Human Rights, Gender Equality and Economic Empowerment in Nigeria

1. Introduction and Conceptual Clarifications - Human Rights - To give a generally accepted definition may be difficult to grasp but the whole idea of the concept is well known. Human rights are commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because he or she is a human being.

The Black Laws Dictionary defines Human Rights as ‘the freedoms, immunities, and benefits that according to modern values (especially at an international level), all human beings should be able to claim as a matter of right in the society in which they live.’

Human rights are thus conceived as universal (applicable everywhere) and egalitarian (the same for everyone). These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights in both national and international law.

To a large extent, these rights have been accorded recognition by various states in their body of laws especially the constitution which forms the fons et origo of their legal system. This is basically based on the importance attached to it world over as it is usually what a state claiming civility must subscribe to.

In Nigeria for example, there are claims which the constitution fundamentally guarantee as rights to be enjoyed by the citizens which are remediable upon breach.

These set of rights are called civil or political rights and are to be found in Chapter 4 of the 1999 constitution. There is however other claims which are not justifiable in the courts of law even though they are rights in themselves. These set of rights are referred to as socio-economic rights and are to be found in Chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution which tagged it ‘Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principle of State Policy’.

Gender Equality

Gender ordinarily means the fact of being male or female. But here it would be better understood as the social and cultural constraints which while based on the biological sex of a person, define his or her roles in the society; thus gender-based violence is taken to mean the violence which is inflicted on a person because of their biological sex.

Gender Equality studies the understanding of rights discourse and its Nigerian application in recent times. I believe rights are an important tool for securing women’s protection from violence and promoting women’s equality. I argue further that both of these views inadvertently neglect economic issues. So long as this is the case, current discussions of rights have only limited benefit for poor women in rural areas of the country.

In a parallel sense, a society in which there is no discrimination against anyone on his or her sex could be said to have achieved gender equality, and more generally, gender equality could simply be explained as full equality between the sexes.

In fact, Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights helps to illuminate this concept as it declares that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards another in a spirit of brotherhood’.

The UN declaration falls short on detailing how this equality could be achieved either within a Nation or among Nations. Complicating further is the variety of inequalities including but not limited to economic, racial ethnic, sex and gender.

Further, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women refers to this declaration in terms of equal rights of men and women.

Poverty and lack of resources obviously affect men and boys as well as women and girls, but societal and cultural gender bias stipulate poverty unreasonably affects girls and women. Promoting the status of women and girls is a mounting struggle no matter where one lives. But, when resources are scarce, the devaluation of women and girls can result in real damage.

And here I lay my emphasis on Nigerians in rural areas because of the contrast between seemingly stark conditions for poor women and girls. The possibilities for creative resistance and transformation offered by the co-operatives I talked about earlier. Nigeria as addressed, Giant of Africa, but still a country in which there is widespread poverty. However, there must be same rights and same opportunities which must be available to all men and women in various field of human activity, including but not limited to education, marital legislation, political posts and labor.

Thus, the concept of gender equality may be taken to refer primarily to the full equality of men and women to enjoy the complete range of political, economic, civil, social and cultural rights, with no one being denied access to these rights or deprived of them, because of their sex. The direct opposite of this is gender bias where one gender is treated more fairly than another.

The movement towards gender equality, especially in Western countries began with the suffragette movement of the late 19th Century.

This movement resulted in changes to laws either relating to particular issues or general anti-sex discrimination laws. For example in 1882, there was a change in relation to a woman’s property rights in marriage with the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act of that year.

Economic Empowerment

Empowerment ordinarily refers to increasing the spiritual, political, social, educational, gender or economic strength of individuals and communities. Sociological empowerment for example addresses members of groups that social discrimination processes have excluded from decision making processes through – for example discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.

Empowerment of the women, also called gender empowerment, has become a significant topic of discussion in regard to development and economics.

Entire nations, businesses, communities and groups can benefit from the implementation of programs and policies that adopt the notion of women empowerment.

Although, I believe that empowerment cannot provide equality for women in the face of persistent gender stereotypes and women devaluation. So, by looking at the impact of Nigerian women’s empowerment the connections of cooperatives, thrift and empowerment organizations which illustrates the connecting between women economic empowerment and the resulting overall improvement of quality life. Cooperatives and these Women Empowerment Organizations employ women as well as provide services and programs that promote women’s leadership and empowerment. I believe that those organizations, can provide a model for transnational on the economy. They improve women’s lives both individually and collectively through simultaneously teaching skills thus providing employment.

Empowerment in their personal lives is directly related to the increased in economical and political power that the women have by being members of Cooperatives and Women Empowerment Organizations. These organizations I notice, anchors women’s power firmly in a material and economic basis. But, these individual empowerment remains inextricably tied to the women’s membership in a larger group and their collective power to transform the conditions of their lives. By working together, the women are able to secure a decent livelihood, access to education, health care and loans.

