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Nigeria: Gender Equality Bill Fails in the Senate

(Mar. 28, 2016) On March 15, 2015, the Nigerian Senate voted down the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill, 2016 (S.B 116), which aimed to accord women rights equal to those of men in various spheres of life and to impose certain measures to address past and current discriminatory practices.  (Timothy Oshi, Nigerian Senate Rejects Bill Seeking Gender Equality in Marriage,  PREMIUM TIMES (Mar. 15, 2016).)  The stated purpose of the legislation was to implement parts of the Nigerian Constitution (including the chapter on fundamental rights) and international instruments to which Nigeria is a state party, including 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.  (Gender and  Equal Opportunities Bill, 2010, § 4 the National Coalition on Affirmative Action (NCAA) website.)  Nigeria ratified CEDAW in 1985 and the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2004.  (Status: Nigeria, UNITED NATIONS TREATY COLLECTION (last visited Mar. 17, 2016); Ratification Table: Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, AFRICAN COMMISSION ON HUMAN AND PEOPLES’ RIGHTS (last visited Mar. 17, 2016).)

Religion-Based Opposition

Sponsored by Biodun Olujimi, a Senator from Ekiti State and the Senate Minority Whip, the legislation reportedly encountered insurmountable opposition on the Senate floor, led by Senator Ahmad Rufa’i Sani of Zamfara State.  (Bill on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women Fails to Scale First Reading, Motion on Interim Financial & Material Support to IDPs Passed, FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA NATIONAL ASSEMBLY (Feb. 16, 2016).)  Most of this opposition was said to have come from Senators representing the country’s northern states, whose populations are predominantly Muslim.  (Henry Umoru & Joseph Erunke, Northern Senators Reject Bill on Gender Equality, VANGUARD (Mar. 16, 2016).)

Sani called for the withdrawal of the legislation, arguing that it “… is in conflict with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which enshrines the Freedom of Religion; adding that the issue of equitable sharing of inheritance between the male and female is equally in conflict with the provision of the Constitution and the provisions of the Sharia law.”  (Bill on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women Fails to Scale First Reading, Motion on Interim Financial & Material Support to IDPs Passed, supra.)  There were also a number of Senators, including Senator Emmanuel Bwacha of Taraba State, who cited the Bible as the basis for their opposition to the legislation.  (Yomi Kazeem, Nigerian Lawmakers Voted down a Women Equality Bill Citing the Bible and Sharia Law, QUARTZ (Mar. 15, 2016).)

Key Provisions

A 2010 version of the legislation would have prohibited any and all forms of discrimination against women.  It stated that any “law, regulation, custom and practice, which constitute discrimination, shall be null and void and of no effect and shall not be enforced against any person.”  (Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill, § 4.)  It would have required everyone (including individuals, communities, as well as public and private entities) to:

  • give women equal rights to conclude contracts and to administer  property;
  • treat women equally with men in all stages of procedure in courts and tribunals;
  • ensure that no rule, regulation, agreement, protocol, contract or any other public or private instruments of any kind with a legal effect restricts, limits, or in any way discriminates against any person in terms of legal capacity;
  • accord to men and women the same rights with regard to the law, regulations, directives, practice, or customs relating to the movement of persons and the freedom to choose their residence and domicile;
  • permit no practices of any law enforcement agency or body that restrict or limit the legal capacity of women to undertake surety or recognizance on behalf of any person; and
  • desist from denying or limiting any privilege, respect, advantage or benefit due or accruable to women only on the basis that she is a woman.  (Id. § 5.)

The legislation also sought to adopt “temporary special measures to eliminate discrimination.”  These included a requirement to reserve for women at least 35% all political positions, jobs, credit lines, or any other opportunity in the economic sphere in public or private entities for at least ten years but not more than 25 years.  (Id. § 6.)  The legislation further aimed to achieve this goal by requiring public and private institutions to take all necessary measures to protect women’s “maternity status and reproductive health” in the form of allocation of time, resources, and special facilities.  (Id.)

Significantly, the legislation sought to make modifications to sociocultural practices in order to end the subjugation of women.  It required public and private educational institutions to incorporate teaching methods and curriculum that promote gender equality in all spheres of life.  (Id. § 7.)  It banned the  “inhumane, humiliating and degrading treatment” of widows.  (Id.)  It also accorded women certain rights not available to them under customary and religious laws, including:

  • the right to automatic guardianship and custody of children at the death of the husband;
  • the right to remarry and the right to marry a person of her choice;
  • the right to inherit equitable share of property at the husbands’ and their parents’ deaths; and
  • the right to continue living in the matrimonial home after the death of the husband.  (Id.)

In addition, the legislation sought to establish an enforcement entity, the Gender and Equal Opportunities Commission.  The functions of the Commission under the legislation would have included monitoring and supervising the implementation of the provisions of the legislation and the promotion of gender equality and the “entrenchment of social justice in all spheres of life.”  (Id. § 22.)

Reform Through the Judiciary

The reform of some discriminatory practices through the use of the court system has recently occurred.  The issue of the inheritance rights of women is illustrative.  In the past, the Supreme Court upheld discriminatory laws and practices in this area.  For instance, in a 1989 decision, the Court held that a widow only had a usufructuary right to her late husband’s property under the Onitshas customary law.  (Nzekuv v. Nzekwu [1989] 2 N.W.L.R (Pt. 104) 373, 377-78.)  In another case, in 1997, the Court held that under the Yoruba rites, a widow cannot inherit her deceased husband’s property, adding:

It is a well settled rule of native law and custom of the Yoruba that a wife could not inherit her husband’s property. Indeed, under Yoruba Customary Law, a widow under intestacy is regarded as part of the estate of her deceased husband to be administered or inherited by the deceased’s family … . (Akinnubi v. Akinnubi [1997] 2 N.W.L.R. (pt. 486) 149, in Jaiyeola Mulikat Bolji, A Comparative Study of Women’s Rights of Inheritance in Nigeria Under Islamic Law and Some Customary Laws 204 (2011).)

Recent decisions show a dramatic departure from the above rulings.  In a 2014 case, the Supreme Court struck down an Awka Igbo rite that excludes a childless widow from inheriting her husband’s  property, holding that:

the custom and practices of Awka people upon which the appellants have relied for their counter claim is [sic] hereby out rightly condemned in very strong terms. In other words, a custom of this nature in the 21st century societal setting will only tend to depict the absence of the realities of human civilization. It is punitive, uncivilized and only intended to protect the selfish perpetration of male dominance which is aimed at suppressing the right of the womenfolk in the given society … .  (Anekwe & Anor v. Nweke [2014] LPELR – 22697 (SC) 2, Law Pavilion website.)

In a different case in the same year, the Court found unconstitutional an Igbo customary law that denied female offspring the right to inherit the property of their fathers, holding 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. Consequently the Igbo customary law which disentitles a female child from partaking, in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate is in breach of section 42 (1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian. The said discriminatory customary law is void as it conflicts with section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution.  (Ukeje v. Ukeje [2014] LPELR-22724 (SC), Law Pavilion website.)

It is unclear if these decisions will be applied to areas of the country governed under Islamic law or whether similar challenges to such laws will result in analogous outcomes.