As a result my endless encounters with first and second generation children of the most populated country in Africa, (Nigeria ranks number 7 in the list of countries by population) I have developed a growing curiosity of anything and everything Nigeria. Like many Pan-Africanist’s or Afropolitan’s raised in multiple and diverse spaces in the Diaspora, I too can testify that in my wide circle of “African” friends, most of them are either Nigerians or first or second generation Nigerian-insert another nationality here (i.e. Nigerian-American), a phenomena that can be rationally explained by the sheer number of Nigeria’s population. As such, my curiosities with Nigerian food, music, history, culture, politics, literature, and people can be explained by both my circle of friends and by the mounting global influence of Nigerian intellectuals, particularly those working in my interest areas of African literature, history and gender studies.
Both from a cultural and political perspective, Nigeria is a country that is insidiously nuanced with complexities and contradictions that put most countries to shame. Even with an increasing rate of female labor participation, which currently stands at 64.4 percent, and an increasing rate of enrollment of both primary and secondary school girls, both up an average of 2% from 2010, basic human rights, particularly those of women, remain unenforceable.
Even though the Nigerian constitution does not specifically spell out the rights of women, it does generally and clearly deal with discrimination based on sex. According to Article 42(1) (a) (b), (2) and (3) of 1999 Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN), discrimination based on sex is fully prohibited. Article 42(2) clearly indicates, that “No citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely by reason of the circumstances of his [her] birth.”
Moreover, to put it simply, the Nigerian government has ratified one too many international conventions, which comprehensively engage with women’s rights and the full elimination of gender violence, for there to be any questions in as far as where the State should stand in regards to women’s rights. Having, without reservations, ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the central and most comprehensive human rights treaty on the elimination of discrimination against women and an instrument with the aim to achieve equal rights for women everywhere in the world, in 1985, the Nigerian State has since been liable to set national laws that comply with this international standard-setting document that is there to establish the universality of the principles of equality between men and women.
As a member of the African Union, the Nigerian government reiterated it’s commitment, through the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, which reaffirms the principle of gender equality as enshrined in Article 4(l) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union, to “continue, [to] expand and accelerate efforts to promote gender equality at all levels.”
Furthermore, the Nigerian government ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2004 and as such indicated it’s determination to “ensure that the rights of women are promoted, realised and protected in order to enable them to enjoy fully all their human rights.”
Despite this actionable background on women’s rights and gender equality, which is indicative in the protocols, charters and conventions ratified by the Nigeria government, the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill, proposed by one of the country’s few female senators, Abiodun Olujimi, and meant to “incorporate and enforce certain provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, National Gender Policy, and other matters connected therewith” as of Tuesday, March 15, 2016, failed to get past the second reading in the Nigerian Senate.
In a parliament that is presently constituted by roughly 4% of female members, according to the Nigerian Feminist Forum Secretariat, “the overwhelming rejection of the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill by a male dominated legislature is a clear indication of why more women are needed in decision making positions in order to safeguard the erosion of their rights and welfare.” The bill, which was rejected based on cultural and religious reasons, received from elected officials, criticisms such as that the bill is an invasion into religious and traditional realms of marriage, that it is in conflict with the Nigerian Constitution and that it negates the principles of the Sharia law, which the Constitution recognizes.
The rejection of the bill in Nigeria’s senate is a hard pill to swallow for women’s rights activists and feminists across the globe. It is clearly indicative of the amount of work and consciousness raising, to both men and women, yet to be done. Based on the responses from the bill, it is clear that when it comes to women’s rights issues in Nigeria, there is a rampant and deeply engrained indifference as well as a nonchalant attitude from the majority male decision makers. A bill which had the power to have Nigeria’s national laws comply with the international agreements it so avidly signs, as such to make these treaties enforceable, shamefully further symbolizes the indoctrination of patriarchal norms, which seem to take a life of their own, when it comes to decision making about African women’s rights and gender equality.
Yes, the issue is so much about consciousness raising to change deeply engrained sexist notions about the roles of women in both the public and private spheres, but the issue is also about how to get these kinds of bills passed, particularly in more traditional and gender normative spaces like Nigeria. As Saratu Abiola shared in her article, How We Make Sure Nigeria’s Gender Equality Bill Passes Next Time, maybe it was the “failure to mobilize effectively, [that] hurt the chances of the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill.” Abiola asserts that although “the bill was first introduced by Sen. Chris Anyanwu in 2010” and “was even mentioned in the 2012 Gender in Nigeria report” it was last October that this version of the bill had its first reading, “but [unfortunately] the first time most people ever heard of the bill was on the day the second reading failed, which is a huge missed opportunity.” The fact that it was only after it’s failure to pass senate, that such a landmark bill gained main stream momentum, is hugely problematic. Considering the immense role of social media in Nigeria’s political engagement and mobilization, this is an approach to be reconsidered, especially when the bill comes back again of the senate floor.
The truth is that based on the number of women’s rights and gender equality treaties that the Nigerian government has ratified, to only step back now, and fail to pass a bill, which within the formal bounds of the State, is only supposed to reiterate Nigeria’s so-called commitment to women’s rights, is just beyond any contradiction, complexity and inconsistency, our minds should be able to grapple with. Traditional notions of gender norms are so engrained within the minds and hearts of our policy makers, that they fail to recognize how contradictory such decision making is, and fail to acknowledge how such a decision is having us step back to a time and space when women were not considered as liberal and rational beings.
It’s beyond my understanding to imagine how these men in positions of privilege, could be so threatened about the possibility of women working as active and equal participants within the public space. Though there are senators who recognize the important and critical role that women, as human beings, play within the public force, the majority are threatened. They are threatened that the insinuation of women as equals, plus their protection against violence in both the public and domestic spheres, as well as the elimination of discrimination against their participation in the labor force, will somehow threaten their roles as “patriarchs and governors” of both the “state and home.”
It’s a crying shame that in 2016, in the third-wave feminist era, we still have to have this conversation. It’s a crying shame that in a country where women are as strong-willed and determined as Nigerian women are, and are avid and active participants of the labor force in different capacities, that the law still fails to protect them by the lack of enforcement of no discrimination mandates. It’s a shame that though the language of human rights is utilized time and time again as Nigeria participates in international bodies, the reality on the ground is that a basic bill such as this, cannot even pass senate. It’s a crying shame that in 2016, the year of where the theme of the 26th African Union summit is, African Year of Human Rights, With Particular Focus on Women Rights, that we have to once again mobilize as ever before, rally all of our African feminist armies, as there an enormous and substantive work that lies before us.
Human rights activist Bukky Shonibare recently shared, “It is unfortunate that some men who see the emancipation of women as a threat are the ones being trusted with making laws and order.” Isn’t that the truth?
Would love to hear your thoughts? What do you think is the future of women’s rights in Nigerian? On the African continent? And in the world more generally?
-Unravel Away Artist-