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


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.

In feminist literature, discrimination against women is taken to manifest itself in the forms of gender, class and personal discrimination that arises from women being discriminated against as women. In some perspectives, discrimination is caused by structural factors. Some scholars contend that the most important structural sources of discrimination are social formations such as the family, which conditions its members to conform to socially acceptable norms in terms of male and female roles in the division of labor from childhood. Although the traditional division of labor in Nigeria was one within which there were distinctions made between men's and women's work, social expectations on what constituted men's or women's work varied by community/society. Men generally speaking had a higher status than women within the family but women have been active in producing, decision-making, trading and food processing as well as in child-rearing and bearing. In addition, elders were more privileged than the young and husbands more privileged vis a vis wives. The significance of social difference becomes obvious when one realizes that among the Yoruba and Ibo for instance, not only men are husbands. All the members of the patrilineage into which a woman marries, male and female, stand as husbands in relationship to her. Relationships such as these are however, not sexual. These relationships cannot always be conceptualized in terms of gender. There is also ample evidence of women's activism politically, socially and economically which calls to question this assumption of automatic male superiority.

The ideological dimension of discrimination becomes evident when the positive contributions made by women remain unacknowledged while negative stereotypes on the role of women in pre-colonial society are stressed, even by scholars who claim to be pro-feminist. An example of the negative portrayal of Nigerian women and their role in society is that the implication of a sexual division of labor is often taken as excluding the majority of women from decision-making roles in society. Evidence exists of opportunities for women to participate in decision making as leaders of institutions paralleling those of men. Other opportunities to participate in general existed through the representatives chosen by women's indigenous organizations. Women within the family had to combine productive work with reproductive labor but were able to take advantage of help from the extended family, including the polygynous family unit, which reduced the burden of a double workload.

The polygynous system, which is often condemned as disadvantageous to women, was an aspect of social arrangement which enabled women to make concrete contributions to society. However, with the imposition of colonialism and the influx of Islam, there was a contraction of opportunities available for women to play leadership roles. With regard to Islam, recent research maintains that neither the teachings of the prophet Mohammed nor the precepts of the Koran recommend polygyny as a matter of course. There are responsibilities which accompany the decision to marry more than one wife. Even though a good argument could be made for the privileging of males over females in Islam, as in Christianity, in terms of education, equal opportunity is the norm recommended by the prophet Mohammed as well as Unman Dan Fodio, leader of the Fulani Jihad. In traditional Nigerian societies, polygynous relationships were likewise not unregulated. In contemporary times, some women choose to be part of these structures voluntarily and argue that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Provisions were also made in pre-colonial Nigerian societies for conflict resolution in which all members of society could participate. One of the deleterious effects of colonialism is that there was a contraction of opportunities available for women to play leadership roles after its imposition. However, women drew upon their pre-colonial forms of organization to organize the mode and content of their political participation within the colonial system.

In contemporary society, some of the political and civil rights of women are affected negatively. Such negative effects may not be as obvious in law as in the administrative practices which affect the de facto position of women in society. There are also ideological elements leading to stereotypes that deny the significance of the contribution of women to Nigerian development. This is illustrated in The report of the Federal Government of Nigeria to the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination which stated in the introduction that the traditional conception of the role of women in society is as domestic drudges, wives and mothers. This report reinforces erroneous perceptions of the role of women in society which have no basis in fact. On the contrary, traditionally, women were valued as powerful by virtue of their being the bearers of fertility. A traditional Yoruba song, "Iya ni wura" (Mother is gold) underscores the importance of women in Yoruba society. The song goes:

Yoruba English
Iya ni wura iyebiye,
Ti a ko le f'owo ra.
O l'oyun mi f'osu mesan, mewa,
O pon mi f'odun meta.
Iya o se o ku ise mi,
Emi ko le bu 'ya mi.
Mother is valuable gold
That we cannot purchase with money.
She carried me in her womb for nine, ten months,
She carried me on her back for three years.
Mother, thank you for my work,
I cannot abuse my mother (verbally)

Meanwhile, a traditional Yoruba proverb says: Iya ni wura, baba ni jigi, which translates, Mother is gold, father is a mirror. This underscores not only the value of a mother to her child/children but says something about the role of women in Yoruba society. Compared to a fragile, breakable relationship to a father, the relationship of mother to child/children is durable. Similar reverence of the mother is found among other Nigerian ethnic groups. In addition, opportunities existed for women in pre-colonial Nigerian society to take leadership roles in politics, religion, social and economic life. Some of these opportunities remain in evidence, although much circumscribed by colonial and post-colonial impositions of Western culture.

