For the first time, all the UK In Nigeria strands of the British High Commission are now headed by women. In light of this wonderful shift in balance, we talked to the newly appointed High Commissioner, Catriona Laing, the Deputy, Harriet Thompson, as well as, Debbie Palmers, Laure Beaufils and Lucy Pearson, about women empowerment and equality and how they are working to be allies in the fight for gender balance in Nigeria.
What does women equality and empowerment mean to you as the new High Commissioner to Nigeria?
First of all, we have to recognise that women’s empowerment is not just a nice-to-have, it is essential and non-negotiable. Why is it essential? Above all, it is essential because it is just right – there is no valid moral, cultural or genetic justification for women having a lesser status in society than men. But it is also essential for more practical reasons – empowered women and girls are fundamental to the development of a prosperous resilient economy and for peace and stability.
But the data on women’s empowerment in Nigeria tells a disturbing story. According to UNICEF at least one in six Nigerian women have suffered significant physical or sexual violence, 44 percent are married before age 18, and female genital mutilation remains common. So, if Nigeria’s ninety-five million women and girls are going to realise their full potential, there is definitely a long way to go.
So what does it mean for me? It means I commit to doing what I can to change the situation for the better during my time here. I’m under no illusions about the scale of the challenge, but I believe we can all make a difference in some way, and that we should do what we can however large or small that is.
How effectively do you plan to be a key voice in this fight?
I’ll have two main approaches to this. First, I will be the best role-model I can be in my work and with my team. We have an all-female top team here in the British High Commission, a very strong all female team and we want to work as a team inspiring all women who want to get into public life that this is possible for anyone. We all face personal challenges along the way so we want to encourage and provide real support for other women on their individual journey and to help them keep their faith and determination through what can sometimes be a tough experience.
Secondly, I want to do what I can to encourage more women to participate in Nigeria’s politics at every level. I came into Nigeria into this new role just as the 2019 election season was getting started and I have been following the female participation in the elections with great interest. The headline numbers are not particularly encouraging, but there are signs that women are starting to engage politically.
I’m personally hoping we will have one or more new female governors. But even if we don’t, participation is progress – women can’t win if they don’t take part. . So, we are making some steps forward and I want to encourage more women to come forward to stand for elections, for the National Assembly, for the senate, for the governorships and for the presidency.
And I think one practical thing we can do is to use, for example, our Chevening scholarship alumni network to identify young women who may be willing to enter the political fray. We would provide them with support with mentoring to give them that courage to step forward and to face some of the enormous challenges they will face up to life in what is still a very patriarchal world.
So, that’s my approach: make sure women’s empowerment runs through everything we do in the British High Commission here in Nigeria and to encourage and support Nigerian women to steel themselves to engage in politics in whatever way a foreign diplomat can.
In your capacity as the Head of British Council in Nigeria, how effectively do you hope to use your voice in the fight for gender equality and women empowerment?
I have been lucky to work with an organisation like the British Council which is committed to addressing issues of gender inequality. We know how crucial gender equality is to create a prosperous society and as such we do a lot of work in empowering women and girls. I am personally committed to this focus and through the programmes we deliver, constantly seek avenues to influence inequality beliefs at all levels while also recognising cultural nuances in different parts of the country as it affects women and girls.
Our programmes have clear EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) metrics that are not only presented on paper but at the core of our programme delivery. I ensure through my role as Country lead in Nigeria and West Africa that there is representation by women in our programmes and the impact of this has also showed increased female participation in recent times.
Women and girls’ is a cross-cutting theme in the British Council Nigeria country portfolio. All programmes and projects have a commitment to achieving gender equity and ensuring that the needs of women and girls are met within the objectives. Ultimately our strategy is to contribute to more women taking part in social change and access to decision making in Nigeria and I look forward to continuing to lead the team in achieving this feat.”
What measures have the UK Government put in place to foster an environment that promotes gender equality in Nigeria?
Let me first explain what it means to me before going into details, gender equality means that girls and women, boys and men, are all treated fairly, according to their needs and wants, and that they are able to make decisions freely that are not constrained by their sex. It means that the views, aspirations and needs of women and men are considered and valued equally. In practice this means that women have the same opportunities as men – that they too are able to dream big and fulfil their potential – and that they have the same voice as men. What it does not mean is that we are all the same, or that we have to become the same. Fairness of treatment for women and men may mean treatment that is different – but which is equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations and opportunities.
