The disparity between the male and female gender has been a source of concern in many quarters of the world. This is due to the continuous abuse of women’s rights and their relegation in terms of policy and decision-making. This article seeks to discuss instances women’s rights are relegated and efforts to create equal access for women by eradicating practices that are repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. The question is whether these efforts can safeguard women’s rights to ensure equitable growth and sustainable development, considering this ill-treatment of women has gone on from generation to generation?
Human rights are basic fundamental rights inherent in all human beings irrespective of sex, nationality, ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. Human rights can be compromised by discrimination against women and over time we have seen women’s rights crushed in virtually all spheres of life including through domestic violence, sexual violence and the glass ceiling, as well as through culture, religion
and other domains. This ill-treatment of women dates to events recorded in the bible, when a woman caught in adultery was presented to be stoned to death without the mention of the man with whom she committed adultery.
The potent question is, with this ill-treatment of women from generation to generation can the rights of women ever be safeguarded to ensure equitable growth and sustainable development?
The rights of women have become a global issue, such that conventions have been established to ensure the enforcement and protection of women’s rights. In 1979, the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted and in 1993, the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna confirmed that women’s rights are human rights.
Therefore, the neglect of women’s rights is a violation of the human rights to which women are entitled to. In addition, since women are more than half of the world’s population, the continuous disparity between women and men will obstruct sustainable growth and equitable development as more than half of the world’s population is precluded from equal access to its rights.
The rights of women have suffered series of abuses in Nigeria because the legal framework that existed did not create equal access to social, economic, political and cultural rights for both men and women. Little wonder why CEDAW which was ratified without reservations by Nigeria in 1985, is yet to be domesticated.
In the agricultural sector, for example, the land tenure system discriminates against women when it comes to ownership of land and intestacy based on the patriarchal structure in Africa. The customary law on Intestacy in Nigeria recognizes that a woman cannot own property; instead, she is part of the property to be acquired and inherited. In Ogunkoya V. Ogunkoya the Court of Appeal held that wives are also regarded as chattels which are themselves inheritable by other members of the family of the deceased under certain conditions.
Numerous academic authorities also give credence to this position that women do not inherit property because the widow is regarded as part of the estate (acquired by the deceased husband upon payment of her dowry at the time of marriage) to be inherited by the son or relative.
As a result, female members of the family under customary law are regarded as mere articles with no right or duties of their own. This affects the productivity of women even though they contribute a lot of labour in the agrarian and real estate sectors.
Under section 55(1)(d) of the Penal Code of Northern Nigeria, an assault by a man on a woman is not an offence if they are married, as the custom recognizes such “correction” as lawful if there is no grievous bodily hurt.
A culture of modern slavery called the ‘Money Woman’ is prevalent in the Becheve tribe, Obanliku LGA of Cross River state, where in exchange for a loan as low as 2,000 nairas, families offer up their female child to the creditor for childbearing. The creditor is not obligated to take care of the ‘money woman’ and in the event of her death, the debtor is obligated to replace her with another daughter. If the creditor dies, the ‘money woman’ is inherited by the creditor’s next of kin.
The most recent record of the abuse of women’s rights in Africa is the documentary released by BBC Africa’s eye on 7th October 2019, titled ‘Sex for Grades’. In the documentary, we see the naked abuse of power by lecturers who use their positions to sexually intimidate female students, thereby abusing the trust reposed in them as parent figures to these students.
As it pertains to the workforce, we also recognize traces of discrimination. In January 2020, the Nigeria Police Force purportedly dismissed a female police office for getting pregnant out of wedlock, without a corresponding punishment for the man who put her in the family way. This action prompted some civil rights groups to raise concerns, that such an act was discriminatory and weighed heavily against women. The matter is sub judice as actions have been filed against the police at the National Industrial Court and the Federal High Court by the dismissed officer and the Ekiti state government respectively and we await the verdict of both courts.
