Funmilayo Odude, Partner, Commercial and Energy Law Practice (CANDELP)

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The Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill needs to become law 10 Mar 2022

The International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated annually on the 8th of March. As of the time of writing this article (late last month), two themes for this year’s event are prominent: ‘Break the bias’ and ‘Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’. Both are interconnecting themes.

It seems to me that gender equality is a concept that is still met with stiff resistance in Nigeria. It is more topical among the younger strata of the population especially on social media; and even then, it is often inappropriately mentioned during debates over trivial matters. In practical day-to-day living, we are eons away from achieving gender equality and we live in a patriarchal society that doesn’t even bother to disguise the bias. This is evident in the remarks made by federal lawmakers during the debate on the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill in December 2021. The bill, sponsored by Senator Biodun Olujimi, was first introduced in March 2016 but has suffered several setbacks in the legislative chambers.

The Bill seeks to guarantee the rights of women to equal opportunities in employment; equal rights to inheritance for both male and female children; equal rights for women in marriage and divorce; equal access to education, property/land ownership and inheritance. It also seeks to protect the rights of widows, guarantee appropriate measures against gender discrimination in political and public life, and prohibit violence against women.

When the Bill was debated in December 2021, some male senators raised concerns that there were provisions in it that infringed on religious principles. A senator allegedly expressly said that he would not support the bill unless the word ‘equal’ is removed and replaced with tamer words such as ‘equity’.

According to World Bank statistics, the female gender made up 49.3% of Nigeria’s population in 2020. Any nation that fails to protect or empower about half its population is self-sabotaging and cannot make true or lasting progress. The patriarchal nature of our society has affected legislative, regulatory and enforcement mechanisms in promoting and ensuring gender equality in the country. This has resulted in the victimization and discrimination against women in almost every facet of their lives. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on three areas: health, security and education.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the worst indicators of women’s health – particularly of reproductive health – of any world region. These indicators include the highest number of HIV-positive women and the highest infant, maternal, and HIV-related death rates worldwide. Nigeria suffers from an inefficient healthcare system generally, but women and children are two vulnerable classes that are most affected especially in rural areas. The major health problems facing women in Nigeria include high maternal mortality, cancer as well as issues relating to harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation and Vesicovaginal fistula (VVF), a condition that results from the practice of child marriage and childbirth. The factors affecting women’s health in the country include lack of access to affordable healthcare and family planning services, poor health literacy, cultural obstacles, and poverty.

Another major issue affecting women especially as it relates to reproductive health is the traditional patriarchal structure that takes the decision-making powers away from women. Thus, many women especially in rural communities do not make the decisions with respect to childbearing or family planning. The resultant effect is the high maternal mortality rate, overpopulation and increase in reproductive related diseases. The ability of a woman to make her own decisions regarding her body and her reproductive life is key to improving women’s health.

While insecurity is a general challenge in Nigeria, women are still the main targets of rape and other acts of sexual violence and harassment including sexual trafficking and domestic violence, sometimes leading to death. The insurgency in the Northeast region of the country as well as kidnapping and banditry in other parts have seen women as vulnerable targets. It is not uncommon in Nigeria for a large group of schoolgirls to be kidnapped by terrorists and married off to the insurgents. Some of the rescued girls return with babies.

Education is a fundamental human right under the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, yet according to statistics from the Malala Fund, Nigeria accounts for 45% of all out-of-school children in West Africa with girls accounting for 60% of that demography especially in northern Nigeria. Education of the girl-child enhances the socioeconomic status of the individual girls, family, and society at large. Gender disparity in education leads to disparity in wealth distribution and economic opportunities, political representation and even healthcare. Even though Nigeria has a Universal Basic Education (UBE) Act that provides for mandatory, free universal basic education for primary and junior secondary school for all children, gender stereotypes and socio-economic practices still see fewer girls in school.

Nigeria requires stronger legislations to protect women. Although the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender and upholds the right to freedom from discrimination as a fundamental human right in Section 42, it exempts laws that impose restrictions with respect to appointments “to any office under the State or as a member of the armed forces of the Federation or as a member of the Nigeria Police Force or to an office in the service of a body corporate established directly by any law in force in Nigeria.” The right to freedom from discrimination ought to be an absolute right without any qualification.

One of the more recent legislative milestones achieved for the protection of women is the passage of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act in 2015. The Act makes provisions that entitle victims of abuse to comprehensive medical, psychosocial, social, and legal assistance by government agencies. It also criminalizes violence, female genital mutilation and other harmful traditional practices including harmful widowhood practices. The law deals with often overlooked but important issues such as economic abuse, forced isolation and separation from family and friends, substance attack, depriving persons of their liberty, incest, among others. The Act further penalizes rape with life imprisonment.

However, the VAPP Act is enforceable only in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja. However, 20 states have domesticated it by enacting the provisions as laws in their states while Lagos and Ekiti States already had the Protection Against Domestic Violence Law and Gender Based Violence Prohibition Law, respectively. It is important that all states either enact the law or a similar law to deal with gender-based violence and related issues.

Nigeria is a signatory to the major protocols that promote gender equality but has refused to domesticate them into local laws. Nigeria became a signatory to the 1979 UN Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1985 and has since not domesticated the law. The country has also ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, often referred to as the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, but has not domesticated it either. The Protocol is a very key instrument as it provides for women’s human rights with focus on their sexual and reproductive health. It affirms reproductive choice and autonomy as a key human right and it is the first international human rights instrument that has explicitly articulates a woman’s right to abortion when pregnancy results from sexual assault, rape, or incest; when continuation of the pregnancy endangers the life or health of the pregnant woman; and in cases of grave fetal defects that are incompatible with life. It also calls for the prohibition of harmful practices such as female circumcision/female genital mutilation (FC/FGM).

The Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill, which has been shut down by the federal legislature thrice, is meant to serve as the domestication bill for the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the AU Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. Although the bill has been passed in some states including Imo, Anambra, Kogi, Ekiti and Plateau states, a complete passage (domestication) and enforcement of the bill at local, state and federal levels are essential for the fulfillment of Nigeria’s international commitments including to the International Bill of Human Rights, the CEDAW, International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Tremendous progress has been made in Nigeria mostly through the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to gender equality and focused on women’s issues. However, the government’s role cannot be relegated as laws and policies are required to achieve gender equality. Nigeria needs to pass the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill.

Funmilayo Odude is a Partner at Commercial and Energy Law Practice (CANDELP).