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Monday, June 22, 2009

Iyalla-Amandi: Legal Victory Raises Ante on Fight Against Gender Discrimination

June 22, 2009

ALTHOUGH the courts have demonstrated their willingness to strike down practices that undermine the full enjoyment of human rights by women in the country, BEN UKWUOMA and NIKE SOTADE write that the major challenge is for women to speak out in cases of violation of their rights regardless of the stigma or consequences that may follow.

IT has been described as a landmark judgment against one of the most discriminatory laws against Nigerian women. Last week in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Dr Priye Iyalla-Amadi, wife of renowned author Elechi Amadi, won a legal battle against the Nigerian Immigration Service, which has brought to the fore the need to do away with all obnoxious laws that appear to have entrenched gender inequality in the nation's social milieu.

Mrs. Iyalla-Amadi had sought a replacement of her international passport in February 2008 and was told by Immigration officials in Port Harcourt that she needed written permission from her husband first.

Apparently irked by this administrative policy that tramples on her right, she headed straight to the court and was not disappointed.

Justice G.K. Olotu, presiding judge of the Federal High court, in his verdict, reportedly said: "This kind of policy has no place in 21st century Nigeria."

Indeed, the judgment which jolted many Nigerians has once again brought to the fore the issue of discrimination against women in the country which is still being sustained by discriminatory laws, policies and social and cultural practices.

Although discrimination is enshrined in the constitution, it has remained more in breach than in enforcement.

"Female genital mutilation, preference for a male child and widowhood rites is still prevalent in most parts of the country. Women face discrimination in access to education, employment and political life," the Civil Liberties Organisation of Nigeria (CLO) stated in a report.

The discriminatory burdens placed on women include those of chastity, of making marriage work at all cost, of fertility and fertility control, and the burden of being "clean and desirable" as symbolised by female circumcision. Others include the burden to prove rape both in the community and in a court of law, to raise 'good' children, and to mourn their husbands to the taste and dictates of his relatives. "Compared to men, Nigerian society treats women as little better than beasts of burden" women activists claimed.

Lady Elizabeth Okonkwo, Registrar Medical Laboratory Science Council of Nigeria said: "Generally, we operate within context of our culture. There are norms in the family system that create discrimination. For instance, when a child is born in a family particularly the first born, the level of jubilation and excitement depends on the sex of the baby. Remember that MTN advert which has been rested apparently due to protest by some women? Again in the choice of chores in the house, the female folks are given something less tasking. Consider a family in a financial stress, the first casualty is the woman who will be asked to withdraw from school or in most cases given out in marriage without recourse to what the woman will become in future. If you situate these examples to our inheritance laws, most of which are tilted towards the men at all levels, you will appreciate what am driving at,"

She continued: "In the southeast where I come from, despite all the decided cases from the courts, women are still being treated as if they are not part of the family. Even, when a Will is written, it is as if the women do not exist. When a man dies, the wife is expected to be in a state of mourning. Not only would her movement be restricted, in many cases she is not even allowed to take her bath for months. In extreme cases she could be called to explain the circumstances of his death. In some places the woman will be forced to drink water used to bath the corpse. Tell me who would not die from drinking that kind of water,"

"All these are not laws but societal norms which have refused to go. In some societies, something as simple as breaking a kola nut in public is taboo for woman. While title which is supposed to confer respectability and achievement, is not recognized in some communities,

To Dr Joy Ezeilo, Founding Executive Director Women Aid Collective (WACOL), the legal victory recorded in Port Harcourt is a pointer to other discriminatory polices and laws against women in the country.

"Many of these laws could be seen in the Customary, Evidence and Criminal laws. While the customary laws have prevented women in participating in the decision-making meetings in the community levels, inheritance rights and customary divorce and some administrative policies have tended to consign women into the dustbins. Take for instance the police bail issue. As I am taking to you, that policy still subsists, despite official denials.

But The Guardian learnt that one of the reasons police authorities are reluctant to allow women to stand as Sureties in bail is because of the conditions usually attached to bails.

"We don't want to visit the consequences of jumping bails on women. In Sureties you are required to forfeit the bail bond or go to jail" a police officer told The Guardian.

But, Ezeilo a legal practitioner retorted:"We don't want that privilege that smacks of discrimination. Section 24 of the constitution must apply. There are women who are rich that can meet the conditions and stand the consequences.

Within the international human rights literature, the problem of discrimination has been conceptualized as involving the denial of self_determination to women.

In feminist literature, discrimination against women is taken to manifest itself in the forms of gender, class and personal discrimination.

Opportunities existed for women in pre-colonial Nigerian society to take leadership roles in politics, religion, social and economic life.

Professor Bolanle Awe's book, Nigerian Women in Historical Perspective gives examples of women leaders of the past: Nana Asmau of Zauzzau, Idia of Benin, and Moremi of Ife. Numerous legends and oral traditions also point to the power of women in pre-colonial Nigerian society.

