James E. Archibong

Women constitute about fifty percent of the Nigerians population. They continue to play the subordinate and subservient role. Nigerian women are marginalized, violated, and subjected to all forms of discrimination. They lack the economic power that will enable them to compete favourably. About seventy percent live below the approximated minimum level of income required to procure the essentials of life.

Women’s issues have become a global front burner. There has been a wide range of violations of the rights of women around the world despite numerous international, regional, and national legal instruments prohibiting or protecting them. This has been largely attributed to socio-economic, cultural, and religious practices which subordinate women to men, thus making women vulnerable to domestic violence, rape, sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Violations of women’s rights in Nigeria  
Women over the years have been the victims of various forms of violence meted out to them by reason only of being a woman. These include sexual violence, sexual harassment, wife battery, child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, harmful widowhood rites, male-sex preference, human trafficking, enforced prostitution, and ritual murder. The men undermine the rights of women. They undermine everything about the rights of women including their dress code, freedom of movement, and freedom of association among others.

Women are smuggled out of Nigeria to Europe and forced into street prostitution. Thus, young Nigerian girls are now objects of smuggling. Women in Nigeria are vulnerable. They always live under some fear or threat of being harmed, attacked, or discriminated against. They are susceptible to manipulations and inequalities. The greatest challenge facing women in Nigeria that tends to inhibit, limit, or prevent them from manifesting their potential is discrimination. 

A few decades ago in Nigeria, very few girls had access to education compared to their male counterparts. In some places, girls were not allowed to go to school. Parents preferred educating the male child to the female child. Unfortunately, even in contemporary times, many female children have no access to education. They are not allowed to go to school or may not be allowed to advance to a particular level.  Early marriage or what may properly be called child marriage has been one major challenge that women and girls have faced in Nigeria over the years. Girls as young as twelve are given out in marriage to men over fifty years of age instead of being sent to school.

The majority of them are engaged in low-paid employment in the informal and unregulated sector. In most cases, women are denied good job opportunities their qualifications notwithstanding. They are restricted to petty trading, subsistence farming casual labour, and other low-paying or low-status jobs. Gender roles relegate women to household management. Seventy percent of Nigerian women are living below the poverty line. This is what has been described as the feminization of poverty. Often women have little or no access to credit facilities. 

Male-child preference it is called is deep-rooted in Nigerian societies. Parents regard male children as more valuable than females and tend to ascribe more importance to the male child than to the female child. Every man is desirous of having a male child.  Parents prefer to educate male children. Girls are rarely sent to school and start experiencing discrimination and rejection from birth.

Women are often the victims of violence. This could be physical or sexual. The husband is entitled to beat and mistreat his wife. The woman has no legal redress for violence inflicted by her husband because in most cases, she is seen as a property of the man, a possession which he has acquired. Domestic violence represents the ugly use of force meted out to women by their partners – spouses or male friends. Sexual violence against women includes rape, sexual abuse, indecent assault, harassment, defilement and exploitation. The definition may be expanded now to include ‘baby factories’ which have sprung up in different parts of the country. Several women have been the victim of rape.  Women and girls who have been raped are generally silent about the crime. Perpetrators often act with impunity. 

Widows also face harsh treatment on a regular basis. They are subjected to harmful widowhood rites. Women who have lost their husbands are compelled to undergo certain rituals which are considered harmful to them. They are exposed to terribly unpleasant experiences to mourn, or ‘honour’ their husbands.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is still rife in most communities across the nation.  Women of various ages especially between 15 and 49 are compulsorily made to undergo FGM. In States where the practice is prohibited, the law is not enforced. The consequences may be unpredictable. It may lead to infections such as tetanus, HIV/AIDs, and urinary tract infections among others. It may also result in many gynecological problems and complications.

