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Press Statement by Senator Biodun Olujimi on the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill #GEOBill in Nigeria

I welcome you all to this international Press Conference organised by my office in collaboration with the Affirmative Action Coalition for Women, formerly the National Coalition on Affirmative Action and supported by Voices for Change (V4C). The objective of this press conference is to brief you on the contents of the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill which is pending before the Senate and to clarify any misconceptions that exist.

The Gender and Equal Opportunities (GEO) Bill seeks to achieve equal opportunities for men and women and boys and girls in all spheres of life specifically in the fields of health, education, governance, employment as well as in social and economic field. Its focus is on the elimination of discrimination in these areas and on the grounds of gender[1], age or disability.

The GEO bill guarantees

o   equal rights of women to conclude contracts and administer property,
o   equal treatment of women in all stages of proceedings in courts and tribunals, 
o   that nothing restricts, limits or discriminates against any person in terms of the legal capacity of women to undertake surety on behalf of any person,
o   prevention of denial of any advantage or benefit due to any woman only on the basis that she is a woman.

On equal participation of women and men in public life, the bill provides for the adoption of temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality of opportunity and treatment between men and women, and such measures shall not be considered discrimination including

o   a minimum of 35% reserved for women in political and public spheres, in employment, credit or other economic sphere in the public or private, and in all other cases.
o   parity for boys and girls, men and women in educational placement and school enrollment and retention, including award of scholarships, bursaries.

Among other progressive provisions of the bill is the section on the modification of the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving:

ü  the elimination of gender stereotyping, prejudices, customary and other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes, or the roles for men and women;
ü  the adoption of appropriate teaching methods and curriculum that emphasise the promotion of equality of all sexes in the choice of career, equal participation and inclusion of all persons in all activities of the school or institution;
ü  that the family as a unit of society shall ensure that values, practices or other forms of upbringing of children, ward and young people, or other forms of socialisation, is not discriminatory, and promotes a proper understanding of maternity as a social function and the recognition of the common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children;  women’s and men’s right to inherit, in equitable shares, their parents' properties.

The GEO bill takes into cognizance the existing provisions of religious books on inheritance as well as the discriminatory customary law position on the subject matter. It does not call for equality in inheritance rather it provides in one of its sections for equitable share (and not equal share) in inheritance between sons and daughters.  The use of the word Equitable is in recognition of the fixed inheritance shares in the Qur'an which are based on the different needs, roles, responsibilities and interests of males and females. Equitable share does not mean equal share but that which is fair and just, which is what the Qu’ran and the bible preach. The section does not dictate what is to be shared but envisages that the share must be fair for men and women... This also takes care of areas in Nigeria where customary law excludes women completely from inheritance.

The bill protects the widow from inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment and guarantees her the rights to guardianship and custody of her children after the death of her husband, unless this is contrary to the interests and the welfare of the children; the right to remarry the person of her choice;  the right to a fair share in the inheritance of the property of her husband and the right to continue to live in the matrimonial house provided that in the case of re-marriage, she shall retain this right only if the house belongs to her.

The Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill was recently re-presented before the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with modifications. It successfully passed the 2nd Reading on the 29th of September 2016 and was referred to the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters for further legislative action. We are awaiting a date for public hearing after the failure of a public hearing to hold in December 2016.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),is a set of 17 "Global Goals" with 169 targets signed by 193 countries including Nigeria. They are a new, universal set of goals, targets and indicators that UN member states will be expected to use to frame their agendas and political policies over the next 15 years.SDG 5 seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. The Targets include:

·         End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
·         Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

As important as it is, without a legal framework to support gender equality, SDG 5 cannot be met.

Contrary to the fears expressed by some citizens including legislators, the provisions of the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill are not in conflict with Nigeria's 1999 Constitutional provisions; rather they amplify the provisions of the Constitution, including section 42, which prohibits sex discrimination and s. 21, which upholds the preservation of cultures that enhance human dignity and are consistent with Freedom, Equality and Justice. Accordingly, the Bill reinforces the complementary and not competitive relations between men and women to be achieved through equal opportunities, mutual respect and common benefits to both.

The bill will not take away family headship from men. It enjoins shared roles and responsibilities for family life. Equality refers principally to equal opportunities to access, contribute and seek redress.

On the bill being in conflict with culture and tradition, it is noteworthy that Section 21 (a) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 which gives directives on Nigerian cultures provides that the State shall protect, preserve and promote the Nigerian cultures which enhance human dignity and are consistent with the fundamental objectives (underlining is ours) in Chapter 11. To give effect to section 21, the High Court laws and Customary Court Laws of many states of the Federation empower the courts to uphold only the cultures and customs that are not repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. This is in line with the constitutional provision on the preservation of cultures that enhance human dignity and are consistent with Freedom, Equality and Justice.

The bill will bring about development and advancement of all persons, male and female in the country and will go a long way in eliminating cultural practices like early or forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and disinheritance which are inimical to women and girl child development.

The Nigerian Government will, by the enactment of the GEO Bill, fulfil its international obligations undertaken through the ratifications of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child amongst others.

By enacting this Bill into law the National Assembly will be giving full meaning or effect to s. 42 of the 1999 Constitution that prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex amongst others; but fell short of enacting in clear terms the principle of equality and non- discrimination that has become part of customary international law, for which no derogation is permitted.

Distinguished Senator Biodun Olujimi
Senate of the FRN

[1]Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed. While most people are born either male or female, they are taught appropriate norms and behaviours – including how they should interact with others of the same or opposite sex within households, communities and work places. It results in unequal power relations between and among groups of men and women. When individuals or groups do not “fit” established gender norms they often face stigma, discriminatory practices or social exclusion – all of which adversely affect health.