In 2008, Dr Iyalla Amadi protested against one of the requirements for replacing her international passport where she was required to have a consent letter from her husband.
Her protest did not bear fruits after the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) maintained that the law classified married women and children as minors who require approval from the family’s head. The NIS stuck to the argument when Dr Iyalla moved the case to court.
According to NIS, the consent was to establish the man’s authority over his wife, regardless of her social standing, to keep the marriage institution from collapsing. The NIS, however, lost the case after the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt determined that the argument was invalid.
Worth mentioning is that not every woman has the same access to justice or, at the very least, the knowledge to pursue justice, like the case of Iyalla-Amadi. This is the case with Olaitan Dosunmu.
Employment and Equal Entitlement
Olaitan Dosunmu (not her real name) worked as an executive assistant in a leading Nigerian legal firm. Olaitan, who was over 40 years old, was reported pregnant as a single woman in 2019. The firm discovered the pregnancy was from a relationship with a junior employee.
According to reports, the employer opposed the relationship because the company policy prohibited having couples among employees. In that regard, one of the partners was compelled to quit. Olaitan was advised to resign despite being a senior employee on a higher salary scale. The employer also added that the arrangement would see the spouse pick up the financial responsibility to cater for the baby. She stepped down after bowing to pressure from her employer.
Unfortunately, three years after she resigned, there has been no marital consummation to the relationship, and Olaitan had not found a suitable offer since giving birth. She resorted to starting a business to sustain her financial needs.
In general, women in Nigeria undergo different forms of discrimination due to private-sector policies coupled with existing government regulations. Notable inhibiting laws include some components of customary law, the Labour Act, and constitutional requirements.
According to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2022 report, around 2.4 billion working-age women are not afforded equal economic opportunity, and 178 countries maintain legal barriers that prevent women’s economic participation.
The Nigerian Labour Act, which governs the relationship between employers and their employees, has clauses that blatantly discriminate against women.
For example, a woman cannot be employed on a night shift in a public or agricultural venture under Section 55(1) of the Labour Act (except women nurses and women in management positions who are not engaged in manual labour) or if the night work in question was due to an interruption of work which it was impossible to foresee and which is not recurring. Women are also prohibited from working underground in any mine under Section 56(1) of the Labour Act. "Night" is defined as the time interval between 10 PM and 6 AM.
While it may be argued that this rule safeguards women's safety, it would have been better if companies were required to ensure women's safety in the workplace at night for both sexes.
The Act also prohibits women from working in specific sectors such as mining, construction, arts, factories, agriculture, energy, water, and transportation industries. Interestingly, males working in the Nigerian public sector are allowed to be accompanied to work "by such members of his family (not exceeding two wives and such of his children under the age of sixteen years) as he desires to take with him" under Section 34(1) of the Labour Act. Whereas no such provision for resettlement covers women.
Additionally, various civil service rules exacerbate gender discrimination. For example, Rule 03303 of the Civil Service Rules of Kano and Kaduna states that: "Any woman civil servant, married or unmarried, who is about to undertake a course of training of not more than six months duration shall be called upon to agree to refund the whole or part of the cost of the course in the event of her course being interrupted on the grounds of pregnancy.
Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court in Abuja recently dismissed a Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) complaint to overturn a female police officer's dismissal due to pregnancy while single. The case was engineered by Corporal Olajide Omolola, a female police officer, who was fired based on a now-repealed Section 127 of the Police Act, which prohibited pregnancy before marriage for female police officers alone.
On the other hand, the judge dismissed the case, citing sections 126 and 127 of the Nigerian Police Regulations as the code of behaviour for female personnel. According to Bar Dami Ogunsaki, this provision violates section 37 of the Nigerian constitution, which guarantees all citizens the right to privacy.
Indigeneship and Citizenship
Women in Nigeria have unquestionably felt the burden of the country's ongoing debate between "citizenship" and "indigeneship." In 2020, the state's senior judge, Akon Ikpeme, who, according to the Nigerian Constitution and legal tradition, should have been appointed chief judge, was rejected by the state parliament, purportedly because of her family's ties to neighbouring Akwa Ibom. The military administration of Ibrahim Babangida established Akwa Ibom from Cross River on September 23, 1987. In addition, Akon Ikpeme is married to a Cross River man and has worked as a judicial officer for decades serving in positions such as director of public prosecution and a judge in the state of Cross River. Similarly, in 2012, Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo was removed as a justice of the Court of Appeal because she was not an Abia indigene and hereby deemed unfit to occupy the Abia seat as required by judicial policy.
On the political landscape, Opunimi Akinkugbe's nomination as an ambassador for the state of Ondo in 2020 sparked a heated discussion. This was on the premise that Opunimi Akinkugbe, who is married to a native of Ondo State in the south-western region of the country, is originally from Rivers State and therefore not qualified as an indigene to represent the state.
