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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Reasons Why The Gender Equality Bill Was Rejected

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The Nigerian Senate voted to consider the Gender and Equal Opportunities (GEO) bill for a second reading on Tuesday. The bill sought to end discrimination towards women, eliminate certain cultural and customary practices that impede women development and increase opportunities for women in the society. The fate of the bill was decided between the “Ayes” and the “Nays”. The Nays carried the day and unfortunately the bill was thrown out. As expected, Nigerians reacted, social media exploded and most Nigerians took to twitter and other forms to express their disgust.
In seeking further understanding of why the bill failed to gather support, I believe, a thorough knowledge of its contents are fundamental to making any comment or reservations. One does not drink a cup of hot tea at once, first, a sip to prevent a burn, then a mouthful but with the rise of social media, people rush to make a mouthful of harsh and uninformed commentary. While Nigerians may be partly right to condemn the rejection of the GEObill, the Senators were also right in rejecting the bill. I would have voted against the bill not because I am against equality or diminished opportunities for women rather the sponsor of the bill, Senator Biodun Olujimi and the bill itself remain vague in very crucial areas. Legislators must be very precise and clear when promoting and creating laws. Any ambiguity in the law births confusion. Confusion grows into error and an error within laws feeds lawlessness unless corrected.

NOTE: Before I commence, its only right I clear any misconceptions that might result from the reading of this article.
i. I am not a misogynist. I love women to the core and going through this blog would put to rest that notion.
ii. I am not against the passing of the bill (very far from it). I am against the raping of some of our cultural beliefs in the name of gender equality.
VERY IMPORTANT: Please, click HERE download the full Bill (PDF format) to fully understand what the Bill entails before passing judgement.

Now let’s take a closer look at the bill in toto:
  • The first important section of the bill which is Section 4 entitled “Prohibition of discrimination” which speaks against discrimination against any person on the ground of gender, age or disability passes the first integrity test.
  • The next section, Section 5 which is titled “Promotion of equality, full development and advancement of all persons” which entails laws that accord women, children and other persons equality before the law also scales through the integrity test.
  • The first contentious section in the bill is Section 6 titled “Adoption of temporary special measures to eliminate discrimination” which above all seeks a 35% quota for women is all offices/positions/appointments. What right does a Bill have to instruct an institution or company that it must employ 35% of women into its work force? What if the job is physically demanding? And what happens to institutions like saloons, stylists which employ predominantly women? Are they also supposed to employ minimum 35% of men also? The bill fails explicitly in this regard.
  • By a distance the most contentious section of the bill is Section 7 titled “Modification of socio-cultural practices” (by the way, why would a Bill seek to modify our cultural beliefs that has kept us “sane” for decades. The same cultural believes we chastise the Western World for lacking?) The first subsections of this section pass the test but then comes the sixth subsection which states,
“A widow shall have the right to an equitable share in the inheritance of the property of her husband and shall have the right to continue to live in the matrimonial house. In case of remarriage, she shall retain this right if the house belongs to her or she has inherited it.”
For starters, what is considered equitable (definition: fair and impartial). Is it 10%, 25%, 40%, 60%??? Who determines the equitable distribution in sharing the properties? These are unanswered questions.
In my opinion, a widow is entitled to everything her late husband owns but what if she’s culpable to his death. What then happens? The Bill doesn’t specify.
Another contentious part of Section 7 reads,
“Women and men shall have the right to inherit, in equitable shares, their parents’ properties.”
Traditional beliefs beg to differ. The little I know about marriage in Africa is that once a woman chooses to get married, her husband pays her bride price which invariably “buys” her away from her family to her husband’s family. She therefore forfeits her maiden name and takes her husband’s name. In turn forfeiting her parent’s properties for her husbands. What the Bill is saying is that if her husband dies, she inherits his properties and if her parents die, she inherits theirs also. Only one woman with rights in two different homes? Culture frowns against such.
  • Moving on, Section 8, 9 and 10 titled “Elimination of discrimination to political and public life”, “Elimination of discrimination in the field of Education” and “Elimination of discrimination in the field of Employment” respectively all carry their weight and are easily agreeable with.
  • The next section that would raised a few eyebrows is Section 11 titled “Elimination of discrimination on grounds of marital status”. The first subsection states that no institution should discriminate against women on ground of marital status or maternity. To put this into context, I had my first degree in one of the top Private Universities in the country (often branded a glorified Secondary School…I am sure you know which). This institution has engraved in its rules that getting pregnant while as a student gets you expelled. No excuses. This bill seeks to override the rules of this school and many others. So a girl gets pregnant and she cites this Bill and the institution has no right but to wave aside their rules in favour of her because of the Bill? Absurd.
  • Section 12 titled “Elimination of discrimination in the field of health” states,
“The Government shall protect the reproductive rights of women to terminate a pregnancy in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus”.
Are the sponsors of this bill also saying abortion should be legalized? (Remember, abortion is not legal in Nigeria). Certainly, if abortion is to be legalized by such indirect means, then laws must be created to also protect women who seek termination of pregnancy. Stigmatization against women who have had abortions is prevalent in our society and sadly no where in the bill does it state measures to guard against such.
  • Sections 13 and 14 titled “Elimination of discrimination on socio- economic grounds” and “Right to choose indigeneship and identity” respectively could be passed without any hindrance.
  • The shortest section which is Section 15 which states “Women shall have equal rights with men to confer their citizenship on their children”has cultural ramifications. Culturally speaking, children naturally take after their father’s citizenship. But this Bill seeks to make it an option. So let’s take for example that Ethnicity could be classified as Citizenship. If an Edo man marries a Lagos woman. It means the woman could also enforce her right for the children to claim to be from Lagos instead of Edo State. Uncultural.
  • Sections 16 and 17 titled “The Rights of persons in rural communities” and “Rights in matters relating to marriage and family
    relations” respectively could also be passed without any hiccups.
  • Section 18, subsection (a) says all forms of violence against women including forced or unwanted sex is punishable with imprisonment and fine. Are the sponsors saying that a husband can rape his wife? Which remains a very grey area.
  • Section 19 starts off on a good note but sub section (b) is probably what irked the Northern Senators the most. The subsection states “the minimum age of marriage for women shall 18 years”. Which goes against Northern beliefs where girls are married off as early as 14 years. I am all in favour of legal age for marriage being 18 years but who am I to enforce my beliefs on another tribe/religion’s way of life?
  • Subsection (d) is by a distance the most interesting statement in the while bill which states,
“a woman and a man shall jointly contribute to safeguarding the interests of the family, protecting and educating their children”.
Does this mean that women MUST contribute equally money wise to the upkeep of the family? Does his bring an end to a man becoming the breadwinner? Maybe women and men are both equal breadwinners? Does that also bring an end to the a-man-must-be-rich-before-I-marry-him mentality that women have because they are by law expected to contribute equally to the upkeep of the family?
Subsection (e) of the same section states,
“during her marriage, a woman shall have the right to acquire her own property and to administer and manage it freely”.
Does this mean that married women would be allowed to buy property without the consent of her husband? Is this culturally right?

