Women in Nigeria press for better status. Activists work to help women run for office in local elections

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Throughout Africa, politics is largely a ``man's domain.'' But women in Nigeria are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what some of them here refer to as ``male domination'' of Nigerian life. Their efforts to combat this situation are increasing on a number of fronts: political, social, and economic.

Several women's groups are focusing on the country's Dec. 12 elections for local officials as a way to register more women to vote and to run for office.

Nigeria's military government is gradually handing over power to civilians through a series of elections that culminate in national and presidential elections in 1992. As part of an attempt to eliminate political corruption, most current and former politicans have been banned by a recent military decree from running for any office until after 1992. The handful of women in political posts today, though they too are banned, see an opening for more women to enter the political scene.

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In addition, the federal government and some women's groups are trying to promote better access to education and improved economic and social status for women. The government has increased adult education opportunites for women, expanded health care for women, and is offering more development training for rural women.

One citizens group, Women in Nigeria (WIN), has had some successes in battles for women's legal rights. WIN helped a woman win the right not to be forced to marry someone arranged for her by her family; it supported prosecution of a man who beat his wife to death; and it helped defend a woman in a legal case against alleged sexual harassment.

``I think the social mobility going on will bring a lot of changes for women,'' says WIN member Dorcas Adewoye in Zaria, in northern Nigeria. They are seeking, demanding, and in some cases winning more legal and social freedoms, and are working outside the home more often. But, she says, the fact that men still control most of the family income is unfair.

Despite ample rhetoric about the importance of women's rights in most African countries, tradition and law still leave them with much to gain - especially in politics. Nigeria, for example, has had only a few women officials scattered at the national and state levels.

But for women willing to campaign hard, the chance of winning is there, as Hajia Murjantu Katsina proved. In 1979 she was elected a member of the house assembly for the state of Kaduna, in northern Nigeria. She had served as an appointed official in state government.

During the runup to the elections, some male members of the house told her they didn't have to campaign to win because they had strong party support. She won, she explains, only by hard work. ``I'm a farmer,'' she said in an interview. ``So I had to leave the farm. ... I campaigned village to village, house to house, farm to farm. I felt it physically and financially.''

Looking ahead, she says she would like to see women gain 50 percent representation in elected offices. ``We will fight for it - and we will get it,'' she says.

Still, that day seems far away, even to a veteran political activist like Laila Dogonyaro, an official with the National Council for Women's Societies. Mrs. Dogonyaro can organize a gathering of key women in the area in less than two hours, and she is well-respected because of her position. But helping other women win at politics is a more difficult matter.

Dongonyaro sees several barriers to women winning office in Nigeria:

Islam. Her own religion, she contends, discourages full participation of women in politics. This is especially true in the north, which is predominatly Muslim.

``Male domination'' of the party nominating process. In party meetings, ``even when the women are talking seriously, they are not taken seriously,'' she says.

Lack of funding. Women own little property in their own name, men control most family incomes, and few women are in business. These are all reasons that put women at a disadvantage in entering political races.

Still, Dogonyaro is encouraged by small signs of change. She sees, for example, that more women have become interested in running for political offices.

Dogonyaro welcomes the federal government's new efforts to promote adult education, health care, and rural development for women. The government, she says ``really is making women aware of their rights.''

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