By FUNMI FALANA
International Women’s Day is an annual event held on March 8 every year to celebrate women and their achievements. It is also designed to sensitise people to the rights and plights of women globally. The first international women’s day took place on March 19, 1911. The day was later moved to March 8, in 1913. In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as a UN day for women’s rights and international peace with the aim of assisting nations globally to eliminate inequality and discrimination against women. Since then, member states including Nigeria, have continued to celebrate this event annually. Thirty-five years after this declaration, it is desirable to appraise how well Nigeria has done in this area of bridging the gender gap!
There is no doubt that little has been achieved in this area. Save for the judiciary where women are visibly represented, there is no doubt that on the general note women still make a very small percentage of those serving on decision-making bodies at national and state levels in the country. Such official discriminatory practice is inconsistent with Article 13 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Article 7 of the Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to African Charter on the Rights of Women which provide that women shall have the right to equal participation in public offices and hold same on equal terms with their male counterparts.
Regrettably, under the present political dispensation, out of 42 ministers, only 11 are women. In the 36 states, no state has up to five women in their executive cabinets and out of the 36 Electoral Resident Commissioners nominated in 2011 only three are women! The struggle for gender equality is far from being won. Only a little progress has been made. Apart from the fact that women are not present in equal numbers in public offices, violence against women both in public and domestic settings have continued to increase. Cases of rape and spousal murder have become very rampant in our society. A visit to Kirikiri prison recently showed that about 70% of men are awaiting trial for the alleged murder of their spouses during violence in the home.
The UN theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum.” The focus of this year’s celebration is on improving the citizenship and status of women globally through greater equality in the area of political rights. The struggle for the domestication of protocol on the African Charter on the rights of women, which provide extensively for the rights of women, puts Nigeria on the right course in the celebration of this year’s event.
The Nigerian 1999 Constitution (as amended) provides in section 42(1) that no person shall be discriminated against on the basis of community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion. As regards sex, the provision is also in compliance with international conventions especially the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Section 42(1) specifically protects the right of women against discrimination based on sex. So is also Section 15 (2) of the same Constitution. The combined effect of the provisions of the two sections is that women are not in any way inferior to men, as far as the law is concerned.
On the contrary, there are provisions of our domestic laws, and even the constitution itself, in some other sections, that negate the provision of sections 15(2) and 42(1). What is even worse is that most people are not aware of these provisions. It is therefore desirable to sensitise Nigerians with respect to these offensive and discriminating provisions with a view to further educating Nigerians and also bringing to the notice of the National and State Assemblies the need to take practical steps and repeal such laws. Below are some of the provisions:
Section 26 of the constitution provides that the president may confer Nigerian citizenship on “any woman who is or who has been married to a citizen of Nigeria”. While the provision may be said to protect inter marriage among Nigerians and foreigners, it ought to be pointed out that the president is not empowered to confer Nigerian citizenship on “any man who is or has been married to a citizen of Nigeria”. The injustice in such discriminatory practice was manifested in the deportation of Dr. Patrick Wilmot, a Jamaican, from Nigeria by the Ibrahim Babangida military regime notwithstanding that the wife of the radical don is an indigene of Sokoto State.
By virtue of section 353 of the Criminal Code Act “any person who unlawfully and indecently assaults any male person is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for three years”. But section 360 of the Act regards indecent assault of a woman, as misdemeanour which attracts a punishment of two years imprisonment. Under section 55 (10) of the Penal Code, corporal punishment of a married woman by her husband for the purpose of correcting her is legally justified and permissible. Worse still, a person cannot be convicted of any of the aforementioned offences “upon the uncorroborated evidence of one witness”.
The serious criminal offence of having carnal knowledge of a girl being of or above 13 years and under 16 years of age or of a woman or girl who is an idiot or imbecile is classified as a misdemeanour which is punishable by two years’ imprisonment under Section 221 of the Criminal Code. Even then the accused may be discharged and acquitted if he can prove that he believed on reasonable grounds that the girl was of or above the age of 16 years.
Unlike her male counterpart, a married woman “shall continue to lay claim to her state of origin for the purpose of implementation of the federal character formulae at the national level” pursuant to section 2 of Part II of the Schedule to the Federal Character Commission Act (Cap F7) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004. Most Nigerians did not know of the provision of this law until it was recently invoked by the National Judicial Council (NJC) in justifying the delay in the inauguration of Justice Ifeoma Jumbo-Offor on the ground that she had secured the appointment from her husband’s state (Abia) instead of her own state of origin (Anambra).
Under section 18 of the Marriage Act (CAP M6) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, the written consent of the father of either party to an intended marriage is required if he or she is under 21 years of age. It is only if the father is dead or of unsound mind or absent from Nigeria that the written consent of the mother may be required. Although the Immigration Act does not provide for discrimination, married women applying for Nigerian passport are required to submit the written consent of their husbands. A person whose mother is a Nigerian but whose father is a foreigner is not entitled to a Nigerian passport.
Working women in Nigeria are targets of discrimination under the Labour Act. For instance, section 54(3) of the Act states that “No employer shall be liable, in his capacity as an employer, to pay any medical expenses incurred by a woman during or on account of her pregnancy or confinement”. Under section 55 and 56 of the Act women are prohibited from being employed on night work in a public or private industrial undertaking or any agricultural undertaking or in any mine.
Under the civil service rules of some states of the Federation, it is specifically provided that “Any woman servant, married or unmarried who is about to undertake a course of training of not more than six months duration shall be called upon to enter into an agreement to refund the whole or part of the cost in the event of her course being interrupted on ground of pregnancy.”
In the Armed Forces, police and para-military institutions, the fundamental rights of working women to dignity are not recognised. Thus, section 8 of the Terms and Conditions of Service for National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) states that all female officers “shall be unmarried on enlistment and shall remain so for a period not less than two years.” Any newly recruited female officer who wishes to marry shall apply and obtain a written permission of the Chairman of the NDLEA. An unmarried female officer who becomes pregnant within the first two years of the service shall be discharged from the service of the NDLEA.
Similarly, Regulation 124 made pursuant to the Police Act provides that “A woman police officer who is desirous of marrying must first apply in writing to the commissioner of police of the State Police command in which she is serving, requesting permission to marry and giving the name, address, and occupation of the person she intends to marry. Permission will be granted for the marriage if the intended husband is of good character and the woman police officer has served in the Force for a period of not less than three years.”
Happily, in the case of WELA vs. Attorney-General of the Federation (unreported) Suit No: FHC/IKJ/CS/M128/2010 of 30th April, 2012 Adah J. (as he then was) declared illegal and unconstitutional the said Regulation 124 on the ground that it was inconsistent with the provisions of section 42 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act which have recognised the equality of the women and men. It was rightly stated by the judge that such discriminatory provisions of the Police Act cannot be justified since they are not applicable to male police officers.
No doubt, the laws which discriminate against women referred to in this article are by no means exhaustive. Therefore, the best way to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day is for the Federal and State Governments to repeal and abolish all laws, official policies and customary practices which discriminate against women. In the alternative, the ongoing review of the constitution provides a golden opportunity for Nigerian legislators to stamp out all discriminatory laws and practices against women.