexual harassment and abuse; and other manifestations of gender discrimination, will not be surprising to anyone familiar with the subject matter, yet it calls for reflection.
Why do institutions fail to act? We know all the legislations that preserve work place entitlements. We put in place all the regulations and mechanisms to prevent and respond to any number of abuses or grievances that could arise in the workplace.
BUT we appear ill-equipped or unwilling to confront a real-life situation when it happens. Is it because of the age-old feminist argument that male-dominated power institutions are defaulted to protect and preserve their privilege?
Is it because the people we task with these concerns are themselves not sufficiently empowered to act or to challenge the system? Is it because, on a balance, preserving the institutional image outweighs the grievance of one individual?
Do we establish regulations and mechanisms in the hope that they will ward off the occurrence of such incidents so that we never have to deal with them; a sort of talisman? Who makes the decision in favour of action or inaction and why?
My concern is that the world may be listening and acting in individual cases, but are we addressing the foundational questions of gender inequality or casting stones at easily dispensable villains?
A key point for reflection through these developments is that an end to gender inequality will only be foreseeable if efforts address institutions as well as individuals.
How do we foster changes in the systems that create and sustain an environment for sexual harassment or assault to happen and covers it up when it occurs?
One important message that the #MeToo movement has hopefully fostered in public consciousness is that women are as much entitled as men to be present in public spaces and women are not in the workplace as a sexual incentive for men in power. That message is vital. It is not feminism gone too far.
When you look at the data you will find that the world today does not function for ‘everyone’
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?
The call for balance is as legitimate and urgent a concern for women all over the world today as it was during the early struggle for universal adult suffrage and women’s right to work.
It is even more urgent in Africa. Being a lawyer, I tend to make decisions based on reasoning and logic driven by evidence. When you look at the data you will find that the world today does not function for ‘everyone’.
Persons with disabilities, displaced people, ethnic minorities, migrants, children, the aged and women -just to name a few broad categorizations of diversity-, still struggle to access certain things that should be entitlements for all humanity, or they are even actively prevented from enjoying those entitlements.
That we are still commemorating an International Women’s Day and other significant days throughout the year, shows that we are not yet where we should be.
It signifies that we still have manifest imbalances that need the world to pay close attention on a specific day as a way of amplifying work or efforts that happen all year round to address these imbalances. Now, let us turn to data.
When it comes to women’s rights and the call for balance, some of the typical indicators for gender equality are women’s representation in political positions, women’s representation in paid employment, girl-child education, maternal mortality rates and prevalence of gender-based violence.
The data shows not only that significant gaps and challenges remain between men and women in Africa, but that those gaps create consequences for the well-being of women and girls and impacts negatively on society.
According to the IPU, women’s representation in parliaments continent-wide is currently 23.7 per cent. FGM prevalence can be as high as 98 per cent on some parts of the continent.
Other harmful traditional practices like forced/child marriages and widowhood disinheritance are rampant; and sexual and gender-based violence remains a significant concern.
Conflicts all over the continent continue to drive families and communities away from their homes into insecurity and uncertainty; and women and girls bear a significantly unequal brunt of the consequences.
According to the LSE, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest female labour participation rate compared to other regions, but their employment is concentrated in low-paid and less secure jobs, making women 74 per cent unemployed in the informal sector as compared to 61 per cent of men.
UN Women found that in science and tech, women are only six per cent Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) regulators and ministers, of the top 100 Tech CEOs only six per cent are women.
Innovation hubs globally average less than 10 per cent participation of women and an estimated 90 per cent of the electronic goods are created by men.
There are no coordinated figures for Africa. What all these data points to is the fact that we do not have equality yet. And equality matters.
Before I delve into any justification for why women should enjoy equal rights as men, I often assert that women’s rights are human rights.
They are being reinforced and advocated for because women still face a lot of personal and institutional barriers to enjoying those rights on the same basis or to the same level as men.
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s visceral Facebook post (A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions) that soon became the book “Ijeawele”, she recommends, “Do it together … Because when there is true equality, resentment does not exist.”
I would rephrase this and ask: Are you happy? This question might appear simple enough, but if you are unhappy or dissatisfied with your circumstances, your status, your roles, your responsibilities and your opportunities relative to your male/female counterparts in any sphere of life, then you’re on your way to understanding the quest for gender equality.