Nigeria -- What's Next?

"It can't be just about us and our needs. It can't be about religion or where we are from or only what we want as individuals. It has to be about the whole university and the whole country." Our first female student government candidate for President spoke these words last week during our own pre-election debates for student government officers.

The contrast with what was occurring in parts of Northern Nigeria, even in our own city, was striking. Many cities in Northern lived through post-election protests and violence. It was tense. At times it was frightening, She spoke these words during a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. imposed curfew. She -- and her words -- may be the future of Nigeria.

The great giant of Africa -- with the largest population on the continent -- is awakening. Like Northern Africa and the Middle East, during the elections last week, people wanted their vote to count, for disparities between the rich and poor to be reduced, for everyone to have power, (light and authority), and access to education and health care. Social media also contributed to the election being fairer and more transparent. Discrepancies were listed on Facebook. Pictures were posted on election sites. What was not part of the debate was the role of women in development.

There are many prominent individual women in position of power in Nigeria -- in business and in Ministries. Yet only about 10% hold elected seats in government. There are large disparities in access to education and health care for girls and women. Does this matter? If Nigeria, and all poor, developing countries that want to become sustainable democracies, it matters a lot.

Increasing women's participation in political life, and improving their access to education and health care are so interlinked that scholars now consider them the key elements in building successful, sustainable democracies.

Many studies around the world have demonstrated the strong, positive linkages between women's empowerment, economic growth and the democratization process. A World Bank study of one hundred developing countries found that countries that promote women's rights and increase their access to economic resources and education grow faster, have less inequality, and less corruption than countries that do not support women's rights. Moreover, some studies are finding that women may also be the "fairer" sex in that having more women in government is associated with lower levels of corruption. More women in government and politics equal more honest government.

Until the majority of people in the world -- the world's women -- have a voice, we will never build safe, equitable, open and participatory societies. The world will remain unfair and unfree until the group that seemingly acts the fairest-is involved in political life. Good examples of how to do this come from Uganda and Rwanda where their constitutions mandate up to 35% of all seats in government to women. Rwanda has the highest percentage of women Parliament of any country in the world. Rwanda is experiencing high rates of economic growth, is a model for reduced corruption, and has developed innovative solutions to poor education, governance and health care.

Our female candidate is right -- it has to be about the whole country, and that means women's voices and participation are essential.

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