It is cheering news that the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) recently registered itself on the side of global trends on gender sensitivity.
For the first time in its 55-year-history, NAF commissioned two ladies into its fighter aircraft sections. Flying Officer Kafayat Sanni trained at the NAF Training School, Kaduna and the US Aviation Leadership Course received her wings to be the first female combat fighter pilot.
Tolulope Arotile trained in South Africa and was winged as a combat helicopter pilot. The Force also promoted Grace Garba, as its first female Warrant Officer. We congratulate the three first achievers who have undoubtedly proved their stern stuff to earn their respective places in what is generally regarded as male territory.
The NAF and its leadership deserve commendation for this small but important act of gender inclusion. It is its major statement of commitment to, and furtherance of the objectives of the extant National Gender Policy (NGP) formulated as far back as 2007. The main thrust of the policy is to promote gender-sensitive and gender-responsive culture in policy planning and national development by promoting gender mainstreaming and women development.
The point must be noted though, that the Nigerian military profession generally has made noteworthy progress in elevating women to its high ranks. There have been women generals in the army but none so far as a general officer commanding (GOC) for curious reasons.
Admitting women in combatant role is also a rejection of the indefensibly archaic notion reportedly suggested by the Armed Forces Council in the early days of the Buhari administration that women be disallowed in such roles. In 2010, then President Goodluck Jonathan had reportedly ordered the Nigerian Defense Academy to admit interested women for its combatant course. Twenty women, nicknamed ‘Jonathan Queens’ were thus admitted the following year.
Given Nigeria’s leadership role in Africa, we wish though that the NAF had been open more gender broadminded before now, as a way to encourage other countries in that direction. Research indicates that there are 8 women fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force; South Africa winged its first female fighter pilot in 2010 and its first African in that category, Major Mandisa Mfeka in 2011. Zambia’s first female fighter pilot, Thokozile Muwamba was winged in 2017.
In Israel where 2 years and 4 months military service is mandatory for men and women since 1949, the Military Service Law is reported to affirm that ‘the right of women to serve in any role in the IDF [Israel Defense Force] is equal to the right of men’. It is noteworthy in this respect that in 2011, 33 per cent of all IDF soldiers in all categories, and 55 per cent its officers were women. Furthermore, since 2001, 49 women have earned their wings in the Israel Air Force and in 2018, a female was appointed the commander of the 122 Squadron, which is an intelligence unit.
The enrolment of women into the combatant department of the military remains a matter of debate around the world. Not many countries even grant that women be allowed to serve in war front combat for reasons that range from cultural through sociological to sentimental.
According to the NGP, ‘institutional practices and perceptions of gender roles negatively affect the equitable enjoyment of employment privileges and incentives for women.’ However, the issue goes beyond personal benefit.
In an age of persistent, strident demand by the womenfolk for equal treatment with men, it is difficult –as well as unprofitable- to deny a substantial segment of the national population opportunities for self-actualisation. Women constitute about half (49.39 per cent) of Nigeria’s population.
Gender equity and balance in opportunities are good for society to the extent that it allows women to contribute – and be so acknowledged- to the development and progress of society. Indeed, the National Gender Policy states that ‘the attainment of gender equality is not only …an end in itself and a human rights issue but …a prerequisite for the achievement of sustainable development’.
It bears emphasising that the inclusion of women to prove their mettle and to contribute to national development is an intrinsic good. Furthermore, the NGP policy goal is ‘to build a just society devoid of discrimination, and harness the full potentials of all social groups, regardless of sex and circumstance…’. The guiding principle of this goal is that ‘…all stakeholders (in all areas of Nigerian life) shall be charged with the mandate for gender equality mainstreaming and women empowerment’.
To this end, firstly, a 7-point objective enunciates what is to be achieved including ‘a minimum threshold of representation for women in order to promote equal opportunity in all areas of the political, social, economic life of the country for men as well as for men’. Secondly, a number of ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) exist to monitor, encourage, and if need be, enforce the provisions of the NGP. In addition to the overarching Ministry of Women Affairs, there are the National Council for Women Affairs, National Center for Women Development, and National Consultative and Coordinating Committee and Gender Equality. These are, of course, headed by women. In the interest of their own gender, therefore, there can be no excuse for what is clearly so far, poor performance. Consider for example that, in spite of the existence of government policy, and these MDAs to implement it, for more than a decade, and the creation of agencies to implement it, Nigeria is yet to meet the globally agreed 35 per cent women representation in the political sphere.
The NGP is a government step in response to Goal 3 of the UN Millennium 8 Development Goals (2000-2015), which is ‘to promote gender equality and empower women’. Goal No. 5 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (2016-2030) also calls for gender equality. It is proven that, granted a place to stand, women can achieve great things for themselves as well as do their country proud. The records in competitive sports and games support this. In the collective interest of the nation, every citizen- high and low- to do all their powers to enable women achieve their fullest potentials. This is a strong message from the Nigerian Air force.