Apart from violence against women, another form of violation of the rights of women is discrimination against them on the grounds of gender. This has prevented women from realizing their full potential as human beings. They are denied certain kinds of jobs simply because they are women. They also suffer discrimination or marginalization in the political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural spheres of human endeavors. In some countries, women cannot vote or be voted for in an election. In others, including Nigeria, women are marginalized politically and are grossly under-represented in government. Educationally, some parents prefer to educate the male child to the female. In many instances, very young girls are withdrawn from schools and given out in marriage. Some get pregnant in their teens and are vulnerable to complications during childbirth. 

From a religious angle, some Christian denominations have denied women a place on the pulpit without any justifiable reason. In some traditional religious practices, young women are committed to shrines of certain deities essentially as reparation for the crimes of members of their families and to pacify the gods.

One of the inalienable rights bestowed on all human beings is the right to own and control the property. However, it is observed that in most African countries, including Nigeria, women are regarded as inferior, less valuable, and subservient to men and therefore unable to inherit property. Women are not allowed to own land because of unfavourable cultural practices.

Many young women in Nigeria have become victims of trafficking. They are lured from their homes with false promises of jobs and a better quality of life in Europe, but end up in prostitution, sexual slavery, and servitude. Many have been raped, beaten, and killed on the streets of Italy.

Reasons for violation of women’s rights
Often the belief is that women are the property of men. Violence against women arises from the disregard and disrespect for the rights of women. In many cultures, women are regarded as inferior or as second-class citizens. There are certain harmful practices perpetrated against women and girls for reasons of culture. Women suffer discriminatory practices on the grounds of religion. Some religious organizations place a lot of restrictions on the rights and freedoms of women to practice their faith like their male counterparts. Lack of interest or attention in matters relating to the rights of women also accounts for violations. In most cases, there is no proper investigation or the victims are blamed.

Global action to promote women’s rights 

International legal protection
In an attempt to promote and encourage respect for the rights of women, the United Nations, through one of its principal organs, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established the Commission on the Status of Women in 1946. The Commission has been instrumental in initiating UN programmes designed to eliminate discrimination against women, including the drafting of treaties dealing with the rights of women. 

The General Assembly of the UN proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Declaration guarantees to all human beings “all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex…” The Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution or Others 1950 stipulates that the parties to the convention agree to punish any person who, to gratify the passions of another, procures, entices, or leads away, for prostitution, third person, even with the consent of that person, or exploits the prostitution of a third person, even with the consent of that person.

The General Assembly Declaration of 1974 on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women adopted by the General Assembly on December 20, 1993, are giant strides in the protection of the rights of women. Many other multilateral instruments seek to protect the rights of women. Perhaps the most prominent of the international instruments on the rights of women is the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) 1979. Women in armed conflict 

In times of armed conflict, Article 27 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War 1949 provides among others that women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault. 

Apart from resolutions and declarations of the UN on the protection of the rights of women in peacetime in times of armed conflicts, there have been international conferences in support of women’s rights and empowerment. These include the World Conference on Women, Mexico City 1975 and Beijing, 1995, and the Vienna Conference on Human Rights 1993.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action
The United Nations convened the Fourth World Conference on Women on September 4-15, 1995 in Beijing, China. It was a turning point in the world’s understanding of women’s human rights. The principal themes were the advancement and empowerment of women in relationship to women’s human rights; women and poverty; women and decision-making; the girl child; violence against women; and other areas of concern. The resulting documents of the conference are The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

Platform for Action
There are twelve critical areas of concern:

  1. The persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women.
  2. Unequal access to and inadequate educational opportunities.
  3. Inequalities in health status, and unequal access to and inadequate health-care services.
  4. Violence against women.
  5. Effects of armed or other kinds of conflict on women.
  6. Inequality in women’s access to and participation in the definition of economic structures and policies and the production process itself.
  7. Inequality between men and women in the sharing of power and decision-making at all levels.
  8. Insufficient mechanisms at all levels to promote the advancement of women.
  9. Lack of awareness of and commitment to internationally and nationally recognized women’s human rights.
  10. Insufficient mobilization of mass media to promote women’s positive contribution to society.
  11. Lack of adequate recognition and support for women’s contribution to managing natural resources and safeguarding the environment.
  12. The girl-child.

