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By Bisi Olateru-Olagbegi & Biola Akiyode Afolabi (Executive Director WARDC)

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According to the last census conducted in 1991 Nigerian women were reported to represent about 49.7% [1]of the population. Despite being almost half of the population, this numerical strength of the Nigerian women has not affected the age-long inferior status the society bestows on the women. Several factors have been adduced for the degrading position of women in the Nigerian society most of which can be traced to the patrichial system being operated and the gender insensitivity of not only the male folk but the entire society including the women who have been socialized to accept the inferior status.

It is intriguing to note that the subordination of women knows no boundaries or barriers and is not dependent on the social, educational or economic status of the Nigerian women. Consequently, one finds that an uneducated and poor woman in the rural community suffers as much subordination as an educated and rich woman in the urban center.

Gender inequality is experienced by the woman and is manifested in almost all aspects of human endeavour in Nigeria. Cultural and Religious beliefs tend to contribute largely to Nigerian women’s gender discrimination and low status. Some of these beliefs have been practiced for so long that they are embedded in the societal perception almost as legal norms. Such that the laws of the Land and International Instruments, which protect the rights of women, are flagrantly infringed in the guise of these age-long cultural and/ or religious beliefs.
The tripartite legal system which entails the use of the statutory / common law system, the customary and Sharia legal system further compounds the legal status of women in Nigeria. The patriarchal Nigerian society readily adopts the legal system, which is favourable to the relegation of women to the background. For example, despite the gender equality enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution, some Statutes and International Instruments, the male dominated society prefers the application of some of those discriminatory aspects of the Customary laws and Sharia laws which adversely affected the status and position of women in the society.
In addition, Nigeria is a signatory to many International Instruments such as Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but have not implemented the provisions of these instrument.

Furthermore, the effects of the many years of military misrule have negatively affected the human rights treatment of the citizens of which women are worst sufferers. In addition, the economic downturn as a result of the mismanagement and corruption of the military governments has impoverished Nigeria, placing it as one of the poorest countries despite her enormous natural and human resources. Nigerian women bear the brunt of poverty and constitute the poorest of the poor in the society.

Consequent upon which the Nigerian woman suffers violations of her rights from conception till she dies without redress by the society. At birth the male child is preferred to the female, as she grows the female child suffers various forms of violence such as genital mutilation or female circumcision, In the home she is denied education in preference to her male counterpart and subjected to heavy burden of household chores. As a child the female may be given out to marriage in some cultures and or become victim of trafficking.

During marriage the woman suffers inferior status in the home, she is not part of decision-making, denied inheritance rights as a child or wife and is a victim of domestic violence and marital rape. In the society the woman is a victim of various forms of sexual assaults without redress, denied access to credit and suffers poverty more than her male counterpart despite her enormous contribution to the Nigerian economy especially in the informal sector. The Nigerian women are underrepresented in the political arena in the public or private sectors, which further lowers their status in the society.

In the final analysis, the effects of gender inequality have adversely affected the overall development of Nigerian women in the political, economic and socio-cultural sectors.
Status of Nigerian women in political positions Examining the status of Nigerian women in the political arena cannot be divorced from the consideration of the entire political situation in Nigeria. For the larger part of Nigeria since independence in 1960, Nigeria has been governed by military dictatorship. The military governments were largely male dominated with token appointments given to women. Successive military governments from 1966 to 1999 with a brief spell of civil rule in 1979-83 only further perpetrated the exclusion of women in governance and decision-making process especially in the public sector.

Nigerian women were not in the military hierarchy therefore could not be members of the highest legislative and executive body combined in the various military ruling councils.

With the adoption of democratic rule in 1999, the position of women has only slightly improved. Although women actively participate in the membership of political parties, they only serve in the lower cadres of social welfare and serve as supporters and canon fodders for the male to acquire the political positions. As a result of various socio-economic factors only negligible percentage of women contested for the elective posts in the 1998.
General elections with few women winning primaries to contest elective posts, only a negligible percentage succeeded in the elections. The gender desegregated table of elected officers shows a dismal picture with less than 4 % women in elective positions at federal, state and local government levels during the 1999/2003 political regime.
The women’ s movement has continually agitated for the inclusion of affirmative action in the Constitution and political party constitutions so as to redress the imbalance of women’s political participation.
Gender Desegregated Table of Elective Political Positions 1999/2003 in Nigeria


