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Ill-fated Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill

Last week, for the third time in several years, the Senate voted against passing into law the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill. The bill, which…

Last week, for the third time in several years, the Senate voted against passing into law the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill. The bill, which did not pass second reading, was aimed at domesticating international protocols aimed at bridging the gap between the rights of men and women in Nigeria. Presented by Senator Abiodun Olujinmi, the bill also sought equal rights for women in marriage, education and jobs as well as eliminating discrimination based on gender in the fields of politics, education and employment.
Among other things, the bill also sought to prohibit domestic and sexual violence against women. It also sought to end socio-cultural practices that it viewed as ‘antagonistic treatment’ of widows. The bill stated that widows “shall not be subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment” and “shall have the right to an equitable share in the inheritance of the property of her husband.” The bill also sought to make 18 years the minimum legal age for marriage in Nigeria.
If the bill had been passed into law, a widow in Nigeria would automatically become the custodian of her children upon her husband’s death and she would inherit his property. A section of the bill sought to “ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right to participate fully in all political activities, including the right to vote and be voted for in all elections and public referenda, and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected offices and bodies without any restriction, limitation or barriers whatsoever.”
The bill sought to create a Gender and Equal Opportunities Commission to implement its provisions.  Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu supported the bill, saying “Those countries that are doing well are those that give women equal opportunities.” However, Senate Majority Leader Ali Ndume urged Nigerians to reject the bill and stick with their religious or traditional marriage. Senator Ahmed Sani argued that the bill was in conflict with the Nigerian Constitution. He said the bill negates the principles of Sharia law, which the Constitution recognises. Senator Emmanuel Bwacha said the bill conflicted with biblical teachings. When Senate President Bukola Saraki put it to vote, senators unanimously voted to discontinue consideration of the bill.
In the wake of the bill’s defeat, civil society groups and media writers unleashed insults of senators, particularly the ones that spoke out against the bill. We believe that this is unfair and unnecessary. The main argument against the bill, which made its rejection by the Senate near-unanimous, is that it is in conflict with some provisions of the Constitution. It is to be noted that the principle of equality and non-discrimination that the bill sought to enshrine in our laws is already enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, among other things.
The issue however is, the Constitution consigns matters of personal law to customary and Shari’a courts. Matters of marriage, inheritance etc in Nigeria are largely governed by the Shari’a in the case of Muslims and by customary courts in the case of most non-Muslims. Their provisions are different in some details from the provisions of the international protocols. What the bill is calling for in effect is for the repudiation of Shari’a and customary rules of marriage and inheritance in favour of Western concepts of the same which they railroaded through the protocols. A bill passed by the National Assembly alone cannot achieve this; it will require an amendment to the Constitution to oust the jurisdiction of Shari’a and customary courts in matters of personal law.
 Therefore, if advocates of this bill really want to see its provisions become the law in Nigeria, they should quit hurling insults at senators and instead begin the serious work of garnering enough support to suitably amend the Constitution and remove the obstacles. We predict that this is a tall order. That is not to say that state Houses of Assembly should not exercise their powers to amend aspects of customary law that they find to be objectionable.

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