THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN IN NIGERIA

THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN IN NIGERIA

Today, the issue of Women’s Rights has become a buzz word the world over. It is a great concern to many that women are deprived of their human rights. It has been a burning issue in different parts of the world, yet some think it is all a propaganda blown out of proportion usually because of religious or cultural inclination.

A right is defined as a power, privilege or immunity guaranteed under a constitution, statute or case law or claimed as a result of long usage. In moral vocabulary, respect for rights is seen as a matter of justice. Rights can be asserted, demanded or stood upon. The obligations they impose are expected to be performed and their non-performance occasions feelings of indignation, resentment and disappointment.

THE INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE                                                                                                                                  

An idea of what the international law provisions are on the rights of women will help us better understand that this is a universal issue that is not taken lightly. Some of these international legislations, protocols and declarations include for instance, Article 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights which states that “all human beings are born free and equal.”

Also Article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and ratified by Nigeria in 1984, “encourages nations to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women with the view to eliminate inferiority and superiority of either sexes or stereotype roles of men and women.”

The Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa reaffirms the principle of gender equality as enshrined in Article 4(1) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union. In chapter 7, member states declare “to actively promote the implementation of legislation to guarantee women’s land, property and inheritance rights including the right to housing”.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) was domesticated in Nigeria in form of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Enforcement and Domestication) Act Cap 10, 1990. This Act makes the provisions of the Charter enforceable in any Court of Law in Nigeria. Article 18 of the ACHPR states that “the State shall ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of women….”

Article 21 of The Protocol to the Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (ratified by Nigeria in 2004) states that “a widow/widower shall have the right to inherit each others property in the event of death whatever the matrimonial regime, to continue living in the matrimonial home”. Sub paragraph (2) of the above states that “women and girls shall have same rights as men and boys to inherit in equal shares their parents properties”.

THE NIGERIAN REALITY
Despite the provisions of protocols, charters and conventions recognizing and guaranteeing rights of women and the obligations of the Nigeria government, the lives of Nigerian women is yet to attain a commensurate level of improvement. Women rank lower than men in all indices of development in the country.

The rights of women in Nigeria are clearly spelt out in the nation’s Constitution. The rights of women enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution are consistent with the ideals of humanism. But unfortunately, the rights and ideals have remained paper tigers, mere theoretical postulations without any practical bearing on the lives and conditions of the Nigerian women. In practice, the Nigerian society is replete with anti-humanist ideals. Women are systematically relegated to inferior positions. Despite all the provisions in the law and ratification of protocols, charter and conventions, Nigerian women suffer violations of their human rights through:

  • Violence in the home
  • Sexual harassment at school and work
  • Rape and defilement
  • Harsh and punitive widowhood rites
  • Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
  • Forced childhood marriages
  • Sexual violence in conflict situations and during armed robbery attacks
  • Enforcement of gender biased laws
  • Discrimination against the girl-child
  • Disinheritance of wives and daughters
  • Harmful traditional practices.

So far, some of the positive actions taken by the Nigerian government are:

  • Adoption of a gender policy in 2007;
  • Establishment of science schools for girls;
  • Establishment of women development centres in Nigeria’s 36 states;
  • Adoption of the Trafficking in Person’s (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act;
  • Establishment of a National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons;
  • Adoption of a national policy on HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and female genital mutilation.

Despite these efforts by the government, aspects still hindering the recognition of the rights of women in Nigeria include:

  • The patriarchal structure of the Nigerian society;
  • Failure of the National Assembly to pass the Abolition Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women In Nigeria And Other Related Matters Bill and failure to pass a national bill prohibiting violence against women.
  • Failure of the Government to domesticate protocols or enact appropriate legislations necessary for bringing to pass its obligations and undertakings.

ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL WELFARE RIGHTS
Paul Ogunyomi writing on the typologies of discriminative practices in the Nigerian workplace, identified sex discrimination as being prevalent in Nigeria. This takes the form of a woman being treated less favourably than a man on the grounds of sex or indirectly by conditions applied equally to men and women which are detrimental to women.