PRESIDENT 1 – 1 0 VICE PRESIDENT 1 – 1 0 SPEAKERS 35 1 2.7 GOVERNORS 36 0 36 00 DEPUTY. GOVERNORS 35 1 36 2.7 L.G.A CHAIRPERSONS 765 9 747 1.2 COUNCILLORS 8,667 143 8810 1.6 STATE ASSEMBLYMEMBERS 978 12 990 1.2 SENATORS 106 3 990 1.2 HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES 347 13 360 3.6
The government of President Obasanjo tried to redress this position by appointing 9 women as ministers and advisers out of the total of 44 appointed given the women a boost of 20.5% of appointees in the federal government in his 1999/ 2003 term. The situation was not quite the same at the states and local government levels. Some states such as Ogun State did not appoint any female commissioners throughout the four-year term.
The Number of women in elective positions only slightly improved with the 2003 General elections. Although there were more political parties registered totaling 28 in number and more women aspirants as a result of political parties decision to waive for the women the payment of pre -registration levies for political aspirants yet the women who eventually scaled through the election primaries were very few. This resulted in the election of a lower percentage of women to the elective posts at the 2003 elections. There were two female contestants for Presidency and two for the vice-presidential positions neither of them was elected. Unlike the 1999 elections where only one Deputy Governor emerged the 2003 elections witnessed two Deputy Governors.
Appointments for ministerial and advisory positions at the federal level by the re-elected Obasanjo Government also boosted women participation with not only an increase in the number of women political appointees but also women holding key ministries such a Finance and Housing.

In Nigeria women suffer inequality and various forms of violence from the cradle until death. At birth a male child is preferred and pampered, the girl child is not so welcomed. She undergoes female genital mutilation at tender age, she is subjected to overburdening household chores to prepare her for the societal role of home keeping, she is also given out in marriage at early ages to ensure that she does not become promiscuous and is married out as a virgin. During and after marriage she is inferior to the man. She is also not allowed to inherit, and subjected to physical, psychological and mental abuse and violence.

Domestic/Conjugal Violence
Women and children in Nigeria suffer violence within the home. The battery of both wives and children are sanctioned culturally. It is seen in most cases as a form of discipline with a restraint not to inflict grievous harm.
There is no specific law to protect women against domestic violence or wife battery unless a woman brings an action under the general provisions against Assault where domestic violence against the woman is downplayed.
The provision of the Penal Code (PC) (criminal law applicable in the Northern part of Nigeria specifically on domestic violence encourages violence against women. It allows for the beating of a wife for the purpose of correction. Section 55 (1) (d) of the Penal Code stipulates, “Nothing is an offence, which does not amount to the infliction of grievous harm upon any person and which is done by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife. Such husband and wife being subject to any natural law or custom in which such correction is recognized as lawful”.

In a report by a Non-Governmental Organization in Nigeria [2] conducted on social welfare officers to find out the prevalence of domestic violence, it showed that 55% of the cases received in the last one year, was on women battering/maltreatment. In another nationwide research has also shown that the police are reluctant to take action where cases of domestic violence are reported to them. It is believed that it is a private affair and should be settled by the parties or their extended family.
Additionally, cultural, financial consideration and the high cost of justice often prevent women from pressing charges against their husbands or partners in cases of domestic violence against the women. The failure of the law to provide adequate respite has further compounded the issue.
Sexual Assault
Nigerian women face various forms of sexual assault such as rape, indecent assault, incest, and defilement. Although there are provisions in the Criminal Code (applicable in the southern part of Nigeria) and the Penal Code against various forms of sexual assault against women some of which have stiff penalties, however these provisions are not effectively implemented due to the technical Court procedure and evidential rules, coupled with women’s apathy to report such cases for fear of social stigma.

Rape for instance, under the Nigerian Laws attract the punishment of life imprisonment and is defined in a gender specific manner as “Having carnal knowledge of or sexual intercourse with a woman or a girl without her consent or under duress.” [3].

The manner in which rape trials are conducted and the nature of evidence[4] required exposes the woman victim to indignity, making it a man’s trial, but a woman’s tribulation. In our criminal justice system, the burden of proof rests with the prosecution and guilt must be established beyond reasonable doubt. However, in practice the victim is required to prove that she did not consent to rape. Quite often, medical evidence will show that the victim was raped but failure to provide ‘corroboration” will jeopardize the prosecution’s case. The requirement of penetration to prove rape cases which though is not part of the definition of rape but has been used over the years in decided cases has also denied women victims of rape the deserved justice from the law courts. It has been suggested that the law needs to be redefined and the Evidence Act amended.

