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Interview: Joy Onyesoh

Interview with Joy Adaku Onyesoh Published on: 20th March 2017

Joy Adaku Onyesoh is the president and international vice president for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Nigeria. In 2015, she worked with the UN Women as the national coordinator of the first ever Women’s Situation Room Nigeria (WSR). In recognition of her work mobilizing women’s engagement in the general elections, the National Orientation Agency of Nigeria (NOA) granted her a National Citizen’s Responsibility Award in May 2015.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you do currently?

Currently we have two major projects running, the Women’s Situation Room Nigeria and the localisation of the National Action Plan. The Women’s Situation Room Nigeria started in 2015 with the United Nations Women, but after the election Nigeria decided to continue with the program. We’ve established a strong network across the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria which includes having six zonal coordinators, 36 state coordinators and local government coordinators that cover the whole country. But because of funding what we’ve done is to focus on 12 states in the six geopolitical zones while we work towards the 2019 elections.

We’ve been involved actively in the implementation of the National Action Plan and we’ve done a lot of awareness creation within the states, encouraging them and building organisations’ capacity to understand the plan and view it through their local concerns.

You mentioned the Women’s Situation Room, a process to promote peaceful elections and increase the active participation of women and youths in democratic electoral processes. Why was it necessary to create it; and why was it necessary to continue it after the elections?

It was necessary to create it in 2015 because of the heightened tensions we had in the country during the campaign. We thought it very important that women get involved in bringing stability to the country during that period. But then looking at the activities of the Women’s Situation Room during the election, and in the other African countries where it has been replicated, we saw it always focused on just elections. This meant that they would miss the critical aspects of women’s participation. When we just focus on elections, we don’t really focus so much on getting women as candidates through the process or getting women into political parties, which are the primary vehicles for political participation in Nigeria. So the organisers thought it was important that we broadened our focus on political participation rather than just electoral observation and prevention of electoral violence. That is why we continued after the elections.

What sort of challenges and successes have you had in terms of getting women into the electoral process from start to finish?

We’ve broken down what we want to do into different phases and we’re in the first phase, which includes building strategic networks and alliances across the six geopolitical zones and the 36 states. That took us quite a while – we actually started in March last year – that would make it one year. We’ve been able to get other women’s organisations are involved in this, and we’ve been able to map out stakeholders within the different states and zones. That may look simple but it was very difficult. We realised that we couldn’t actually analyse the success that we had with the Women’s Situation Room because we did not have any baseline data. We had to focus on getting baseline data first, then we had to do a content analysis of the 12 states we are going to be working in from 2017 to 2019.

What are some of the specific difficulties that have most confounded you – difficulties that you have didn’t anticipate when you started?

One: funding. We hadn’t anticipated funding issues and it has been so difficult because we’ve had to stretch the little funding we have to its very limits. We found out that most organisations, even development partners, do not have this aspect of programming in their budgeting and programming. We’ve been talking with several organisations and we’ve gotten interest, but it hasn’t materialised. In my opinion, I think they’re probably waiting for next year but by then it will be too late to do all that we need to get done. We need to change the orientation of funding organisations to stop looking at quick gains and start looking at the long term. Not looking at women’s political participation as a project, but as a concept that starts immediately one election cycle ends and continues to the next. That is a major, major challenge.

On the part of our [development] partners, it was difficult because they had their priorities and we’re not providing the funding but we’re asking them to do a lot of work for very little. And Nigeria is a huge country so it is very difficult to do content analysis for women’s political participation without looking at the nuances of the different ethnicities and cultures across the geopolitical zones. That came out very glaringly for us as an aspect we had been overlooking so this is something that we’ve been trying to adapt our different strategies to. So with the different contexts that we find in the Northeast, the Northwest, the Southeast Southwest and the South-South we’ve needed different presentations.

In spreading your knowledge, what strategy have you found has worked the best for you?

We initially came up with a work plan with the zonal coordinators of each geopolitical zone and then presented it to the different state coordinators for comment and input. But when we had the different geopolitical zones meet, the insights that came from the state coordinators were very interesting. Even within states you have different cultures that could present different challenges [to communication], but because we had the involvement of the state coordinators to give us real knowledge of the field and how we could go about the different local government and senatorial zones within their states, it made a great change to the way we were able to adapt our strategies. We took local knowledge and local concepts, fed it into our own national work plan, and that made it work better. I think that the bottom-top approach works best for us in getting to know what the needs are and what gaps existed, and that shaped the messages we sent out.

