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Women selling sweet potatoes, Kwarra, Nigeria. Women selling sweet potatoes, Kwarra, Nigeria, Jan. 13, 2014 (Community Eye Health photo via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0).

Women's Rights in Nigeria: What’s Holding Nigeria’s Women Back?

Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing WPR series on the status of women’s rights and gender equality in various countries around the globe.

In late December, Nigeria’s top Muslim cleric called on lawmakers to reject a bill currently under debate in the National Assembly that would allow women the right to inherit family wealth and property, saying it goes against the teachings of the Quran. In an email interview, Ngozi Odiaka, a lecturer at Afe-Babalola University in Nigeria, discusses women’s rights in Nigeria.

WPR: What is the current status of gender equality and women’s rights in Nigeria?

Ngozi Odiaka: Nigeria has a national gender policy that focuses on the empowerment of women and advocates against any form of discrimination against women, and the Nigerian Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. There has been improvement in terms of gender equality in education: Girls’ school enrollment has steadily increased, particularly in the north of the country, which in the past has seen a high rate of neglect and discrimination toward women. However, there is still significant gender disparity when it comes to labor force participation and representation in government. This can be attributed to cultural norms, discriminatory laws and other factors such as women’s child care and family commitments.

Women’s political participation has improved, but much still needs to be done. In March, for instance, the Nigerian Senate voted down legislation—the Gender Parity and Prohibition of Violence Against Women bill—that aimed to give women equal rights in marriage, education and employment. Under the law, a widow in Nigeria would have automatically become the custodian of her children and husband’s property upon her husband’s death. While a few lawmakers supported the bill, others believed that it violated the spirit and letter of the Nigerian Constitution. If there was better representation of women in the Senate, the bill might have passed. The debate over the law was complicated by another bill that would have expanded Shariah law in Nigeria; that bill was rejected in November. The combination of a federal government and a tripartite system of civil, customary and religious law also makes it very difficult to harmonize legislation and remove discriminatory measures across Nigeria.

WPR: How prominent are the issues of gender equality and women’s rights in Nigeria among women and the population at large, and what efforts are underway to advance and expand women’s rights?

Odiaka: Gender equality in Nigeria is a big issue, but even with a lot published on the topic, it has not received significant attention by the government. Despite the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, women’s rights and gender equality are not getting the necessary attention required because of certain religious and cultural constraints that perpetuate gender inequality.

Unfortunately, the Nigerian Constitution, despite prohibiting gender-based discrimination, does not protect women’s rights. An ideal constitution would be drafted with the input of every segment of society, but the 1999 charter was made without consulting Nigeria’s women, and its language reflects this. For example, Section 26 of the Constitution says that a foreign woman married to a Nigerian man is eligible for Nigerian citizenship, but the same right is not granted to a foreign man married to a Nigerian woman. Section 131, which lists the qualifications for the office of the president, uses the word “he,” suggesting that only a man can be president. The Constitution generally uses the words “he,” “his” and “him,” and doesn’t include female pronouns.

Adherence to Islamic and customary laws reinforces practices that are unfavorable to women, including those relating to freedom of movement, marriage and inheritance. Although a bill to abolish all forms of discrimination against Nigerian women was considered in the mid-2000s, the National Assembly did not pass it or related legislation prohibiting violence against women.

WPR: What social and political barriers stand in the way of women’s rights, and what steps has the government taken to address violence against women and gender inequality?

Odiaka: Gender discrimination is common in Nigeria because of the patriarchal nature of society. Women are marginalized both in their private and public life. At home, they are not considered equal partners when making decisions, even if they are expected to make substantial financial contributions to the household. Women are rarely considered for leadership positions of social institutions that include men. Political life in Nigeria is based on male norms and values, and men determine the standards for political participation and the rules that govern the electoral process, greatly limiting women’s participation in politics. This gender disparity is traceable to the perception that women are better subordinates, whose social rights and benefits should be subject to the dictates of men.

Women are also thought to be better caregivers, better suited to raise children and take care of the home, rather than hold social or political positions. Many Nigerians believe that men have more political will, courage, confidence and stamina to navigate politics than women. Women also have persistently low incomes thanks to the gender pay gap, occupational segregation and unpaid family care. As a result, they are far less likely than men to be in social and business networks that donate money to political campaigns. This means that women’s interests aren’t properly represented in local or national politics.

Nongovernmental organizations are working to advance women’s rights, with limited success. Advocacy groups have been championing the rights of women and campaigning against domestic violence, but a lot still needs to be done.

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