In effect many rape cases go unreported. according to the Tell Magazine[5] published in Nigeria crime statistics issued by the Nigeria Police Force on the prevalence of rape in Nigeria showed that about 136,285 cases of rape were recorded between 1980 and 1992. Notwithstanding this startling figure, it is believed that only one in every 50 rape cases gets reported with a high rate of them happening in higher institutions of learning. between June-December 1999, over 30 child rape cases were reported in newspapers and magazines in different parts of Nigeria.
Moreover, the Penal code[6] condones marital rape. “Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, is not rape if she has attained puberty.” This provision does not only condone marital rape it also condones defilement of young girls under the age of 16. This is because the age of puberty is not fixed and any girl who for instance has commenced her menstrual period is deemed to have attained puberty. Consequently, girl children given out in marriages are sexually assaulted without their consent and without redress from the society.

Indecent Assault[7].

Gender disparity exists in the punishment applicable for cases of indecent assault. Sections 353 and 360 of the Criminal Code covers the same offence (unlawful and indecent assault) but provides for a lesser punishment where the victim of assault is female (2 years imprisonment), when the victim is male it is 3 years imprisonment. Indecent assault on males is a felony, which attracts 3 years imprisonment, and on females is a misdemeanor, for which the punishment is a statutory maximum of two years.
Sections 218-357 CC protect girls under 13 years old, from sexual assault whether there is consent or not. However, this has not helped the girl child because Section 6 of the same CC excludes wives of the same age from this protection. The age of consent for a girl under the Penal Code is 14 and 13 under the CC. It is recommended that this provision should be reviewed.


A serious problem in Nigeria is child marriage. In this instance, their consent is hardly sought. In most part of the country, there is no legally defined minimum age of marriage. Section 18 of the Marriage Act defines a person under the age of 21 years as a minor but allows minor, to marry with parental consent. In the Eastern part of Nigeria, the marriageable age is 16[8].
Child marriages are justified by parents on the ground that it prevents promiscuity, which a girl child is prone to at puberty. At times, the reasons are religious, economic and often times the low appreciation of the need for the girl child to go to school. The 1991 Census shows that 2% of Nigeria married women entered into marriage by the age of 10, 8% at 12, 25% married at 13-15, and 40% at the age of 15, while 64% by the age of 18. The average age of marriage for females was found to be 16.5 years.
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has complicated the matter. The Constitution[9] deems a child, as an adult in so far that child is married. This limb of the provision further strengthens the violence against girl children contrary to Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which prohibits the betrothal, and marriage of a girl child.
The effect of child marriage is gruesome and includes higher maternal mortality and greater prevalence of conditions such as Vesfico Virginal Fistula (VVF). There are recent positive developments in Nigeria on the issue, for instance, Bauchi State an area where child marriage is prevalent has enacted a law banning Child marriages. It is hoped that some other States would follow suit.
Widowhood Practices
Statutory and Islamic law provides for women’s capacity to inherit assets following the husband’s death. In practice this is often time overridden by local customary laws on succession. Widows are most times subjected to severe social, cultural and economic sanctions. These may involve both physical and psychological violence. Under customary law, a woman and her children are the chattels of a man who is the head of the family saddled with the responsibilities to provide for them.
The concept of co-ownership is rare in Nigerian culture; the presumption is that all the properties belong to the man, even where the women contributed financial and in kind to the acquisition of the property. The plight of a widow is made worse by humiliating widowhood rites, which include requesting that a woman drink from the water used in bathing the corpse of her husband and many cases widows, are also expected to go into confinement for weeks to prove their innocence from any possibility of complicity in their husband’s death. Some widows are beaten for not wailing enough for the death of their husband. The above examples are common in the eastern part of Nigeria. A study on widow confinement shows that 45% widows were confined for varying lengths of time, 62% in South-South, 60% in North West, 51% in South West, 48% in North East and 27% in South East[10] In the recent case of Augustine Nwofor Mojekwu V Caroline Mojekwu, the Court of Appeal decided that the “OLI-EKPE” customs of Nnewi in Anambra State where males and not females inherit the property of their father is unconstitutional. This custom was held as repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. The judgment is welcomed and hopefully represents a shift in judicial attitudes to women’s rights issues.


