Toyin Saraki: There needs to be a change on what spaces a woman cannot occupy

Wife of the Senate President, Toyin Ojora-Saraki, is a healthcare advocacy champion. She is the Founder and President of the Well Being Foundation Africa and also serves as the Global Goodwill Ambassador to the International Confederation of Midwives.She is the African Champion for the White Ribbon Alliance, Champion for the Women Advocates for Vaccine Access and the Centenary Ambassador for the London School of Oriental and African Studies, which is her alma mater. She recently hosted a campaign launch of SOAS in Lagos, where its 100th anniversary was celebrated.Toyin’s grace radiates beyond the royalty of her lineage, gearing into strides of philanthropy and development. It has further led its trail into two decades of advocacy, education and empowerment covering areas of maternal, child health, gender-based discrimination and violence campaigns, especially through her Foundation, with which she has also impacted on community and socio-economic development. She spoke with The Guardian on the importance of the advancement of womanhood and the need for a cultural and societal shift in perception in the aspect of gender equality in Nigeria where in every entrepreneurial, political, leadership and domestic space, a woman’s voice must be heard and respected. Excerpts:

As a woman leader, what policy or policies would you want government to put in place to raise the status of women in Nigeria?
The Federal Government should put in place gender-positive policies which can empower women. Policies and legislation which will make fairer and more equal societies such as equal pay, childcare allowances for working mothers and schemes to help women become employed in certain sectors which are not female-friendly.

However, policies aside, I think if we look at the struggles which the Gender Equality and Opportunities Bill faced, we can understand that there needs to be improved education on what gender equality is and why it would benefit the society at large. There needs to be a cultural shift in ideas of what a woman or a girl is or their place in the society. This would help ease the passing and implementation of such policies on the long run.

Gender Equality has been popularly advocated as a means of gearing up women to take up rightful positions in the politics, education, health and other endeavours. What is your opinion in this regard?
Yes, without gender equality, women will not have the spaces or opportunities to become educators, politicians or doctors. How, as the largest GDP in Africa, can we move forward without 50 per cent of the population taking part in the work force? Our economy and society needs to transform and, for that to happen, women must be part of that change, whether through politics or through teaching.

Representation in politics is a vital aspect in a democracy. Women must take part in creating policies and legislation that reflect the society they want to live in. Only when women are part of the conversation and decision-making will there be a gender-equal society.

In Britain, US and Germany government provides special loans for women who are in business. Do you think policies driving such would impact positively in the lives of Nigerian women and the entire economy if adopted?
Yes, of course. Entrepreneurship has to be encouraged in women. Many women in Nigeria own and run small businesses already but do not know how to grow their revenue or customer reach. Government can help women with microfinance and loan programmes, which are already taking place in other countries. The government needs to support female entrepreneurs because the more successful businesses we have as a country, the better our economy will do.

It can be a private sector initiative as well as a public sector. Private companies can also invest in women entrepreneurs. Women business entrepreneurs do not only just need money for investment; they also need mentoring and sponsorship. They need to be given invaluable advice on how to grow and start a business by others who have done so successfully. With financial help, mentoring and sponsorship, there will be more female entrepreneurs and businesses in the country.

What do you think should be done to curb or eliminate domestic violence, especially violence against women? It has been observed that women are the major victims of domestic violence in Nigeria.
I think two things need to happen. Firstly, a cultural shift has to occur because as a society and community, we need to hold accountable people who commit domestic violence. This does not only have to be done through the courts but also by community, traditional and religious leaders.
We must also educate our adolescents and children on what a respectable relationship is and how violence or any type of abuse is not it. By teaching the youth, we will be creating a new generation with a different mentality, which will in itself create a cultural shift where domestic violence is no longer normal.

The second is legislative change. Policy makers and legislators need to make domestic violence illegal in the eyes of the law. This will not only act as a deterrent, but will also provide a foundation for victims to come forward and seek out justice and for justice to happen.

In this democratic dispensation, over 80 per cent of political positions at the State and Federal levels are being occupied by men. In what ways should women be encouraged to take active part in order to effect the needed change?
We can encourage women to take part in politics by teaching our girls that no position is just for a man and that a woman is just as qualified to become president as a man. I truly believe that change will come with educating the youth. There needs to be a mentality change on what spaces a woman can or cannot occupy.

We should also consider having a mandatory quota for women in each political arena. This will create space for women who want to enter politics to do so. We must encourage not only women, but men too. A fair and more equal society with more female politicians will positively impact the economy and our country.

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Toyin Saraki
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