Nigeria: Why are Nigerian lawmakers afraid of gender equality?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Wednesday, 29 December 2021 12:58

A woman walks past Nigeria's federal secretariat in Abuja
A woman walks past Nigeria's federal secretariat in capital Abuja March 18, 2010. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

For the last 14 years, Nigerian federal lawmakers have frustrated attempts to pass a law that promotes gender equality and protects women from discrimination. With less than two years to the end of the 9th National Assembly, will this jinx be broken?

A script, which many Nigerians are all too familiar with, played out in the Senate chamber recently when one of the few federal female lawmakers, Senator Abiodun Olujimi, attempted to get her colleagues to pass the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill. Once more, however, the bill that seeks to guarantee women’s rights to equal opportunities as men was opposed by the male-dominated Senate.

The proposed law directs public institutions to ensure that a minimum of 35% of all offices, positions or appointments are reserved for women. It also mandates public or private institutions to take appropriate measures to grant equal pay to persons of the same level of skill, competence and knowledge, regardless of gender. The bill also states that a widow must not be subjected to inhuman treatment and that she is also entitled to the custody of her children after the death of her husband, unless it is contrary to the welfare of the children.

Senator Yusuf Yusuf argued against the bill claiming that it attempts to make women equal to men and contradict Islamic tenets. “I will not support the passage of this unless the word ‘equal’ is removed. If we have it as ‘Gender Opportunities Bill’, fine, but when you bring equality into it, it infringes into the practice of the Islamic religion.”

We need executive involvement in this bill. There is a minister of women affairs who needs to be part of this conversation. I don’t think the president has shown any interest in this bill.

Another lawmaker, Senator Aliyu Wamakko from the conservative Sokoto State, argued that the bill is against Islamic canons. “When it comes to socio-cultural practices, it is wrong. If they say ‘equity’, it is okay, but equality, no. It infringes on the Islamic religion and for that reason, I do not support this bill.”

Although three lawmakers, including Stella Oduah, Akon Eyankenyi and Istifanus Gyang, supported the bill and encouraged other lawmakers to endorse it, it was clear that the leadership of the Senate did not want to pass it. Senator Olujimi subsequently bowed to pressure and withdrew the bill in order to consult further with the senators to get their support.

One rejection too many

This is not the first time that Nigerian lawmakers have stifled a bill that seeks to promote gender equality. Since 2003, similar bills have been rejected by the National Assembly at least 11 times, based on stiff opposition mainly from federal lawmakers for religious and cultural reasons.

All the rejected bills, though different, have essentially been similar in that they seek to promote equality and canvass affirmative action for women to boost their participation in politics. They also seek to domesticate the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was ratified by Nigeria in 1985.

Some bills that have failed to scale through at the National Assembly include the Gender Equal Opportunities, Abuse and Administration Bill, 2010 as well as the Gender Equal Opportunities Abuse and Administration Bill 2012 – both sponsored by Sen. Helen Esuene. Other bills include:

  • Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Bill, 2012;
  • Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill, 2014 – both sponsored by Uzoma Nkem-Abonta;
  • Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Act, 2015;
  • Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill, 2015 to Ensure that all Political Parties are Gender Sensitive and to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination in all Political Parties;
  • The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Alteration) Bill, 2016 (HB 538);
  • The Women Participation in Election Support Bill, 2018.

In March 2016, Senator Olujimi attempted to get the bill passed, but it was rejected because of religious objections and other cultural issues. Sani Yerima, the first governor to introduce Sharia law, argued that the gender equality bill contravenes the constitution, which recognises aspects of Islamic cannons. The bill was eventually dropped after a vote at the Senate.

In 2018, the bill was amended and submitted again by Senator Olujimi. This time around, it scaled second reading, but died a natural death at the committee level when lawmakers abandoned their jobs and began campaigning for the 2019 elections.

Abia State Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe later explained that his colleagues rejected the bill because they believed it “could give women too much freedom and lead them to prostitution, lesbianism and other social vices.”

If the federal cabinet endorses a bill and sends it to the National Assembly, it would be difficult for […] lawmakers to throw it out.

During plenary, Gudaji Kazaure, a member of the House of Representatives, argued that giving women too much power could be detrimental to society.

“It is good to give women opportunities, but not too much… When women go ‘zigzag’, we (men) are the ones to control them. That is why God says they should come under us. They should marry and serve under us…but one thing I fear, they control us at home… When we give them the opportunity, they would control us outside and in the home, they would capture everything,” he said.

Women lose out

Due to the patriarchal orientation of Nigeria, women are still marginalised in almost every area. The statistics are worse in Northern Nigeria, where reports say 78% of girls are married off by age 18. An estimated 44% of girls in Nigeria get married before their 18th birthday, according to Save the Children International. UNICEF also reports that Nigeria has the largest number of child brides in Africa, with about 23 million girls and women married off as children.

With many women deprived of education and other opportunities that their male counterparts get, they lack access to funds to contest elections against men. The National Assembly, which has a total of 469 federal lawmakers, has only 19 women, about 4%.

Data obtained from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of national parliaments, shows that Nigeria ranks 186 in the world as far as gender equality in parliaments is concerned. Nigeria also ranks lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Experts believe this is one of the reasons laws promoting gender equality are usually thrown out.

“This arrogance of a few is unacceptable. The women at the National Assembly may not be speaking for all of us. We know how many of them got there. It is not really representative. Nigerian politics needs to be demonetised,” Prof. Yemi Sonaiya, the only female candidate in the 2015 presidential election, tells The Africa Report.

These two regions are being forced to live together as one nation and the Islamic part is in the majority… That is why the gender equality bill will never be passed.

Sonaiya, who is part of a coalition known as #FixPolitics, said there should be a provision in the Nigerian constitution for a referendum so that sensitive issues could be decided by the Nigerian populace and not a few men in the legislative arm of government.

However, a former lawmaker, Senator Femi Okurounmu, believes that although the Nigerian constitution says the country is secular, it is obvious that in reality, it is a multi-religious nation. According to him, the Muslim North will continue to dictate issues because they have the population.

“A lot of people pretend not to understand that Nigeria is not one country. A part of the country is majority Islamic and driven by Islamic practices and culture in the north. The other part of the country seems to be secular, and they try to divorce religion from politics.

“These two regions are being forced to live together as one nation and the Islamic part is in the majority. That is why it is only what the Muslim North wants that becomes law. That is why we are clamouring for a new constitution. The minority will have their say, but the northerners will have their way. That is why the gender equality bill will never be passed,” Okurounmu says.

However, a former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Chidi Odinkalu, tells The Africa Report that the gender equality bill would only be passed after an intense campaign that must be supported by the presidency.

Odinkalu notes that Nigeria is a signatory to many international treaties that guarantee the protection of women’s rights and gender equality. Gender equality is also one of the Sustainable Development Goals which Nigeria has pledged to.

He believes that the female lawmakers in the National Assembly cannot do it alone, but must collaborate with several others.

“We need executive involvement in this bill. There is a minister of women affairs who needs to be part of this conversation. I don’t think the president has shown any interest in this bill. We need to get them at that level to support the bill for it to work. If the federal cabinet endorses a bill and sends it to the National Assembly, it would be difficult for […] lawmakers to throw it out,” Odinkalu says.

For her part, Senator Olujimi says she will make amendments to the bill and submit it again. She believes that the buzz that the bill has generated could help her cause.

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