Dusting the laws to protect women’s socio-economic rights

By Gordi Udeajah, Umuahia   |   05 May 2010   |   10:00 pm  
UJU Okechukwu, (not real name), 28 years old female, a couple of years ago bagged a degree in one of the old generation universities in the South Eastern part of Nigeria.
She was filled with expectations and hope of securing a good job. But unknown to her, her parents had other plans for her. Without any consultation with Uju, the parent had arranged to give her away to a “stranger” based in the United States.
The said U.S.-based husband had, on visiting Nigeria, without any courtship or acceptance by Uju, paid her dowry and took away original copies of her certificates to the U.S., supposedly to secure a job for her.
On getting back to the States, according to Uju, her new husband landed in trouble. Pronto, he was arraigned in court and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
Today, Uju is in a state of confusion as she could neither file a divorce, recover her credentials nor raise enough money to return to Nigeria.
This is one of the many cases being handled today in Nigeria, which bother on infringement on the rights of women.
It cuts across all strata, from socio-economic, political to cultural discriminations, women have either come to live with the reality of their situation or with the assistance of civil society organisations and Non Governmental Organisations challenging this phenomenon.
Indeed, going by the implications of Nigeria’s adoption in 1981 of the charter and provisions of the Convention On Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which the United Nations (UN) signed earlier in 1979, one would have expected that the issue of women still being discriminated against in all forms or restriction of their rights would by now have been a forgotten phenomenon in Nigeria, but the reverse seems to be the case.
CEDAW now popularly referred to as International Bill of Rights for Women and consists of a Preamble and 30 Articles, which clearly define what constitutes discrimination against women and even set the agenda for national action against it.
Specifically, the convention considered it as discriminatory against women any act of distinction, exclusion or restriction meted out on the basis of sex, which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying their recognition and enjoyment, irrespective of marital status, on the basis of equality of men and women of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, cultural, civic or any other field.
Accordingly, Nigeria and other nations having subscribed to the CEDAW Charter provisions were legally/ bound to implement same by incorporating the principle of equality of both sexes into their legal system.
They were also to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure effective non-discrimination against women as well as ensure elimination of all such acts by persons, organisations or enterprise.
In Nigeria’s case, the implementation of the CEDAW provisions can not be said to have been fully effected successfully.
In 1985, a draft bill targeted at fully domesticating the CEDAW provisions was presented to the National Assembly for passage into an Act, but years after it is yet to be given the attention for which it was conceived and presented.
For instance, in Abia State, the bill to reverse Disinheritance of Women did not receive the expected nod of the lawmakers. Even the right of a woman to transmit her nationality to her foreign spouse the way it applied to men, was not accommodated by the country’s constitution in Section 26 (2).
There is also discrimination with respect to land/property ownership and employment. The Factories Act did not recognise the specific health and reproductive needs of the women. The Nigeria Police Employment Regulations prohibit the enlistment of married women and require female police officers to seek permission before marrying while same seemingly apply in some private sectors like banking with respect to marital and maternity status.
There is gross under-representation of women in politics and public life such that the percentage of women political office holders as per the last election is a far cry from the 35 per cent stipulated by the National Gender Policy.  Again, even the number or percentage of elective political offices announced to have been reserved for the females was yet to be actualised.
Consequently, calls have been made in various quarters for various government to redress the scenario in which women are discriminated against.
Worthy of commendation in addressing the issue of women discrimination is the role being played by the wife of Abia State governor, Mrs. Mercy Odochi Orji, whose office has undertaken sensitisation campaigns decrying forms of discrimination against women, including the maltreatment of widows, and their denial to be part of inheritance of their late husband’s property.
In Abia State, there seems to be a deliberate policy and action to check discrimination against the female gender. A law against child abuse has been in place baring the subjection of house helps to hawking, over work at domestic level, denial of education while in some towns, forced and early marriages are being frowned at and discouraged.
In the civil and public service, women have actually risen such that in every sector, their numerical strength are balanced or even out-numbered that of the men. Presently, the number of female permanent secretaries is almost at par with that of the men, even as the post of the state Head of Service is held by a female in the person of Mrs. Ngozi Chikwendu.
Specifically in the judiciary, it was once remarked by the state governor that there is equality in the number of male and female judges and magistrates, even as not long ago, a female acted as the state chief judge.
One of the ways that discrimination against the female gender would be checked is by the women themselves aspiring not only to positions in the public services but through aspiring for elective positions on which they could sponsor passage of pro-female bills.
The President of the Abia State Chapter of the International Federation of Female Lawyers (FIDA), Mrs. Uzoamaka Uche-Ikonne, said that the solution does not rest on the law. According to her, “legal instrument is not the problem but the implementation and the constitution provides for both gender.”
FIDA is currently handling a case of the wife of a deceased husband thrown out of her late husband’s home by her step-son and denied her inheritance right despite having a male child but who is younger than the said step-son.   
The said step-son claimed to have the discretion to allocate property of his father to his step-mother and her son.
Another case is that of forceful marriage of the wife of a deceased man to his younger brother who will, in turn deny the woman the right to inheriting her late husband’s property if she declines.
Justifying these scenarios Mr. Ken Ikenga, who claimed to be a traditionalist and custodian of culture and tradition, said that doing so sometimes is justified as it aimed at stopping relations of surviving wives coming to control the estates and property of their deceased husbands.
According to him, “some educated women take the opportunity of their husband’s death to distance their late husband’s relations from having access to their places of birth. They go and import their relations to live with them and before you know it, such relations would start developing lands and claiming not only the houses they built but indigeneship.”
The state FIDA president is however of the view that with sustained sensitisation campaigns going on there is sustained action to challenge incidents in court or report same to FIDA whom she said runs free legal clinics.



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