Are Nigeria’s laws holding women back?
To live up to its economic potential, Nigeria needs to invest more in educating girls and economically empower women. The evidence is clear that countries that reduce the gender gap are more prosperous than those that fail to do so.
Educated women act as ‘magic multiplier’ as The Guardian aptly described it. They are in a better position to have healthy children, educate them and provide a better lifestyle for the entire family. Better education also drives higher incomes which benefits the household as well as the overall economy.
Lack of access to basic education, healthcare and financial services are some of the key drivers of Nigeria’s gender inequality. The country scores poorly ranking 128 out of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index. It also ranks at the bottom of the list on the Educational Attainment, Health & Survival and Political Empowerment sub-indices respectively.
On a more positive note, Nigeria scores 38 out of 153 in the Economic Participation sub index. According to an IMF review of the Nigerian economy, promoting gender equality could be an economic game-changer boosting growth and productivity and ensuring greater economic stability. It is estimated that Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) could grow by 23 per cent (or 229 billion US dollar) by 2025 if women participated in the economy to the same extent as men.
Nigeria cannot be prosperous unless its laws empower women and girls.
Vision 2020 clearly identified the existing gender imbalance as detrimental to economic growth and prosperity. According to an abridged version of the Vision 2020 plan:
The main goal of Nigeria’s Vision 20:2020 is to improve the well-being of Nigerians. In this direction, the Vision aims to reduce the problems of hunger, poverty, poor healthcare, inadequate housing, low quality human capital, gender imbalance, low productivity and poor basic facilities by 2020.
The plan was launched in 2010 with the objective to transform the Nigerian economy to join the top 20 global economies by 2020. Achieving this objective would mean that by now, Nigeria would have a minimum GDP of $900 billion; twice as much as its GDP today.
To propel Nigeria into the G20, a cornerstone of the plan was to invest in human capital to transform citizens into productive agents for growth and development. And in recognition of the immense economic value of bridging the gender gap, Vision 2020 made promoting gender equality and women empowerment a priority with the ultimate goal of ‘the systematic inclusion of all citizens, including women, in every aspect of national life’.
Ten years later, this objective as well as the broader economic goals of the grand plan remain largely unmet. As for the latter, Nigeria’s socio-economic situation is dire. Extremely fast population growth coupled with slow economic growth is compromising poverty reduction. The unemployment rate jumped from about 18.8 per cent in 2017 to 23.1 per cent in 2018. That year, World Poverty Clock estimated that 90 million Nigerians were living in extreme poverty and Nigeria ranked 158th out of 189 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index 0.534. Poor human development outcomes disproportionately affect women and girls. Nigeria still has one of the world’s highest maternal and infant mortality rates, and life expectancy is one of the lowest in the world. Girls are more likely to be illiterate and drop out of school, including because of unplanned pregnancies. This is partly due to societal values and entrenched gender roles that see girls as being predestined for domestic chores, familial obligations, etc.
In the workplace, women are often confined to lower-paying and more precarious jobs than men other than having fewer opportunities for career development. For example, between 2010 and 2015, women accounted for less than 40 per cent of State Civil Service employees. In federal ministries, departments and agencies, hardly a third of women held roles at grade levels 01-17 in 2017.
Women also account for a disproportionate share of Nigeria’s large informal labour force, even though this applies to both female business owners and workers. As for the latter, most work as clerical and related office workers or as hired or casual workers. Some do not get paid at all.
A series of laws perpetuate the status quo leaving many women vulnerable and undermining their potential to contribute to the economy more effectively. In the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2019 report, Nigeria scored 68.75 out of a possible 100 that would indicate an economy that gives women and men equal legal rights. This placed Nigeria on rank 131 out of 187 countries in which the legal environment disadvantages women.
The failure of Vision 2020 could be blamed on the lack of implementation by subsequent administrations. Since its adoption during the Yar’Adua administration, succeeding governments set out their own development plans—the Goodluck Jonathan administration focused on its Transformation Agenda while the Buhari administration launched the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). Unlike Goodluck Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda, which echoed the objectives of Vision 2020, President Buhari’s ERGP builds on existing sectoral strategies without adhering to the grand plan, and much less its gender equality goals.
More importantly, perhaps, the Nigerian legal framework is partly to be blamed that a laudable endeavour, such as Vision 2020 has not materialized in any tangible improvements for female economic empowerment. In the aftermath of the plan, little was done to undertake the necessary legal reforms to unblock the economic potential of half of Nigeria’s citizenry.
