Remarks by Consul General John Bray Women’s History Month Program “Women in Leadership and Good Governance” (March 8, 2016)

Good morning everyone.

Please allow me to stand on all existing protocols.  I’m delighted to be with you this morning to celebrate Women’s History Month.  First of all, let me welcome to the Consulate Professor Remi Sonaiya who has joined us as a key note speaker.  As the first female presidential candidate for the Kowa Party, you have inspired young women all across Nigeria.  During this year’s Women’s History Month, we honor you as a trailblazer and a champion of women’s political participation.  You have set a powerful example for generations of young women in Nigeria, Africa, and the world at large.

We know that women’s leadership and meaningful participation in government, the economy, and civil society accelerates economic development, improves health and educational indicators, advances democratic development, and fosters peace and security.   Today’s program theme, “Women in Leadership and Good Governance,” focusing on women’s role as civic leaders and as politicians is important and timely.

In Nigeria, the level of enthusiasm that I have seen by Nigerian women and their aspirations for political participation, their call for government accountability and transparency, and their desire to contribute to national development is impressive.  The U.S. Government and the American people support this vision through demonstrated actions.   More broadly, the United States has invested millions of dollars to directly advance gender equality across Sub-Saharan and North African countries, which includes activities to promote political and economic opportunities for women, access to health and education services, and efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.  We further leverage broader development investments to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment across Africa.

We believe that conducting peaceful and credible elections every four years, as Nigeria did last year, is an important element of a democratic system.  However, good governance requires much more.  A vibrant civil society, an independent judiciary, and a strong media must constantly monitor to ensure that elected officials are transparent and accountable.  I urge you to continue your vigilance and action in holding elected officials accountable.

And in preparation for the elections coming up in 2019, I’d like to throw out a challenge to the women assembled here in this room, as well as to the thousands participating through social media, to consider playing a more active role in politics by lobbying to have laws passed, or changed, that will eliminate barriers to women’s full inclusion and empowerment in all aspects of Nigerian society.

Here in Nigeria, legislation was enacted last year that removed the requirement for a person running for public office to have the endorsement of a political party.  Candidates can now run as “independents.”  Therefore, more women could consider running for public office.

Let me briefly share a bit about the long struggle of American women for political inclusion.  To this date, we do not have a proportionate representation of women in all the three branches of our government.  Among several others, three strong women have contested for the highest office in the United States, the presidency.  Victoria Woodhull Martin is best known as the first woman candidate for the United States presidency, which she ran for in 1872 from the Equal Rights Party, supporting women’s suffrage and equal rights.   And in 1972, precisely one hundred  years later, Shirley Chisolm was the first black woman ever to run for President of the United States; she ran as an independent.  She started out as a teacher in Harlem, New York, but her passion for progress brought her to local politics, then a seat in U.S. Congress, and ultimately a run for the presidency.

And if you are following the 2016 elections in the United States, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for the second time and is leading the contest in the Democratic Party.   I hope that the example of the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo of these three women and Professor Sonaiya will inspire you to do your part to move Nigeria forward in the trajectory of its democratic destiny.

The question that comes up often is why do women lack political power?  To be quite frank, in society men have historically had an advantage in politics and all other aspects of civic life.  And in Africa, you know the cultural norms better than I do.  You know that at home, school, the workplace and elsewhere, girls and women typically have fewer opportunities than their male counterparts to acquire policy and leadership skills. The political domain may be the least amenable to gender equality because it is subject to the rules of the “godfather.”

Maybe it’s time for women to form coalitions to become “godmothers” for women political aspirants. Lacking connections and clout, women find it harder to raise money for political campaigns. Thus, women often enter public life through alternative routes such as charities and women’s organizations or by filling a seat vacated by their husband.  I hope that you will be creative and find ways, perhaps through social media, to have your voice heard and amplified to such an extent that you can become a viable candidate in future elections.

To mitigate lack of inclusion, the United States launched the Equal Futures Partnership in 2012 to help galvanize efforts by governments around the world to address barriers to women’s economic and political participation.  In three years, a partnership that began with 11 governments has more than doubled to include 27 countries and the European Union, along with a number of private sector, non-profit, and multilateral partners.

Equal Futures partner countries commit to taking actions—including legal, regulatory, and policy reforms—to help ensure that women fully participate in public life at the local, regional, and national levels, and that they lead and benefit from inclusive economic growth.  Equal Futures Partnership in Africa include Benin, Senegal, Sierra Leon, and Tanzania among many other countries in other regions of the world.  Unfortunately, Nigeria is not part of the Equal Futures Partnership but you have an opportunity to lobby for inclusion.

The Unites States is consistently looking at ways to understand better and take action to promote women’s equal participation.  This May, the White House will host a summit on “The United State of Women,” to highlight the advances we have made in the United States and across the globe and to expand our efforts on helping women confront the challenges they face and reach for their highest aspirations.

Today, an excellent program has been prepared for you.  I encourage you to break the mold and take the next step to enter public life. I hope this is a turning point for your political aspirations.  Take the first step for yourself and those women who will come after you.

Thank you.