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Judges and female lawyers’ marital status

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Some judges’ recent display of gender insensitivity by subjecting female lawyers to make a mandatory choice between the honorific titles ‘Mrs.’ or ‘Miss’ when they announce themselves in their courts is an anathema that should not be mentioned in the 21st century. 

It is obnoxious, unthinkable, unimaginable, discriminatory and so the profiling should be classified as ‘hate speech and gender-based violence because it is bullying, which is a form of gender-based violence (GBV). Obviously, some single female lawyers ‘can’t breathe’ in some Nigerian courts. This pain in the neck of female lawyers inflicted by a superior court of record that should be at the fore of promoting equity is unfortunate and uncalled for. 
 
Apart from the single female lawyers who ‘can’t breathe’ in some Nigerian courts; even some females in the Bench are facing discrimination too: there have been cases where women were denied top judicial positions in their husbands’ states of origin, because they are indigenes by marriage not by birth, which also raises questions about citizenship and national cohesion. 

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Furthermore, it reflects the extent to which women’s human rights are threatened even in the courts that are supposed to ensure the protection of such rights. This is unfortunate, because judges are supposed to ensure that we have a just society, where individuals irrespective of their demographics are treated with dignity. However, they are the ones promoting discrimination in the 21st century.  
 
According to reports, three legal practitioners, Dr. Chidi Odinkalu, Gloria Ballason and Abiodun Baiyewu wrote to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho to stop judges from humiliating female lawyers when they appear before them. 
 
The trio stated that, “several judges of the federal high court in different places insist on asking female counsel appearing before them to indicate whether they are married or single. In some cases, female advocates, who balk at being treated in this way run into trouble with conducting their cases, suffer unacceptable bullying from the court or jeering and sniggering from the Bar and the court gallery and generally get subjected to indignities entirely unrelated to their abilities or the merits of their advocacy and cases.” On the contrary, “male lawyers who appear in the court, are not at risk of suffering a similar fate.”

The questions that arise at this juncture are: Why the gender question in the first place? What has marital status got to do with competence and skills? Of what value are discriminatory questions to the quality of judgment? Again, what has honorifics got to do with conducting cases in courts? Also, do they request same from male lawyers?

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In finding explanation to this conundrum, the National Gender Policy states that the underlying force behind the discrimination women face, is the wrong belief that women are inferior and are supposed to be treated as second class citizens in the society. Therefore, it is obvious that the judges subjecting female lawyers to discriminatory treatment are gender biased, which is at variance with the National Gender Policy, whereby the government of Nigeria is committed to building “a just society devoid of discrimination, harness the full potentials of all social groups regardless of sex or circumstance and promote the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.”
 
Again, the treatment meted to female lawyers violates high constitutional principles and basic courtesies. It is inconsistent with the right to personal dignity guaranteed by Section 34(1) of the 1999 constitution as amended; and Section 42(1) of the constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Thus, the humiliating and discriminatory treatment of female lawyers by some judges is unconstitutional and uncalled for. Besides, the development is capable of reversing the little progress that Nigeria has made in promoting gender equity and women empowerment. In addition, it is a form of social injustice, which is against the spirit of the various international instruments that the Nigerian state has subscribed to. 

As a result, the chief judges of the courts concerned should issue appropriate caution to all judges in their jurisdiction and violators should be sanctioned. The Federal Ministry of Women Affairs, National Human Rights Commission, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Nigeria, gender-based NGOs, the Senate and House Committees on Women Affairs should pursue this issue to a logical conclusion and ensure that it is nipped in the bud. 

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Going forward, judges should be more professional and observe judicial ethics. They should stop humiliating female lawyers by demanding their marital status. They should realise that the investment into their education is not different from that of the female lawyers that they are humiliating. So, why are they trying to cow females from working to get their return on investment (ROI) in education. 
 
At this point, it is also important to sensitise all and sundry that there are still cultures in Nigeria, where the first daughters are not given out in marriage. Again, individuals have a right to get married or not to and they also have a right to decide when to get married. Finally, being single is not a crime under the Nigerian constitution. And that status should not stop females from earning a living and contributing to national development. 
 
Before this reproach escalates to female lawyers in the Bar and the Bench boycotting the courts, the Chief Justice of Nigeria too should rise up to the occasion and put an end to this ugly practice of maltreating female lawyers who are facing unnecessary pressure on marital status.

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