The origins of structures of inequality that led to discrimination against women are, found in pre_colonial societies with predominantly male_dominant social systems.

However, they were institutionalized as a new legal structure-"Native Law and Customs"-during colonial rule. Customs such as child marriage, betrothal and widowhood rites have their origins in the pre_colonial era, as did genital operations.

The Nigerian constitution of 1979 prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, as do the constitutions of 1992 and 1999. All women have a right to suffrage once they are above the age of 18 and can contest in political elections once above the age of 21.

No customary prohibitions prevent women's participation in politics, but women have not contested for political positions on a level matching men.

Women's hesitancy to be involved in politics dates to the period of decolonization period when politics was characterized by gross abuse and physical violence.

However, Ezeilo said, the women's overall political representation and participation in government from available statistics is less than 10 per cent.

According to available statistics, out of 2273 elected into the House of representative from 1979 to 2007, only 105 women were elected. The picture is even gloomier in the Senate, where only 26 women were elected out of 884 elected during the said period.

"The conceptualized public and private sphere dichotomy consigns women's roles in the domestic sphere and sees the public space as traditional place for men, thereby perpetuating discrimination and distinctions on the basis of sex, resulting in exclusion and marginalization of women in politics and public life."

So far, no significant political party in Nigeria has placed women's promotion to key decision-making positions on its agenda.

A glossily examination of political parties constitutions and manifestoes in the country portrays glaringly the lack of political will to change the status quo and ensure a better gender balance of power in the political system.

"It is a common knowledge that the only position given to women in political parties executive is the so called "Woman/Women Leader" position, which smacks of tokenism and shows a reticence in promoting women to key party positions. It is within this context that recent recommendation of the Electoral Reform Committee becomes significant-that political parties should have 20 per cent of women in its governance body,"

"Since women's political wings have been banned it appears that women politicians have no other space for democratic engagement other than through an individual office of the "Woman Leader". I think is time we re-examine the merits and demerits of women's branches or wings," she declared. "Although, it has been argued that women's branches or organizations within a party places women in a secondary position and therefore constitutes discrimination; there is still need to interrogate this issue further given our level of gender backwardness in politics. Will it not serve women's interest better if they have their space to grow and mentor other new female entrants in the political arena as well as mobilize the female constituency towards greater contribution in shaping the political process in Nigeria?" she queried.

Late Professor Jadeola Akande, former vice Chancellor Lagos State University (LASU) in a paper delivered at the University, contended that Nigerian women do not have full legal capacity "insofar as they are unable to independently enter into contracts, ... acquire and own property ... enter into other legal transactions, sue or be sued."

The extent of women's practical freedom also varies with class, level of education and type of marriage. Within polygynous marriages, women may have more freedom than within monogamous ones, as they are not subjected to the presumption of legal unity in monogamous marriage, which gives the man the advantage.

In terms of the capacity to marry, the right of consent and the requirements of bride wealth-payment, women's right to independent decision-making may be curtailed.

In general, Nigerian law according to legal practitioners, limits the rights of a woman in marriage under all legal systems (statutory law, Sharia, and customary law).

For instance, The Guardian found that in a typical Muslim communities, divorce by repudiation is still acceptable, while under the customary law, women have a right to support and housing, but not to the husband's property or incomes. Likewise, men have no right to their spouse's property or income.

However, pre-colonial marriage laws allowed for conciliation and negotiation in the event of marriage breakdowns, which may have resulted in better treatment of the woman. In addition, a divorced woman could return to her lineage where the head of the lineage could grant her access to property.

Under statutory law, a woman technically has equal rights with her husband to the custody and guardianship of children upon divorce, but the application of the law is often such that work within the marriage is not considered an economic contribution. Hence, there is no enforcement of maintenance payments.

Another source of discrimination is to be found within the practice of religion. In both Christianity and Islam, there is a presumption of the inequality between women and men that did not necessarily exist in pre-colonial religion. In spite of Islamic provisions for the equality of all believers, purdah and polygyny are considered obligatory. Since peasants cannot afford to seclude their wives, these phenomena are linked to class.

In Christianity, the orthodox position is that women should be submissive to men. Women's restricted access to information in Islam, likewise encouraged them to accept a submissive role. Even in the case of Christianity, education and a re_conceptualization of the role of women is necessary if significant progress is to be made. Any prescriptions or conditions that may be found in the definition of the role of women in the Bible remain inadequate as the sole harbingers of change. Both religions contribute to the continuation of discrimination against women.

The personal rights of women to exercise control over their bodies is limited also by female genital operations, which in some cases create medical problems, including maternal and infant mortality, especially when combined with pregnancy at too early an age.

"These practices violate both African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN) principles on basic human rights. The Economic Commission for Africa also condemns them but rightly pinpoints the complexity of the situation." Ezeilo said

The Guardian learnt that another facet of the inability of women to exercise independent control over their bodies relates to the role of culture in the exercise of social control over individuals.