Since the election of President Buhari have things really changed for women and girls?

In terms of changes, in the last dispensation we had more political appointments of women than we do have now so that has changed. But then it also presents opportunities for us to network better because now it has helped us forge a common agenda for 2019. We want to see more women’s representation both in elections and appointed posts and that has been a general theme across all the different cultures and backgrounds.

Since you mention that one of the successful strategies for you was finding the local knowledge bases in different regions, how do you think a platform like the Gender Hub would be useful to your work going forward?

In terms of going forward the Gender Hub, since it’s an online platform, cuts across the states which is sometimes a restriction. If there could be resources like periodic webinars where different groups – experts and non-experts – could come in, share their experiences, network, and then take away knowledge, that would be nice. And also a real-time resource where people can get quick responses if they need to get something.

Personally, I don’t believe in replicating strategies, I believe in pulling the county together. So we could all come together on this platform and figure out how we support the different work we do. We also need more awareness of what Gender Hub is doing and how Gender Hub has been operating in the last month or year. That way, even the activists and the non-activists who are interested in women’s rights issues would know that there is a ready resource to use.

In terms of spreading your ideas to different parts of the country, what strategies worked best for each region?

We use the local media. What we did was to ask each of the zonal coordinators to tell us what would work and they got feedback from their state coordinators. So in some regions it was using the local media, which was the radio, in others it was attending local network groups or women’s religious organisation meetings. We didn’t use the TV because it was expensive, but we had social media platforms like WhatsApp group messages, and those worked very well.

How do you think your approach to gender equality is different from how other people are approaching it?

When you talk about gender equality, it breaks down into the different kinds of feminisms that we have. For instance, if you’re talking about gender equality to a Western feminist, it’s different from what an African feminist would think it is. Here in Nigeria we try to take into consideration our cultural and traditional perspectives while we work to dismantle some of the practices that do not support women’s rights. We realise that we have to use our cultural and social identities to promote gender and social justice. “Gender equality” has a completely different sense depending on the context, but when you talk about “gender justice” it cuts across all contexts and boundaries and gets many people on board. When you talk about justice, justice is given; justice is something that is very pronounced. So I would rather use gender justice. Using gender justice as a strategy to look at the different realities and understanding that different positioning and realities of women affect how they see, view and interact with certain issues in the society.

How would you say the concept of gender is different in different parts of the country?

For instance in the Southeast we have to be very cognizant of the cultural roles women play and the roles that have been stereotyped and introduced by men. For instance, if you say that women are supposed to always stay at home and not participate in politics or serious economic activities, that has not been the culture of the Igbo. Gender has always been a flexible terminology in Igbo society whereby, depending on her age, a woman can be seen as a man. By reason of her age and her position, probably as the ada [eldest daughter] of the family, she can take on certain responsibilities and be admitted into certain groups or age grades that are usually just for men; she can take certain positions that even men who are not first-borns in the family cannot take. Now in the Northwest it’s not the same thing. When you’re now talking about gender roles and gender justice, you need to really look at these different cultural concepts.

Are there ways that your work in the political sphere is translating into wider changes in society?

Definitely. Because the political is always a personal thing, you have different spheres of politics. Sometimes we restrict ourselves to mainstream politics, but even the little interactions that go on between husband and wives, mothers and children, those interpersonal relationships are all political in nature. The work we’re doing on the political level translates into all of these conversations. We believe the family, as a political unit of the society, affects what happens in the larger sphere. So if you want to change the political landscape, you need to also address issues from the perspective of what happens within the family. That’s why you cannot divorce women’s financial independence or women’s economic empowerment from mainstream political participation.

So then what would gender – I won’t say equity, I’ll say justice – what would gender justice in Nigeria look like to you?

Gender justice for Nigeria, for me, would be when we have men and women, irrespective of their social class, are able to sit at the same table and have equal opportunities in making decisions and having access to power structures and basic human needs, that is what will make gender justice real in Nigeria.

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