Granted that gender inequality is a societal menace that needs to be addressed by way of policy, my view, as expressed in this piece, is that, the tomorrow women thirstily desire will not come by the mere passage of the noblest of gender parity policies/laws. It would come with much questioning, much challenging, much revamping and much critiquing. Until we get uncomfortable with the present, the future we desire and, I dare say, deserve, would always be beyond arm’s reach.
Let us get it right from scratch, advocacy for gender equality and parity is not just for activism sake. It actually has immense benefits to not just the affected persons but the entire society. It’s been found that gender equality is essential for economic growth. Needless to iterate its positive impact on health, life expectancy, safer environment, poverty eradication, etc. Also, certain vices like gender-based violence would significantly drop. Given the desirable merits of gender equality, it becomes pertinent for us to not rest on our oars.
I appreciate that we have indeed come a long way in the journey of women emancipation and elimination of gender-based biases and discrimination, primarily by reason of the laws that have been in place. In fact, but for the existence of some policies, I may be most likely incapable of voicing my views on this issue because…” women are supposed to be seen not heard”.
Historically, women have been considered inferior to men; they have been subjected to less economic opportunities, power and privileges in society and this treatment spans from the cradle to the tomb. Factors responsible for the unequal treatment of women from men are not hard to identify and they include — patriarchy, culture, religion, etc. Certain cultural practices as widowhood practices (such as restricted movements, oath swearing to confirm innocence, hair shaving, wife inheritance, etc) female genital mutilation, female disinheritance, male child preference, etc, though not completely in the past, are not as prevalent as in decades back and this is because of the sweat of many who refused to play along.
Women were not allowed to vote at elections. Their views, if they had any, did not matter. It was not until 1958 that women from the South started to participate in politics by voting. Their northern counterparts joined 20 years later in 1978.
The genitals of females, owing to some cultural reasons and the belief that it would make them less promiscuous and as such, better wives, were mutilated.
Child marriage was the order of the day with Nigeria ranking 11th highest in the world. The UNICEF study showed that 15.7% of girls in Nigeria are married off before they turn 15. This practice found rooting and reinforcement in cultural, social and religious norms, and poverty.
Formal education was considered the exclusive preserve of the boy child. The traditional conception of a woman’s role as child-bearers and homemakers, and nothing more, made it seem as an unprofitable venture to send a female to school.
In schools, you would soon realise that gender played a role in the choice of careers. Women, owing to some societal stereotypes, typically avoided some predominantly male professions such as engineering for more “feminine” professions like nursing. At the workplace, it is not hard to notice the trend that the presence of women consistently drops as you go up the ladder. This is also the case in governance.
Gender-based violence, from physical violence to, sexual, psychological, economic violence have prevented women from attaining their fullest potentials. First, they are made to accept these as normal, to endure them patiently and to navigate through them heroically, rather than checking the violence itself.
While there is a marked improvement in some aspects, I believe that the pace is too slow, leaving so much to be desired. The literacy rate has risen in recent times, from 55% in 1991 to 62% in 2018, the disparity between male (86.4%) and female (59.5%) literacy is still alarming. With the passage of the Child’s Rights Act, 2006 (which, sadly, is yet to be domesticated by 11 Northern states) which abolishes child marriage and child betrothal, more awareness is being created against child marriage. Women are also beginning to participate more in politics. In 2019, women representation in Nigerian parliament was 3.05% and 6.42% in the lower and upper houses respectively. This, when juxtaposed with the situation in Rwanda, which is 61.3% and 38.5% from the lower and upper houses respectively, leaves much to be desired. I would not like to bore us with statistics on how far we’ve come in comparison with how far we can go but suffice it to state that the problem really, is not in the dearth of laws but in our attitude of indifference, in our culture of silence, in our enablement of the status quo.
This is not to say that our laws are perfect! Far from that! I am aware that some of our laws are actually ignoble when it comes to gender equality:
– Under the Constitution, the capacity to transfer citizenship is conferred on Nigerian men and not women such that a foreign man does not, by marrying a Nigerian woman, become a Nigerian;
– Section 55 of the Penal Code allows for wife-beating provided it does not amount to grievous hurt;
– Section 55 of the Labour Act prohibits women, except nurses, from undertaking night work in public or private industrial undertaking or in any agricultural undertaking;
– Section 124 of the Police Act mandates women to seek permission to get married and the intended spouse must be investigate criminal records;
– In the criminal code, assault against women is a misdemeanour while assault against men is a felony.