According to a 2000 monograph by the International Labor Organization (ILO), workplace bullying by itself may be relatively minor but cumulatively can become a very serious form of violence. In my opinion, workplace bullying and harassment are not only acts of violence but also discriminatory acts prevalent against the female gender (who is seen as a weaker vessel and sex object), which if not checked can affect one’s productivity.
Further, the issue of the “glass ceiling” is still evident, even though over the years, women have entered various traditionally male-dominated occupations and blue-collar occupations.
In certain instances, women have no access to equal opportunities and these discriminatory tendencies account for the low percentage of women heading organizations and institutions of the workforce.
This diminutive legal status accorded women, the suppressions of their rights and the bane of masculine domination certainly does not allow for equitable growth and sustainable development.
Efforts to safeguard the rights of women in Nigeria
The position is gradually improving as section 42(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 prohibits discrimination on account of gender. Interestingly, the Supreme Court of Nigeria reaffirmed this position in 2014 by upholding the unconstitutionality of the discrimination against women about the right to inherit property when Rhodes-Vivour (JSC) in Ukeje v. Ukeje held that no matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her late father’s estate. Therefore, the Igbo native law and custom which deprives children born out of wedlock from sharing the benefit of their father’s estate was deemed repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience.
In 2015, the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPPA) was enacted and some states have domesticated the act. VAPPA prohibits female genital mutilation, harmful widowhood practices, harmful traditional practices and all forms of violence against persons in both private and public life. Further, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 was enacted to introduce major reforms to the criminal justice system in Nigeria, one of which is the recognition of the rights of women.
Before the enactment of the ACJA, there was a discriminatory practice adopted over time, not by law but as a matter of convention, excluding women from standing as sureties for the process of granting bail to a suspect. Section 167 (3) ACJA has put an end to this unwritten procedure by recognizing the right of women to stand as surety for a defendant in bail proceedings.
Other notable provisions are sections 189 (g) and 191 ACJA which recognizes the rights of a married woman not only to hold property in her name but also to obtain redress or remedies by way of criminal proceedings for the protection and security of her person and her separate property.
The introduction of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act (NCSA) 2019 demonstrates the most recent efforts at safeguarding the rights of women. The NCSA repealed the Prisons Act, CAP P29, LFN 2004 which was an offshoot of Decree 9, 1972. Section 34 of the NCSA also introduces the provision of separate facilities for female inmates and makes provision to address the special needs of female inmates, including pregnant women and nursing mothers as well as babies, in custody.
These provisions encourage gender parity in no small measure, at a time where there is an increased clamour for it.
Notwithstanding these statutory and judicial innovations, a lot still needs to be done to improve the rights of women. For instance, the Labor Act could be amended to increase the maternity period of women from three months to six months, considering that international standards suggest women exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least six months.
Equitable growth is not an abstract notion; it operates in a society devoid of discrimination and is simply one of the many means of achieving sustainable development. The UN has set out the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to meet the needs of the present without compromising the abilities of future generation to meet their own needs. For the SDGs to be achieved, and for men and women to engage in and sustain the development process, there must be equal access to rights. To safeguard women’s rights, archaic practices against women must be expunged, and laws to protect women must be enacted and implemented to the letter.
This article was written by Kate Okoh Kpina. She is a lawyer with 10 years of post-call experience. She holds an LL. B from University of Benin, Nigeria, and an LL.M from University College London (UCL) as the UCL John Carr 2013 scholar. She also has training certificates from the ICC & International Court of Arbitration, Paris as well as the Harvard Negotiating Institute, Boston in Arbitration and Negotiation respectively.
She is presently the Advisor, Rule of Law to the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) Police Programme Africa (PPA) – Nigeria, where she supports the GIZ PPA in international cooperation in relation to criminal justice reforms. Her articles are published on International Law Office (ILO) London, International Bar Association (IBA), GIZ newsletters, Vanguard and Bellanaija.