1999 Constitution: As women push to deflate discriminatory clauses…



Conversations about the inclusion of women in legislative pronouncements are building more momentum and new dimensions are being analysed as women work towards blocking every loophole to their growth. ENE OSHABA writes.

The role women play in democracy and national development cannot be overemphasised. As the search for a Nigeria Fit for all heightens, the place of women is very crucial. 

From historic times till now, Nigeria women have played and continue to play vital roles in sustaining the communities yet issues about their growth have not received the desired attention as they continue to be excluded from the hem of affairs particularly in governance even when they have proven their capacity in leadership roles.

Though, the denigration of women to the background is not peculiar to Nigeria or Africa alone, countries round the world are gradually giving women chances at leadership.

It is as a result of the slow pace of Nigeria in achieving affirmative action that women are exploring every possible means to get to the desired status in the society; one of such strategy is the push for the constitution amendment to have all the contentious sections amended and clauses like affirmative action included.

The Minister of Women Affairs Dame Pauline Tallen, while speaking at the roundabout discussion on gender representation in the 1999 Constitution: A dialogue with the Chief Judge of the FCT, Justice Ishaq Bello, organised by the Women in Politics Forum (WIPF), said a construction reform “is long overdue.” According to her, election of a female vice president of America was a clear signal that every country must wake up to do the needful in governance not just in politics, but all spheres of life.

However, in Nigeria it has been observed that the 1999 Constitution is one major restriction to how far women can grow as it was drafted without adequate consideration of women. While the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on sex, and the gender gap in educating girls is steadily closing, there is still a long way to go as regards the significant gender disparity in labour laws, women participation in government and so on.

Gender activist believes that there can be no better way to start achieving gender equality than to demystify some clauses in the Constitution perceived to reflect male dominance.

Questioning pronouns

Dame Tallen noted that the constitution of any Country is the ground norm for addressing inequalities in the society, she wondered why women remained marginalised when the constitution recognises both gender.

She said, “The opening phrase of the ‘Preamble’ of the 1999 Constitution reads “We the people…” The Constitution cannot be representative of women’s views and interests as they have been marginalised and were not duly consulted in the processes of making the Constitution. Women therefore ally themselves with all marginalised groups in asking for a fair representation in the Review process for it to be representative of the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“The demands for women’s political rights are not new. There have been several defining moments before now. From 1979 under Late Murtala Mohammed administration to the unsuccessful attempt in 1998 under the then Military Administration of Gen. Abdulasalam Abubakar, there have also been attempts by the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th National Assembly.

“The most significant of these efforts was in the year 2000 under the democratically elected government of President Olusegun Obasanjo; when women’s efforts were partly rewarded by the agenda setting signal it sent to women activists and other civil society groups nationwide.”

The minister restated women’s position in Politics and other spheres, calling for the Affirmative Action Measures to be incorporated into the new Constitution.

“Our demand is based on the premise that Nigeria’s Constitutional protection on non-discrimination as stated in Section 42 has failed Nigerian women. It has neither eliminated discrimination nor inequality, when it comes to sex and disability. It has not pushed for the issue of affirmative action in favour of marginalised groups, such as women; possibly because of tradition or custom.”

Country Director of OSIWA Nigeria Mr. Jude Ilo, said the Nigerian Constitution, despite prohibiting gender-based discrimination, does not protect women’s rights.

Represented at the roundtable discussion by Tseme Ede, Ilo explained that an ideal constitution should be drafted with the input of every segment of society.

“But the 1999 statute was constructed without consulting Nigeria’s women, and, as we all know, the language reflects this. A prime example is Section 26 which states that a foreign woman married to a Nigerian man is eligible for Nigerian citizenship, but the same right is not granted to a foreign man married to a Nigerian woman.

“Section 131, which lists the qualifications for the office of the president, uses the word “he,” suggesting that only a man can be president. The Constitution generally uses the words “he,” “his” and “him,” and does not include female pronouns.”

She explained further the need for inclusion in every sphere of living, adding that women represents As the world evolves, we realise, now more than ever, that inclusion matters.

“Inclusion in the language of our laws; inclusion in the drafting of our laws, and inclusion in consultations to make laws, women represent about half of Nigeria’s population, but occupy less than 10 per cent of political positions.

In the same vein, the convener of the roundtable discussion and President WIPF Ebere Ifendu, while welcoming participants said the 1999 Constitution “is replete with a male-as norm ideologies therefore relegating in anonymity the female gender, for equity and fairness.”

Ifendu disclosed that the conversation was organised with the aim of seeking answers to the glaring question of gender representation and dialect interpretation of the constitution.

“The dialogue is to enable us interrogate the legal implications and interpretation of gender-marked nouns and pronouns used to refer to individuals and social/political positions. It will also give us an insight into legal understanding and definitions of the social construct of men vis-a-vis women in the constitution,” she said.

Responding, Justice Ishaq Bello represented by Justice Olasunbo Goodluck, in his presentation explained that the “He” in the interpretations of laws means ‘He’ and ‘She.’

Goodluck noted the role of women in nation building, describing them as vibrant, proactive and committed, she however urged women to work harder and ensure that those barriers impeding their growth should be brought down.

“I took the He to be He or She with the golden rule interpretation. If “He” were as it is to mean “He” alone I doubt if those challenges wouldn’t rare its head in the past when women, though few have contested election even for presidency.

