Iheoma is challenging the patriarchal nature of Nigerian politics by encouraging and preparing women to seek positions of authority at all levels of governance and bringing women to the forefront of decision-making bodies.
The New Idea
Iheoma believes that the exclusion of women is a major reason for the ineffectiveness of the Nigerian government in meeting the needs of the vast majority of Nigerians. To reverse this situation, Iheoma is building the capacity of urban and rural women to advocate for their rights and to include themselves in governance structures and political processes by participating effectively in Nigerian politics and decision-making at local, state and federal levels. To make her efforts sustainable, she also addresses on a broader, deeper level the systemic exclusion of women in the political structure in Nigeria.
Unlike many other gender-focused initiatives, Iheoma’s goes beyond women’s empowerment rhetoric and provides women with the resources they require to affect change at all levels of society and to ensure their inclusion in the governance of their country. Through her Women in Governance (WIG) networks, complemented by a sophisticated media and political strategy, Iheoma is equipping women to become political leaders and directly influence policy. Iheoma understands that women cannot assume leadership positions unless they have concrete skills and can articulate their goals and ideas. Next, they need opportunities within existing structures. Finally, there is the ongoing work of changing perceptions and attitudes about women in power. Iheoma realized that she must address all of these phases to be successful in the face of societal obstacles.
In Nigeria, men have historically seized leadership positions within political parties. This occurs despite the fact that women are the most active participants in the electoral process. Women consistently outnumber men as voters in Nigeria’s elections, and yet they remain mostly excluded from political positions in all tiers of government. Low literacy levels, the perception that politics is a “man’s world,” and a lack of access to the political process have all hindered the participation of women in government. The small percentage of women who have dared to challenge patriarchy by venturing into politics have been obstructed by the characteristic violence of Nigerian politics. This intimidation has made it extremely difficult for them to make any reasonable progress, especially if they are not part of a dynastic political family. Without a strong women’s political movement to serve as a support structure, many of these women who have challenged the system by vying for positions of power have eventually been forced to abandon their political aspirations.
Many attempts to organize women politically have failed because men have consistently hijacked viable women’s organizations and rendered them ineffective. For instance, the women’s movement was made redundant when the Nigerian government starting funding it and dictating how it was to be run. The result was that incompetent “safe” women were put at the helms of affairs and were mostly unable to provide the leadership required to make a difference in women’s political ambitions. To further neutralize the efforts of women to organize effectively, many of the political parties formed women’s wings, giving the impression that there was no need for separate women’s political entities. These women’s wings gave women no real positions or opportunities to compete for serious positions both within and outside the party. With time, they began to take on the role of organizing the social activities of the parties, ensuring that women remained in the background of Nigerian politics even when they were active party members.
A major outcome of women’s lack of political voice is that many of the issues that affect women and children’s lives directly do not make it to the political fore. A rough estimate of a cross section of women in three senatorial zones within Imo State indicate that at least 75 percent of women report they are negatively affected by their inability to participate effectively in local decision-making, governance and politics. This lack of female participation in public decision-making processes also impacts their ability to influence decisions that affect their private lives—such as negotiating with their male counterparts: husbands, boyfriends, sons, fathers, and male members of their communities on issues of serious concern to them such as sexual/reproductive health, economic empowerment, and other decisions that affect their livelihood.
If these problems are not addressed, women will remain politically unorganized and marginalized at the community, state, and federal levels, ensuring that their human rights and interests will continue to be abused and neglected. Iheoma’s organization, “Women in Decision-making and Politics Initiative: Grab the Chance,” works to address these problems and seeks to reverse the inability of women to participate effectively in local decision making, governance and politics.
Iheoma is attempting to reverse the imbalance of political power and decision making through a strategy focused on three broad themes: 1) organizing women into articulate units of political expression; 2) placing women into positions of responsibility and authority in local and state government; and 3) advocating for women’s rights to participate in politics.
Beginning in two pilot states in eastern Nigeria, Ebonyi and Imo states, which have a combined estimated population of six million, Iheoma organizes women into mutually beneficial and supportive Women in Governance (WIG) networks. Networks are comprised of both women and men at the local community levels. She has chosen this entry point as it is the level of government that impacts women’s lives most directly. WIG provides concrete skills trainings on advocacy, fundraising, campaigning, and public speaking to prepare women to compete with men. Iheoma identifies promising candidates at the local level to bring to the senate-level trainings. Iheoma hopes that her strategy will be replicable across Africa.
