People2People…with Oke Epia

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Let me begin this piece by admitting that its title is quite suggestive. But I quickly clarify that it is not the kind of suggestion that would warrant gender activists to call for my head. In fact, on today’s topic I make bold to declare that I stand with the Nigerian woman. The headline is only chosen to draw attention to the sad reality of life facing the female folk who are forced by pride, prejudice and primordial praxis to live under the shadow of males in a society defined by chauvinism and charlatanism.

Yes, sociology teaches that society evolves with time and that education, civilization and cross-fertilisation of cultures are variables or catalysts that determine such evolution. The history of societies also teaches that there is resistance to change oftentimes. But such resistance is either made to peter out under sustained occasional pressure or forced to cave in when confronted with a greater force. It is in this light that Nigerian women should see the shenanigans which played out in the Senate on Tuesday when the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill was thrown out of the red chamber in a fit of undignified mob action.

Whether the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria likes it or not change would come the way of Nigerian women even if it is not under the All Progressives Congress (APC) administration which unfortunately rode to power on the promise of change. Ironically, most of the senators who opposed the bill and chanted ‘Nay’ to end its journey to become law are members of the APC. But the burden shall surely be lifted from the shoulders of our mothers, daughters, sisters and wives. The subjugation imposed on women by society can only stand for long. Like the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Biodun Olujimi told reporters after Tuesday’s plenary, the battle for female emancipation may have been lost but the war is certainly not over. Whether the likes of Senator Sani Yerima who adorns a shameless notoriety for his infamous child-bride scandals like a crown of glory, will be around for the next phase of the war does not matter. Victory will come the way of women even if there are more Yerimas in reinforced or reincarnated moods. The truth is that good always prevails over evil no matter how long.

The only problem being that Nigeria would continue to be seen by the rest of the world as a country unprepared to allow the emancipation and advancement of women in certain respects. In a world where Hillary Clinton is cruising to possibly become the first female president of America some Nigerian men are stuck in the culture of herding their wives into hidden harems and handing out under-aged daughters to their age-mates. In a world where the rights of the girl-child are assuming prominence and widespread compliance, Nigeria is seething with disgusting stories of the Ese Oruru(s): scandals contrived and executed with the connivance if not collaboration of otherwise educated and civilized ‘big men’ in society. Sadly, the country’s law and its institutional enforcers are made to totter cowardly and genuflect before the allure of powerful palaces.

It is a shame that a bill meant to secure equal opportunities for both male and female gender can be thrown out of the senate by a ‘chauvinistic cabal’ of senators who hide under the veneer of culture and religion to disguise their sunken morality, insecurity and crass mediocrity. It makes little difference that they are in the hallowed chamber of the Senate. After all, it does not require much to manipulate the teeming uneducated almajiri electorate who feed on the crumbs from their tables during electoral soapbox seasons after which they disappear into unreachable cocoons of false comfort in Abuja and other world capitals. They only return home to make contact with their lucky nemesis when another round of elections is called. Let me return to the Gender Bill before I disgress any further.
It is not a compliment on Nigeria’s credentials as a responsible member of the international community that a bill meant to empower the enforcement of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is dealt a fatal blow by the nation’s apex parliamentary body. Nigeria has once again missed a chance to move towards the domestication of the Convention it voluntarily subscribed to and endorsed over three decades ago. The country has invariably earned itself a steep deep in global perceptions as a state where the full rights of women are respected and upheld in the breach.

By its decision to kill the Gender Bill, the Nigerian Senate has written for itself an uncomplimentary chapter in the history of the 8th National Assembly. For a senate with a supposed lofty legislative agenda trumpeted to engender positive change in the lives and living conditions of Nigerians, it has failed a major test: one for the pursuit of equality and the creation of an egalitarian society where neither gender nor circumstances of birth impede the optimum realisation of the potentials of citizens or the opportunities available for them to explore.

For purpose of clarity, some noble intentions expressed in the dead bill are worth quoting. In its statement of purpose, it declares a mission to give effect to: Chapters II and V of the 1999 Constitution (which deal with the Directive Principles of State and Charter on Fundamental Human Rights respectively); the International Covenants on human rights which “affirm the principle of non-discrimination and proclaims that all humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and that everyone is entitled to all the rights set out without discrimination of any kind including distinction based on sex.” Another worthy purpose of the bill provides “no person, organ or agency of government, public or private institution, commercial or corporate body, community, or other entity, or any representative of such organ or agency of government, public or private institution, commercial or corporate body, community or other entity shall either through words spoken, acts, inactions, omissions, laws, regulations, administrative procedures, policy, guidelines, rules, customs or practices, discriminate against any person on the ground of gender, age or disability.” The bill which basically sought to criminalize discrimination against and protect as well as promote the socio-cultural, economic and political rights of the female gender adopted such strongly worded descriptions and prescriptions almost throughout its content.

Laudable as it were, the bill may not have been the be-all and end-all of the troubles of women in Nigeria. In fact, it did contain some contradictions and avoidable contentions which easily set it up for a place in the dustbin of legislative history at least as far as the 8th assembly is concerned. In the opinion of some of its antagonists, the bill contained some ‘excesses’ disguised as female emancipation rhetoric. The bill as proposed in some respects did not show adequate sensitivity to some basic underlying facts of life in Nigeria- for example, that patriarchy is a natural and that legislation is not what may be needed to bring about change. Take this provision for example, that “women shall have equal rights with men to confer their citizenship on their children.” Does such align with the provision of the Constitution in Chapter III which provides that a citizen of Nigeria is “every person born in Nigeria before the date of independence, either of whose parents or any of whose grandparents belongs or belonged to a community indigenous to Nigeria?” It is doubtful if the Constitution contemplated ‘equal rights’ by either of the parent to confer citizenship on their child as was stipulated in the Gender Bill. With such contentious suggestions, it was easy for the likes of Senator Yerima to scream on the floor of the senate that the bill was against the constitution. Maybe the bill could have benefitted from the application of some moderation and discretion in its drafting and presentation. And maybe too, the sponsor and promoters could have done with more effective political lobbying of fellow senators before arriving for the ‘kill’ at plenary. For a multi-cultural and politically sensitive country like Nigeria, such factors could have saved the bill if applied.

Be that as it may, it was unwise for the senate to throw the baby away with the bath water. The lawmakers could have allowed the bill to proceed to the committee stage where detailed legislative work could have revealed and possibly corrected observed lapses before returning it to plenary for final adoption. But alas, sentiments prevailed over silent reasoning. And so the voices of those in support of the Gender Equality Bill were drowned when the question was put by Senate President, Bukola Saraki. They fought a good fight but were over-powered. May they live to fight another day- in the interest of gender equality and for the sake of an egalitarian society.
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