The platform for Action deals with removing the obstacles to women’s participation in all spheres of public and private lives through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural, and political decision-making. It sets out several actions that should lead to fundamental changes by the year 2000. In addition to the above, March 8, every year has been observed globally as International Women’s Day. In 1999, the General Assembly of the UN Declared November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. 

Women’s Empowerment in Nigeria
Nigeria has signed and ratified many international treaties and conventions that promote the well-being and rights of women; and committed itself to taking steps to end gender discrimination and ensure equality and dignity to men and women. Among the steps taken to achieve this was the establishment of the National Commission for Women by a Decree in 1989. This was facilitated by Mrs. Maryam Babangida, wife of the then President. In 1995, the National Commission for Women was transformed into the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. This was in substantial compliance with one of the requirements of the Being Platform for Action. The Ministry is to ensure the speedy and healthy development of Nigerian women. Nigeria also has a National Gender Policy to build a just society devoid of discrimination. The National Centre for Women Development was also established for the general purpose of designing developmental programmes and activities for the advancement of women in Nigeria. Other laws protect women. Another measure for empowering women politically was the establishment of the Nigerian Women   Trust Fund (WF) in 2011 to increase the representation of women in governance in Nigeria at all levels.

The role of NGOs/corporate organizations
Women’s rights organizations are active in promoting women’s rights. They provide support services to victims of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. Some domestic and international organizations have been working to promote women’s empowerment in Nigeria. Some corporate bodies also initiate empowerment programmes. For example, Unilever Nigeria supports women through its ‘Women Empowerment Programme’ launched in August 2011.  

Empowerment programmes of First Ladies
It was in the spirit of the realization of this vision of empowering women that the wife of the President, Dame. Patience Jonathan launched the Women for Change and Development Initiative (W4CDI). When women are educated, and economically empowered, and their voices are heard, they can contribute significantly to the development of their societies. W4CDI was inaugurated in Abuja on 16th July 2010 at the Women Development Centre, Abuja. Its objectives include support for women seeking positions of leadership; restoration of the dignity of the Nigerian woman; bringing to an end all forms of violence and discrimination against women; and educating women, especially the girl child. The Nation’s First Lady has another NGO, A. Aruera Reachout Foundation which she established when she was First Lady of Bayelsa State. With these two organizations, she has empowered thousands of Nigerian women. 

Crusade for gender equality
The First Lady of Nigeria, Dame Patience Jonathan, is a strong advocate of women’s empowerment and this includes gender equality. Gender equality which has now become a global issue “can easily promote change and development as well as help in attaining cohesion and stability in societies.” According to her, “It is my firm belief that an equal participation of our men and women in the development of our nation will certainly help in bringing about the desired change in our society, strengthening our economy and making Nigeria a country to be proud of.” If Nigeria must join the group of major economies and if women should play greater roles in nation-building, attention should be paid to gender equality.