Empowerment is however, one of the main procedural concerns when addressing human rights and development which its participation is a necessary step to overcome the obstacles associated with poverty and development.

The Nexus: Human Rights, Gender Equity and Economic Empowerment

Human Rights, gender equity and economic empowerment all are interdependent concepts. For example, some specific provisions of the 1999 constitution deals to a large extent and touches on gender equality.

Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution provides that no person shall be discriminated against on the basis of sex. Also, it has been advocated that gender equity is first and foremost a human right.

For instance, women are entitled to live in dignity and in freedom from want and from fear. And to this end, gender equality can only be achieved through economic empowerment especially of women. It is when the woman is empowered that she can lay claim to fundamental human rights which is guaranteed by the law.

Impediments to its Full Realization

There is no doubt the fact that in Nigeria, we have had different women in prominent positions of influence. Names like Madam Tinubu, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Grace Alele-Williams, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Obi Ezekwesili, Cecilia Ibru, Waziri Farida, Allyson Maduekwe, Prof. Alele Williams, Patricia Olubunmi Etteh to mention a few.

These names to a large extent have been able to get beyond the limits by getting to the peak in the business, political and economic spheres of the polity.

Even though the constitution guarantees to the women some rights which to a large extent helps to promote gender equality, what obtains in practice is far from the paper provisions of the constitution.

The problems have not been with the entrenchment of these provisions but rather with the practice and enjoyment of these rights. In the words of A. O. Obaseki, JSC(as he then was), experience have shown in many cases that the real question is not whether fundamental rights are asserted on paper, but whether they are recognized in practice and can be secured’.

Women are at the receiving end in Nigeria society. They are treated or tortured at every stage. They have been faced with many gender related violence ranging from rape, to child abuse, to genital mutilation, widowhood practices, and limited property right/inheritance. Not forgetting, marriage and divorce, reproductive issues, equal access and opportunity to jobs and education. And such issues should be extended to sexual violence, domestic violence, circumcision, dowry etc.

Women’s right and gender equality must not take precedence over culture and tradition. As we note, many violations of women often occur within families and are justified thus.

One of the greatest impediments to the achievement of human rights and gender equality in Nigeria is the widowhood practices which is notorious in our various local communities and which to a great extent has been institutionalized in those communities.

Upon the death of the husband, the widow is subjected to oppressive and dehumanizing treatment that leaves her psychologically, emotionally and sometimes physically traumatized.

She is made to account for all her husband’s property, nothing of which may be given to her, irrespective of her needs. Even at that, instances abound where the widow is subjected to a trial by ordeal to prove that she is not responsible for the husband’s death and this may take form of merely taking an oath, or sleeping with the corpse, or worst still, she may be made to drink of the water used to bath the corpse.

Aside the foregoing, and as if not enough, the widow would be made to wear mourning veil usually black clothes for a considerable length of time.

Her hair will be shaved and she will be made to sit on sackcloth throughout the mourning period, and to provide a list of items including a goat or chicken for rituals.

Also the wife may be inherited by the relatives of the deceased husband turning the wife to an object of inheritance. These practices need to be eliminated in as it constitutes a grave violation of the fundamental rights of the widows to respect for the dignity of human person and to their body.

More disheartening is the child marriage practices in our various communities in which children are shamelessly forced out in marriage.

This is based on the fact that these children are not of marriageable age and also not voluntary since the consent of the child is not sought and obtained before being given out in marriage.

This practice which is mostly common in the Northern part of the country leaves the child at a loss as she is by virtue of her age not prepared or ready for the challenges that comes with marriage.

This results most times in child bearing complications since her sexual organ is too immature to cope with this.

The issue of the property rights of women also leaves much to be desired in relation to human rights, gender equity and economic empowerment. Most customary practices do not recognize the woman as having proprietary rights.

In the area of inheritance and succession, women are not allowed in most communities to share in the estate of their deceased parents or husbands.

The respective native laws and customs of most communities do not permit the woman or widow to take part in the deceased’s estate. This practice has persisted for a long time.

In Nezianya v. Okagbue, the court affirmed the customary status by holding that the widow has only a possessory and no proprietary right over land of the deceased husband. This certainly is unjust and contrary to all known principles of natural justice, equity and good conscience.

For it is inequitable and manifestly unjust to deprive a woman of the property she labored with the husband to acquire or even of her own property landed or otherwise acquired through her personal efforts. Such customary practices should be declared by the court as null and void as inconsistent not only with natural justice, but, and importantly with the constitution.