The Nigerian constitution[11] guarantees the rights of all against torture and other forms of inhuman or degrading treatment.
Despite the constitutional provision, female genital mutilation (FGM) is widespread among various ethnic groups in Nigeria. The common type practiced in Nigeria is called clitoridectomy; this entails the removal of the clitoris and sometimes along with labia majora. It takes place mostly at infancy. Over 57% women were circumcised before the age of one and over 68% by the age of five. (NDHS-1998) In some cases, the operation is performed on the adolescent at the onset of menstruation. The reasons for FGM have been alleged to be the need to curb promiscuity, and secondly that it helps to reduce complications at childbirth.
FGM has been outlawed in four states (Cross Rivers, Delta, Edo and Ogun) and moves are been made in Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa for the passage of laws banning FGM.
Trafficking in women and girls in the last decade trafficking in women and children is assuming an alarming rate in Nigeria. Nigeria has become a source, transit and destination country for both internal and external trafficking. Until recently in 2003 when a new comprehensive law was passed by the Nigerian National assembly and assented to by the President, the provisions of the Criminal and Penal codes did not provide adequately for the crime of trafficking in women and children. Section 34 of the constitution of Nigeria prohibits slavery and torture while Sections 223-225 of the Criminal Code provides for sanctions against whosoever trades in prostitution, facilitate the transport of human being within or outside Nigeria for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and make profits for it. The Penal Code also sanctioned this act in Section 278-280, it provides for imprisonment for anyone who buys and sells minors for immoral purposes.
Research has shown that trafficking in women and girls are mainly for the purposes of domestic service and/ or prostitution. In places like Abakaliki, in Ebonyi State, young girls are forced into the sex industry partly because most people believe that they are unlikely to carry the HIV Virus.
Information provided by immigration authorities[12] in Nigeria has also shown that children between the ages of 7-16 are transported to Gabon and Cameroon from various points in the East of Nigeria, there are also reports of trafficking of women and girls to Europe and particularly Italy. The report also shows that over 20,000 Nigeria girls engage in prostitution in Italy and mostly trafficked victims[13]. An unusual dimension introduced to the crime of trafficking which makes the campaign against trafficking difficult is the introduction of the oaths of secrecy which victims and their parents/guardians have to undergo in traditional shrines. These oaths are administered by traditional priests who use the body parts of the victim such as hairs, nails, pubic hair and blood with a sanction not to divulge the secret of the identity of the traffickers, to hold allegiance to the traffickers and promptly pay the traffickers the debt bondage.[14] Failure to abide by the oath is deemed to have serious repercussion sometimes death or insanity on the victims and their relatives.
Most of the women and girls trafficked to Italy and other parts of Europe are from Edo State of Nigeria. This fact prompted the Edo State Government to pass a law with stiffer penalties against traffickers and their accessories including the traditional priests who administer the Secret Oaths. The Edo State law however criminalizes prostitution. The federal government also passed a national legislation outlawing trafficking in Nigeria which law is more elaborate than the previous provisions of the Criminal and Penal Codes. The new legislation did not however take sufficient consideration for the protection of the victims and witnesses to trafficking. Nigeria has also signed the Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons especially women and girls but is yet to ratify it.
Another emerging issue affecting the legal status of women is the introduction of Sharia Penal Code in 2000 by Zamfara State, which was later followed by over ten Northern States in Nigeria. All the states in their different codes extended the application to criminal offences as opposed to personal and civil matters. The implementation of the Sharia Penal Code has been flawed as inadequate to protect the rights of women. Access to justice is seen as been abridged particularly in the Area and Sharia Courts.
Often times, judges attitude and biases affect the type of judgment they render with women testimony devalued and treated as that of a minor, without necessary legal capacity. The extension of the law from personal to the criminal sphere as revealed in notorious cases decided by the Sharia trial courts in respect of adultery or fornication (Zina), especially, in the cases of Bariya, Safiya, Amina and others raises a lot of question on the commitment of the Nigerian state to the protection of women’s rights. In all these cases mentioned, the procedural guarantees were not observed in favor of accused person, thereby resulting in violation of basic human rights and often time expose women to violence.
Adultery attracts the death sentence by stoning while fornication attracts a minimum of 100 lashes. The law gives room for gender disparity women who are raped and or are pregnant are being condemned to death by stoning. It places restrictions on the rights of the woman and the child. There is the need for a review so that the law will be in accordance with the international norms and standards of human rights and with the constitutional provision.
Strategies and way forward