The current legal environment puts women at serious disadvantage.
Nigeria’s laws and policies do not sufficiently acknowledge and protect the rights of women in the workplace often leaving them vulnerable.
The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees the right to freedom from discrimination based on sex (Section 42 (1) and (2)). However, the Constitution (Section 42 (3)) can be interpreted as indirectly promoting the discrimination of women. This is because by precluding citizens from challenging laws, which are discriminatory with respect to an appointment into any State office, into the armed forces, the Nigerian Police Force or a company, women who are negatively affected by such laws cannot seek redress in court. Moreover, the Constitution does not mandate non-discrimination in employment based on gender nor does it guarantee equal remuneration for work of equal value.
Other laws that directly or indirectly undermine the ability of women to effectively contribute to the economy include the following:
The Labour Act expressly contains provisions that prevent women from working in the same industries, performing the same tasks at work as their male counterparts or working the same hours. This means that a woman cannot be employed to do night work in sectors, such as manufacturing, mining, quarries or extractive industries, construction, transportation or agriculture. Women nurses and women in management positions who are not engaged in manual labour are an exception. The Act also prevents women from engaging in any underground work in any mine.
Preventing women from acquiring the same work experience as their male colleagues cuts their career development paths short. In other words, women remain under-represented at work and have little or no opportunities to get promoted into management position. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, a lack of gender diversity on executive teams directly reduces a company’s profitability and value creation.
Moreover, some civil service rules compound gender disparity. For example, both Kano and Kaduna states civil service rules mandate that any female civil servant who is about to undertake a short-term training course must enter into an agreement to refund the whole or part of the cost of the course if she falls pregnant while engaged in the course and is unable to complete it due to her pregnancy.
Sexual harassment laws
Sexual harassment and workplace assault adversely affect women’s physical and mental health, as well as their productivity and job security. Nigeria has its own versions of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, including campaigns such as #ArewaMeToo or the BBC’s sensational investigative documentary, ‘Sex for grades’, which exposed sexual harassment practices by lecturers in Nigerian universities.
However, while more women are beginning to take a stand, there are few provisions in the Nigerian body of laws that deal squarely with sexual harassment. The Labour Act, for example, does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace.
The closest is the provision in the 2010 Employees Compensation Act, which provides for compensation in the event of mental stress caused to a worker as a result of sudden and unexpected traumatic events arising out of or during the course of the employee’s employment.
The criminal law of Lagos State prohibits harassment that implicitly or explicitly affects a person’s employment or educational opportunity; harassment that unreasonably interferes with a person’s work or educational performance; or one that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive learning or working environment. Also, any person who sexually harasses another person in Lagos state is guilty of a crime and liable to three years of imprisonment.
In 2016, the Senate, at the height of the sexual harassment complaints by students, introduced the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Educational Institutions Prohibition Bill. The Bill criminalizes sexual harassment of students by persons in a position of authority. The Bill was rejected by the House of Representatives, but in 2019, after the BBC documentary, it was re-introduced for consideration.
The 2017 Civil Procedure Rules of the National Industrial Court, on the other hand, identifies four categories of acts that constitutes workplace sexual harassment: physical conduct of a sexual nature; verbal form of sexual assault; non-verbal form of sexual harassment which includes unwelcome gestures, indecent exposures and unwelcome display of sexually explicit pictures and objects; and/or quid pro quo harassment where an employer attempts to influence the process of employment or other benefits of an employee or job applicant in exchange for sexual favours.
In the past, the Court has proven its progressive stand on protecting women’s rights in the workplace. In 2013, in a high-profile case involving Microsoft Nigeria, the court held both the employee accused of sexual harassment and the employer, Microsoft, liable for sexual harassment against a female employee in a senior management position.
Sexual laws that discriminate against women in Nigeria
A major hindrance in rape cases in Nigeria is the rules of evidence which are not in the best interest of the victims of rape.
For example, Section 211 of the Evidence Act states that:
When a man is prosecuted for rape or for attempt to commit rape or for indecent assault, it may be shown that the woman against whom the offence is alleged to have been committed was of a generally immoral character, although she is not cross-examined in the subject; the woman may in such a case be asked whether she has a connection with other men, but her answer cannot be contradicted and she may also be asked whether she had a connection on other occasions with the prisoner, and if she denies it may be contradicted.
