Article Index

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 in particular societies takes different forms, and thus requires the utilization of differential strategies in different historical epochs and societies. Discrimination against women will then continue to be a problem until all the factors responsible for its existence, maintenance and institutionalization are understood and eradicated.

By Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome

Introduction

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) 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." Discrimination then is symptomatic of a situation where patterns of structural inequality are maintained by rules, norms and procedures which dictate a subordinate role for women in all spheres of society. The forces calling for an end to all forms of discrimination against women emphasize the need for a radical re-definition of the process and content of economic, social and political development and stress the need for a holistic orientation which acknowledges the vital role of women in development and engineers their integration into development planning and process 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 from the predominant view within human rights literature, which has an intrinsic pro-Western bias and which operates on the implicit assumption that international human rights have their origins in Western liberal thought. Contrary to this dominant perspective, I argue that all human societies have a conception of human rights, even though there are cultural differences. The origins of international human rights are then taken to be multiply determined instead of unidimensional. The existence and defence 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 defence of such rights would be meaningless otherwise.

Within the international human rights literature, the problem of discrimination has been conceptualized as involving the denial of self-determination to women. This paper, while being wary of the "globalization of discrimination against women" argument in some respects, considers discrimination as resulting from the erection, maintenance and perpetuation of structures of inequality against women as opposed to men. 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. That is: a structure can limit or foster change, but structures allow for the transformative intervention of human agents.

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 in particular societies takes different forms, and thus requires the utilization of differential strategies in different historical epochs and societies. Discrimination against women will then continue to be a problem until all the factors responsible for its existence, maintenance and institutionalization are understood and eradicated.

The evaluation of discrimination against women in Nigeria shall focus on the quality and content of international, regional and constitutional protection and guarantees and the extent to which these de jure guarantees do not reflect the de facto condition of women in Nigerian society. In addition, the following questions will be addressed:

  1. In what ways have structures of inequality been created in the society and how do these structures impact upon the role of women in contemporary Nigeria?
  2. How are concrete problems which have a direct bearing on the role of women in society to be conceptualized and contextualized?
    Related to the above is the issue of instruments of protection and an evaluation of their effectiveness. The question is:
  3. 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.

Structures of Inequality: Their Creation and Impact on the Role of Women in Contemporary Nigerian Society

It is usually argued that pre-colonial Nigeria had a sexual division of labor. However, the nature and implication of such sexual division of labor is often misinterpreted. While male dominance was built into the social system of some Nigerian ethnic groups, women played a significant and vital role in all aspects of the lives of their community. For some scholars, this is due to the complementarity of male and female roles and functions. The effect of complementarity was to give women a great deal of autonomy in their own affairs to a degree unmatched to date. Since some women became leaders in politics, religion, and the economy, discrimination was on the basis of both class and gender. Women who by virtue of their acquired or ascribed status became decision makers were by no means treated in the same way as other women in terms of their rights. Elements of structural inequality could be observed in unequal access to the means of production and control thereof as well as inequality in the ability to control reproduction.

Some scholars contend that ideological reinforcement for structural inequality was provided by customs, practices and norms, which while relevant within the context of the societies in which they emerged, are now questionable given the evolution of society in radically different directions. However, one must be wary of making arguments such as this which are not based on a rigorous examination and comparative analyses of the diverse Nigerian societies. In the first place, the contention assumes that the customs, practices and norms in question arise from traditional practices. This is erroneous. Most of the administrative practices which prevent the equal treatment of men and women in Nigeria are products of colonial laws and government. Second, when these societies are examined with more rigor, it becomes obvious that there are clear distinctions among them as to the customary treatment of men and women. In some cases, women were disadvantaged more by the imposition of colonial rule and the code of law that accompanied that imposition.


Knowledge Project

Africa Knowledge Project is an academic resource that offers journals and databases. Check them out at AKP.

Upcoming Deadlines

CALL FOR PAPERS

Columnists

LivewireRasta Livewire is a leading blog that provides in-depth viewpoints from Rastas in Africa and African Diaspora.

Africa Knowledge Project (AKP) publishes peer-reviewed journals and academic databases.

Ojedi is an online retailer of fine art and exceptional handcrafted pieces from around the world.

Africa House is an Africa and Diasporian gallery. Africa House accepts proposals for submission on a rolling basis.

African Event Posters show posters of events at Africa House.

African Gourmet Dinners shows images of African gourmet dishes.