Thanks to judicial activism and civilization, the practices are gradually being phased out from our society. Recently the Supreme Court, in Mojekwu v. Mojekwu condemned such practices as inconsistent with equity and fair play in an egalitarian society which does not discriminate against women; holding further that:

’…all human beings male, female are born into a free world for and are expected to participate freely without any inhibition on grounds of sex… any form of societal discrimination on grounds of apart from being unconstitutional is antithesis to society built on the tenets of democracy…and is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience’.

It is hoped that this radical departure from the status quo would be courageously sustained, thereby eliminating the clogs in the enjoyment of human rights of the women.

The issue of poverty also requires our attention in this piece. Poverty ordinarily imports a condition of inability to provide oneself with the basic necessities of life which includes food, clothing, education, medication and the likes.

You will agree with me that in Nigeria majority of our people live in abject poverty manifested by starvation, illiteracy, lack of shelter, clothing, health services and those basic necessities. And the worst hit by this syndrome are our women.

The lack of these indices by our people block the enjoyment of the fundamental right of the people as guaranteed, and this makes no sense to them when one stoops to discuss issues of human rights.

Akinola Aguda aptly captured the situation when he asserted that:

‘the practical actualization of most of the fundamental rights cannot be achieved in a country like ours where millions are living below starvation level ,in the circumstances of this nature fundamental rights provisions enshrined in the constitution are nothing but meaningless jargon to all of our people living below or just at starvation level.’

For of what use is it to talk about human rights or gender equality to a person who has no hope of a meal for himself or his family. Without socio-economic rights, to what extent can fundamental be meaningful to the average citizen, and of what value can those rights actually be?

Allied to this issue of poverty is the problem of access to justice. In the first place it is a man who has eaten and clothed himself that can be interested in securing his fundamental rights through the law.

The women in the society just like all others are faced with the problem of access to the courts. There is no doubt that access to court is indeed a right of all citizenry, and as fundamental as any other rights guaranteed by the constitution. The constitution guarantees this right.

Section 46 specifically provides that any person whose rights has been, is been or likely to be contravened can apply to the High Court of a State for the protection of same.

You will agree with me that the enjoyment of the benefit provided by this section is based on the economic status of the person in question. It requires a lawyer and the filing of the necessary documents.

All these require money and this is costly too. In the end, access to court is largely inhibited by the high cost of process fees as well as the lawyers’ fees with the result that the door of justice is shut against the poor citizens of which a sizeable number of them are women.

These and others are responsible for the denial of actual enjoyment of the rights so enshrined in the constitution and the attainment of gender equity.

Efforts to Tackle this Menace and the way Forward

Fundamental human rights, gender equality and economic empowerment had occupied various discourses over the years. This is predominantly based on the significance of these concepts in a civilized society and considering the fact that it is the key to a better society. In the first place I am convinced that in the aspect of Human Rights the State has succeeded through the necessary statutory framework to guarantee to the citizen fundamental rights.

The copious provision of Chapter 2 of the Constitution is a clear case of this assertion since it contains a detailed provision of these rights.

But it will be wrong to think that these provisions in themselves is a guarantee that citizens will certainly enjoy these rights because in the real sense of it the Nigerian experience as to the enjoyment of same has been marked with recurrent flagrant abuses.

Even more unfortunate is in the aspect of the socio-economic rights in Chapter 2 of the Constitution which was made unjustifiable by virtue of Section 6(6)(C) of the same Constitution.

And to think of it, these are rights which are important to the common man on the street who cares not about personal liberty, dignity of human person but is rather concerned about living a good life by way of eating good food, having a roof on his head, having access to the basic necessities which are vital for his self-development.

It is therefore imperative at this stage for the State to rise up to the occasion in its duties by ensuring that the safety and welfare of the citizens is truly its primary purpose, and this they should do by providing social amenities for their people for the purpose of freeing them from want, poverty, illiteracy and fear.

It is by this that the Fundamental Human Rights will indeed make real meaning to them.

In another respect, the issue of gender equality like we have said has been greatly affected in the Nigerian situation. The equality we are talking about lies not in giving preferential treatment to the women in the society but that they should be allowed equal opportunities in every sphere of societal life.

The achievement of gender equality has to a large extent been taken care by constitutional provisions. For example, S. 42 of the 1999 constitution is to the effect that a citizen of Nigeria of any sex shall not by that fact be discriminated against only on that basis.

However to achieve such full equality in a meaningful and real sense, equality under the law is simply not sufficient though vitally necessary.

The historically inferior position of women, the all-too-often unfavorable cultural and traditional context and the social roles must be taken into account.

Realizing women’s substantive equality involves addressing the institutionalized nature of women’s disadvantaged position and changing the cultural, traditional and religious beliefs that typecast women as inferior to men.

This calls for a new change of attitudes in this regard. Of course in recent times there have been various activities especially by the non-governmental organizations involved in championing the cause of equality of both sexes.

