Nigerian lawmakers on Tuesday (Mar.15), voted against a gender and equal opportunities bill (pdf), which was being sponsored by Senator Biodun Olujimi. The bill, which did not pass a second reading, was aimed at bridging the gap between the rights of men and women in Nigeria. It also sought to end questionable and unpleasant stereotypical practices that drive discrimination based on gender. The bill amongst other things was designed to address women’s freedom of movement, female economic activity, girls’ access to education, equal rights for women in marriage, divorce, property/land ownership and inheritance, appropriate measures against gender discrimination in political and public life and prohibitions of violence to women.
During the debate for and against the bill, Senate leader, Ali Ndume, said there is a conflict between our traditional belief and our religious belief regarding the protection of women rights. He called for the passage of the bill because it would afford men and women in marriage the same equal rights. “This law that is being amended is very important especially when there is a clear conflict when it comes to dealing with widows, inheritance, divorce, even marriage itself in our society.
“There are various traditions. The problem we have is the combination of our traditions and new religious beliefs. You will find an Igbo man who cannot speak Igbo language because he studied abroad. He will do traditional marriage then go to church again to get married in the church. The church wedding says if you marry, the couple becomes one while the Igbo tradition says when you marry a wife, she becomes your property. So when issues come up after the marriage, you now wonder which one to take.
“As for inheritance and divorce, in Islam, it is very clear how it is being done, but if you combine that with your tradition, you find out that women are being discriminated in a disadvantageous manner. There is a need for women who are involved in this advocacy to also engage in enlightenment. If you will marry, you will marry; either Christian or Muslim.
“I think this bill is timely and important and at the public hearing stage, we will look at this bill very well.”
Senate deputy president, Ike Ekeremadu, also spoke in favor of the bill. “Only last night, I was going through a document prepared by George Bush of America. Those countries that are doing well are those who give women opportunities. Where I come from, women don’t eat egg and are restricted from touching the non-essential parts of animal. But now that has changed. What is needed is time and education, not necessarily legislation. We will continue to encourage our women. I support this bill.”
While the bill garnered support from some lawmakers, male and female, it ultimately failed to progress on the senate floor as a majority voted against it. Before voting, various senators, who opposed the bill, spoke about the incompatibility of the bill with religious laws and beliefs.
Predictably, the rejection of the bill has resulted in uproar on social media with Nigerians expressing shock and disbelief that the bill, widely regarded as necessary and forward-thinking, was turned down especially among a group of lawmakers believed to be the best collection in years.
As a whole, the bill focuses on eliminating discrimination based on gender in the fields of politics, education and employment. It also prohibits violence—domestic and sexual—against women.
It stated: “In the case of educational placement and school enrollment, including award of scholarships, bursaries, or such allocations, that parity is ensured for boys and girls, men and women”. This is important in a country where girls and women continue to be excluded from education (pdf) based on their gender.
It also hoped to achieve “the elimination of gender stereotyping, prejudices, and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes, or the roles for men and women.”
In today’s Nigeria, despite the increased literacy rates which have accompanied urbanization and economic growth, gender equality remains an ideal that is sought after more than it is an everyday reality. For example, job advertisements for seemingly gender-neutral roles often specify that male candidates are preferred. Feminism is a raging topic that elicits more conflict than compromise and, perhaps worst of all, sexual violence and rape levels remain shockingly high.
While there is a growing generation of young people who are hoping to change the status quo with conversations that highlight inequality such as the #BeingFemaleInNigeria hashtag on Twitter last year, a mass populace who rationalize rights along the lines of religion and cultural belief remain the majority.
Seeking to modify and ultimately end odious socio-cultural practices that have been long in existence, such as the antagonistic treatment of widows, the bill states that widows “shall not be subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment” and “shall have the right to an equitable share in the inheritance of the property of her husband.”
The bill also hoped to ensure more participation of women in politics, a space historically dominated by men. Of Nigeria’s 109 senators, only seven are women even though the country’s population is fairly evenly split along gender lines. A section of the bill sought to “ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right to participate fully in all political activities, including the right to vote and be voted for in all elections and public referenda, and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected offices and bodies without any restriction, limitation or barriers whatsoever.”
Crucially, the bill was also firm on prohibition of domestic and sexual violence against women and instituting 18 as the minimum legal age for marriage. This is in a bid to tackle a notorious prominence of child brides in Nigeria where, according to UNICEF, 43% of girls are said to be married off before they turn 18. To implement its provisions, a Gender and Equal Opportunities Commission was to be created.
It is not the first time Nigeria’s current lawmakers have made the news for the wrong reasons. Last December, they sought to pass a bill believed to be aimed at gagging social media. Under the terms of the bill, offenders could face jail time and fines as high as $20,000.