Essentially, the general bad character of a rape victim affects the credibility of the victim as a witness in her rape case. This is because her past as it relates to her sexual history will be used against her at the trial.
Moreover, Nigerian laws do not contemplate the possibility and, consequently, the prosecution of marital rape. According to the Criminal Code, which is rooted in the English common law, ‘unlawful carnal connection’ cannot happen between a husband and his wife. The only situations where a married woman can report her husband for spousal rape, and he would be prosecuted is where a decree of divorce is in existence or the parties are separated.
The Penal Code, which applies to the Northern part of Nigeria, is similar. Under the Sharia Penal Code, rape is a form of ‘zina’, that is illicit sexual intercourse. To prove the offence of ‘zina’, a confession of four witnesses is essential. Otherwise, where a confession cannot be procured from the offender, the victim could be held liable for defamation. The victim may also be prosecuted for the offence of false accusation, where the required number of witnesses (four) is absent.
Nigeria’s citizenship law also discriminates against women. Section 26(4)(a) confers the right of citizenship to any woman who is married to a Nigerian citizen but denies such right to foreign men married to Nigerian citizens. In other words, Nigerian women cannot transfer their Nigerian citizenship to their spouses, but Nigerian men can.
Domestic violence and indecent assault laws
Several laws encourage wife brutality in Nigeria. The Penal Code (section 55) condones domestic violence by permitting husbands to chastise their wives:
‘Nothing is an offence which does not amount to the infliction of grievous harm upon a person and which is done by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife…’.
Grievous harm is defined as ‘emasculation, permanent loss of sight, ability to hear or speak, deprivation of any member or joint, destruction or permanent impairing of the powers of any member or joint, facial disfigurement, bone fracture or tooth dislocation’.
Laws that discriminate against women in the police force and other similar para-military services in Nigeria
Married women are disqualified from enlisting in the police. What is more, a policewoman who is single at the time of enlistment must spend two years in service before she qualifies for applying to the commissioner of police for permission to marry. She is obliged to give the particulars of her fiancé, who must be investigated and cleared before permission for marriage can be granted.
The latter regulation has been successfully challenged in court, however. In 2012, the Court declared it to be illegal and inconsistent with the constitutional right to freedom from discrimination based on sex.
Section 126 of the Police Regulation provides that ‘A married woman police officer who is pregnant may be granted maternity leave in accordance with the provisions of general order (a federal government instruction that regulated the condition of public officials). However, an unmarried woman police officer who is pregnant shall be discharged from the force. She can only be re-instated on the approval of the inspector general of police.
These regulations are a direct driver of the low share of women in the Nigeria Police Force. In 2015, women accounted for only seven per cent of senior police officers and for just under 16 per cent of junior police officers.
The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency applies similarly discriminatory regulations in their hiring and employment practices. The Nigerian Military’s ‘Conditions of Service, 131 (ratified in November 2017) reversed the freedom of women to take part in a combatant course. Female cadets are effectively excluded from the combatant course of the Nigerian Defence Academy. The various commissions of the Armed Forces all offer limited career paths to women, except for the Regular Combatant Commission. Only personnel enlisted in this Commission have the opportunity to head any service or become Chief of Defence Staff. These conditions of service mean that women will never be able to attain such heights in the Nigerian military.
The low rate of women in political participation makes it difficult to pass gender laws.
Women are notoriously underrepresented in government. This can be attributed to cultural norms, discriminatory laws and other factors such as entrenched gender roles and norms that confine women to child and broader family care.
For example, only 2970 women made it onto the electoral ballot representing little over 11 per cent of candidates during the 2019 elections (six presidential, 22 vice-presidential, 235 senatorial, 533 representative, 74 gubernatorial, 275 deputy governor and 1825 state legislative candidates). A total of 69 women were elected, less than five per cent of elected officials compared to almost six per cent in the 2015 elections.
In the 9th session of the National Assembly, less than five per cent of elected officials were women. Of the 360 seats in the House of Representatives, 13 women (less than 4 per cent) won elections, fewer than in the 8th assembly. Of the 109 senate seats, only eight are occupied by women, slightly more than in the 8th senate.
