Domestic, Regional and International Protection of Nigerian Women Against Discrimination: Constraints and Possibilities

by Mojbol Olfnk Okome


Discrimination against women is defined by Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women of 1979 (heretofore referred to as the 1979 Convention or CEDAW) as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” By May 2001, 168 countries had ratified CEDAW. Forty-six of them are African. Nigeria signed the convention on 23 April 1984 and ratified it without any reservations on 13 June 1985, and it ratified the optional protocol to CEDAW on 8 September 2001. [1] It made its first report to the Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1986, and submitted its second report in 1998. [2]

As defined by the CEDAW, discrimination is symptomatic of a situation where patterns of structural inequality are maintained by rules, norms and procedures that dictate a subordinate role for women in all spheres of society. This call for an end to all forms of discrimination against women emphasizes the need for a radical re‑definition of the process and content of economic, social and political development.  It stresses the need for a holistic orientation which acknowledges the vital role of women in development and engineers their integration into development processes as equal partners with men.  For this purpose, it is argued that legal and substantive protection at the domestic, regional and international levels must be coordinated for more meaningful enhancement of both the status and situation of women.

This paper approaches questions concerning human rights and discrimination against women from a perspective that differs the dominant view within the human rights literature.  This scholarship has an intrinsic pro-Western bias and operates on the implicit assumption that international human rights have their origins in Western liberal thought. [3] Contrary to this dominant perspective, I argue that all human societies have a conception of human rights, even though there are cultural differences. The existence and defense of national, regional and international rights of Nigerian women against discrimination then must necessarily be located within Nigeria’s particular historical experience from the pre-colonial era to contemporary times. The promotion and defense of such rights would be meaningless otherwise.  Moreover, I argue for the combination of efforts that tend to be separated in scholarly activities to date.  The identification of instances of discrimination and the struggle to defend and extend women’s rights has to be critically examined in light of the power relations that structure the regime of human rights worldwide.  This paper argues that in this regime, both western thought and western feminist groups are privileged.

Within the international human rights literature, the problem of discrimination has been conceptualized as involving the denial of self‑determination to women.  This paper considers discrimination as resulting from the creation, maintenance and perpetuation of structures of inequality against women as opposed to men.  It also argues that the Nigerian government and human rights activists, by being more responsive to the international regime of human rights, do not pay sufficient attention to indigenous philosophies and traditions about respecting human rights, perpetuating the notion that the only way to guarantee human rights in Nigeria is to blame all contemporary human rights abuses on the persistence of traditional mores.  In so doing, they often consider the embrace of international protections of human rights as the only avenue to progress.

Individuals play an instrumental role in the creation of structures, their maintenance and their transformation. The development of alternative rules, norms and procedures provide the avenue through which structural transformation may be engineered.  The process of engineering transformation involves both the manipulation of rules, norms and procedures as well as organization for political action by women to protect what rights they have, enhance the quality of protection and increase the comprehensiveness of the rights to which they are entitled. In this view, the agent-structure concept is useful for understanding the centrality of structures in constraining as well as enabling human agency. A structure can limit or foster change, but structures also allow for the transformative intervention of human agents.  The exercise of agency to foster change, whether in the area expanding existing rights, or of demanding new rights, should not be seen as limited to the contemporary period.  There are historical examples of women exercising rights, pushing for their extension, and actively defending these rights.

The focus of this paper is on the constraints and possibilities that shape the environment of Nigerian women and either enable them to surmount the problems arising from discrimination or limit their ability to do so. The central thesis is that discrimination against women takes different forms in different societies and historical epochs, thus requiring differential strategies in each place and time.

The evaluation of discrimination against women in Nigeria shall focus on the quality and content of domestic constitutional, regional, and international protection and guarantees and the extent to which these de jure guarantees may or may not necessarily reflect the de facto condition of women in Nigerian society. In addition, the following questions will be addressed:  First, in what ways have structures of inequality been created in the society and how do these structures affect the role of women in contemporary Nigeria?  Second, how can concrete problems that have a direct bearing on the role of women in society be conceptualized and contextualized?

Third, how is compliance with existing law to be enhanced in order to generate practical results? The paper is divided into three parts, each focusing on one of the questions posed above.

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