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Nigerian society and the gender equality debate


Girl-childThe recent action by the Senate, which led to the discarding of the bill seeking to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, has been generating criticisms across different quarters of the society.

The issue was not only about the inability of those Senators that shouted the overwhelming ‘nays’ to comprehend the intrinsic benefits of the bill, first to themselves as individuals and then, to the Nigerian society, it also included the embarrassing way and manner any bill that particularly addresses women issues is threated by the same set of people that were majorly voted into power by women.

Although some Senators such as the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu; Majority Leader, Ali Ndume; Bala Ibn Na’Allah and Binta Masi Garba, spoke credibly in support of the Bill. Others such as the former Governor of Zamfara State, Ahmed Sani (APC, Zamfara West); former FCT Minister, Adamu Aliero and Senator Emmanuel Bwacha of Taraba State (PDP) vehemently opposed the content.

The most dissenting voice was that of Bwacha, who held that the bill, if passed into law would increase cases of immorality in the society. He was also convinced that women would take advantage of the privileged provisions in the bill to indulge in unhindered freedom that may not augur well with the society.

For Senator Aliero, the bill did not only conflict with the provisions of the Constitution, it also contradicted the Sharia and Common laws.

He consequently urged his colleagues to ensure it did not see the light of day. In fact, he maintained that there was no need for the Senate to proceed with the bill, as it will surely end in futility. Hence, by the time the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, put the matter to a voice vote, it appeared as if there was an original ploy to ensure the bill does not see the light of day, as those against it were their more than those in support.

The Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, a private member bill, which was singularly sponsored by Senator Biodun Olujimi (PDP, Ekiti South), was first presented on the floor of the Senate in October 2015. Having survived the first reading, it was represented for the second reading last Tuesday, before it was transmitted to relevant Senate committees for further legislative input.

Like any other bill debate, the sponsor, Olujimi, had enumerated its objectives and how it would impact women and by extension, the country if passed into law. According to her, the proposed law sought to promote equality, development and advancement of all persons in Nigeria.

Making reference to Section five of the Bill, she added that it made provisions for every person, body, institution, community, authority or private enterprise whether public organ or body in Nigeria to take appropriate measures towards ensuring full development and advancement of all persons, especially young women and the girl children.

These measures, Olujimi felt would guarantee their exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on the basis of non-discrimination and equality of all persons.

Other ways the bill sought to support women include; freedom of movement, which has legally been restricted in some parts of the country due to marriage laws, as well as socio-cultural practices such as female seclusion, which often leads to the restriction of movement of women in public spaces and on their social and professional interactions.

“In many parts of Nigeria, girls’ access to education is very restricted. Girls face many obstacles, which prevent them to take part in education, leading to early and forced marriages; early pregnancy; prejudice based on gender, stereotypes at home, at school and in the community; violence on the way to school, or in and around schools; long distances to schools; vulnerability to HIV epidemic; school fees, which often lead to parents sending only their sons to school; lack of gender sensitive approaches and materials in classrooms”, Olujimi stated.

According to her, increasing women’s and girls’ educational attainment is of immense benefits now and in future.She said: “Higher levels of women’s education are strongly associated with lower infant mortality, as well as better outcomes for their children.”

She also decried that women were underrepresented in most national and state parliaments, just as the 2011 United Nations General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation called for female participation in politics and expressed concern about the fact that women in every part of the world have continued to be largely marginalised from the political sphere.

While she believed that institutions play essential roles in achieving gender equality, she at the same time frowned at that basic legal and human rights, including access to and the control of resources, employment and earnings as well as social and political participations are yet to be guaranteed in many social and legal institutions.

For Olujimi, throwing away the baby with the bath water was only an attempt by the men to continue relegating the women. She recalled that the incident was not the first time gender-based bills were thrown away with prejudice. Other similar bills have suffered untimely death mostly as a result of continued diminishing of the number of female legislators.

Unfortunately, women appear to always get it wrong whenever the term ‘equality’ is employed to define their relationships with the men. This draws from the age-long misunderstanding of the essence of the equality sought by the women in the socio-political and economic aspects of life.

However, Director, Centre for Gender and Women Studies, University of Jos, Professor Irene Salami-Agunloye, believed that the nation is saddled with political and economic problems that make the lawmakers consider such bill a frivolity. According to her, the fate that befell the bill could also be as a result of poor sensitisation.

She maintained that for men to relinquish some of the powers they cherish so much to the women, serious lobbying and ego-massaging ought to have taken place before presenting the bill.

“I feel the men were not sensitised enough. There are a lot of burning issues in the country now particularly, the economy. Everybody is under pressure and this is not the time to push for such a sensitive bill.

“Also, men would not want to relinquish power. If you now tell them that the same power they love so much should be shared, not with anybody but women, of course, they will kick against it.

“Thirdly, women have always had that running battle with the men over equality. Remember how hard they tried with the domestication of the Charter for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It is most likely that majority of them do not understand the benefits of the bill.

“So, you have to engage in the series of training in the Senate and in the House of Representatives to properly sensitise the men. They do not understand. So, they feel threatened anytime such things are brought before them.

“You have to properly explain to them why you feel that gender equality does not entail women coming out to compete with them in their natural positions. In this situation, we need men to assist us and to collaborate with us in the agitation.

“Part of African feminism is complementarity – men and women coming together in harmony to achieve a set goal. Some other people will call it negotiation. So, anytime we want anything, we have to negotiate. We should be able to know how to maneuver our ways through any terrain. With these and much perseverance and perhaps, representation, the bill would be passed,” Salami-Agunloye stated.

And as a measure to forestall future occurrence or perhaps, to douse apprehension often generated by ‘equality’, the don suggested substituting ‘equality with equity.’ For her, the latter appears less threatening to the men. Yet, she would prefer to stick to equality.

She said: “If you ask me, as an individual, I will tell you that there is nothing wrong with ‘equality.  I will also go with ‘equality,’ but if you ask me as a Nigerian that wants something to be done for us to move ahead, I will suggest we start with ‘equity. ’

“This is because most people feel more comfortable with ‘equity.’ To them, it is not threatening. But when you come with ‘equality’ when you have not reached anywhere, they will always feel threatened.”

The Dean, Faculty of Art, University of Abuja, Professor Mabel Evwierhoma, noted that no matter how beneficial the bill appears, it will continue to meet with stiff opposition from the men until they are fully integrated into the struggle and meant to understand the relative meaning of ‘equality’.

Professor Evwierhoma also shared the view that equity might travel faster in the struggle for a better living condition for women. According to her, the word ‘equity’ should be adopted and should be the underscored word in the bill.

But rather than take offence in the terminology used, Evwierhoma expected Senators to read the bill thoroughly with a view to finding areas of gender conflicts, if any, and highlight such for correction, rather than throw away the entire bill.

“I believe most of them did not read the bill, if they had, their concern would have been areas that would lead to gender conflict or erosion of the people’s revered cultures and values,” she said.

She also urged the women to lobby the men the more and work in unity to achieve their objective.  “A situation where women shy away from the struggle because they would not want to be tagged feminist, which most people believe relates to lesbianism or any of the aberrations will not help issues.”

The don, however, urged the sponsor and the women generally not to despair because according to her,  “with time, the bill will gain popularity and acceptance. It might be presented the second time, the third and fourth and they keep throwing it away, but each time, they will go back to study the content and learn more about it. One day, it would be passed. We should not think men will just get up one day and give us equality,” she stressed.

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