The sudden death of the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill at the National Assembly may actually not be the end of the bill, as rights activists and women’s groups are strategising on representing the bill, writes Adedayo Akinwale
The ripples generated by the sudden death of the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill are far from being over, this is because women groups, rights activists and other Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have drawn the battle line and have decided to see this to a logical conclusion. They are currently strategising on how to represent the bill to the National Assembly.
The Nigerian women who were baffled and at the same time expressed disappointment about the way and manner issues concerning women in the country have always been treated; have already embark on series of consultations, sensitisation, and even lobbying as they plan to represent the bill to the Senate.
The gender bill met stiff resistance from the Senate during the second reading on the15th of March, 2016 through a voice votes, and was eventually thrown out for reasons best known to them. The set back, notwithstanding, these women groups and rights activists believed that further information on the bill will help address the misconceptions of some key sections in the bill.
It is believed that the debate on the bill further represents the nation’s diversity as multi-ethnic, multi-religious and a multi-cultural nation. By and large, the point advocated for and against the bill expressed the lacunas between our culture and existing laws and our perception of gender equality, limitations of women development of our nation.
During the second reading of the bill at the floor of the Senate, Senators argued that the section of the bill which gives a widow automatic right to take custody of her children on the death of her husband and the right of a widow to an equitable share of her husband’s inheritance and to continue to live in her husband’s house are inconsistent with the customary law of some communities and in conflict with the constitution which recognises customary law.
The senators also argued that the received English laws provide that where any law is inconsistent with local laws, the local laws shall prevail. They further argued that the provision of the bill on the modification of socio-cultural practices is directly in conflict with the Nigerian constitution, because the constitution is very clear, on customs and practices of all Nigerians, especially in relation to their religious rights as guaranteed.
Lastly, the Senators argued that granting women freedom will give rise to a situation of derogatory notion of weakness known in the Northern part of Nigeria as ‘Mijin Hajiya’.
However, in its argument to counter against that of the Senate, the National Coalition on Affirmative Action (NCAA), said that the provisions of the bill are not in conflict with Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution provisions as amended, including a section, which prohibits sex discrimination and Section 21, which upholds the preservation of cultures that enhance human dignity and are consistent with freedom, equality and justice. Accordingly, the bill reinforces the complimentary and not competitive relations between men and women to be achieved through equal opportunities, mutual respect and common benefits to both.
It argued further that the bill will not take away family headship from men, adding that the bill enjoins shared roles and responsibilities for family life.
To the coalition, equality refers principally to equal opportunities to access, contribute and seek redress.
Highlighting specific issues as regards the bill, the group said Section 21(a) of the 1999 Constitution as amended which gives directives on Nigerian cultures, provides that the State shall protect and promote the Nigerian cultures which enhance human dignity and are consistent with the fundamental objectives in Chapter 11. These include the ideals of rights, obligations and opportunities before the law for every citizen; as well as recognition of the sanctity of human person and enhancement of human dignity.
Therefore, to give effect to Section 21, the High Court laws and Customary Court laws of many States of the federation empower the courts to uphold only cultures and customs that are not repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. This is in line with the constitutional provisions on the preservation of cultures that enhance human dignity, and are consistent with freedom, equity and justice.
It explained that the bill has and does not introduce any contention; rather it upholds the right of female surviving relatives of a deceased person to an equitable share of the properties left behind.
Speaking recently in Abuja during the 7th annual leadership lecture and graduation ceremony of the Centre for Leadership, Strategy and Development Study (Cebtre LSD), former First Lady of Ekiti State, and the wife of the Minister of solid Minerals, Mrs. Bisi Fayemi, said that Nigerian women have the rights to address their issues through legislation.
She said though she was not actually surprised that the bill was thrown out by the Senate during the second reading due to the way issues concerning women in the country have so far been treated, but however maintained that if truly the country wants to develop and achieve all the goals and aspirations to build an inclusive society, then the demands of women cannot continue to be ignored.
“We can’t continue to have a country where women and girls are not safe, and continue to be violated every day. Now, mothers are even afraid to send their daughters to school because of the fear that they are going to be abused. We cannot continue this way; all of us should be concerned. The principle around equality bill is that Nigerian women have a right to have their issues addressed and have all the concerns that we have been raising addressed through legislation and implemented accordingly.
“When politicians need the vote of women, when they need women to clap for them, campaign for them to vote for them, to stand long hours in the hot sun, to register to vote and actually do the voting, they do not know then that we have traditions and religions that are supposed to give men more power than women.
“Now that they are in those positions, women don’t matter anymore, this bill is going to be passed by the grace of God and we hope that our senators this time around are going to give it a due hearing and do the needful. I want to call on Nigerian women to send a representative to the Senate any time that the bill will be discussed. Nigerians need to know that that bill is presented on behalf of half of the population and that is a lot,” she said.
Former Independent National Electoral Commission Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), in Cross Rivers and Edo States, Barr. Mike Igini, said the country for a long time had excluded women as a very important segment of the society by not valuing their potential in our development efforts. He said if truly social developments are derivable social goals that we must attained, either in education, health, politics, economy, it means that we need leaders regardless of gender.
“The only pain that some of us have is that why do we still have to struggle to persuade society to recognise the fact that the earlier decisions about our lives were made and taken under women, from the time we were born up to the time we are adult? So, the question is why is it that we trust women to give birth to a child, to take care of that child, all those decisions would be taken at those vulnerable stages but, when it comes to the level of adulthood these same people cannot be trusted, cannot be seen as an integral part of the development process,” he lamented.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) also described the decision to reject the bill by the senators, most of whom it said have their children and family members schooling and residing abroad in civilised societies, as “unwise and irrational”.
“This unmitigated scandal has shown majority of the senators for what they truly are- unrepentant dubious male chauvinists and persons who don’t wish that Nigeria should assume her rightful place as a civilized member of the global town hall. Without equivocation the Senate must and should be absolutely condemned for rejecting a proposed bill aimed at eliminating all forms of discrimination against women.”
“We as a country that is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and a signatory of major human rights and equality conventions, treaties and international laws have depicted our political leadership as backward with this bogus and unsustainable reasons offered at the hallowed chamber of the National Assembly by elected representatives for turning down a good bill, that if transformed into an enforceable law is capable of catapulting Nigeria to the respectable height as a human rights compliant political entity.”
On his part, the Executive Director of the Centre, Dr. Otive Igbuzor said there is a necessity for the bill to be passed. “I want to use this opportunity to appeal to our legislators that we are living in the 21st century, we are not living in the 14th century. Gender Equality Bill is not only imperative, but a necessity, it is imperative if we want to develop as a country.”