Female students face uphill battle in leadership contests

Adelusi Adeola Ayomide, a student at Nigeria’s Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, South-West, discovered her potential in campus politics during her first year of study.

Driven by her enthusiasm to lead, and armed with some foundational leadership skills emanating from her university experiences, Ayomide entered the world of campus politics in her third year. She ran for the position of vice president in the department of mass communication, her field of study. Despite competition from another female candidate, Ayomide emerged victorious.

Her leadership journey didn’t stop there. She set her sights on a new goal: becoming the departmental president. This time, her opponent was a male candidate. As she pursued her goal, Ayomide began to experience antagonism from within her department. What she started hearing was claims that the role of departmental president was reserved for male students.

Reflecting on her experience, Ayomide told University World News: “When I aimed for the presidency, I encountered scepticism due to my gender. This doubt affected my confidence and enthusiasm, ultimately impacting my performance in the election. Despite the school not imposing gender-based restrictions, I felt constrained and lost the election to a male opponent. It was disheartening to veer away from my true aspirations due to the weight of gender bias.

“Gender stereotypes have confined certain positions to males and others to females. This bias limits the aspirations of women and undermines their efforts.

“I’ve personally faced this stereotype that dictates which roles are ‘male’ or ‘female’. When females voice their ambitions, they often face opposition purely due to their gender. This pattern isn’t unique to me. I’ve seen friends who are passionate about politics, but are held back by gender inequality,” she added.

An ongoing problem

Gender bias and stereotypes have been blocking female university students from stepping into leadership positions for many years. Despite a sizeable higher education sector, only a small number of females have had the opportunity to lead.

According to the most recent data from the National Universities Commission, out of the 2.16 million students attending the 170 universities in Nigeria, 931,523 are females, accounting for 43.14% of the total enrolment. This gender gap is even more pronounced at postgraduate level.

Of the 170 universities in Nigeria, University World News found nine female students from nine different universities have become student union presidents in the past 30 years.

In the early 1980s, approximately 30 years ago, Ahmadu Bello University in Northern Nigeria had a female student president, followed by Usmanu Danfodiyo University in the same region, which had its first female president in 2016. Similarly, the University of Maiduguri had a female president in 1994, and Kogi State University in the same region had one in 2021.

In addition, in 2016, the University of Benin in the South region of Nigeria, Edo State, had a female student president, and the Federal University of Agriculture in Ogun State, within the same region, also had a female student president in 2019.

Likewise, Obafemi Awolowo University, also in the same region, had a student president in 2015 and the Federal University of Education in Owerri had a female student president in 2019.

However, there’s a similar narrative in Nigeria’s mainstream politics. Imbalance prevails, with only two female governors and four deputy governors among the nation’s 36 states. The legislative landscape is dominated by a 94% male presence.

‘A lived experience’

Dr Saratu Mera, a lecturer in educational administration and planning at Usmanu Danfodiyo University in North-West Nigeria, highlights the gender inequality issue affecting female students’ participation in campus politics in Nigerian universities.

“In our educational institutions, there is a clear problem of gender inequality that hinders female students from actively taking part in campus politics,” Mera told University World News.

She unravelled the layers of this issue, recounting the stories of young, enthusiastic female students who harboured ambitions to lead, to initiate change, and to have their concerns heard on a wider platform. However, these aspirations were often stifled by traditional norms that relegated women to passive roles in the political sphere.

“Gender inequality isn’t just a term, it’s a lived experience for many young women,” she stated. “Stereotypes that label women as ‘too emotional’ or ‘lacking leadership qualities’ are barriers that we must dismantle. These perceptions deter capable and passionate young women from stepping into the political arena.

“The transformation begins with awareness. We need to foster a campus culture that acknowledges the contributions of women in leadership roles. By highlighting the accomplishments of trailblazing women in politics, we can inspire others to follow suit.

“Mentorship plays a pivotal role. When young women find mentors who believe in their potential, they gain the confidence to break free from self-doubt. A mentor can provide guidance, offer insights and be a pillar of support throughout their journey.”

Mera also shed light on the need for gender sensitisation programmes within universities. “Education is key to challenging stereotypes and biases. By integrating gender awareness into the curriculum, we can sensitise both male and female students to the importance of equal participation in all aspects of university life, including politics.

“Our universities should be laboratories of democracy, where all voices are heard, regardless of gender. It’s not just about numbers; it’s about fostering an environment in which every student feels empowered to engage, lead, and shape the future. By addressing gender inequality, we can pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable campus politics in Nigeria and beyond,” she said.

What do the students say?

Ijoma Isaac, a student at the South-Western University of Nigeria, Lagos, majoring in microbiology, touched hearts with her kindness. In 2022, during her third year of studies, she felt a strong desire to get involved in campus politics. She decided to run for the position of welfare director of her department’s student association, competing against a male candidate.

Isaac conducted campaigns to share her vision and plans to improve the lives of her department’s members. However, just before the election, she unexpectedly withdrew due to what she experienced as persistent criticism from fellow students who doubted that a female could hold such a position.

Isaac aimed not only to step into a leadership position but also to break gender barriers in campus politics. She wanted to create opportunities for determined young women to participate, but the pressure of gender bias led her to step back.

Jirita Mohammed, a third-year economics student at Adekunle Ajasin University in Nigeria, also highlighted gender biases in campus politics. She explained that many people believe women cannot handle leadership roles due to concerns about harassment from lecturers and other pressures.

Despite facing doubts from a male opponent, Mohammed remained determined and aimed to become her department’s first female president. She emphasised her ability to connect with students and address faculty issues.

“When I ran for the student leadership position, my opponent questioned my abilities. I asked why he wanted to contest against me when I declared my intention. He initially said he needed convincing of my capability and reasons to step aside.

“I asserted that I was capable and questioned what the role entailed that I couldn’t handle. I knew my potential. Eventually, they introduced a female opponent, and I started my campaign journey,” she explained during an interview with University World News.

Factors limiting women’s participation

Oluwafemi Fayomi, a lecturer from the department of political science at the Federal University Oye Ekiti, Nigeria, spoke to University World News about the resemblance between politics in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions and the national political landscape, both marked by low representation of women in governance.

He noted that, while women actively participate in political activities such as voter registration and supporting candidates, their involvement in higher levels of political participation remains limited.

Factors such as the fear of intimidation, political violence, and financial constraints hinder women’s engagement in politics within tertiary institutions across the country.

Fayomi pointed out that elective offices in student unionism tend to favour male students, with positions like president, treasurer, financial secretary, public relations officer, social director, sport officer and auditor mostly occupied by males. He emphasised the need to encourage female students to leverage their numbers and support female candidates for elective positions in Nigerian tertiary institutions.