Women have the same intrinsic worth as men

Discriminated against at every level, women and girls traditionally have limited access to education, ownership of land and assets in Nigeria. And they are denied equal treatment in inheritance rights, human resources development and sustainable economic growth. It is therefore worrisome that at a time they are seeking equal treatment and participation in issues that concern them and their families, some respected traditional rulers who ordinarily should know better are making utterances that are entirely unhelpful.

The general notion in our country that women are inferior to men was recently reinforced when President Muhammadu Buhari, at a press conference in Germany, said the role of his wife did not extend beyond the kitchen and “the other room”. It was an unfortunate gaffe, especially given that women in Nigeria have made their mark in the political and economic arena. Only recently, a Nigerian woman, Amina Mohammed, was named as the Deputy Secretary General to United Nations.

Against the background that just last September, gender equality was declared “not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world” President Buhari’s remarks about his wife was unfortunate. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on which Ms Mohammed was an adviser to the outgoing United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, had helped set as one of the goals, undertaking reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources.

It is all the more disheartening that in this climate, the Nigerian Senate has been found wanting in its role to help achieve these new goals of promoting gender equality. In September last year, a watered down version of the Gender and Equality Bill passed a second reading in the Senate, and was referred to the committee on judiciary, human rights and legal matters. The first bill put forward six months earlier, and which included equal rights for women in marriages, divorce, property ownership and inheritance, was voted down. That bill was rejected because members of the upper arm of parliament said “enacting a law to accord women equal rights with men was un-African and anti-religious”.

There are 102 men and seven women in the Nigerian Senate. But the ratio of women to men in the Senate should not influence the seriousness with which issues relating to women should be taken. Women make up about 50 per cent of the Nigerian population. Therefore, it makes no sense to exclude half of our population from contributing to national prosperity and well-being for archaic and oppressive reasons.

Gender equality is not just a human rights issue, it is essential for the achievement of sustainable development and a peaceful, prosperous world. Therefore, circumscribing the access to opportunities that ultimately empowers women and girls is counterproductive. Women are not the objects of pleasure of men or property to be used and disposed of. Indeed, women have the same intrinsic worth as men. Therefore any custom that seeks to treat them as inferior to men or treats women as the property of their husbands cannot and should not stand.

In a landmark judgment in 2014, the Supreme Court held that the Igbo Customary Law which bars the female child, irrespective of the circumstances of her birth, from inheriting or partaking in the sharing of the property and estate of her father, is a violation of her right to freedom from discrimination enshrined in section 42 (1) (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. According to the Supreme Court, “any culture that disinherits a daughter from her father’s estate or wife from her husband’s property by reason of God-instituted gender differential should be punitively dealt with.”