Nigerian women protest parliament rejection of pro-equality bills

The women were demonstrating against a parliamentary vote discarding five bills to grant Nigerian women more autonomy.

A protester wearing face mask, carries a banner outside the Nigerian Police Headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, during a demonstration to raise awareness about sexual violence in Nigeria.
A protester wearing face mask, carries a banner outside the Nigerian Police Headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, during a demonstration to raise awareness about sexual violence in Nigeria on June 5, 2020 [File: Kola Sulaimon/AFP]

Nigerian women have converged at the country’s parliament in Abuja to protest its decision to vote against the adoption of five gender bills.

As early as 8am on Wednesday, hundreds of women showed up at the National Assembly Complex in the Nigerian capital to demonstrate against the Senate’s decisions at yesterday’s constitution amendment session.

‘’I am here [at the protest] because I am angry,” Nimisire Emitomo, a 25-year-old writer, who joined others to sing and chant about Nigerian legislators neglecting their concerns at the parliament gates. “When I saw the vote yesterday, the first thing that came to my mind is why do they hate us so much? They are literally saying we are second-class citizens,’’

After two years of deliberations, the legislature had voted on a series of bills to amend the controversial 1999 constitution, adopted during the transition from military rule to democracy that year.

One of the amendments, if passed, would have granted citizenship to foreign-born husbands of Nigerian women; the Nigerian constitution already confers automatic citizenship on foreign-born wives of Nigerian men. Another would have given a woman the right to become indigenes of their husband’s state after five years of marriage.

There were also provisions to assign 35 percent of legislative seats to women, as well as reserve 35 percent of political party leadership, for women.

Protesters said the rejections have pushed back years of efforts by female lawmakers, lobbyists and activists.

For months, Chioma Agwuegbo, executive director of TechHerNG and other activists had held consultations on the bills with legislators, civil society groups and various other stakeholders. All of their efforts ended up being futile.

’They shut the bills down with a vehemence that actually scares us,’’ said Agwuegbo, one of the organisers of the protest. ‘’The reason why women are out today and tomorrow and keep having this conversation is because women are not just good only for votes. You cannot lead us without us.’’

Women and girls make up nearly half the entire country’s population in Nigeria but are grossly underrepresented in Nigeria’s political space. Only 19 of the 469 legislators currently serving in Nigeria’s bicameral legislature – a meagre 4 percent – are female.

No woman has ever been elected governor or president and only a handful of cabinet appointments are handed to women. Consequently, the West African state is ranked 180 out of 190 according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

A Nigerian women uses her shirt to outline demands of her and fellow female protestors at the gates of the Nigerian parliament after a constitutional amendment session.
A Nigerian woman protests outside the Nigerian parliament [File: Chioma Agwuegbo, TechHerNG]

Tuesday’s vote was the fifth attempt to review the 1999 constitution since its adoption. The latest review began in 2020 and the committee overseeing the amendments was led by Deputy Senate President Ovie Omo-Agege. It submitted a total of 68 bills last week.

Of the 68 bills voted on, 49 were passed, including a bill on financial autonomy for local governments, Nigeria’s third tier of governance. A bill to cap the timeline in prosecuting criminal and civil cases was also rejected.

Activists have said the vote against bills granting women more autonomy was symptomatic of what is still a deeply conservative society.

‘’It is clear that [the rejection of the bills] is a continuation of patriarchal structure in the society,” Ayisha Osori, director of Open Society Foundations, told Al Jazeera. “As diverse as Nigeria is, in terms of how divided we seem to be when it comes to ethnic, religious and class divides, one thing that unites Nigerians more than anything is the common hatred for women.”

Sponsors and lobbyists of gender-related bills usually face an uphill battle in the legislature due to religious sentiments. Last year, a similar bill seeking to promote gender equality in employment and property inheritance was discarded for the third time after male senators from the northern region complained that such bills were ‘’anti-Islam”.

To enact constitutional changes, the vote results have to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the 36 state parliaments and then sent to the president for assent. The protesting women are asking that Tuesday’s decisions be reviewed before that step is taken.

Source: Al Jazeera