Nigeria is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR). The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the African Charter for Human and People’s Rights. These international treaties are yet to be incorporated into the domestic laws. An overview of the current socio-political and legal situation in Nigeria shows that the Government has not performed its obligation by the domestication of these treaties. Hence, one of the major steps that should be taken is the incorporation of the CRC and CEDAW in Nigerian domestic law. The reluctance of the government in this regard has to a large extent hampered the full enjoyment of women and girls of their internationally recognized rights.
As noted earlier, Nigeria practices a multiple system of law, however in the event of any conflicts, the constitution should be supreme[15] and upheld in favour of the protection of women where the customary and Sharia laws are discriminatory and unjust.
Chapter II of the constitution on fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy contains principles that should assist and guide Nigeria in the formulation and execution of policies, which would have in part, assisted to further strengthen the promotion of women and girl rights. However, this chapter of the constitution that is most beneficial to women is not enforceable in courts. This restriction is stated in Section 6 (6) of the constitution. The tripartite system of laws is also making it difficult to establish adequate and uniform legal framework applicable throughout the country.
The fundamental human rights provisions, which are enforceable in court, (though with some draw backs) are provided for in Chapter IV, Sections 33 – 44 of the 1999 constitutions, these provisions guarantee a wide range of civil rights as contained in the International Bills of Rights. It contains the most basic safeguards for civil and political rights of individual citizens. Unfortunately, the constitutional framework in Nigeria is defective. While one set of constitutional provisions promotes rights and allows for the enforcements of these rights, the other restricts its application, hence making the laws not justice-able. In effect when the state fails to protect its citizens by either preventing or punishing various kinds of human rights abuses, it can be said to be perpetrating or condoning those forms of violence. It is important to note that while making this dichotomy, the international perspective of states obligation to protect its citizens make the State culpable even in situations mentioned above.
  • Need to undertake a comprehensive review of the constitution to further the promotion and protection of women’s rights so as to have the legal framework for the enhancement of the status and welfare of women.
  • Need for the effective enforcement of the laws.
  • Equal access to the laws, irrespective of wealth and gender.
  • Need to incorporate the principle of equality of women and men in Nigeria’s legal system.
  • Review laws that are discriminatory against women.
  • Ensure effective elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organization and enterprises.
  • Use temporary special measure (affirmative action) to ensure women’s advancement.
  • Need for NGOs to strengthen their efforts to increase awareness in local communities, working with traditional authorities and community leaders to educate and reach the mass of the people.
In realization of the low status of women despite the availability of local laws and international instruments created the need to strategies on effect ways of ensuring the implementation and protection of women’s rights. [I think this sentence needs to be clarified. I don’t understand it] Over the past year, WiLDAF/FeDDAF-Nigeria chapter with the support of the European Union Fund for WiLDAF/FeDDAF-West Africa has embarked on a project to sensitise the judicial and extra judicial stakeholders in some parts of Nigeria.
These stakeholders targeted are the judges, magistrates, lawyers, police officers, traditional rulers and religious leaders. This project has succeeded to a large extent in changing the attitude of these stakeholders who in the operation of their duties knowingly or ignorantly perpetrate injustice against women.
It is imperative to educate and sensitise more stakeholders in the society for the protection of women’s rights and overall development of women and the society. For according to UNSecretary General, Kofi Anan in his Statement on International Women’s Day Celebration : “We are resolved to work for gender equality and the empowerment of women as vital tools to combat poverty and disease, and to achieve development that is truly sustainable; equally, we are determined to build on the contribution of women in managing conflict and building peace”
[1] 1992 provisional population census report issued by the federal government of Nigeria office of Statistics.
[2] Project Alert against Violence Against Women.
[3] Section 357 Criminal Code Cap 77 Laws of the Federation 1990.
[4] Section 211, of the Evidence Act. Cap 112, LFN 1990.
[5] December 1996.
[6] Section 282 of the Penal Code.
[7] Ss.353 and 360 of Criminal Code CAP 77, LFN 1990).
[8] FN 1956, Marriage Act of Eastern Nigeria.
[9] Section 29(4) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
[10] Brief overview of the legal status of women in Nigeria by Abiola- Akiyode-Afolabi.
[11] Section 34 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
[12] The Guardian, 8th August, 1998.
[13] On the Record “Nigerian Girls for Sale” by Advocacy Group and Women’s Consortium of Nigeria (WOCON)
[14] Report of research on trafficking in women and children conducted by Women’s Consortium of Nigeria (WOCON).
[15] Section 1, 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

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