27 January 2013

Nigeria: When Women Set Targets for National Assembly On Constitution

Lagos — At a two-day summit recently hosted by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Lagos, women leaders across Nigeria came out with a position paper on certain gender imbalances that must be addressed in the on-going constitution review exercise.

As women of different faiths, cultures and ethnicities strolled into the cool ambience of the prestigious Eko Hotel and Towers to participate in a two-day retreat that hinged on gender recognition in the on-going constitution review process, not a few of the participants have at the centre of their minds; the need to redefine the status of Nigerian women in the nation's socio-political climate.

The retreat was facilitated by UNDP and its counterpart, Democratic Governance for Development Project (DGD). For two days, the women representatives brainstormed and were able to arrive at key target areas of action where they hope their desires can be reflected as the federal lawmakers are putting final touches on their plan to amend the 1999 constitution for the second time in 14 years.

Leading the agitation was the Minister of Women and Social Development, Hajia Zainab Maina. Maina, who was represented by a Deputy Director in the ministry, Bola Labintan, said for any constitution to be acceptable to all and sundry, it must be reflective of men and womens' opinions. She went down the memory lane, recounting how the ministry had also put in place summits and retreats geared towards increasing women participation in socio-political developments in the country.

"One of the outcomes of the national political dialogue organised by federal ministry of women affairs, was that for democracy to thrive in the country, there must be equal participation of men and women in the policy and decision making process. This needs to be entrenched in the constitution and backed with appropriate actions. It is our belief that a gender-balanced constitution is the one that has the inputs of all categories of people," Maina said.

According to the minister, the federal ministry of women affairs is already working with the National Assembly to seek harmonisation of all memoranda revolving around gender recognition and empowerment submitted before it, in the on-going constitution amendment process. Maina, however, appreciated that much awareness campaigns still need to be put in place to change entrenched perception about gender issues, especially at the level of political parties.

The minister's sentiment was perhaps, one that was shared by other advocates at the summit. Speaker after speaker dwelled extensively on perceived low awareness campaign on women rights and recognition, a development they argued have hampered efforts to change the status quo over the years. Dr Mourtada Deme, the UNDP Project Director even felt more strongly about it.

"Experiences at the recent public hearing as widely reported in the national dailies showed that lot of awareness need to be created just as we have to maintain active engagement while the review process lasts. We, at UNDP, believe that we need to bring together stakeholders who are passionate about gender issues in Nigeria to agree and fashion out modalities to push forward various demands of Nigerian women.

"We don't have to give up our efforts based on the poor outing of women at the public hearing. If anything, the campaign has to be sustained. The struggle must go on. The effort has to be sustained. Nigerian women must be able to speak with one voice so as to address whatever gaps that might be in different agitations being put forward," Deme said.

Deme, who was also represented by Anne Ikpeme, a DGD Senior Gender expert, further noted that UNDP/DGD with the support of UKaid and Canadian International Development Agency have succeeded in organizing public fora wherein the media and the civil society organizations were engaged in the crusade of currying better deals for women folks in the constitution amendment exercise.

While the proceeding lasted, each of the women representatives took turns to launch vigorous campaigns against whatever is considered as "injustice" in the existing constitution.

Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, National Coordinator, Gender and Constitution Reforms Network (GECORN), while speaking on "Gender Gaps in the 1999 Constitution", was quite agitated as she listed array of "inhuman treatment" being hurled at the women folks. Her argument was hinged on the fact that Nigeria has over the years treated gender issues with levity anytime the constitution amendment process is in place.

"Constitution making in Nigeria has persistently marginalized women and this dates back to the colonial times when women were not allowed to vote. Same scenario repeated itself in 1979 when the country worked on a new constitution for the second republic. It must be noted with pains that there was no female member of the Constitution Drafting Committee set up by the military government of Olusegun Obasanjo at the time. In the same vein, the 1999 constitution making was an all male affair, as the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) of Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar's regime was made up of 26 military officers, all male," Akiyode-Afolabi said.

She listed some grey areas where she observed women rights are being violated and the need to adequately address them in the on-going constitution review exercise. These, among other things, include non-sensitivity of the constitution language to gender issues, non-recognition of reproductive health as developmental rights in the constitution, the denial of inheritance, ambiguity in the indigeneship of women, non-recognition of women political rights and constitutional restriction in section 6 (6) (c) on women social economic rights.

According to Akiyode-Afolabi, the non-sensitivity of the constitution language to gender issues is well manifested in that the pronoun "he" appears 235 times in the 1999 constitution while the word "woman" is only reflected twice. She insisted that women are not comfortable with the idea of calling a female political office holder "chairman", saying "it is a deliberate attempt to box the women folks to the corner".

While buttressing her point on challenges confronting Nigerian women on issues of discrimination as related to citizenship and indigeneship, the women group leader said ambiguity still trails women's place of origin and that of their husbands in appointive and political circumstances. She used the recent brouhaha generated in the elevation of Justice Jumbo Offor of Abia State to the Appeal Court as a case study.

"Though Justice Offor has been sworn-in into office, her initial denial because she hailed from Anambra was wrong. She was being accused of using the slot of Abia State, where indeed her husband hails from and where she has put all her years of judicial services. Such trend must not be allowed to continue. Thus, it would be right to demand that in the on-going constitution review exercise, a Nigerian woman shall have the right to enjoy the indigeneship of either her place of origin or that of her husband," Akiyode-Afolabi said.

Similarly, Prof. Ayo Atsenuwa, a lecturer at University of Lagos (UNILAG) who spoke on "The Importance of a Gender Responsive Constitution in Nigeria's Democratic Process", urged the women to start taking "do-able" steps that can help actualize their dream of having an acceptable constitution.

"It is critically important that our constitution states what our rights are but the current 1999 constitution speaks from both sides of the mouth. We must not deceive ourselves. We must start making 'do-able' statements and steps if we are to get anywhere with the crusade," Atsenuwa said.

The retreat formed five technical groups, each of which was saddled with the responsibility of identifying and negotiating strategic points on five minimum achievable demands. The demands dwelt on 35 percent affirmative actions, conferment of citizenship/indigeneship and residency, language of the constitution, discrimination, economic and social rights.

At the end of the summit, the technical groups submitted their reports, having arrived at five key target areas they sought to pursue at the National Assembly when the review exercise begins.

The five positions, arrived at according to Mufuliat Fijabi, DGD National Gender Expert, include the need to re-draft the 1999 constitution so as to make the language gender friendly, amend section 26 (2) which confers citizenship by registration to a foreign spouse of a woman just like her male counterpart and allows Nigerian woman to enjoy indigeneship of either her place of origin or that of her husband.

Others are the need to amend section 6 (6) (c) of Chapter two of the constitution so as to remove the restriction placed on women's socio-economic rights, to amend Section 42 (3) which already discriminates against women aspiring to certain public offices, including the military or police appointments and an explicit constitutional provision, affirming 35 percent affirmative action for women in both elective and political appointive positions.

In her remark, Fijabi said the essence of pruning down the demands to the five target areas is to provide the women with solid position before the lawmakers, stressing that if all other issues are not considered in the constitution amendment exercise, priority will be given to the five minimum achievable demands.

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