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gender bills
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It was on the first day of March 2022. Nigeria’s National Assembly (NASS) voted in rejection of the gender bills all designed to redress the historical exclusion of women from both civic and political life in Nigeria. That rejection led to inspired solidarity among Nigerian women within and beyond the country. In different parts of the country, protests continue to trail the decision of the NASS. While these continue, it is essential to lay out the case for these Bills and why the decision of the NASS to reject them is rather unfair to the women of Nigeria who constitute 49.3% of Nigeria’s population.

Nigeria Gender Bills

So, what are women demanding? The demands under the Reserved Seat Bill, are that – 111 seats are to be specifically reserved for women; that women should have the same citizenship rights as men; that women be afforded indigene-ship rights; that there should be at least 35% affirmative action on women in political party leadership, and that women should be afforded fair appointment positions.

I know what you are thinking right now. You’re probably thinking that quotas are a kind of discrimination against men, a breach of the principle of fairness, an unfair advantage for women, and a tokenistic measure that dilutes the quality of leadership and results in unqualified women being elected. You may also say, nothing in the law prevents women from running for office. Well, my friend, you are wrong. Here is why.

Women’s experience in Nigeria’s politics shows that there is no level playing ground, particularly where political parties act as gatekeepers and are more likely to present male candidates to voters.

For example, female aspirants born or originating in one state have been barred from obtaining party tickets or running in their husband’s state. In this case, political parties play it safe by electing men. Special measures, when viewed through the lens of fairness and exclusion, are thus a remedy for structural barriers that prevent fair competition.

The underlying causes of women’s restricted political engagement and full participation in Nigeria are based on our deeply patriarchal system, as indicated by cultural, political, religious, and institutional restrictions. These are the chains that stifle women’s emergence. But that’s not all.

Do you know that Nigeria is the world’s most populous black nation, with an estimated population of over 200 million people, almost half of whom are women? Yet, out of 109 senators in Nigeria, only 8 are women. There are only 13 women of the 360 members of the House of Representatives and 44 women of the 991 State legislators. So what?

Do you know that many African countries reserve quotas for parliamentary seats so as to boost women’s participation? For instance, Burundi is a great example with a 30% reserve seat for women. In Kenya, women have 47 out of 350 parliamentary seats. In Zimbabwe, 60 reserved seats are for women out of 270 parliamentary seats. Rwanda’s 2003 Constitution guarantees at least 30% seats for women in all sectors and decision-making organs, including elective positions. This was instrumental in making Rwanda the only African country in the top five countries where women occupy more than 50% of parliamentary seats.

The importance of Reserved or Special Seats as a means of increasing the number of women in Nigeria’s legislatures is based, among other things, on the fact that unless we deliberately allocate seats to women through legislated and/or voluntary quota systems, we will continue to have a highly male-dominated legislature while missing out on the immeasurable positive impacts of women’s unique contributions.

For instance, a study conducted by Elizabeth Asiedu and others employed data from 159 developing countries and found that developing countries that have a higher share of women parliamentarians are more likely to pass comprehensive laws on sexual harassment, rape, divorce and domestic violence. This is almost common sense because women understand these social issues more than men. Besides, women are mostly affected by these laws and policies, so why should they be ignored or under-represented considering they pay taxes like everyone else?

The Citizenship Bill seeks to broaden the definition of citizenship through registration by allowing a foreigner (male or female) who marries a Nigerian to become a citizen of Nigeria. Only male citizens are granted this right under the existing constitution. This prevents female citizens from conferring citizenship on their foreign husbands. One is forced to ask if Nigerian women are insufficiently Nigerian?

The Indigenship Bill aims to extend indigene rights to Nigerians living in other states, as well as women who marry from states other than their state of origin. The Bill defines an indigene as a Nigerian born in a state or has lived in the state for a continuous period of ten years and has evidence of tax payment in the state, or a woman who has been married to an indigene of a state for at least five years.

The essence is that women married to another state are not fully recognized as being from that state, as they are faced with bias when running for offices. They are also discriminated against by their customs and extant traditional practices which hold these women as ‘married-out’ and no longer real members of their state of origin. The idea is to ensure that women who are married into other states benefit from employment, appointments, and elections into public offices.

The Affirmative Action Bill seeks to provide for affirmative action (35 per cent of leadership slots) for women in political party administration. This is because party politics is what becomes national politics. The demand for 35% representation of women in the leadership of political parties stems from the rationale that, it is when we have a sizeable number of women making decisions (together with their male counterparts) at the apex decision-making level of all political parties that the case for female contestants in these parties will go beyond mere rhetorical tokenism in giving women the level playing ground to vie for positions but also go further to include them in the political party activities.

I recall serving as an usher at a 2011 event and witnessing the entrance of my role model, Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. She was the finance minister at the time, and I was so delighted to see a woman I admired in the same space as me that I walked over to meet her, completely aware of the heavy security surrounding her. I desired to speak with her to learn about her journey to becoming Nigeria’s first female Foreign Affairs and later Finance Minister. Fortunately, I was able to intercept a few conversations with her, and our exchange continues to motivate me to this day. Representation matters! Allowing Nigeria’s leadership to reflect the country’s demography will inspire our young ladies to dream too and strive for leadership roles.

Thankfully, the Federal High Court has on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, ordered the Federal Government to enforce the National Gender Policy by allocating 35% of appointments in the public sector to women.

The same decision of the Federal High Court should serve as a yardstick for acceding to the Bill that demands More Appointive Positions.

Conclusion

The National Assembly should go beyond primordial, cultural, and religious leanings when carrying out National responsibilities such as the passage of bills of this nature. To the extent that the present laws and system in Nigeria are ultimately discriminatory to women, the existing laws need to be amended.

Nigerians can achieve the passing of the Gender Bills (as amended), through political advocacy/lobbying processes involving the wives of elected and appointed officials in the executive and legislative arms of government. This process should be explored.

It is critical that an open vote system at the National Assembly be followed so that Nigerians are aware of who voted in favour of or against the bills, and whether what was voted for was the mandate of the constituents.

In the words of Professor Kingsley Moghalu, “To unlock Nigeria’s growth potential, the voices of women should be heard and considered at the highest levels of decision-making and in all spheres of society.” As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie noted – men must become more involved in the quest to end discrimination. To aid the passage of these gender bills, women alone cannot solve this problem. Men too must stand to be counted in this quest.

Ijeoma Obiedelu
Ijeoma Seraphie Obiedelu
Founder, Forward Falls Initiative (NGO)

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