Research reveals that adequate maternity leave is important to enable the woman’s body to recover after delivery. A study of the Nigerian workplace has revealed that ‘…gap is identified between law and practice with wide patterns of protection resulting in some women enjoying good benefits, while others are wholly or partly unprotected within the Nigerian workplace…’

Women still have a higher unemployment rate than men. Those employed are concentrated in the informal sectors like agriculture, petty trading and services. Home-making is still not recognised or compensated.

HEALTH AND REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS
With a maternal mortality ratio of 704 to 1,000 per 100,000 live births, Nigeria continues to have one of the highest levels of maternal mortality. Incidences of gender-based violence have health consequences and result in health complications including miscarriages, long term disabilities, unwanted pregnancies, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

RIGHT TO EDUCATION AND TRAINING
Access to education is still low, especially in the northern parts of the country where withdrawal of girls for the purposes of marriage or for care giving is still practiced. According to ActionAid, ‘…educational developments in northern Nigeria is lagging behind other parts of the country on practically every indicator, number of facilities, transition rates, girls enrolment, number of teachers…The girls are hawking wares or doing household chores…Low girls enrolment is bound to aggravate gender imbalances that skews present and future opportunities against women.’ Nationwide gender gaps still exist at the higher levels of education.

RIGHT TO PARTICIPATION IN POLITICAL AND DECISION MAKING PROCESSES
Significant advances have been made in the area of women’s participation in governance yet the political participation of women in Nigeria remains one of the lowest in the world. Women’s participation in government is still below the 35 per cent stipulated in the gender policy.

MARRIAGE, SEPARATION, DIVORCE AND WOMEN’S PROPERTY RIGHTS
Although Article 7 of the Protocol to the Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa provides for both parties of a marriage to enjoy equal rights within and after the marriage, in issues of custody and access to an equitable share of the joint property deriving from the marriage, this is not the case. Three forms of marriages are recognized in Nigeria – Customary, Islamic and Marriage under the Act. The reality of women married under Customary and Islamic law has not yet been affected by the protocol. A woman married under customary law is entitled to be provided with a home by her husband as long as the marriage subsists. She is also entitled to use her husband’s property but cannot dispose of it as her own. The right to be provided with a house by her husband terminates upon divorce. Upon divorce, a woman married under customary law has no claim over a house jointly owned by her husband. Her position is not helped by the provisions of the Matrimonial Causes Act in respect of maintenance and settlement of property, which expressly excludes the application of its provisions to marriages under customary and Islamic law. However in the case of women married under the Act, where she is able to produce documents showing she made a contribution to the property, she is entitled to the part of the property commensurate to her contribution. Many women are denied custody and access to their children. Among those under Islamic law, child marriage is still prevalent. According to BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights, ‘…girls are often married between the ages of 9-14.’ The occurrence of child marriage is common.

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
The protocol guarantees women freedom from violence. In reality, there is a prevalence of violence against women in our society. Violence takes several forms including domestic violence, early and forced marriages, female genital mutilation, widow torture and inheritance related violence. There are also direct forms of violence against women in Nigeria. For instance, in discussing the impact of the activities of militias, cults and security forces on women in the Niger Delta, Emem Okon states, ‘…When a culture of armed gang violence takes root in a society that does not recognise and respect women’s rights, the result is a higher level of gender-based violence against women. In this case, the proliferation of guns in the Niger Delta has increased the risk that girls and women will be targets of sexual assault.’ In another section of the same article, she stated that, ‘The consequence has been disastrous, as women have suffered massive massacre, rape, sexual abuse, social psychological trauma…aggravated poverty, unemployment, hunger, anger, low self esteem, bitterness, frustration, desperation, fear, tension and more conflicts.’

