Nigerian lawmaker fears violence scares women from politics
The first daughter of a pilot from Abia State in south-east Nigeria, Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje never faced disadvantages for being a woman until she entered politics10 years ago.
In her three terms as member of parliament for Bend constituency in Abia, she has experienced discrimination, sexual innuendoes, physical threats and insubordination, mainly from male colleagues. But each time she fought back.
However, she is concerned that the treatment of women in politics in Nigeria, and the threats they receive, is scaring women away with less than six percent of Nigerian parliamentarians female.
She said this is detrimental to women across Africa's most populous nation of 186 million people who need strong voices to fight for government policies that affect women, such as gender violence, maternal mortality and empowerment.
"We must have people who actually understand, who are the beneficiaries of these policies, being part of the policy formulation," the 48-year-old single mother told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her office in Abuja where a statuette of Hillary Clinton adorns her desk.
Elendu-Ukeje is one of 27 women sitting in the 108 seat Senate and 360 seat House of Representatives since the 2015 election, from 32 in 2011. She suspects fewer women will participate in the 2019 elections, put off by the violence that has marred previous votes in certain parts of Nigeria.
THREATS AND VIOLENCE
During the last election, people started firing guns as Elendu-Ukeje was campaigning and she was whisked away, unscathed, but some of her security personnel were injured. "If there's no disincentives for the perpetrators of violence, my fear is that the political space for women is going to continue to shrink," she said.
Elendu-Ukeje didn't set out for a career in politics. She grew up wanting to be a teacher, and has degrees in English and in journalism from the University of Lagos in southwest Nigeria.
However, that started to change in 1999 when Nigeria left behind decades of military rule to become a democracy, sparking renewed interest in politics.
After years of speaking with friends who were politicians, she decided to leave a career in the hospitality industry to run for office in the 2007 election. "I just didn't feel that my voice was represented in the kind of laws that were passed. I didn't think that my demographics ever showed up on the radar, with the things that we were thinking about, talking about," she said.
Elendu-Ukeje saw her opportunity, wanting to fill this gap and ensure more women spoke up and made laws affecting women, but it surprised her to meet resistance from her father who was obsessed with J.F. Kennedy and forced her to read books on him and on other politicians as she was growing up.
"He said, 'You don't understand the terrain it's only for thugs, it's dangerous'. Indeed it is and he got very scared," she said.