Action at the State level
In addition to the empowerment programmes of State governments, wives of governors have also initiated empowerment programmes for women. Barrister Mrs. Obioma Liyel Imoke is the First Lady of Cross River State.   Regarded as Mother Theresa of the State, she launched her pet project the Partnership Opportunities for Women Empowerment Realization (POWER). Mrs. Ekaette Unoma Ukpabio’s pet project is the Family Life Enhancement Initiative. Under it, she has inaugurated several projects: The pet project is to promote the well-being of families. The First Lady of Plateau state is Mrs. Talatu Jang and her pet project is the Women in Agriculture and Youth Empowerment (WAYE) Foundation which has trained and issued certificates to hundreds, or possibly thousands, of jobless women. Chief Mrs. Josephine Elechi is the First Lady of Ebonyi State, and the initiator of the Mother and Child Care Initiative (MCCI), an instrument for addressing some pertinent and challenging issues affecting women. Mrs. Margaret Peter Obi was the First Lady of Anambra State who was kindly disposed to help the people of Anambra, particularly women. Mrs. Roli Sheila Uduaghan is the First Lady of Delta State and founder of the Master Care Foundation. The First Lady of Borno state is Hajiya Nana Kashim Shetima and her pet project is the SWOT Foundation, specifically targeting women. Adama Dankwambo Hajiya Adama Dankwambo is the First Lady of Gombe State. She has embarked on several programmes to improve the lives of women. Chief (Mrs.) Mercy Odochi Orji started her humanitarian work even before occupying the office of First Lady. Her pet project is the Hannah May Foundation. She has initiated some projects in fulfillment of that passion. Mrs. Nneoma Nkechi Okorocha is the First Lady of Imo State and the founder of the Women of Divine Destiny Initiative. Mrs. Rachael Dickson is the First Lady of Bayelsa State. Her pet project is the Friday Konyefa Foundation. Mrs. Yemise Dooshima Suswam is the First Lady of Benue State. Her pet project is Sev-Av Foundation 

Former President Jonathan’s agenda for women
The administration of President Goodluck Jonathan is the most women-friendly in Nigeria in the past 100 years of nationhood concerning the recognition and empowerment of women. His administration has empowered thousands of women through various schemes. This is designed to reduce poverty and boost economic self-reliance among women.

One of the ways the Jonathan administration has been empowering Nigerian women at the grassroots is through the provision of loan facilities. In this regard, the Federal Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Development set up the Women Fund for Economic Empowerment (WOFEE) in partnership with the Bank of Agriculture. Over 5,000 women have received support from the Fund since it was created. The Ministry also set up the Business Development Fund for Women (BUDFOW) by partnering with the Bank of Industry to assist businesswomen with loans and technical support.

The Jonathan administration has also, through the Central Bank of Nigeria, earmarked the sum of N132 billion out of N220 billion to boost women’s empowerment under the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Fund (MSMEDF). The Central Bank has in 2014 allocated the sum of N220 billion to deal with the problem of cash flow plaguing the microfinance sub sector.              

On 18 February 2012, the President launched the Public Works Women and Youth Empowerment Programme which was devised to employ 370,000 youths in 2012 with 30 per cent of jobs set aside for women. Skill acquisition centers have been established and stocked all over the country where women are trained. This initiative has led to job creation and greater income for women mostly at the grassroots. 

Appointment of women into key offices
Women now hold important positions in government. They are prominent in the legislature, executive arm of government, and the judiciary. They are also found in the top echelon of the civil and public service of the federation. There are more women in key positions of authority and responsibility under President Goodluck Jonathan than in any previous administration. 

Apart from the unprecedented number of female ministers, women have also been appointed or allowed to serve in other important positions hitherto dominated by men. Those in this category include 5 Special Advisers; 10 female Ambassadors; 11 Permanent Secretaries; 16 female Judges of the Federal High Court; 6 female Judges of the National Industrial Court; 16 female Justices of the Court of Appeal; and 3 female Justices of the Supreme Court. Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa was appointed as President of the Court of Appeal, and Justice Aloma Muktar, Chief Justice of Nigeria.

Why women must be empowered?

A woman’s place not only in the kitchen
In the past, a woman’s place was in the home and kitchen. She was to attend to domestic chores, raise children, and sometimes help out on the farm. It was therefore a privilege, a rare opportunity for the few girls who had access to education. It was even a very rare privilege for those who schooled beyond the secondary up to the tertiary level. Today, educated women have contributed in different capacities to nation-building. There are several of them in the executive, administrative, and professional cadre. In academia, some of them have been appointed Pro Chancellors, Vice Chancellors, and Deputy Vice Chancellors. 