The list goes on and on….
The foregoing notwithstanding, I believe that with the policies already in place, gender parity can be better advanced. For instance:
– The grundnorm — Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, in Section 42, prohibits discrimination against a Nigerian citizen on the ground of sex, amongst others. In Iyalla-Amadi v. the Nigerian Immigration Service, the requirement for a married woman to produce her husband’s written consent before she could obtain an international passport was successfully challenged for contravening Section 42 of the Constitution.
– The Child’s Rights Act, 2006, amongst other laudable provisions, expressly outlaws child marriage (in Section 21) and child betrothal (in Section 22). It entrenches every child’s access to free and compulsory basic education (regardless of gender).
– The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, 2015 (VAPP) prohibits most forms of violence women face — physical, psychological, sexual and socio-economic violence and criminalises practices such as female genital mutilation (in Section 6), harmful widowhood practices ( in Section 15), economic abuse (section 12) etc.
– Nigeria as a member of some international unions, has acceded to a number of international instruments/charters that make copious provisions on the protection of women’s rights. Granted that mere signing and ratification of these treaties do not give them the force of law as to make them applicable within Nigeria, the instruments are not entirely useless as they can very well be enforced on some international platforms. Also relevantly, the Constitution in Section 254(c)(2) empowers the National Industrial Court of Nigeria to apply any ratified international convention, treaty or protocol relating to labour, employment, workplace or industrial relations in order to achieve international best practices. Though this is not holistic, it, at least, affords women some relief from workplace discriminations on account of their gender. Nigeria has ratified a number of international treaties that promote gender equality such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, etc.
The Nigeria National Gender Policy, though not an enforceable law, provides insight into the peculiar challenges faced by women on account of their gender and makes remarkable provisions on the implementation plan for addressing the same.
Many of our obnoxious customs and practices are equally beginning to get a backlash from our courts. Customs which are considered obnoxious and repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience are not allowed to stand. In Ukeje v. Ukeje, the apex court put to bed the issue of female inheritance by holding that any disentitling custom on account of a child’s gender conflicts with Section 42(1) of the Constitution. In Okeke v. Okeke the custom which requires a woman to have posthumous children for her late husband was tested and found not to pass the repugnancy litmus test.
The inadequacy of some of our laws notwithstanding, the foregoing, if you would agree with me, lays bare the fact that there are, in fact, sufficient laws to protect the rights of women and advance gender parity. So, for a moment, let us take the focus away from the laws because they are not so much the problem as our mindsets are. Many gender inequities are deeply ingrained in our belief systems and would require systemic reorientation and constant challenging. We cannot keep quiet and hope things get better. The women we celebrate today, the likes of Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Kamala Harris, Tsai Ing-Wen, Ellen Sirleaf, to mention a few, did not become what we admire by waiting for revolutionary policies. They believed they could and harnessed their inner power to command into reality what they had envisioned.
It may sound too lofty to request that we be like them but may I remind us that it is the little drops of water that make the mighty oceans. Begin in your space and start to question those apparent and subtle biases against women. I vividly remember years ago, when I went to enroll in a driving school, the form I was required to fill had a column that enquired if I was a married woman and if I had the consent of my husband to drive. I found that not just ridiculous but upsetting. When I objected, I was asked to just ignore and fill other parts but I insisted that if they did not amend their form to remove such discriminatory question, I would not only discontinue my enrolment but also see to it that they answered to the law. Well, the form was amended and a friend who went back to that driving school months later confirmed to me that there was no such question on the form she filled. You see, you can begin in your space.
I crave for when:
– the default salutation to a mixed audience mail would not have to be “Dear Sirs”,
– it would not have a derogatory connotation to address a female judge as “Your Lady/ship”;
– a woman’s success would not be visited with side talks like: “who did she sleep with?”;
– a woman needs not fight to be treated as human;
– when a woman is not considered any less by reason of her gender…
But until then, I urge us all, males and females alike, to #choosetochallenge the stereotypes, the status quo, the skewed normal. I hold the view that women have the power, the number, the ability and the enabling policies necessary to command into existence the sought to change. We only need a little more will, a little more action ….for the change we desire is just at the other end of “challenging”.