Revisiting the Gender and Equality Opportunity Bill 

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By Bolaji Abdullahi
After studying the ‘Gender and Equality Opportunity Bill’, I could clearly see why it was so easily thrown out. Unfortunately, the Senate itself has not made its own case; the same way that those who have expressed outrage at the Senate’s decision have failed to make the arguments of why the bill should not have been rejected. We have seen plenty indignation and rhetoric but little rational interventions. Thus, we are about to miss another glorious opportunity to have a real debate on a matter that is at the very heart of our social progress.
President of the Senate, Senator Bukola Saraki, has said the bill could be re-introduced. It shows that the Senate president is listening. Everyone interested in this bill should therefore see this as opportunity to go back and do more serious work on this very important bill. To start with, Senator Abiodun Olujimi should be commended for her courageous initiative. However, in any active democracy, no bill would sail through the parliament on account of its good intentions alone. As a matter of fact, we should all be worried if our Senators would pass a law only because it is the politically correct thing to do; or because they want the public to clap for them.
What are the qualities of a good law? One, it must be necessary; there have to be real issues or problems that the law intends to address, which no law in existence at the time has adequately covered. Two, it must be acceptable; it must be an expression of the will and aspirations of the people. Three, it must be enforceable; if people break the law, enforcers should be able to catch and punish them. There are others. However, even on these three basic principles alone, this Gender Equality Bill is hugely deficient. A significant part of it actually read more like the communique of a gender seminar than a piece of legislation. However, if we ignore the letters and focus on the spirit, that is when the importance of this bill becomes really obvious, and the decision to revisit it becomes quite pertinent.
The bill can be divided into two broad categories. The first component would contain those provisions that seek to protect the rights and privileges of women in public life and promote economic and political participation by women. The second component seeks to protect and promote the social and economic rights and privileges of women in the family or domestic front. Senators who opposed the bill were quite right to argue that some of the things it intends to achieve for women were already covered by existing laws and the constitution. It is tempting on the face of this argument therefore to dismiss the bill as superfluous. But this would be wrong. While existing laws and the constitution may have addressed the issues; they have not solved the problems. Factors that inhibit the participation of women in politics or public life, for example, continue to thrive.
While there is nothing in our laws or in any rules guiding public or corporate institutions in our country that bar women from participation or representation, the reality is that the quality of women participation in public life does not reflect the demographic strength of women. The Senate itself presents the best example of this limitation, where out of 109 Senators only seven are women. The truth is that women usually lack the material resources and the social capability to seek political office. To paraphrase Armatya Sen, we cannot claim that an individual has the right or freedom to act in a particular way, when she is deprived of the capability and resources to exercise such right or freedom.
Access to resources would continue to constitute a major barrier to women political participation. Unfortunately, this is even likely to get worse in the years ahead. As public sector reforms roll back the government and push the market forward, all the support systems and state-backed interventions that potentially discriminate in favour of women may also be eroded. Like one writer noted, in any market arrangement, “competition and choice could become the new rationale for legitimising the dominant male presence in politics and government.” If women are less educated, it is only natural that men will outnumber them in public life. The same if they have less access to resources. If women have to also devote more time for domestic and family task, it is only natural that they will have less time for actively engaging in public political activities, the so-called “double-burden.” This is why despite the increase in number of career women in recent years; most women still have to choose between family and public life. These problems can hardly be tackled with legislation alone.
Some women have wondered why Nigeria that has so sensibly adopted the quota system and federal character as a way of managing its diversity has found it difficult to adopt affirmative action as a broad based policy for supporting women. This connection is quite interesting. However, for us to deal with women issues the same way, we have to start by asserting gender as a distinct social and even political constituency. This is not a job for the lawmakers alone. It cannot even be a task for women alone. Certainly, we need to bring more credentials to the gender debate than just our anatomies!
In recognising gender as a political constituency, we must be willing to take a critical look and have the courage to review institutionalised basis for male power and privilege. Altering this power relationship is central to leveling the field and creating the room for women to be active economic and productive agents. Arguing that women should be treated on equal terms with men in political life, as things stand at the moment, is to further keep women down. Any push for equality without altering the power dynamics in gender relations ultimately places women at great disadvantage.You cannot speak of equality in a contest between two unequal actors. This bill tip-toed around the issue of positive discrimination, almost apologetically. This needs not be so. A deliberate policy of discrimination in favour of disadvantaged people within a society is the foundation for equity and justice. This however has to be framed in a way that would be understood by all that women empowerment does not necessarily translate to male disempowerment.
What is at the heart of the matter is always how men think about women and how women think about themselves in relation to political power. Women’s own psychological internalisation of inferiority would continue to constitute as much barrier to the quality of women’s political participation as men’s domination of women. As long as the few powerful women continue to understand women political participation in terms of how many women are dressed up in Aso-ebiand herded into political rallies, women cannot have the right champions for women in the corridors of power.
The second major component of this bill focuses on the rights and privileges of women within the family. This is where the issue of rights of women get entangled in cultural values. Among other things, the bill seeks to grant the rights to abort unwanted pregnancy to women under specified conditions. But we all know how highly contentious the issue of abortion is all over the world. In many countries, a candidate’s position on abortion can make the difference between victory and defeat. When you throw abortion into a bill that seeks to protect the rights of women, you would always run the risk of having the baby thrown out with the bathwater. Ask Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State.
However, it is important to point out that, more often than not, when men oppose any law or policy that seeks to alter the power relation between men and women within the domestic sphere, they are merely affirming traditional customs and practices in relation to women; which were mostly constructed by men. Therefore, unless these cultural practices are themselves altered, any attempt to curb them with the instrumentality of laws, would always be vehemently resisted.
This brings us to the issue of Islam and gender. Some Senators have argued that they were opposed to the Gender Bill because some of its provisions contradict the Shari’a. It is important to note that if any law contradicts the Shari’a, Muslims have the right to object to it, the same way Catholics would always be justified to oppose any law seeking to legalise abortion. After all, a law is an expression of the values held by a people.
However, we must be clear that there is nothing inherently incompatible between Islam and the rights of women. I recall that after the United Nations Beijing Conference on women in 1995, some Muslim countries were sternly opposed to and refused to ratify the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Gender rights activists in these countries sat down and analysed the Qur’an, which is the chief source of Islamic laws. What they found was simply startling. They found that the Qur’an, actually have granted women more rights than even the CEDAW; even though they also found some portions of the Holy Book that they were not happy with, but which,  taken together, formed the basis for negotiation in the efforts to domesticate and therefore have the Convention ratified by their countries.
The point here is that there are so many provisions in the Qur’an that strongly affirm rather than deny the rights of women. I believe there are Muslim women NGOs who have done some work in this area. They need to come forward and work with Senator Olujimi in moving this Bill forward. For too long, men have hidden under the banner of religion to give expression to their syncretic traditions or practices in relation to women. This would only stop if they are challenged with the same very authority that they rely on.
Perhaps, another major drawback of this bill is that it attempts to solve all the problems confronting women with a single piece of legislation. This would not work. Therefore, the bill needs to be streamlined towards achieving incremental change rather than a total revolution.
No matter what is done; men will remain on the driver’s seat for a long time to come. But the purpose that a bill like this could serve, is to provide women with some kind of zebra crossing in both the public and the private arena. Even then, women would still need to look left, right and left again as they move forward because there would always be men who would continue to drive around wearing blinkers.
. Abdullahi is the former Minister of Youth Development and Sports