Nigerian women deserve a better deal from the society

As women all over the world mark the International Women’s Day and celebrate their achievements in the last century, critical stakeholders in Nigeria must also come to terms with the fact that our women and girls deserve a better deal from the society. Meanwhile, we must also use this occasion to call on the authorities to do all within their powers to ensure the speedy recovery of the more than one hundred girls that were recently abducted from a secondary school in Yobe State by Boko Haram insurgents.

Discriminated against at every level, women and girls traditionally have limited access to education in addition to 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 on issues that concern them and their families, critical institutions of state like the National Assembly would treat our women almost with contempt.

It is indeed disheartening that the National Assembly has been found wanting in its role to help achieve the goals of promoting gender equality in the country. In September 2015, 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 senators said “enacting a law to accord women equal rights with men was un-African and anti-religious”.

The essence of the Gender Equality Bill, according to women groups, is not to re-invent the wheel but rather to give effect to section 21 of the 1999 Constitution as amended. But because the Nigerian society is patriarchal, women are subordinated while forced marriage, domestic and sexual violence against girls and women and other violations are either condoned or treated with levity.

Notwithstanding these long-established injustices, women in Nigeria have made their mark in the political and economic institutions and excelled. For this, Nigerian women owe a debt of gratitude to pioneering women like the late Mrs Funmilayo Ransome Kuti who, as part of the Women’s International Democratic Foundation (WIDF) in the 1940’s, fought for women’s rights. Representations from the WIDF indeed played pivotal role in the UN declaration of 1975 as International Women’s Year.

In modern times, Nigerian women have also played such critical roles in the advancement of gender issues. For instance, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) of the United Nations, on which a Nigerian woman, Ms Amina Mohammed, the current Deputy Secretary General, had actively participated in developing, set as one of the goals the undertaking of 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.

The general notion in our country that women are inferior to men is unsustainable especially because gender equality is not just a human rights issue, it is essential for the achievement of sustainable development and a peaceful and prosperous world. Therefore, circumscribing access to opportunities that ultimately empowers women and girls is counterproductive. Besides, women make up about 50 per cent of the Nigerian population. It makes no sense to exclude half of our population from maximising their potential simply for archaic and oppressive reasons.