Some measure of violence is inflicted by law enforcement agents. This can be direct or indirect. Direct assault by security officers is becoming prevalent. For instance, a case was brought before the Gwagwalada High Court in Abuja in which a police man raped two girls. In the Odioma community of Brass Local Government in Bayelsa State, Amnesty International reported a case where a rape victim described how she was raped alongside her mother by security officers. Two-months pregnant at the time, she lost her baby.

ACCESS TO JUSTICE AND EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW
The Constitution and certain laws in Nigeria still contain discriminatory aspects. For instance, Section 26(2) of the Constitution does not allow a Nigerian woman to transmit her nationality to her husband if he is a foreigner. Section 55[12] of the Penal Code applicable in Northern Nigeria permits wife battery as chastisement as long as grievous harm is not inflicted. Section 55 of the Labour Act prohibits women from working in the night.

ELIMINATION OF HARMFUL PRACTICES, CULTURE AND DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN
In some parts of Nigeria, women are still regarded as part of the husband’s property and as such cannot inherit her husband’s property but must be inherited alongside his other property by another male in the family upon the event of her husband’s death.

According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), challenges to the promotion and protection of women’s rights still include harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, widowhood rites, child marriage and violence against women.

One very annoying display of discrimination is the requirement of most Embassies and High Commissions that a married woman must amongst other necessary visa applications and documents present a written letter of consent from her husband permitting her to embark on her proposed trip. No such ‘consent’ is required of the male for the same occasion.

RIGHT TO INHERITANCE
In most parts of Nigeria, female children are still discriminated against on issues of inheritance. With the decision in Mojekwu v. Mojekwu, in which the Court of Appeal declared the ‘oli-ekpe’ custom of Nnewi which permits the son or the brother of a deceased person to inherit his property to the exclusion of his female children as discriminatory, it was expected that discrimination against women and the girl child on the issue of inheritance would end. This is definitely not the reality, probably because the decision has not gained nationwide popularity and poverty prevents women from going to court to assert their rights.

POVERTY AND THE RIGHT TO DIGNITY, FOOD SECURITY AND ADEQUATE HOUSING
One major hindrance to the right to dignity, food security and adequate housing in Nigeria is poverty. Although Nigeria is richly endowed with both human and material resources, the Nigerian government, Nigerian civil society and the UNDP all state that approximately 70 per cent of Nigerians are poor. The majority of the poor are women. Also, Nigeria does not have a social security plan for providing food and housing to the poor. This makes the situation of women precarious and exposes them to sex trade and destitution.

THE RIGHT TO A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
Every woman in Nigeria has a right to a healthy environment that is favourable to their development. In reality, the environment in Nigeria has not been favourable to the development of women. According to Abiola and Iyare, ‘Since oil struck four decades ago, the ecological and environmental hazards from indiscriminate exploration have constituted an affront on the community and the survival of its people…the effects of oil exploration has produced debilitating effects on the peoples traditional occupation – fishing and farming…’ The environment is degraded, as is the current situation in Nigeria, women are most affected because of their culturally and socially defined roles and responsibilities, because their adaptive capacity is low due to poverty and because their livelihoods are tied to the environment. In sum, any damage to the environment is damage to women as it affects their potentials and their productivity.

The rich provisions of the protocols, charters and conventions recognizing and guaranteeing women’s human rights in Nigeria promises a beautiful future for women – if the government fulfills its obligations. In light of the current realities, government should redeem its image and show its commitment by:

  • Domesticating all protocols, charters and conventions relevant to women;
  • Passing the bill on violence against women;
  • Reviewing laws on women’s property rights and all other laws discriminating against women;
  • Adequate budgetary allocations to issues that promote women’s rights and bridge gender gaps;
  • Integrating women’s right issues and gender education into the school curriculum.

Also we all, male and female, should in our own little ways condemn emphatically all dehumanising elements which women are made to endure right from the cradle (especially by their fellow women).

GRACE ADIKEMA-AJAEGBO

Grace Adikema-Ajaegbo is a Nigerian Lawyer who works with the Rivers State House of Assembly in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. She is also a volunteer with both International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) and Women’s Economic and Social Empowerment Initiative (WESEI).