In total there are 69 women in elected political positions at the national and state levels. There are four female deputy governors from Enugu, Kaduna, Ogun and Rivers, and out of 944 elected members of the state assembly 44 are women compared to 55 lawmakers in the previous legislative session. Nigeria performs worse on female political representation than many of its African peers. In Rwanda, in particular, more than 60 per cent of seats in the lower house and close to 40 per cent in the upper house are held by women. The country’s parliament is the most gender balanced globally followed by Namibia, South Africa and Senegal ranked seven, ten and eleven respectively.
Nigeria’s low rate of female representation in the legislature may explain the spate of gender unfriendly laws. In 2016, for instance, the Nigerian senate voted down the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill, which aimed to give women equal rights in marriage, education and employment. Under the proposed law, a widow in Nigeria would have automatically become the custodian of her children and husband’s property upon her husband’s death. The Bill was re-introduced in 2019, but was again rejected by the Senate on March 10, 2020. Ironically, this happened only two days after the annual International Women’s Day #EachforEqual celebration.
Similarly, Nigeria’s top Muslim cleric called on lawmakers to reject a bill that would allow women the right to inherit family wealth and property saying it goes against the teachings of the Quran. With a higher representation of women in the National Assembly, the bill might have passed.
Lastly, it is most surprising that in 2020, Nigerian women still have no control over their bodies. The country’s laws still criminalize abortion exposing teenage girls, single mothers and even married women to unsafe practices when faced with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. This is more troubling when considering that our laws do not mandate divorced men or unmarried fathers to provide parental support to their children. Women are often left to cater for these children alone to the detriment of their education and/or careers.
High engagement in unpaid domestic work makes it difficult for women to be as productive as men.
Even when women have jobs, many obstacles make their lives more difficult than that of their male colleagues. This is because the labour laws in Nigeria do not accommodate the dual roles of women in the typical Nigerian home. Women are often responsible for managing the household and childcare, while carrying out workplace responsibilities. This effectively requires them to do double duty vis-a-vis work responsibility and home management.
The continuous heavy burdens of unpaid domestic work, childbearing and childcare restrict the time and energy available for income-earning activities
At home, women are not considered equal partners when making decisions, even though, at the same time, they are expected to make substantial financial contributions to the household. Women are rarely considered for leadership positions of social institutions that include men such as churches, village unions or other social groups. Political life in Nigeria is based on male norms and values, and men determine the standards for political participation and the rules that govern the electoral process, greatly hurting women’s participation in politics.
Women are also thought to be better caregivers, better suited to raise children and take care of the home, rather than hold social and political positions. Even in the workplace, women are often expected to handle more domestic chores such as organizing meetings, refreshments, office events or even purchasing groceries and household items.
Women also have persistently lower incomes than men as a result of the gender pay gap, occupational segregation and unpaid family care. They are far less likely than men to be in social and business networks that donate money to political campaigns. This means that women’s interests are not properly represented in local tweet or national politics.
On February 20, 2020, Enwongo Cleopas (@Enwongocleopas) summarized the situation:
This cooking conversation reminds me of something that I noticed while I was part of a media team for a governorship aspirant in my state.
When meetings were fixed for certain times, many women in the party/team couldn't make it because they had to be home to cook & take care…
— Enwongo C. Cleopas (@Enwongocleopas) February 20, 2020
We need legal reforms to boost women’s economic participation.
Nigeria needs legal reforms to effectively unblock its female economic potential. Any plan to propel Nigeria into the G20 or indeed to achieve sustainable economic growth and prosperity for all, must bridge the gender gap and empower women economically but also politically.
Women need better representation in the National Assembly. Better representation means women will be better placed to lobby for laws and policies that empower women to contribute to society in the same capacity as their male counterparts.
The laws that discriminate against women need to be amended to enable women to effectively contribute to the economy. The country should look towards international best practices, particularly in Africa. In the past two years, more than 110 countries have reformed laws to improve women’s economic opportunities ranging from more robust sexual harassment laws to increasing maternity leave. According to the World Bank’s 2019Women, Business and the Law report, such reforms can increase the participation of women in the workforce by a significant margin.
The Democratic Republic of Congo recently removed some of the barriers for women to work at night and addressed the issue of gender-based discrimination in hiring and promotions. Mauritius, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, and Zambia have all introduced laws mandating equal pay for work of equal value. In addition, Mauritius also introduced laws providing civil remedies for sexual harassment at work. Nigeria’s legal framework is only one of many obstacles to sustainable economic growth and sustainable development for all. Yet, it is a good place to start charting the path to greater prosperity⎈
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