‘We have to fight for ourselves’ – the campaign to enshrine gender equality in Nigeria’s constitution
By Megan Clement (follow me on Twitter here)
A debate is raging in Nigeria over the place of women in politics and public life. For months, women’s rights organisations have been campaigning for the country’s national assembly to pass five pieces of legislation known as the ‘gender bills’, which would enshrine equality measures in the constitution.
But progress has not been steady. In early March, all five bills were rejected, spurring women to protest outside the national assembly in Abuja to demand the legislation be reconsidered. Women’s organisations only suspended their protest once the parliament agreed to present three of the bills a second time for another vote, which is due to be held in the coming weeks.
Nigeria has one of the lowest rates of women’s political participation in the world, ranking 184 out of 187 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, with just 3.6% of seats in the lower house and 7.3% in the upper house held by women.
Ebere Ifendu is the president of Women in Politics Forum, one of the organisations advocating for the bills, and director of the Centre for Gender Education and Rights at Gregory University. She is also a mediator, lawyer and former national publicity secretary of the Labour Party. Ifendu spoke to Impact about the campaign to pass the gender bills, and the road ahead for women’s rights in Nigeria.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Megan Clement Can you start by telling me about the five gender bills that women’s rights advocates have been trying to get passed in Nigeria?
Ebere Ifendu We’ve worked hard for women’s participation in politics and governance, and over the years, different organisations focusing on women’s issues realised we needed to have legal backing – we needed to have the constitution backing us. So we came together and worked on five gender bills.
The first gender bill relates to special seats for women – we sought 111 extra seats. It is difficult for women to run, so we said let us have special seats contested by women, just like in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. We talked about having one senatorial seat created from each state for women to contest and for the house of representatives, we said two seats from each state. Then for the house of assembly within the states, we argued for two seats and that gave us a total of 111 seats for women.
The second bill is on affirmative action [in political party administration]. Some countries do have this in their constitution. But in our case, we have the Nigerian national gender policy that was established in 2006 after the Beijing conference and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to which Nigeria is a signatory. The affirmative action bill came from that.
We also have a bill on ‘indigeneship‘. Shockingly, in Nigeria, if you are married to a man who is not from your community, you are not going to have that man’s ‘indigene’ – that is, you won’t belong to that community. The sad part of it is this: you cannot contest or get appointed to a position within your community because the community will say, ‘You are married to a man from another community, so having gotten married to this man, you should benefit from his place’. But the man’s community will say, ‘No, she is not from here, she is from another community, she should go there and contest’. So that leaves a woman floating with no place. It denies you a lot of opportunities, not just in politics, but in every sphere of life – you are seen as an outsider. We’re saying that after five years of marriage, a woman should claim the indigene of her husband’s community.
Then we have the citizenship bill. When a woman is married to a foreign spouse, she cannot give her spouse Nigerian citizenship. When a Nigerian man is married to a foreign spouse, he can. So the woman becomes a Nigerian citizen, while a man married to a Nigerian woman can never become a citizen of Nigeria. This is very discriminatory.
The fifth bill is to give women a representation quota in ministerial nominations for the national and federal executive councils.
Nigerian women said that these things are discriminatory and we have section 42 of our constitution, which clearly states that there is equality in the country. So we said, can we have all this in the constitution to give women the power to participate fully?
Megan Clement What are the tactics you are using to seek support for these reforms?
Ebere Ifendu Unfortunately, on March 1, the national assembly voted on constitutional amendments and all the five bills were voted down. The house of representatives voted against the five bills and the senate voted in favour of two, but because we run a bicameral legislature, if the two houses do not agree, the bill is seen to have failed.
Nigerian women decided to do something different. Having advocated, having met traditional leaders and political leaders, having met with the parliamentarians themselves, the leadership and individual members, we felt that the advocacy was more than enough to get the bills to be voted for. We started by talking to the public on the radio using the platform that we call ‘The Constitution Women Want’. We used that to dissect the sections of the constitution to make the public aware of our activities, and we had the public on our side, but the parliamentarians voted against it.
