Pushing frontiers of gender, equal opportunity through legislation
• NGOs drum support for bill to sail through
The sponsor of the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill, 2019, Senator Biodun Olujimi (Ekiti South, PDP) has challenged Nigerian women to own the law and have their voices heard loud and clear. Senator Olujimi explained why she has remained consistent despite the many hiccups to the passage of the bill.
Olujimi said, “The women are the owners of the law when enacted. So, they must own it and have their voices heard.”
The bill was first rejected in March 2016 when some male lawmakers argued that the Nigerian Constitution was clear on the rights of citizens, including women.
“It (the bill) has been re-engineered to suit everyone,” Sen. Olujimi recently assured her male colleagues when the bill came again up for consideration.
Mrs. Olujimi said she reworked the bill and has thus represented it to the Senate. She said the bill seeks to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and would guarantee equal opportunity, development, and advancement for all Nigerian citizens irrespective of gender.
According to her, “The bill has been trending a long time now. It’s a result of the treaties and conventions signed by the government of Nigeria after the Beijing Conference 25 years ago, among others.”
On what changes she has brought to bear in the reintroduced bill to address the criticisms against it in the past, she said, “In a bid to domesticate and effect necessary changes, the National Assembly has been struggling to get the bill passed,” saying the challenges border on some contentious issues concerning inheritance, widowhood, child marriage, especially where religion is concerned.
“We have tried to reduce and or remove some of these items to ensure easy passage.”
On women’s health and how she would address it in the new bill, she said, “Health of women is captured in the overall sense of equal and prompt attention to women, especially those with special needs, maternal health, and the elderly, etc.”
She said she has worked with some men and women groups like the United Nations, European Union, Africa Union, the German government, The Netherlands, and others, who assisted in arranging several fora with NGOs and funding partners. Although she said she could not remember the number of women groups she worked with, she estimated them to be up to 40
The legislation is seeking to guarantee the rights of women to equal opportunities in employment, equal right to inheritance for both male and female children, equal right for women in marriage and divorce, and equal access to education, and property and land ownership. It also seeks to protect the right of widows, guarantee appropriate measures against gender discrimination in political and public life and ensure the prohibition of violence towards women.
The proposed law also seeks equal opportunity, development, and advancement for all Nigerian citizens irrespective of gender as well as promote girls’ access to education, freedom for women to participate in any economic activity and their right to be free from violence.
Also responding to the recent outburst by the Northern Elders’ Forum when they dismissed the new move by the Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege, to amend the constitution, which they said would be another jamboree, Olujimi said if the National Assembly could make small strides, the alterations would be almost done.
“I believe that even little, if we can achieve gender equality alteration and 35 per cent affirmative action in the alteration this time around, can anybody say we have not achieved anything?” she asked. “We would have achieved a lot, because women, children and youth make up almost 60 per cent of our population and if you work for those people then you have worked for Nigeria.
“So, I believe we should keep striving to do these small things with the hope that we will be allowed to do them as legislators.”
The Director of an Abuja-based Think-Tank, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan, said the bill had been cleaned up and re-presented by Senator Olujimi of Ekiti State, noting, “We do hope it doesn’t suffer the same defeat it had previously for almost the same reason. This bill will be highly beneficial to improving women’s political participation; it will also give voice to the girl-child. Importantly, it will back the National Gender Policy.
“At CDD, we amplify the voices of women in politics. We also provide evidence in support of Affirmative Action (AA) principles in governance. Our Women Political Platform radio show was the only national radio programme that advocated and brought to the fore the impact of women in politics and the potential impact of AA.
“In the Northeast, we have been working on sexual and gender-based violence for years, even supporting the National Human Rights Commission to take action in Borno State.”
She also observed that the challenges facing women were legion, adding that education is one of the ways to adequately address them.
“We need our girls in school and women in political offices to make gender-friendly laws,” Hassan said.
Beyond Olujimi’s bill, she said women were taking advantage of the opening for the constitutional review by the National Assembly to infuse AA principles like the Gender Commission in Uganda’s constitution.
Also, Director, Women Rights Programmer, ActionAid Nigeria, Nkechi Ilochi-
Omekedo, said, “It is so appalling that the bill was thrown away earlier even at a time like this where we know that it is so relevant and important in our national life.
“The GEO bill, if passed, would have responded to many issues that women groups have been agitating for and contributed to our achievement of gender equality in Nigeria.”
The Executive Director of Ladi Memorial Foundation, Rosemary Ojochenemi Osikoya, said the impact of the denial of equal opportunities to women is evident in the poor economic development of Nigeria compared to her peers both in Africa and across the world.
“The many pressing challenges confronting Nigeria in 2020: insecurity, high illiteracy, injustice, social vices, youth unemployment, corruption, and many more, against the backdrop of the age-long discrimination against women and the poor involvement of women in public governance is not surprising,” she said. “No nation can prosper, where a critical mass of its composite fraction (women) is ill-treated, oppressed and considered subservient.
“The Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill 2019 presents an opportunity for the 9th National Assembly to revisit the needed building stones for a robust Nigerian economy, one which embraces all contributors and needed assets to nation building, one which, rather than misunderstand the strengths of the Nigerian woman, embraces her resilience, passion and unique peculiarities, which complement those of her male counterpart.
“We join other NGOs, civil societies and well-meaning Nigerians and international stakeholders to call on the National Assembly to do the needful, pass the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill 2019 as a well thought-out action in recognition of the Nigerian woman’s right as a free-born and full citizen of Nigeria.”
Osikoya said woman, as a necessary asset and treasured partner with fundamental human rights, should have equal opportunities in employment, equal right in marriage/divorce, equal access to education, property/land ownership and inheritance and right to life and protection as enshrined in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. She reiterated the fact that the Nigerian woman is a strong pillar in her family, resourceful, passionate, intelligent, diligent, dependable, and the centre of her family/community and in many cases the unacknowledged bread-winner for the family.
“Nigerian history acknowledges the strong contributions of women to the economy and in shaping the history of their communities,” Osikoya said. “Such women as Margaret Ekpo, Funmilayo Kuti, Queen Amina, etc, were simply a few privileged women, who were opportune to rise up to the occasion when their societies needed them.
“Our experience, working with women in various communities across Nigeria, has shown that the average Nigerian woman, irrespective of her education accomplishment, is shackled with age-long discrimination, various forms of abuse and sadly, oppressive silence. The burden of Nigeria’s under-development is borne mostly by women, most of whom are poorly educated and victims of various forms of abuses.”
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