But one problem in this regard is that his have been at most times a half-hearted program because what we see is announcement on radios and televisions especially for the purpose of getting the attention of donor agencies both local and international.

There is therefore the need for these organizations to be up and doing and be sincere in their pursuit of gender equity in the real sense of it.

At the political level, there is now the dominant 35% women affirmative action being championed calling for a 35% occupation in politics. In my own perspective, this in itself is an attempt to further perpetuate the indices of inequality instead of advancing the equality of the sexes.

What we need is not 35% or any percentage of representation in government but rather the call should be tailored towards ensuring that women are given positions commensurate with their population and to think of this women’s population is quite significant and greater than those of men who are currently dominating the political arena.

Further still is the issue of economic empowerment. I have said earlier that women are entitled to live in dignity and in freedom from want and from fear. This in itself is a very important thing especially for the women considering the position they occupy in the society. This makes empowerment for the women very sacrosanct.

One way to deploy the empowerment is by interlocking problems of illiteracy, inequitable wages and poor health, bolstered by patriarchal systems and social customs makes it difficult for women to break free from a life of poverty. And to promote the status, education and health of women in an essential human right goal also holds the key to social development in all societies, improving lives and strengthening families and rural communities.

Also is through political empowerment this in fact is the most beneficial form of gender empowerment.

Political participation be it the ability to voice opinions, or the ability to run for office with a fair chance of being elected, plays a huge role in the empowerment of women.
When women have the capability to do what she wants, a higher equality between men and women is established. It is argued that micro credit also offers a way to provide economic empowerment for women.

Governments, organizations and individuals have caught hold of the lure of microfinance. They hope that lending money and credit allows women to function in business and society, which in turn empowers them to do more in their communities.

Loans with low interest rates are given to women in developing communities in hopes that they can start a small business and provide for her family.

The activities of the various governments in this regard are not unknown. The various local, States and even the Federal Government have varying programs and initiative geared towards the provision of micro credit to the women.

The Wives of the various Governors is notorious in this regard through their various pet projects. Apart from this there is a separate ministry of Women Affairs concerned primarily with these issues.

However the progress made so far in this regard have been quite ridiculous. For instance what some of them call micro credit is too small considering the economic reality of the country.

Imagine a situation where ‘loans’ of #5000 is given out and they make bold to call this empowerment. In all sincerity, how can we really call this empowerment? It is my considered opinion that there is the need for us to at this time come up with concrete plans and policies aimed at really empowering the women in our society.

This necessity is propelled by virtue of the fact that empowered women contribute to the health and productivity of the family and the community and this improve the prospect of the next generation.

In this regard it is important to stress the need for us as a nation to promote the equal participation of men and women in making decisions, supporting women and girls so that they can fully realize and exercise their rights; and reducing the gap between women’s and men’s access to and control of resources.

But this of course must start from the women. It is saddening that our women have not done enough especially in the journey towards the actualization of gender equity and empowerment because many of them have not been responsive in this regard in their various callings because sadly enough, once at the top they contribute to the promotion of the inequity based on their selfish interest.

This is the time when women must be active in demanding for their rightful place in all spheres.

They must be bold and courageous enough to stand for elections and this they must do through cooperative efforts among themselves and to these effect credible and qualified women must be encouraged to stand for elections.

It is through their initial actions that their voices will be heard. For example in the processes leading to the recognition of equality of women in the western countries, the women were vocal and outstanding enough in their activism and struggle regardless of intimidation from the authorities. It was through this that they were able to achieve for themselves what currently obtains now there.

It is therefore time for the Nigerian women too arise and proclaim in their words and actions that all men are women are equal and have the same rights and capabilities.

I want us to note that, by improving women’s quality of life, it enhances the quality of life generally.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kayode AJULO, LL.B. (Hons.), LL.M., B.L., MNIM, ACIArb (UK) fcl
Kayode AJULO is a meticulous young and dynamic Barrister & Solicitor of Supreme Court of Nigeria with special interest and extensive experience in Law and Advocacy, Public Affairs & Communications, Civil Societies & Group Mobilization, Good Governance, Civil Rights, Projects & Conflicts Management. A holder of Bachelors & Masters of Law Degree [LL.B. (Hons) & LL.M.] from University of Jos, Nigeria).

Articulate in communicating complex ideas to others which made him one of the respected voices in public discourse in local and Foreign Media. Professional & Political activities include serving as Federal Attorney/State Counsel in the Chambers of the Attorney General of the Federation, Pupil Counsel in Afe Babalola Chambers, Head of Chambers of the Law Firm of Dr. Tunji Abayomi and presently the Principal Partner of Kayode Ajulo & Co. Castle of Law, Nigeria. He is also the Chairman, Board of Trustees/Executive Director, Egalitarian Mission, Africa.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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