During Nigeria's 2019 election, women made up 52 per cent of the electorate, compared to 47 per cent for men. However, just 13 per cent of candidates comprised of women. There has been an ongoing discussion about women's poor participation in elections, and numerous factors have been identified.
Women are not progressing in political positions, according to Bar Dami Ogunsakin, because of discrimination rooted in customary rules and the high cost of politicking in the country. "Nigerian politics, as we all know, is extremely costly, and few women can afford to participate. It's critical to revisit some components of our customary and statutory law that prevent women from earning enough money to properly participate in political leadership roles," she said.
In 2020, the Code for Africa's gender gap tool reported an average salary of 4,628 nairas for women against 6,313 nairas for men in Nigeria. In addition, 35 per cent of women aged 15-49 have no form of education, compared to 22 per cent for men.
Recently, and for the third time, affirmative action bills aimed at creating reserved seats for women in the legislative and executive branches of government at the federal and state levels have failed. The bill was proposed by Nkeiru Onyejeocha, a Federal House of Representatives lawmaker representing Isuikwato/Umunneochi Federal Constituency of Abia state. The bill proposes handing women 111 extra seats in the National Assembly, one in the Senate and two in the House of Representatives from each state and the Federal Capital Territory. It also hoped to secure 108 seats for them in state legislatures. On the other side, the Affirmative Action Bill called for women to hold 35 percent of political party positions.
Notably, countries implementing affirmative action globally have recorded an increase in women's political and economic engagement. Rwanda began with a constitutional quota system of 30% in 2003 and presently have a 62% female representation with an accompanying economic growth of 7.2% and GDP of 5%.
The global proportion of women parliamentarians has increased by 0.6 per cent to hit 26.1 per cent, according to the IPU's latest Women in Parliament in 2021 report.
Despite the widespread scepticism around women in leadership, there has been evidence of women leading better than men. For instance, academic research in 2021 shows that outcomes related to Covid-19, including the number of cases and deaths, were systematically lower in countries led by women. In another study by Harvard Business Review, women rated higher than men in most leadership positions.
Different members of civil society, particularly women's and girls' rights campaigners, were outraged in March when gender bills were rejected during the constitutional amendment. The National Assembly, Nigeria's National Parliament, began voting on proposed proposals to change the Federal Republic of Nigeria's 1999 constitution. Sixty-seven(67) and sixty-eight (68) constitutional modifications were proposed in the Senate and house of assembly, respectively. Five of the bills proposed amendments on affirmative action for women and women's rights as citizens of Nigeria. These proposed laws include Bill to Expand the Scope of Citizenship by Registration, Bill to Expand Indigeneship Rights, Bill to Create Special Seats for Women, Bill to Ensure Affirmative Action for Women in Political Party Administration, Bill to Ensure Early Submission of Names of Nominees for Ministers and Commissioners and Affirmative Action for Women. All the bills failed to pass.
As a result, many Nigerians questioned the government's willingness to eradicate gender inequality in the country.
Breaking the confines
To liberate women from the structural and systemic barriers that limit their potential and participation in different spheres of society, Joan Obeta, a gender activist and communication expert with ActionAid Nigeria, stated that there has to be a legal reform and support for policies that promote gender equality. "If we must do a government for her, we must have a government by her," she said. She bolstered the need for women to be involved in decision making to ensure the implementation of policies that support women empowerment.
In 2013, 60 countries and territories used legislated candidate quotas to compose lower and upper houses of parliament and upper houses of parliament and sub-national councils. The Interparliamentary Union, IPU also reported establishing a link between the use of quota system and increasing women's participation in politics globally.
In addition, Nigeria could take clues from countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has taken giant strides to remove similar barriers like permitting women to work at night and prohibiting gender-based discrimination in hiring and promotions. MaryJacobs Okwusa, a gender activist and founder of Whisper to Humanity, advised that the continuous building of women's capacity would foster empowerment with knowledge and skills to thrive better in politics and the workforce.
Between April -May 2018, the UN women conducted a series of leadership and public speaking training sessions for women across various provinces in Rwanda ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2018.
Bar Dami Ogunsakin highlighted the need to consider unwritten laws that have become highly internalised, even informal settings. "To promote women's equal rights in the country, we also need to consider the undocumented discriminatory laws," she said. She stated that there are still communities in Nigeria where women still receive lower wages than their male counterparts. Data from the Gender Gap Africa, a civic tech platform by Code for Africa, supported Dami's assertion, holding that a man earns on average 71% more than a woman in Nigeria.
Generally, it becomes unarguably that several customary and non-customary laws hold women in Nigerians, hence the need for a diversified and urgent action to end the plights of Nigerian women through reforms of the laws.