Tradition and religious dogma halts Nigerian gender equality bill

By Svetlana Shkolnikova, Staff Writer

Nigerian women, long regarded as second-class citizens in all facets of Nigerian society, will have to keep waiting to be seen as equal to men in the eyes of the law after the country's Senate rejected a gender and equal opportunities bill this week.

The legislation sought to eliminate discrimination against women in education, employment, politics and marriage, protect their land rights and prohibit domestic and sexual violence but faced staunch opposition from traditionalists in the Senate who argued it conflicted with Nigerian culture and religious beliefs and directly contradicted Sharia law, which is recognized in the country's constitution.

Nigeria is home to the largest Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa and is equally mixed between Christians, who live in the southern areas, and Muslims, who live in the north.

A senator from southern Taraba, Emmanuel Bwacha, said he opposed the bill because Christianity does not support total freedom of women, according to the Nigerian publication NewswireNGR.

At least one of the bill's provisions, that a widow is entitled to her husband's full inheritance, challenged an Islamic law in which women are given half.

Kema Chikwe, the National Women Leader of the Nigerian political party PDP, said she was profoundly disappointed by the Senate's decision and called on the governing body to reconsider.

"The implication of throwing out the Gender and Equal Opportunities bill is that the incidences of rape, domestic violence, maternal mortality, poverty e.t.c, which have been ravaging our country will continue unchallenged," she wrote in a statement. "The dismissal of that bill essentially undermines the contributions Nigerian women are making towards our national development."

Some women's rights activists questioned why the Senate rejected the legislation when Nigeria had ratified the Maputo Protocol, an African charter that guaranteed women comprehensive rights, including the right to social and political equity with men and control of their reproductive health, more than a decade ago as well as the African Union's Women's Rights Framework.

Despite economic growth and development, the country still struggles with blatant discrimination against women in hiring, with job advertisements for gender-neutral positions specifying a preference for male applicants, a high prevalence of rape and violence and a rate of child marriage that tops 76 percent in the north west region, according to UNICEF.

Chikwe blamed the makeup of the Senate, in which only seven of 109 members are women, for the bill's inevitable failure.

Just days earlier, while debating a motion to mark International Women's Day, Senate leader Ali Ndume urged Nigerian men to marry more than one wife "to show care to women," according to Premium Times

“Men should take care of women by not just befriending them, but by going further to marry them. I know there is nowhere in the Bible that prohibits marrying more than one wife," he said. "Starting with the Senate president, I ask him to consider marrying more than one wife."

Senate President Bukola Saraki has encouraged proponents of the gender equality bill to redraft and reintroduce the legislation.

A petition created by the Nigerian women's group GFC to ensure the signing of the bill has garnered more than 1,600 signatures.

Photo credit: The European Commission