Source: Sonke Gender Justice
Human rights have taken another knock. On 16 March 2016, Nigeria’s Senate rejected the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill, aimed at eliminating “all forms of discrimination” against women. The Bill was set to promote women’s equality in marriage, inheritance and education.

Lawmakers opposing the Bill said it is unnecessary, stating that the rights of everyone are already recognised in the Constitution. They further stated that the Bill is incompatible with Nigerian culture and religious beliefs. Religious texts and practices were cited as reasons to oppose the Bill.

However, women’s rights in Nigeria are dangerously lacking, as is evident in its discriminatory customary and religious laws pertaining to early and forced marriage, divorce, and ownership of property.

According to a 2015 UNICEF report on child marriage in Africa, 23 million girls and women in Nigeria were reportedly married as girls, making Nigeria home to the greatest number of child brides in Africa. In the southern region, customary laws allow girls to be married between 12-15 years of age, with this age dropping to 9 years in certain other regions of the country. As at 2013, 17% of women reported to have been married by the age of 15 and 43% reported to have been married by the age of 18.

Sharia law recognises four main types of divorce – none of which allow women the freedom to initiate divorce without heavy investigation into the ‘truth’ of her accusations and reasons for wanting a divorce – or that do not necessitate her having to pay a marriage termination fine. Moreover, under customary law, only men have the right to own land and a widow cannot inherit marital property.

“In many instances, religious and cultural texts support women’s rights, but these texts are hardly ever referenced. Instead, people rely on a narrow reading so that they can use this to justify the negation of women’s human rights,” says Tanya Charles, Policy Development and Advocacy Specialist at Sonke Gender Justice.

The rejection of the Bill exposes the underlying deep-seated misogyny still prevalent across the continent and is one stone in the mosaic of gender inequality permeating our societies. Of concern is that patriarchal attitudes are influencing policy-making processes and preventing the full realisation of women’s human rights.

It appears we are taking numerous steps back instead of striving forwards towards equality for all across the continent.

The South African National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence campaign stands with activists in Nigeria and urges Senators to reconsider their stance on the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill. True freedom and democracy is only achieved in a gender equal society.

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