We are constantly reminded that the youth are “leaders of tomorrow.” But when it comes to their involvement in governance and development, tomorrow never comes. In Nigeria, this has created an unsustainable system. Currently, about 70 percent of Nigeria is under the age of 30, with girls under 30 alone comprising nearly one-third of the total population. Based on their sizable role in the country’s demographics, you would think youth and young women specifically in Nigeria should have more of a voice in decision-making processes. Yet, both are often underrepresented and excluded as collaborators in all sectors of society.

Nigerian women constitute only 3.6 percent of the national parliament, and none are 35 or younger as of July 2022. Initially, I assumed this shortage of women decision-makers meant young women weren’t pursuing the role. After all, there is a constant call for women’s participation in societal growth, both locally and internationally. With such a public appeal for women to get involved, I figured the problem must be women’s hesitation to delve into action.

But my experience tells a different story — one of a system that has stifled many young women who, like me, started with so much vigor and optimism. 

Barriers to Young Women’s Participation

Young women are constantly confronted with sociocultural hurdles that prevent their participation in governance and development. And even when they do manage to get involved, these same barriers undermine their ability to fully contribute.

Anything from poverty to a lack of skills and formal education can hinder a young woman’s participation in her community. Combine that with a patriarchal society with deeply embedded systems, and you have a recipe for debilitating practices that disregard the young female voice on key matters. 

Those that try to overcome these obstacles are often stigmatized and rejected. A young woman’s successes are frequently tied to her husband, her ambition is truncated, and support often fizzles with time, even from fellow women. It doesn’t matter how a young woman expresses her ideas or aspirations for her community — whether she is passive or assertive — the judgments most often arrive at the same conclusion: Young women are incapable of leading men. 

And when a young woman’s ideas are considered, it’s as a last resort. Then, men will echo them, own them, so they are scarcely regarded as her ideas at all. 

Clearing the Way for Young Women

Young women are relegated to the periphery because a mess of societal contradictions impedes them. For example, one complaint is that women are under-prepared or unprepared to participate, their education deemed insufficient. Yet, female education is often considered a waste of resources, and those women who do attain higher education are derided as intimidating.

We may seek to open space for young women at the decision-making table, but to meaningfully contribute, we have to help them overcome these burdensome and often contradictory barriers.

There has been some gradual recognition of this, but inaction and the slow pace of action hinders change in the system. As a Generation Change fellow at USIP, I strive to improve the situation for young women in Northeastern Nigeria and collaborate with well-meaning individuals, groups and communities. 

To this end, I have been initiating intervention programs such as community dialogues fostering peace in communities with long history of violence through the USIP Youth Peacebuilding Fund and the Nothing About Us, Without Us program to promote good governance sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy. These programs aid peace, representation and development within target communities.

Additionally, conflict management, communication, leadership and civic engagement skills are essential tools that will enable young women to participate in governance and development more as time goes on. Although there are some important steps to promote the participation of young women, the need for collective action by men, women and youth is critical in addressing existing barriers. This can generate more innovative and effective outcomes. 

Young women need to be seen as partners in governance and development. And for that to happen, three things must be done: 

  1. Change men’s negative beliefs and attitudes toward young women. Men need to view young women as partners in this work. We can start by reviewing existing legislation that encourages discriminatory acts and behaviors and replace them with policies and language that make them more open and inclusive. Those changes should be accompanied by efforts to ensure compliance and implementation in all public offices and institutions nationwide — every public office holder at all levels should be held accountable. Whistleblowers should also be given protections to motivate them to report noncompliance. This will give young women confidence to fully participate in governance and development.
  2. Give young women the skills and education that will enable their participation. Civil society and the private sector have already invested appreciable effort in this. Primary and secondary schools’ curriculum should incorporate requisite skills and adequate teaching strategies for young women to apply to real life situations. A vibrant school counseling system will also help affirm the ideas of this needy population. 
  3. Facilitate open communication about the barriers to young women’s participation. This can serve a dual purpose in helping young women as well as opening dialogue on critical issues like stereotypes and cultural norms at all levels.

Youth are the “leaders of tomorrow,” but tomorrow is here. In an increasingly dynamic and complex world, both young men and young women are leaders, driving societies to catch up with change. We must make deliberate attempts toward fostering the meaningful participation of young women in governance and development in Nigeria today - a path forward for sustainable peace.

Rachel Dibal Simon-Karu is a social worker, teacher, social entrepreneur and the co-founder and president of Leadtots Development Initiative, a nonprofit human development organization supporting young women and girls with leadership potential to promote the achievement of global development goals. She is also a USIP Generation Change Fellow and current member of the Institute’s Youth Advisory Council.

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