by Olusola Adeyoose
About four years ago, something quite instructive happened at the University of Ibadan. It was the students’ union elections and a rather daring lady was vying for presidency. Her candidature expectedly generated reactions from different quarters. What was, however, unsettling was that much of the arguments about her suitability for office were geared towards her gender not her perceived proficiency. What was even more unnerving was the claim by a group of postgraduate students I overheard at the manifesto night that it was somehow going to be shameful to elect a female president considering the number of males on campus.
Eventually, she lost the election. Not because there was a more credible opposition, there was none. But because students somehow could not stomach the idea of a female president and many felt the seat of the president was simply too high to be occupied by a lady. This course of event brings one to a fearful realisation: that even in our academic institutions, there still exists widespread discrimination against women, despite calls to end all forms of discrimination.
Most of the problems faced by Nigerian women today stem from abuse of women’s rights and gender inequality. It is discrimination against the female gender that results in child marriage, gender-based violence, poor political representation and other vices endured by women. With the aforementioned in mind, gender equality and women’s rights will, therefore, be the focus of this expose as it seeks to highlight problems faced by Nigerian women and offer probable solutions.
GENDER EQUALITY AND THE NIGERIAN WOMAN
Gender equality is the view that everyone should receive equal treatment and not be discriminated against based on their gender. The equality this write-up seeks to espouse should not be confused with gender sameness as some feminist groups posit. Rather it is a view of equal rights and opportunities for men and women alike. As the United Nations Children’s Fund rightly puts it, “it means that women and men; and girls and boys, enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities, and protections. It does not require that girls and boys or women and men be the same or that they be treated exactly alike”.
This work is not an attempt to distort or nullify the traditional gender roles ascribed to males and females in different cultures. Many of such roles try to complement the inherent natural differences in both sexes. One need not subject such systems to criticism where it is borne out of mutual respect and agreement, and when the dignity and safety of the woman are not in question.
It is important to be wary of attempts to extend Western imperialism and propagate Western moral superiority. Practices abroad are not necessarily right when they differ from our culture. It is to avoid this confusion of sameness of genders and gender roles that some prefer to speak of gender equity which simply means fairness rather than speak of gender equality.
One manifest discrimination based on patriarchal gender construct is the education of male children at the expense of their female counterparts. As reported by the United Nations Population Fund, about two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are females and the women folk understandably occupy the least paid jobs and are the most poverty stricken. This gap in education translates to ignorance of women as regards reproductive health and resultant high maternal mortality – a violation of women’s right to life.
Another common abuse of women’s rights is the violation of right to reproductive and sexual autonomy in the form of child marriage. 43% of Nigerian women are reportedly married before the age of 18. Female children who are incapable of reason and who can barely tell the consequences of their actions are given out in marriage before they attain the age of consent. This halts their aspirations and predisposes them to marital violence.
What makes this barbaric act more worrisome is that it is commonly seen amidst the Nigerian elite, especially in the north. The news of Ahmed Yerima, a senator of the federal republic who married a 13-year-old is still fresh in mind. Another example is that of the Emir of Katsina who recently contracted a marriage with a 14-year-old. Many of these girls because they are yet to attain sexual maturity suffer complications such as vaginal fistulas and several die in the process of childbirth.
Sexual objectification of women in pornography and mainstream media contributes in no small measure to gender inequality. An average music video these days reveal a barely clad lady dancing provocatively to the rhythms of beats. Such depictions of women as nothing more than objects of male sexual desire, give women negative self-images, and predispose to depression, eating disorders, and sexual dysfunction. Objectification of women also predisposes women to gender-based violence.
Nigerian women continue to suffer domination within private establishments and in public service. The general notion that women should play the second fiddle makes it difficult for a woman to win an elective position even when she is highly qualified. There are also private establishments with abusive clauses in employment contracts. Some of these firms make their female employees sign agreements not to conceive within certain years of employment, violating the reproductive rights of such women.
Though tremendous progress has been made since the Shakers – an American evangelical group, started agitating for women’s rights and equality in 1788, much is still left unachieved and hence the need to continually push the boundaries in a bid to make gender equality universal. This is particularly so for developing countries like Nigeria where women perpetually suffer discrimination despite ratification of The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
I agree with the submission of the United Nations Population Fund on overcoming gender inequality, that “gender equality requires strategic interventions at all levels of programming and policy making. These levels include reproductive health, economic empowerment, educational empowerment and political empowerment”
There is a need for widespread media campaigns to help redeem public perception of women and to combat the oppression of women founded on irrational prejudices. The media can also be employed in condemning widowhood rites, gender-based violence, and other forms of discrimination against women.
It will equally be important to embrace education of the female child so that women themselves can recognise their rights and resist any form of subjugation. Good education will also help develop the capacity for critical thinking and challenge many stereotypical perceptions. So will the introduction of gender equality into the national curriculum as is done in Britain and other European countries.
Legislation against discriminatory practices is another crucial step towards the attainment of gender equality. I was quite joyous when I heard of the arrest of the Lagos big boy whose obsession it was to chain ladies like dogs and parade them round parties. The decisive response from the State Government clearly shows that such denigration of women is not permissible and it will go a long in deterring other like minds. The government must always exercise great political will towards protection of the rights of women.
In 2015, at the opening session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon remarked “Far too many women and girls continue to be discriminated against, subjected to violence, denied equal opportunities in education and employment, and excluded from the position of leadership and decision making. We cannot achieve our 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development without full and equal rights for half of the world’s population, in law and in practice”
Those are instructive words from the Secretary-General and those assertions still remain largely true today. Promotion of gender equality will inadvertently lead to economic prosperity.
In Nigeria for example, there’s hardly anyone in recent times who has excelled in public service as much as the late director of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) – Dora Akunyili. Such was the genius of Akunyili that she excelled both as director of NAFDAC and as minister of information despite being a trained pharmacist.
If we are serious about national development, we cannot continue to exclude female assets from political participation on the altar of baseless prejudices and irrational stereotypical perceptions. It is our moral responsibility to consciously fight against the subjugation and oppression of women, as a woman is not less human.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
Adeyoose is a student of the University of Ibadan.