I will stop here but these objections and observations are proof of how ill prepared the bill was for passing.
There is still hope though.
The Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki said after the bill was rejected that the bill will be represented to the Senate.
In his words “I am of the opinion that there are substantial parts of the bill that are crucial to the development of our nation such as the Equal Access to Education, strengthening of the laws on Violence against Women, Ending Abduction of girls, Sustenance and Promotion of Entrepreneurship opportunities, Gender Mainstreaming and Gender equality, female participation in governance, among others. Unfortunately, the bill suffered a slight set back because there were some parts of the Bill that some Senators disagreed with along the lines of religion and tradition. The beauty of democracy is that it gives us the opportunity to consider different opinions and this bill can still be represented and reconsidered on the floor of the Senate I have it on good authority that Senator Biodun Olujimi who introduced this bill will reintroduce it after re-drafting it to address some of the reservations that were expressed on the floor of the Senate”.
Nigerian legislators must stop this lazy, nonchalant and copy and paste approach to lawmaking. Town hall meetings, workshops, community outreach must be embarked upon to ascertain current practices across different ethnic groups to ensure equal participation of every Nigerian in law-making, in addition, an understanding of the customs and traditions. What is easily acceptable amongst the Ibibios, Igbos, Yorubas, may meet stiff opposition with the Fulanis and Hausas. Nigerian legislators are one of the highest paid in the world, therefore, we demand justification for such remuneration.
Educating the public on the contents of a bill before its reading on the floor of the legislative chambers is very important. Efforts through social media, religious centers and educational institutions should be made to create awareness. We need education. Senator Bwacha and his colleagues should not be faulted for rejecting the bill. I believe if they were adequately informed, their positions would not have been against the bill. Reassurance by the Senate president that the bill will be reintroduced is commendable but he must ensure the sponsors of the bill, if they truly seek the interests of women at heart, must perform a thorough job at proving that this bill deserves a second chance.
Some might see this writer as an uneducated traditionalist whose cultural beliefs in this modern age are outdated. You are right.
By King Kurtis

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