Women as breadwinners 
The socio-economic status of Nigerian families could be improved tremendously through women’s empowerment. Many of them are the breadwinners in their homes, running, keeping, and providing for the welfare of their families. They go to the bush market, sell their wares procure food items, agricultural products, and other commodities, and transport them to the urban markets for sale. This is done amidst difficult terrains, difficult road conditions, and danger of accidents and threat of armed robbery.

Women have also ventured into fields of endeavour and professions, hitherto exclusively dominated by men. Professional women have entered almost every sector of the economy, though in a small number, despite challenges and obstacles. With their earnings, women can complement the income of their spouses, feed and sustain their families, settle house rents, pay school fees, and undertake other financial responsibilities traditionally reserved for men. The Nigerian woman can achieve a lot more than she has done now if she is empowered and afforded the right environment and conditions for self-actualization. 

Women in the informal sector
Most Nigerian women are engaged in this sector from where they earn their living.   Women are the most vulnerable in terms of the challenges faced by workers in this sector. They are often abused, violated, exploited, and grossly underpaid. Despite the challenges, women are more resilient, determined, courageous, and undaunted. Nigerian women are building businesses; many of them own restaurants located at different strategic positions and street corners. While others are mobile food vendors often referred to as “Mama Put.” They provide meals to millions of Nigerians who for various reasons cannot provide themselves with such at home. Some of the women in the informal sector are home-based petty traders. Often, they trade in foodstuffs such as garri, water leaf, ice and smoked fish, yam, and palm oil, among others. They sit there from morning to evening at the mercy of the weather and revenue officials who always.

Sustaining the empowerment       

Education of women and girls
The illiteracy rate is higher among women and girls as many parents refuse to educate their female children. Women must be educated as education remains a powerful instrument for their empowerment and liberation. Education helps them to acquire more knowledge, improve their status in society develop a positive attitude to life, and gain self-confidence. It helps them to acquire skills for employment in the formal sector. Women and girls must be educated if the crusade for empowerment and equality must be meaningful. The women today regarded as amazons were educated and empowered economically, socially, and politically. They yearned for education, and in turn, made themselves an instrument for educational development and empowerment of women and girls. Education was an eye-opener.

Access to credit facilities/Government support
Indigent women who want to start a business but have no capital should be empowered and given access to loans. Women are taking over the responsibility of feeding the family through farming. Despite their huge contribution to the nation’s economic and nutritional growth, peasant farmers face a lot of challenges. The main challenges of the rural women farmers are poverty, illiteracy, poor storage facilities, or the complete absence of it. Some women find farming difficult because they have no tools.  They continue to use hoe because they cannot afford tractors.

This category of nation builders needs robust state support to overcome these mountains of challenges. These include exposing the rural women farmers to adult literacy programme, modern methods of food processing, preservation and storage, and the use of modern farm implements and farming techniques and fertilizer. Rural women farmers should have access to loan facilities with less stringent conditions. With more support from the government, women can produce enough food to feed this nation.

Skill acquisition for women
To sustain women’s empowerment in Nigeria, there is a need for the National Directorate for Employment and other government agencies to step up skill acquisition programmes for women. Skill acquisition provides a means of livelihood for women and reduces unemployment. Due to hardship, women go into immoral relationships. Many go into prostitution. Skill acquisition reduces poverty, hunger, and crime, enhances the capacity of women and girls, and remains a tool for sustainable development. Women have been training in vocational skills at the National Centre for Women Development (NCWD).