The UK Government firmly believe that supporting gender equality is the right thing to do – as well as being key to development and inclusive growth. As such, it is at the heart of all of our work. We work with partners in the Nigerian government and public sector to implement a variety of programmes that promote equality.
In your capacity as the Head of DFID Nigeria, what areas of gender equality and empowerment is the British Government involved in Nigeria, and how will these areas ensure continuous improvement of gender parity in Nigeria?
International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us to celebrate women’s achievement, to speak up for a more equal, fairer world, and to speak out against bias, discrimination and abuse.
Here in Nigeria, today is a day for celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Today also marks a call to action for accelerating gender equality in Nigeria.
Our vision is for a Nigeria where all girls and women are valued and have equal voice, rights and opportunities throughout all of their lives. Where they are fully empowered to make choices over their bodies and to decide their own futures; to access, own and control resources; to complete their education, take up better economic opportunities, and reach their full potential. The UK Government and DFID is wholeheartedly committed to improving outcomes for women and girls in Nigeria, and around the world, working with governments and civil society.
Gender equality and women’s empowerment is everyone’s business: it is only by unlocking women’s potential that we can build a better, more peaceful and prosperous world for us all.
Catriona Laing – What advice would you give to women to reach their goals?
I can hardly claim to have planned out a path to reach this role as the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, it has been a long and winding road since I started my career. So here’s my advice to women in view of the theme for International Women’s Day 2019, don’t be afraid to make some imaginative or even hair-raising career moves because this is how you will learn the most and broaden your world-view. Don’t worry about taking the time to try something new: there is plenty of time.
But how do you deal with doing new and unfamiliar things?
In my experience, it’s all about asking the right questions, including to yourself. So I’d embrace the wisdom of Nobel physicist Richard Feynman: “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned” and “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
How would you assess the social, economic, and political participation of women in Nigeria?
It varies greatly, of course, as it does in every country. In Nigeria – as in the UK and other countries – it’s affected by things like income levels, whether they live in rural or urban areas, how they choose to practice their faith, level of education. Upbringing is obviously a key factor, we’re all shaped by our parents’ views and perceptions.
On Political Participation
In the 2019 elections 409 women ran for the Senate across seven states, almost double the 211 who ran in 2015. But the number actually elected fell, from 8 in 2015 to 6 this year. That’s only 6 female senators out of 109. We’ll see what happens this weekend, but to date there has never been a female governor in any of Nigeria’s 36 states or the FCT. Fingers crossed this vote is the one that changes that… The increasing number of women who ran for office this year is, I hope, a sign that things are changing.
On Economic Participation:
There are some real contrasts when you look at the data on women’s economic participation in Nigeria.
Its economic potential is even greater. But it won’t realise that potential if it isn’t able to reap the rewards that women as well as men can bring. There are some inspiring women bucking the trend, women like Ibukun Awosika, Ndidi Nwuneli, Mo Abudu and many more that are making giant strides. So I have every confidence that the picture will change and we’ll increasingly see female entrepreneurs helping Nigeria drive its economy forwards.
On Social Participation:
Women’s role in society clearly underpins their role in politics and in the economy. In general, women in Nigeria have what people in the UK might call “a traditional role” in society, they are more often the partner who looks after the children and the home, and they’re often – not always! – expected to be quiet and respectful to the men. When women are able to stay in school longer, they are better able to take decisions that are right for them.
We need to teach our sons and our daughters that women can do what men do, and men can do what women do. And that the whole of society benefits when they do. That’s true in Nigeria, in the UK, and across the world.
I want to talk about gender based violence before finishing. Up to a third of Nigerian women report that they’ve been subjected to some sort of violence, 1 in 5 has experienced physical violence. These levels of violence, and society’s attitudes to violence against women, are of course going to impact on how women – and men – see their place in society, politics and the economy.
To sum up, I look forward to the time when Nigeria’s brilliant women will have the same access to political office as its brilliant men, will have the same opportunities to contribute to Nigeria’s incredible economy, and will play a more equal role in society. We’re not there yet worldwide, not just in Nigeria. But it matters not just for women, but for Nigeria. A country is never going to achieve its full potential if 50% of its population is excluded.