So Nigerian women, under the umbrella organisation Womanifesto, and ‘occupied’ it for every legislative day over four weeks. Every legislative day we were in front of the national assembly until they came out to talk to us and told us that they will re-present the bills.
Megan Clement Which two bills will not be reconsidered?
Ebere Ifendu They are not reconsidering the bills on extra seats or ministerial nominations. They are reconsidering the bill on affirmative action, the bill on indigeneship and the bill on citizenship. We’re saying, yes, let’s have the three bills but we would have appreciated getting all five.
Megan Clement How are you trying to influence this second vote?
Ebere Ifendu We’ve initiated a new round of advocacy, targeted at the leadership of the national assembly, especially to the house of representatives. We are also talking to religious leaders and traditional leaders – they are influencers, so we have resumed discussions with them. Then we have partners like the UN establishment and the minister for women who is a very strong advocate.
At the state level, we have also activated women’s groups. They meet with their parliamentarians as they come home at their constituency offices. They have submitted letters, they are getting commitments from them – that they’ll be voting in favour of women. We are optimistic.
Nigeria is having elections in 2023 and a good thing that came out of the bills not being passed is that it gave Nigerian women an opportunity to come together more strongly as a movement. Women are now seeing that we have to fight for ourselves to ensure they listen to us. It brought about a kind of cohesion, a kind of sisterhood.
It was a huge mistake on the part of the national assembly because after the failure to pass the bills, women’s groups came together every day. I must tell you, we had a minimum of 1,000 women every day and these are women coming out on their own. Women would come with a car, with a pack of water, with all kinds of snacks, just to ensure that people get something to eat and drink. It was an awesome experience for us. It shows that Nigerian women are beginning to take ownership of these bills, feel that it is their bill, and it’s something that will affect them, because we took time to break it down into different local dialects. Even for women who didn’t go to school, we started asking: “Have you been a victim of any of this? Come up and speak.” We had so many women sharing their experiences.
While we’re doing that, women’s organisations also came together to sue the federal government on the interpretation of the word ‘equality’ in section 42 of the constitution, asking why the Nigerian government is not obeying the national gender policy of 2006. On April 6, we got a judgement in the affirmative. The judgment supported the cause of Nigerian women and said that yes, the Nigerian government had erred by not respecting the constitution and also by not respecting a policy that they themselves set up to ensure that women participate in politics.
Now we are going back to ensure that the parliament will do the right thing – we are working on an enforcement process. This will mean that for every appointed position in Nigeria, women will have a minimum of 35% affirmative action. Until there is a superior judgement, this remains the law in Nigeria as we speak. We have also called on the federal government to dissolve the cabinet and set up a cabinet that will represent what the court said.
Megan Clement Can you talk about some of the opposition that you face in trying to convince people about these bills, particularly among politicians in parliament?
Ebere Ifendu Some of them still have this mindset that women are not supposed to lead. For them, they are doing the work for women so we shouldn’t complain, we should just sit back. Patriarchy, in one way or the other, has infiltrated every aspect of our life as a nation.
Then there is the fear of what women will do. Women are people with capacity and empathy. We keep telling them, “Look, Nigeria is going through a lot security-wise, a lot economic-wise and a lot social-wise and that is because half of the population is not part of governance and decision-making.“ When they set up conflict resolution committees, you’ll find out that women are not given an opportunity to serve. You will see that for a huge committee, maybe one or two women will be appointed. I believe that if women are given opportunities in Nigeria, we would not have the type of insurgency we are facing today. People who are perpetrating those crimes now, they are our children, they are our brothers, our husbands, our friends.
If we are able to come into governance, we’ll have a different approach to these things. Men are feeling insecure about having more women participate, because according to them, once we do that, we will take over. But we are coming to collaborate with them to ensure that we get things done the right way.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement and Steph Williamson.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
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