Women must rise against barriers
Women must rise above the limitations imposed on them by traditions, stereotypes, and other factors. They must reject and defy those factors that continue to hinder them and prevent them from manifesting their potential. The following women were pioneers of women empowerment and at the forefront of the struggle for Nigerian independence: Lady Oyinkansola Abayomi, was a nationalist, educationist feminist, one of Nigeria’s foremost leaders, and a prominent personality in the history of Nigeria. Chief Mrs. Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti is a household name anytime the story of nationalism, political and civil rights activism, empowerment, and emancipation of women in Nigeria is told. Chief Mrs. Margaret Ekpo was a colossus of Nigerian Politics, a rare breed, a top woman organizer, a civil and political rights activist, a foremost political leader, a crusader for social justice, and one of the pioneers of women’s liberation in Nigeria. Hajia Gambo Sawaba was one of the very few female politicians and activists from northern Nigeria who was able to overcome the hurdles and challenges, in the north, of low education for girls and early marriage to emerge a powerful and dynamic political leader. Mrs. Elizabeth Adeyemi Adekogbe was a nationalist, foremost politician, and women’s rights activist. Madam Alimotu Pelewura was a political activist, successful entrepreneur, charismatic women leader, and an active participant in the struggle against colonialism. Chief (Hon.) Mrs. Janet Mokelu was the secretary of the Eastern Region NCNC Women’s Association and a Member of the Eastern House of Chiefs. Mrs. Charlotte Olajumoke Obasa was a social worker, philanthropist, crusader for women’s rights, and a leading indigenous entrepreneur of that time. Mrs. Oyibo Ekwulo Odinamadu is a foremost educator, educational administrator, icon of politics, civil rights crusader, and an activist for the fundamental human rights of women. 

These amazons challenged the stereotypes and overturned the status quo. Women were as active as the men in the anti-colonial struggle.  In some cases, they went further than the men by adopting acts of defiance and civil disobedience, boycotts, and street protests to challenge the colonial government. In other cases, they led the way while the men followed behind. They were selfless and patriotic. They were able to establish and drive home the point that women were not inferior or second class as they were often portrayed to be. Irrespective of the fact that they belonged to different political organizations and ideologies, they came together against the common enemy. They were united in addressing national challenges. They collaborated and cooperated in prosecuting the common goal of liberating the nation from the grip of colonialism. 

Men must give women a chance
Women often complain of not being given the chance to participate in the political and economic process. They are usually overwhelmed and outnumbered by the men. They are also sometimes intimidated and sexually harassed. There has been a vigorous campaign by the Nigerian First Lady, Mrs. Jonathan, to have the 35 per cent Affirmation Action passed into law by the National Assembly. This would guarantee elective and appointive positions for women in Nigeria. 

The key to progress in the family and the community is respect for women’s rights. Their rights must be respected and protected. Gender equality should be taken seriously in Nigeria. Obnoxious customary practices that undermine the rights and freedom of women should be abolished. Female victims of human rights violations should be given legal aid and compensated. The law on all forms of violence against women should be enforced. 

The government, society, and all stakeholders in women’s empowerment must continue to fight against the ills and challenges that have obstructed or inhibited their development such as poverty, gender-based violence, discrimination against the girl child, and adverse cultural practices that may threaten or diminish the achievements already recorded. One way of doing it is by educating the girl child. Another is gender equality. The National Assembly should enact legislation that would guarantee the education of the girl child. 

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Brautigam, C.A., “International Human Rights Law: The Relevance of Gender” in The Human Rights of Women: International Instruments and African Experiences, eds. W. Benedek et al London: Zed Books, 2002 

Buergenthal, T., International Human Rights in a Nutshell St. Paul Minn: West Publishing Co., 1995

Kuenyelua, A., Women, and Law in West Africa Legon: Human Rights Study Centre, University of Ghana

Ndifon, C.O. and Archibong, J.E., “Sexual Violence against Women as a Weapon of War: An Appraisal of the Legal and Institutional Responses” A Contempoary Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Vol.1 No.1, 2009

Okagbue, I., Women’s Rights are Human Rights Lagos: Nigeria Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, 1996

This work was originally published in My Treasure: Marriage and Family Sustainability in Nigeria – A Compendium in Honour of Mrs. Gloria F.T. Okou, Ari – Jet International, 2014 pp 118-132

James E. Archibong

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