THE International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 every year. The focus of the celebration in different countries ranges from general celebration of love, appreciation and respect towards women to political, economic and social achievements. The theme for this year is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step it up for gender equality”.

Nigerian women are worth celebrating. They have seized and optimised the little opportunities they had to be where they are today. We see Nigerian women run for office and attain positions in the top echelon of social economic and professional groups. It therefore makes sense for Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, Ag MD Niger Delta Development Commission to organise a play, ‘Little Drops’ – A play by Prof. Ahmed Yerima in commemoration of the International Women’s Day at the International Conference Centre Abuja. This was replicated in three other cities.

The play focused on aspects of the Niger Delta agitation for development especially its impact on women and children who bear the brunt  of  society’s conflict. It was an occasion to pledge for parity. It was a special showing to inspire and celebrate the courage, determination and achievements by ordinary women facing extra ordinary circumstances every day.

We commend Mr. President for the appointment. If Mrs. Semenitari was a man, she would not have celebrated  Nigerian women. She used the opportunity to showcase NDDC and NDDC’s women empowerment programmes.

Daily Trust also put up a noteworthy summit to commemorate International Women’s Day 2016 in Transcorp Hilton Hotels, Abuja. Holistic empowerment and sustainability concerning gender parity was discussed amongst other issues. An NGO called ‘FriendsRaiser International’ also had a good outing at Nicon Luxury.

Many Newspaper Editorial and special features were written to eulogise women. It was howbeit short lived. On the 15th day of this same March 2016, members of the Nigerian Senate voted against the “Gender Parity and Prohibition of Violence against women Bill.”

The Bill is for an Act to incorporate and enforce certain provisions of the United Nations Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the protocol of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Right on the rights of women in Africa. The goal of the gender parity and prohibition of violence against women Bill was to provide a legislation that seeks to eliminate all forms of discrimination on the basis of sex and gender, affirms women’s right to equal opportunities by giving effect to chapter II and IV of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the International Convention on Human Rights which affirms the principle of non-discrimination and proclaim that all human are born free and equal in dignity of rights. The Bill also seeks to ensure the domestication of certain provisions of the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on the rights of women in Africa and the National Gender Policy.

A lot of people were shocked that the Bill was turned down. The Senate of 109 members has just eight women members. It was an ‘uphill task’ for Senator Abiodun Olujimi. There has been considerably, delay in the process. CEDAW has been signed since 1985 but yet to be domesticated. The legal instrument recognised the fact that discrimination against women is incompatible with human dignity and with the welfare of the family and of the society. This denial is an obstacle to the full development of the potentials of women in the service of the country and humanity.

The Bill was thrown out for cultural and religious reasons. Our culture strictly restricts women to the role of home keeping and childbearing. Gender inequality has been given credence by some of our Laws. For example, the legalisation of the marital rape (Section 6 of the Nigerian Criminal Code), prescription of lesser punishment where the victim of the assault is a female (Section 353 and 360 of the Criminal Code) which has created a fertile ground for violence against women and the empowerment of the Minister of Labour to make regulations that prohibit women from undertaking certain jobs (Section 55, 56, 57, of the Nigerian Labour Act) has promoted discrimination against women in Nigeria.

Gender Parity is not part of our cultural heritage as we can see but then we have to flow with the rest of the world. We have to work hard on educating and sensitising the general public especially the men. Women gender equality issues has become a global commitment because equality between men and women is just right and fair. The attainment of gender equality is a prerequisite for the achievement of sustainable development.

In reality, the world is evolving and gender equality is one of the socio-political issues that we have to improve on. In fact, the passage of the Bill will not have guaranteed equality; it would have lent legal credence to the fight.

Globally today, there is a universal consensus that women’s participation in governance, politically and economically is a strong indication of a country’s democratic development. Nigeria needs to take the lead as the Giant of Africa.

Is there any hope or future for the Nigerian women?

Barak Obama in his book ‘The audacity of Hope’ gives us  courage. Despondency is not an option. We must dare to hope. We dare to move forward in spite of our fears. There is need to apply affirmative action. 60% of Rwanda’s Parliamentary members are women. In Kenya, 50% is guaranteed by Sec 42 of their Constitution.

All men are equal but in Nigeria, men are more equal than women. Gender inequality is one of the bane of Nigeria’s society. Women are relegated to the position of second class citizens. Tradition, religion and culture have not been fair to women in Nigeria. Over the last two decades, there has been increased advocacy for gender parity as part of the global call for gender parity. Nigeria is deeply entrenched in cultural norms and religious dogma. We urge the President, Mohammadu Buhari to appoint more women into public office.

Olajumoke Akinjide, the first female speaker in Ondo State was impeached earlier in March. Her letter of impeachment was signed by 18 lawmakers – all men. She was accused of incompetence, high handedness, drunkenness and easy virtues among others. While corruption and incompetence are grounds for impeachment, what do drunkenness and easy virtue have to do with it? Although Akindele has been reinstated, the frivolous claims suggest that Ondo law makers have a problem with female leadership.

This regrettable and unfortunate situation has been summed up by Sonala Olumhense in the back page of Daily Trust of 3rd of April when he said “The Point is that while the Bill may have appeared in gender form, it really was not about equality, it was about justice in Nigeria and about maximizing the country’s resources to enable her rise to the level of a great nation, the democracy of which is planted in justice”. The proposed law that was rejected by the senate held visions of progress and a better society. The question is whether religion and tradition should have such strong roles in the bid to ensure social justice and equity for all.

Can religion and tradition stand side by side in modern day civilization?

The right to practice religion and tradition is a part of Nigeria’s constitution and should be recognised. When this right however infringes on basic human rights including gender equality and women empowerment, then something must be done. Rule of Law surpasses all. What has to be done is mostly in the hands of women. We must ask ourselves certain questions, who are we and exactly what do we want for the society and ourselves?

It is only when we have been able to answer these questions that we can really begin to step it up for gender equality. We as women must find solutions. There must be education, publicity, sensitization about gender balance. That means more seminars, workshops, public debates. We need to mobilize more support. For example, the American University of Nigeria has concluded plans to establish a gender law programme that would educate students as well as Nigerians on gender based legal issue. This is commendable and should be emulated.

At the 2014 world economic forum, it was predicted that the world would not achieve any meaningful progress in terms of gender parity until 2095and even this was reviewed to 2133. In view of the slow pace, what this means is that the world would have to wait for 117 years to record any meaningful development in gender parity. This is unacceptable.

There must be acceleration of the process and hasten the achievements of gender parity through all decent channels like affirmative action, helping girls and women to achieve their ambitions, call for gender balanced leadership, respect and value difference. There is need to root out workplace bias.

Olivia Agbajoh, President of Women Empowerment  For Advancement (WEFA), a legal practitioner is a former member of the House of Reps.

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