Nigeria: Case for Equal Access for Women

March 8, 2011

As Nigerian women join their counterparts the world over to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) today, the issue of gender inequality in the nation’s polity remains on the front burner, waiting to be comprehensively addressed.

Interestingly, this year’s edition marks the 100th anniversary of the Day, which traces its roots back to the second International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen in 1910. There, over 100 female delegates from 17 countries voted unanimously that every year, in every country, the same day should be observed to call attention to their needs.

The first IWD was therefore launched the following year in 1911, nearly a decade before women in the United States, the world’s democracy symbol, would have the right to vote.

Since then, IWD has taken on a broader meaning for women all over the world. With the growing international women’s movement, sustained by four United Nations women’s conferences (Mexico City 1975, Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi 1985 and Beijing 1995), the Day now signifies a time to build support for women’s rights and equality in a number of areas, including education, the economy and politics.

The theme for this year’s celebration is “Equal Access to Education, Training, and Science and Technology: Pathway to Decent Work for Women.”

But even as gender equality and empowerment of women are at the heart of many national and international commitments, including the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), not much progress has been made.

Although some developing regions of the world may have reached, or are approaching gender parity in secondary school enrolment and youth literacy generally, there are still some major challenges for many countries.

In Nigeria, for instance, though the Child Rights Bill, aimed at domesticating the principles enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Union Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, suffered several setbacks before it was eventually passed into law in 2003, early marriage (before the age of 18) still persists in some parts of the country, along with the associated risks of adolescent childbearing.

Clearly, early marriage limits opportunities girls may have for education as their literacy rates, primary school completion, and secondary school enrolment are all lower than those for boys. This automatically limits the opportunities they have to effectively compete with their male counterparts in all facets of life as well as hinders their ability to even make decisions concerning their reproductive health.

If the occasion of the IWD, therefore, is to look back on past struggles and accomplishments, look forward to opportunities that await present and future generations of women, and continue to work for meaningful change, it is instructive to note that some issues that can advance women’s rights, especially to participation in the political process are still missing in Nigeria as women are, largely, relegated to the background by the male dominated political class.

To some women groups, gender sensitivity, gender equality and equal rights between males and females, have never existed, particularly in some parts of the country.

Though over the last hundred years in Nigeria, some successes worth celebrating have been recorded, challenges still remain in the area of overcoming barriers to gender equality. A good number of women, for instance, are already making inroads in the corporate world, while some others have been appointed into political offices, yet some socio-cultural, political and religious factors hinder the full development of women.

Nigerian women have, indeed, continued to be underrepresented in governments and the political process as a whole.

This is in spite of government’s commitment to implementation of various treaties at international, regional and national levels. In particular, Nigeria endorsed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA), which provides for the Affirmative Action Policy and the MDGs, and the National Gender Policy.

Despite these commitments and the numerical strength of women, they still occupy less than eight per cent of elective positions at all levels of governance.

Out of the about 469 members of the National Assembly, for example, only about 33 are women, constituting about seven per cent of the total number of federal lawmakers.

Nigeria does not boast of any past female president or vice president, and among the 36 state governors, there is no single woman. The best they have attained is the position of deputy governor of very few states.

This represents a systematic exclusion of about half the population of the country from mainstream political activities. Such exclusion fails the basic test of democracy and cannot facilitate Nigeria’s achievement of its commitment to the MDGs.

We, therefore, ask the National Assembly to take urgent steps to speed up passage of long standing Bills on violence against women and domesticate the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Equal Opportunities’ Bill and any other bills aimed at enforcing the rights of women.

On their part, the State Assemblies must ensure adoption of these bills when passed into law. More advocacy groups should also be formed to carry the message of equal access to the grassroots.

Although the 30 per cent affirmative action policy of the Beijing Declaration, which Nigeria endorsed, is yet to be fully implemented, we urge the Federal Government to take the National Gender Policy, which entrenches the affirmative action policy of 35 per cent representation of women in political, social and economic endeavours more seriously.

Gender inequality could be devastating, not only for women but also for the nation in general, because a society that marginalizes women is cutting its nose to spite its face.

Education of the girl child must be given serious attention for it is said that to educate a man is to educate an individual but to educate a woman is to educate a nation.

Government must ensure that all girls have free access to basic education and stiff penalties should be meted out to parents that fail to offer their children such opportunity. Government can afford free education if it adequately addresses the issue of corruption.

And if securing peace and social progress as well as the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require active participation, equality and development of women, then sidelining them would amount to shooting oneself on the foot, since nowhere in the world has anyone been found, effectively, clapping with one hand.

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