Though Nigeria has a national gender policy that focuses on women empowerment and also discourages all forms of discriminatory practices that are harmful to women, some significant gender gaps still exist in the country, especially in education, economic empowerment and political participation.
It is also a known fact that discriminatory laws and practices, violence against women and gender stereotypes have continued to hinder greater progress towards gender equality in the country where there is still high mortality rate and access to quality education and health, particularly in rural areas.
Perhaps, it was against this background that a vibrant federal lawmaker, Senator ’Biodun Christine Olujimi representing Ekiti South Senatorial District on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, sponsored a bill on gender equality, notwithstanding its failure to scale during the sixth and seventh assemblies respectively.
The bill aims to achieve equal legislation, gender mainstreaming (integration of the gender perspective into all other policies), specific measures for the advancement of women, equal access to education, strengthening of laws on violence against women, ending abduction of girls, sustenance and promotion of entrepreneurship opportunities among others.
Gender equality is achieved when women and men enjoy the same rights and opportunities across all sectors of the society including economic participation and decision-making, and when the different behaviours, aspirations and needs of women and men are equally valued and favoured. It is on record that similar bills like “Abolition of all Forms of Discrimination against Women in Nigeria and other Related Matters Bill” was considered in the mid-2000s, the National Assembly did not pass the bill or a related national bill prohibiting violence against women.
The Senate, following opposition by majority of senators from the north, has also thrown out the bill seeking to guarantee women’s equal rights with men, describing it as anti-Islam. The bill also sought to eliminate discrimination against any person irrespective of his/her gender including sexual violence against women.
In her lead debate, before it was thrown out, Senator Olujimi said enabling women to have equal rights with men in marriages has become compelling in view of the increasing discrimination against women in education and employment. According to her, gender discrimination often makes women insecure, denies them meaningful employment and exposes them to discrimination and exploitation.
“The fact that disparity of gendered pricing still exists within today’s society shows that women continue to be disempowered in many aspects of economic life. It is also important that price differentials will have differing effects on women from different cultural backgrounds and social standing thus affecting their economic empowerment in different ways.
“Equal rights for women in marriage, divorce, property and ownership and inheritance are essential for gender equality. The legal and social treatment of married women has been often discussed as a political issue from the 19th century onwards,” the female lawmaker explained.
While the bill was supported by the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, Senators Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC Kebbi South) and Ibrahim Gobir (APC Sokoto East), and a number of other senators from the north rejected it, saying it was both anti-lslam and unconstitutional.
Opponents of the bill said its provisions were antithetical to a provision of the constitution which they said had already taken care of the fears being raised by Senator Olujimi.
According to them, the Shar’iah Court of Appeal which is enshrined in the constitution has been empowered to address issues of discrimination against women, even as they insisted that initiating a new law to guarantee the equality of men and women would be a violation of the provision.
Some senators also argued that attempting to grant women equal rights with men was in contradiction to both traditional and religious beliefs in Africa which stipulates that women should be submissive to men.
As part of efforts geared towards gender balance in the society, gender equality was part of major discussions during this year’s International Women’s Day, IWD, celebration on March 8. This year’s theme: “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step it Up for Gender Equality” aimed at propelling men and women to take action in order to escape poverty and discrimination by the year 2030. It was also aimed at achieving advocacy for the empowerment of the female gender.
According to statistics from the United Nations, about 14 million children are forced into marriage yearly. It also explained that 7.3 million babies in developing countries are born to mothers who are 17 years old or less.
Director of United Nations Information Centre, Ronald Kayanja, told the audience at this year’s IWD celebration that many women and girls have limited autonomy and low status which exposes them to increased risk of hunger, gender-based violence and other human rights violation.
Kayanja noted that improving access to quality education, sexual and reproductive health services is essential for women empowerment, “ability to earn money, create and sustain livelihood”. According to him, women can contribute positively to the economy if given the opportunity to make free and informed choices in marriage and all spheres of life.
The United Nations chief affirmed that Nigeria needs to reassess the level and effectiveness of its gender equality commitments in its entirety in order to improve the lives of women and girls. He revealed that women represent 58 percent of all people living with HIV, noting that they are disproportionately affected by HIV epidemic “more men than women die of AIDS yearly in Nigeria.
According to him, “The UN is greatly concerned about the country’s political will to implement the Nigeria National Gender Policy, which commits to affirmative actions and requires that women fill 35 percent of appointed positions.’’
However, following the rejection of the bill by the Senate, there have been calls from various associations and notable women in the society on a review of the bill. Nigeria Association of Women Journalists, NAWOJ, urged the National Assembly, NASS, to amend the constitution to accommodate the bill.
“The Gender Equality Bill is not a battle of the sexes: it is not a bill that removes the submissiveness of women to their husbands: it is not a bill that seeks to erode the responsibilites of a woman in her home: it only seeks to give her more opportunity to assist herself and the man in the home: it is a bill that benefits the man even more than the woman.
“Men need to step up and act in support of gender equity. This is not a battle of the sexes but a struggle to ensure that both sexes have access to quality life. Progress and development will be limited if we fail to recognise that there is an urgent need for women to be empowered,” it stressed.
NAWOJ, in a statement signed by its National President, Mrs. Ifeyinwa Omowole, commended the sponsor of the bill, Senator Olujimi, “for being a worthy representative of women in Nigeria” and also thanked the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, for his support of the bill. It, however, urged him to use his good office to lobby other senators on its importance.
Senator Stella Oduah (PDP Anambra North), former Minister of Education, Oby Ezekwsili, and many other women have also expressed their disappointment over the rejection of the bill and called on women to accelerate gender parity in the country.
Top Nollywood actress, Joke Silva, who decried the action of the federal lawmakers, said “We will never have true civilisation or growth until we have learned to recognise the importance of equal rights. Gender inequality affects us all; it is like having a head without a brain or having a body without functional organs. In Malala Yousafzai’s words, ‘We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back”.
The veteran actress and movie producer explained that she believes in gender equality, a situation wherein a man and woman have equal rights. “I believe we are equal and that all humans should have equal rights. I also believe that every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man. The extension of equal rights is the basic principle of progress.’’
In the actual sense of it, the 1999 constitution as amended prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex, but customary and religious laws continue to restrict women’s rights. It is unfortunate that any law in Nigeria that is contradictory to federal laws or the constitution can be challenged in a Federal High Court. It is expected that Nigeria, as a federal republic, each state has the authority to draft its own legislation.
The combination of federation and a tripartite system of civil, customary and religious law makes it very difficult to harmonise legislation and remove discriminatory measures. Moreover, certain states in the north follow Islamic (Shar’iah) law, although not exclusively and only in instances where Muslims make use of Islamic courts.
Many human rights activists believe that adherence to Islamic and customary law reinforces practices that are unfavourable to women including those relating to freedom of movement, marriage and inheritance.
More fundamentally, women have been subjected to domination by men. This is as a result of persisting cultural stereotype, abuse of religious and traditional practices, patriarchal societal structures in which economic, political and social power are dominated by men and the role women have historically played as followers of male leaders.
The attainment of gender equality is not only seen as an end itself and human right issues, but as a prerequisite for the achievement of sustainable development.


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