“Truth be told, interpretation of the constitution is clear and I think using “He/She” is petty when it is settled that the “He” means “He and She”. Truth be told, if that is used the constitution will be overwritten the word usage is just a style of craftsmanship and not gender discrimination,” she explained.

“However, I feel that a very small adjustment in the interpretations section explaining that the “He means “He and She” will solve the problem.

“The Judiciary plays a prominent role and a dynamic, proactive judiciary that stands during the presentation of petitions and is bold to say this is our interpretation will put an end to the argument,” she said.

Similarly, the Senate Minority Leader, who represents Abia South Senatorial District Enyinaya Abaribe, during a panel discussion moderated by  the chair, Nigeria Bar Association Abuja branch, Barrister Hauwa Shekarau, noted the need for the constitution to be more Inclusive.

Abaribe likened the Nigerian constitution to the Holy Bible which is written in the male gender, explaining however that the ‘He’ as used in the Constitution represents ‘He’ and ‘She.’

He urged women to work towards voting for themselves or uniting not to vote for a particular candidate to drive their message down, saying nobody is causing the refusal or failure to achieve gender equality in politics, politicians think of personal interest first before any other interest.

UNWomen’s position

While stressing the importance of gender equality and affirmative action, the Country Representative of UNWomen, Ms. Comfort Lamptey, emphasised that constitution reforms remains the global best practices in promoting women’s rights and gender equality, adding that it is one of the fastest ways of domesticating International laws and conventions.

She lauded the Nigerian judiciary for women who have served on the bench including those who attained positions of Chief Justice, President of Court of Appeal, Chief Judge in a State, and Lagos State with 50% women at bench.

She however expressed disappointment that the representation of women at the Supreme Court and the court of appeals falls short of 30% standard minimum representation agreeiat the Beijing conference 25years ago.

“Until last week, there are only three women Judges out of 13 Judges even with the swearing in of eight new Judges there are only four, out of 24 Supreme Court judges making only 24%. It is critical that Affirmative Action principle stipulated by International instruments which has been ratified by Nigeria is upheld within the Nigeria legislative framework.”

Continuing, Lamptey revealed that findings from the UNWomen gender analysis of legal instruments shows that Nigeria pay little regard to International and regional instruments that recommend Affirmative Action to state parties in elective and appointive positions to increase women’s stake in power and decision making amidst several recommendations on how to achieve equality.

She added that affirmative action have been adopted by several countries as a temporary measure to create an enabling environment for women inclusion, while recommending lessons from Uganda and Ethiopia where historic legacy of inequalities suffered by women was considered and affirmative action was used as a remedy.

“The failure to include affirmative action in the Nigeria 1999 Constitution and passage of the legal frameworks that embodies affirmative action has largely been impeded by section 42 of the 1999 Constitution.”

She, therefore, called on the Nigerian Judiciary to contribute to the development of jurisprudence of equality by exploring legal thoughts that has enabled courts and other jurisdictions to move the Constitution.

“Investigate well established principles designed to address discrimination against women. Be in the vanguard of institutionalising transformative justice for women and other disadvantaged groups in Nigeria.”

Expectations

Barrister Ifendu reiterated that there is no better time to achieve an inclusive democracy than now, stressing that an inclusive constitution will automatically enable women take their rightful position at leadership and governance.

She said, “There has been arguments on whether women should register their own party to be able to make an impact in governance in Nigeria. My opinion on this is that with a strong inclusive constitution, existing Political parties can adopt women into their executive structures. This will no doubt lead to more women joining parties, contest and ultimately winning elections.

“We are today celebrating the success of the American election that for the first time about 101 years after women got voting rights, a woman is the Vice President elect of the United States of America. This is an endorsement to the capacity and sagacity of women across the world.

“Covid-19 also gave us an opportunity to appreciate the role women play in governance. It is on record that countries led by women did exceedingly well in the control of the pandemic.”

Ifendu stressed the need to move from civil governance to true democracy where women, youths and persons with Disabilities will have equal Opportunities to participate in governance.

“Our position in all of this is very simple – that Affirmative Action Measures to be incorporated into the new Constitution. Our demand is based on the premise that Nigeria’s Constitutional protection on Non-Discrimination as stated in Section 42 has failed Nigerian women. It has neither eliminated discrimination nor inequality, when it comes to sex and disability. It has not pushed for the issue of affirmative action in favour of marginalised groups, such as women; possibly because of tradition or custom,” said The Minister Dame Pauline Tallen.

Way forward

The minister stressed the need to begin to sustain the advocacy to demand for short to medium term strategies, such as statutory quotas and reserved seats to be applied across the board from the Candidates list to parliament.

She added that Constitutional provisions exist for Federal Character Representation, while zoning of political positions and elective offices have become a norm of our participatory democracy.

“We believe that the time is ripe for this to be extended to women who constitute over 50% of the Nigeria population as a way of ensuring that they are constitutionally guaranteed equality and access.

“The reform of the Constitution that should make it clear that each party must adopt the quota system and the issue of reserving seats for women. The 35% quota should be used for candidate selection as well.

“No doubt, more Nigerian women are currently engaged in the country’s political processes at different levels, including as party agents, voters and contestants for political offices. But this is not enough, we need legislative backing,” she stressed.

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