Ilheoma employs a participatory approach by consulting with women in communities to identify their needs and ascertains what political roles they want to play and why. This inclusionary practice provides them with a sense of ownership over their political voice, encourages them to be proactive citizens, and instills in them a sense of responsibility to change their governance structures. She informs women of the local decision-making structures and processes, so that they can better design and implement their own, and arms them with the knowledge and courage to become politically involved.
Efforts to expand political participation underlie all of Iheoma’s work. She effectively uses mass communication to mobilize women to participate in the electoral process. She publishes a newsletter titled “Grab the Chance,” which helps the different WIG networks stay connected and share best practices for political reform. Since radio and church bulletins are women’s main sources of information, Iheoma uses these avenues to reach out to women in rural areas and in multiple languages. Forty-five minute prerecorded broadcasts run for 13 weeks and cover pertinent questions that arise from community meetings, workshops, and advocacy/networking activities. The radio programs provide information on elections, such as explanations of issues up for vote and politician’s stances on issues, to help women understand their political realities. She has enlisted a radio monitoring group to monitor public reception of the broadcasts. The group provides feedback to her on what questions and answers need to be addressed in the next week’s broadcast. Iheoma also broadcasts radio jingles on local radio. The jingles air at one minute before the morning news broadcast and repeat again before the evening news. It is estimated that over 2,000 members of the community hear these political advertisements.
This approach of engaging numerous media strategies has proven particularly effective because it provides women with the foundation they need to overcome obstacles to their effective participation in government at the most local of levels. For example, women featured on the radio often draw on their records of community service in their localities in order to build a network of support. Once they have a base of grassroots support, it is much easier for them to ascend the political ladder and engender change at higher levels. The success of Iheoma’s strategies was demonstrated in the recent April 2004 elections by her initiative’s success in electing 10 women into local government positions in three senatorial zones in Imo State, zones where previously only two female elected officials existed. She is effectively educating women on how they can work with—and eventually become—those holding political power.
Iheoma expects that within two to three years, she will have established an organized network of women able to significantly reshape the landscape of representative government at the state and federal levels. She is engaging local chiefs, religious leaders and influential, politically active men to attend her workshops and appear on the radio broadcasts to help meet this aim. Support and buy-in from the men in the community give her work added legitimacy and facilitate the adoption and spread of her message of empowerment.
Iheoma is also engaged in advocacy work to protect the political rights of women. Iheoma monitors and, in some cases, legally challenges the membership of political bodies and important political meetings in order to ensure that women have a voice in the political process. She recently took legal action against the National Political Reform Conference when it was made public that no female delegates had been invited to attend their national 2004 conference. Her lobbying efforts sent a sharp message to Nigeria’s political elite and ensured that women delegates are invited to attend subsequent annual proceedings and important meetings. In the short and medium term, these advocacy efforts will enable women to make more effective demands on government in their respective states, ask for proper accountability from men in positions of power, and prepare women for more effective participation in the 2007 elections in Nigeria.
As her organizational capacity grows, Iheoma has already started branching out beyond the east of Nigeria. In June 2005, she organized a national women’s conference at the National Center for Women’s Development where women from throughout Nigeria convened to design a women’s political manifesto for the country. She also has put in place mechanisms to develop replicable methodologies that can be adopted for the rest of West Africa. She has plans in the near future to disseminate her best practices to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and has already conducted a training session in Sierra Leone. She works in Sierra Leone with a community group to address issues of transparency and political accountability. Her ultimate aim is to make government more accountable, transparent, and equitable, through the increased presence and participation of women.
Iheoma’s interest in women’s issues arose from witnessing her mother’s repeated physical abuse by her father, and struggle to raise Iheoma and her siblings after divorce. Her mother’s ability to cope with the enormous responsibility of single motherhood was only made possible by the fact that she was educated as a legal secretary and had a hobby of making clothes for her friends and their children, a pastime which she turned into a profession after her divorce. From a very early age, Iheoma was thus hugely influenced by her mother’s ability to make difficult, healthy choices at a time when it was taboo to be divorced. This led Iheoma to her work in helping women learn to live productive, independent lives.
To pursue this vision, Iheoma obtained a bachelors degree with honors focused on African women from North East London Polytechnic, after which she earned a masters degree with distinction in communications/policy studies in June 1990. From 1990 to date, Iheoma has worked with various international and local agencies in promoting women’s issues and rights. Her dedication to fighting for the inclusion of women in Nigeria’s governance structures stems from her research on a book she was writing that profiled 24 successful female politicians across the Commonwealth countries. She was curious as to how and why these women became successful politicians and wanted to ensure the ingredients critical to their success were cultivated in Nigeria and throughout Africa. The elements she distilled from this study and her own experience were the building blocks of her idea implemented through the WIG networks.