The status of women is lower than that of men as a result of some predominant cultural practices. For instance, women are made to accept the superiority of men in all aspects of socio-cultural life. In some settings, discrimination starts from birth when a child is not loved or accepted because she is a girl. This reflects in the way girl-children are treated.

Investigations showed that they are not given equal place in some homes neither is the girl-child given the same opportunities for schooling. Women also have less access to credit and economic resources and maternal morbidity and mortality are very high.

Ezilo suggested: "The female parliamentarians have additional task of advocating for legal reforms. It is believed that Parliament will change as more women are elected. However, to have a significant impact on the culture of an organization, women must occupy at least one third of the available space - the target referred to as the "critical mass of women."

"The representation of women in parliament and the inclusion of their perspectives and experience into law making and other decision making spheres will inevitably lead to solutions that are more viable, sustainable and satisfy a broader range of the society. That is why women should be part of the process and why it matters, in other words, that is why it is very important that all facets of our beloved country, Nigeria benefits as we find better and more appropriate solutions for our problems."

"A few examples from Africa will show that Nigeria is a laggard in terms of political development of its women folk. The National Parliament in Rwanda today has a near 50/50 representation for women and men. South Africa's National Assembly which ranked 13th out of 183 countries in a 2005 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union has 129 of its 400 member as women. 75 of four national presiding officers, three are women: the speaker and deputy speaker of the National Assembly and the deputy chairperson of the National Council of Provinces. South Africa is the only African country with a woman in the position of deputy president. Of the 28 members of the national cabinet appointed in 2004, 12 were women, and 10 of 21 deputy ministers were also women. Four of the nine provincial premiers are women and most provinces have at least two female representatives in councils of 10 members,'

In 2006, the federal ministry of Women's Affairs (FMWA) pushed for the adoption of the National Gender Policy to replace the National Policy on Women, which was adopted in 2000.

The overall policy goal is to build a just society devoid of discrimination, harness the full potentials of all social groups regardless of sex or circumstance, promote the enjoyment of fundamental human rights and protect the health, social, economic and political well being of all citizens in order to achieve equitable rapid economic growth; evolve an evidence - based planning and governance system where human, social, financial and technological resources are efficiently and effectively deployed for sustainable development.

While one of its policy objectives is to include the principles of United Nation's Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other global and regional frameworks that support gender equality and women empowerment in the country's laws, legislative processes, judicial and administrative systems.

The policy sets as a target the adoption of special measures, quotas and mechanisms for achieving minimum critical threshold of women in political offices, party organs and public life by pursuing 35 percent affirmative action in favour of women to bridge gender gaps in political representation in both elective and appointive posts at all levels by 2015.

By adopting the national gender policy, experts said the country has recognized the vital role of gender-specific mechanisms within the government for mainstreaming gender and promoting women's empowerment. Unfortunately, The Guardian learnt that most of the targets sets with timeframe are yet to be met.

Nigeria acceded to United Nation's Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1984 and signed the ratification document in 1985 under the Babangida Administration. Of the 192-member-United Nations Organisation, 185 had endorsed CEDAW, leaving only seven countries to endorse the universal instrument.

In early 2007, the National Assembly rejected a bill incorporating the CEDAW convention into domestic legislation.

First Lady, Hajiya Turai Yar'Adua is not happy with the discrimination being perpetuated against women in the country.

Speaking recently at a two-day national workshop on the implementation of the United Nation's Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in Abuja, the First Lady, while explaining the non-adoption of the previous bill for the domestication of the convention by the National Assembly failed due to lack of effective advocacy, she urged all concerned to correct the lapse and pledged her support and commitment to facilitating the early passage of the bill.

"Regrettably, almost 30 years after the ratification of the Convention, we still have a lot to do with in order to ensure its solid domestication," she noted.

Going by the information recently given to female journalists by frontline female politician Mrs. Oluremi Adiukwu-Bakare former Commissioner of Women Affairs, and Chieftaincy, Local Government and Land Matters in the last administration of Governor Ahmed Bola Tinubu, in Lagos State, women still need to fight the good fight for them to get their rights entrenched and passed into law by the National Assembly.

Adiukwu-Bakare who is currently serving as a member of different Committees on Electoral Reforms, both at the National Assembly and Presidential levels lamented how the National Council of States brazenly removed issues on Gender Reforms.

She said: " We had the Gender Electoral Reform Committee in which all female members of the National Assembly were members and I was actively involved. We had our own electoral reform agenda and we presented it to the Justice Uwais Electoral Reform Committee, which was accepted from us. But there was this other committee, which Nigerians did not present anything to, who equally came up with their own White Paper and the Council of States, too, brought another White Paper. In the electoral reform that we presented to the Justice Uwais Committee, we were very emphatic on gender issues, but the white paper that the Council of States members brought out just expunged anything on gender. That was really sacrilegious, I couldn't believe it! So we are fighting some of these things and, hopefully, we would be able to fight it between now and 2010, so that in 2011, Nigerian women would have better hopes."