International Women’s Day: The need to truly embrace equity
By Towobola Bamgbose
This year’s International Women’s Day is themed “Embracing Equity,” which means acknowledging and validating the struggles and experiences of different women from different backgrounds, thereby creating resources to help solve each challenge. Nigerian women have not just faced discrimination individually; they face systemic discrimination collectively, as it has been embedded in our constitution and other legislation.
The rule of law is defined in the Encyclopedia Britannica as “the mechanism, process, institution, practice, or norm that supports equality of all citizens before the law, secures a non-arbitrary form of government, and more generally prevents the arbitrary use of power.”
This means that everyone is equal before the law, and the law will treat everyone as equal, even lawmakers. To maintain the “equality before the law” status, laws should be devoid of discrimination, patriarchal values, sexism, or male chauvinism.
Section 42 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN) states that “A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion, or political opinion should not be discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity, religion, sex or political opinion. Hence, patriarchy should have no place or space in our constitution.
The concept of patriarchy refers to a system of a society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of family and descent is reckoned through the male line. In modern theories, patriarchy has been defined as a system of male authority that oppresses women through its social, political, and economic institutions. Various legislations in Nigeria have patriarchal values embedded in them such as;
Section 26 of the CFRN confers citizenship on any woman who is or has been married to a citizen of Nigeria, but conspicuously leaves out that a man can become a citizen by being married to a Nigerian female citizen. Yet the Ninth Assembly in 2022 voted against a Bill on Expansion of Scope of Citizenship by Registration. Presently, the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria gives only Nigerian males the exclusive right to confer citizenship on their foreign wives, while Nigerian women cannot do so. This further upholds a longstanding patriarchal norm such that where a couple has different nationalities prior to marriage, the nationality of the husband may automatically be imposed on the wife upon marriage and never vice versa.
Also, Regulation 124 of the Police Act states that a woman who is desirous of marrying must first apply in writing to the commissioner of police in the state police command in which she serves, and that permission will be given if the intended husband is of good character and the policewoman has served in the force for a period of not less than three years. No regulation under the Police Act regulates when and who a policeman should marry. Regulation 124 is an intrusion on the privacy of women, an entrenchment of sexism and patriarchy, and a love for control over women’s lives.
In addition, this controversial Regulation 127 of the Police Act states that “An unmarried woman police officer who becomes pregnant shall be discharged from the force, and shall not be re-enlisted except with the approval of the Inspector-General.” This is an entrenchment of religious and cultural bias against women who have children outside the confines of marriage. Societal beliefs go as far as calling the child in such situations “illegitimate.” Individuals in our society have the right to hold jobs, have babies, and choose not to marry as this is their private life. Again, men are not subjected to this regulation.
It takes one back to the times when teenage girls were sent away from school for getting pregnant while the boys involved continued to go to school.
This isn’t just unjust; it is wicked, and it is an invasion of women’s private lives, which is contrary to women’s fundamental human rights entrenched in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Section 37 of the Nigerian Constitution.
Section 353 and Section 360 of the criminal code treat victims of unlawful and indecent assaults differently on the basis of gender. Section 353 directs that unlawful and indecent assault against any male should be treated as a felony, and the offender is liable to imprisonment for three years, while Section 360 addresses unlawful assault and indecent assault against any female as a misdemeanor and is liable to imprisonment for two years. Why is unlawful and indecent assault against a woman treated as a lesser offence compared to when it is committed against a man? This is a way to trivialise assaults against women.
The penal code which governs the northern part of Nigeria and its infamy of being deeply rooted in sexism and male chauvinism, in Section 51(1), it states that, “Nothing is an offence which does not amount to the infliction of grievous hurt upon any person and which is done… (d) by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife, such husband and wife being subject to any native law or custom in which such correction is recognised as lawful. Here, we have the penal code allowing correction of a fully grown woman as long as it doesn’t lead to grievous harm. This erodes the fundamental human rights of a woman, entrenched in Section 34 of the CFRN, which provides that every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his or her person. This is against her right to be free from any form of violence, assault or battery. Under the penal code, assaults against men and women are treated differently. Also, men and women caught committing adultery are treated differently, and women in these sections are treated unfairly and unjustly. Section 282(2) of the penal code also enshrines spousal rape.
The Personal Income Tax (2004) discriminates against women in respect to tax reliefs and allowances by making the husband the sole claimant of the allowances at the expense of the wife, even if they are generating similar income in full employment. The assumption that the man is always the head of the family shows a total disregard for modern women, working women, and female breadwinners. Once again, the idea of patriarchy—that a man is the head and breadwinner—is evident in our laws, which are supposed to treat us as equals.
There are various other laws in Nigeria that discriminate against women; the list is inexhaustible. Yet no law or legislation has been made to help advance the challenges women face collectively. The rule of law and systemic oppression should never coexist. It is a mockery of our laws and huge disrespect to women, who form half of our population. These laws, evidently written by men and upholders of patriarchy, are deeply rooted in sexism and give a pass for Nigerian women to be oppressed and subjugated. It is vile, wicked, and a great disservice to the rule of law and the fundamental human rights of Nigerian women.
The bill – the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill – was rejected by the 9th assembly last year but if passed into law, it will guarantee equal opportunities to women in politics, at workplace, inheritance, education, etc.
Also, advocacy and educating people, both men and women, about these irregularities and unjust laws with the call for amendment can help change the situation of things.
Electing women into the House of Representatives and Senate will also help as these women understand the challenges other women face and are more likely not to act based on cultural or religious bias and discrimination against women.
In conclusion, it must be noted that women are equal to men and must be treated as such. Our constitution and laws must steer clear of enshrining discrimination against women as the rule of law cannot coexist with oppression. Lastly, the advancement of women is the advancement of society.
Towobola Bamgbose writes via [email protected]
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