Pre-colonial Nigerian societies were structured around the centrality of kinship as the determinant of the productive and reproductive role of the individual in society. Childbearing was considered central to the worth of a woman. Since children were regarded as economic assets, polygyny was encouraged and a childless woman was considered incomplete. As a general rule, the more children an individual had, the more their power within society. There were however opportunities for women to surmount problems arising from childlessness and to avoid divorce. Amadiume points to the phenomenon of gender-flexibility among the Nnobi in the East of Nigeria as a tool for women both to increase their material base by acquiring "wives" The institutions of female husbands and male daughters among the Igbo of Nnobi in the East of Nigeria allowed women not to marry other women in fact but to claim the children borne by these women and in effect have access to power and exert their control over resources, including children, who in the predominantly agricultural societies, were an asset that enhanced an individual's ability to produce for economic gain. This enables them to surmount the social stigma attached to childlessness as well as enhance their productive capabilities. Fostering of children with women who were childless also enabled women to adjust their position within society. Among the Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani, fostering of the children of relatives provides opportunities for childless women to play mothering roles.

With colonialism, most elements of the kinship support system disappeared or were considered outdated. Discrimination against women who are childless continues under customary law in cases where a man may claim the full dowry paid for a childless woman while deductions are allowed if a woman has children. The right of women to work was affected by both the social relations within the family as well as in the larger society. Women in general had access to land which they could cultivate. However, the right to dispose of land was vested in the male head of the patrilineage. Therefore, access to the means of production was open to both sexes but control was usually vested in men. It was more possible however, for women to take advantage of customary loopholes such as the flexible gender system among the Ibo in order to gain power within a social system which confers more power on males than females. Among the Yoruba, some women became wealthy and could participate in government and dispose of property on an equal footing with men. There was a general acceptance of the idea that women should be active as producers and distributors and as decision makers in female institutions. Women were also better able to manipulate the rules of the game within the traditional social structure that they were members of and thus, more familiar with. Pre-colonial Nigerian societies were thus not populated with structures within which women were automatically more disadvantaged in terms of their access to positions of authority than in contemporary society.

Colonialism diminished more than it enhanced the position of women in society. Women lost a great deal of authority and the opportunity to participate in decision making due to their exclusion from all levels of administration. They also lost a lot of the maneuverability which they had in the pre-colonial era during the imposition of colonialism because the male-dominant elements of society were stressed above all others and applied in social, economic and political life. Education is generally considered a boon to women, who were able to emancipate themselves from oppression as a result of Westernization. The liberatory effects of Western education are overrated because the emphasis of the colonial government was to prepare women for domestic rather than for leadership roles within society.

Concrete, unequivocal evidence exists about the effect of education, which became the most important requirement for upward mobility during colonial rule. Since fewer women than men were educated, there was consequently less opportunity for women to gain access to positions of authority than for men. During colonialism, women were however not unwilling to use new legal provisions on the capacity to marry in litigation on their not having prior consent to marriage before its occurrence and to gain the enhanced property rights instituted by statutory law in divorce. The combined effect of Islam and colonialism in the North of Nigeria was that the former curtailed the economic independence of women as farmers and traders and totally exclude even royal women, who had hitherto held political office from positions of power. This was a result of the introduction of seclusion, which did not prevent women from involvement in trade but prevented them from overt organizing for political action as early as in the South. Colonialism both protected Islam and permitted its expansion. However, even though Muslim women in the North were denied access to Western education and thus had even less of an opportunity to gain employment in the colonial administration than their Southern counterparts, many muslim women were educated in Koranic schools and continued to be educated by their husbands after marriage. Since this form of education depends on the husband's cooperation, it is not the norm, rather, it is the exception.

The imposition of colonial rule was a source of significant changes to Nigerian society. In the first place, in precolonial society, many women in positions of economic and political prominence gained these positions as a result of achievement and reward. Consequent to the imposition of colonial rule, the opportunity for such upward mobility was considerably diminished. For Mba, some women were able to become more involved in trade, however, many areas of the economy that were previously reserved for women were taken over by men and the imposition of a cash economy as well as the new European firms caused a reversal of their fortunes. Christianity, which spread during colonialism also undercut the higher status that women had previously in traditional religion. In a struggle to re-assert their former prominence in religion, indigenous churches were used by Christian women converts as an avenue through which they regained some of their traditional status. It is doubtful whether the British legal system which was imposed during colonialism gave Nigerian women more secure rights in marriage and divorce as concluded by Mba but de jure property rights replaced their de facto rights. The extent to which de jure rights made any practical improvements to the lives of many women is however questionable, since what were regarded as de facto rights were based on long-standing traditions and therefore well grounded, but the realization of de jure rights required familiarity with the new codes of law, the new legal system and considerable financial expenditure.

The origins of structures of inequality leading to discrimination against women are therefore to be found in pre-colonial societies with predominantly male-dominant social systems; in the institutionalization of "Native Law and Customs" that occurred during the colonial imposition as well as in the imposition of colonial rule and a new legal structure. Customs such as child marriage and betrothal and widowhood rites have their origins in the pre-colonial era, as did genital operations. The imposition of colonialism involved the construction of a system where women had less opportunity to participate in administration. In addition, an economic system was instituted where men had more opportunities than women for meaningful participation, a legal system was introduced wherein women lost some of the benefits open to them in pre-colonial societies and a religious system was imposed which deprived women of their pre-colonial power and authority. More males had access than females into the educational system and the form of Islam which had attained the stature of orthodoxy in the North was protected despite its discrimination against women. No doubt, these elements of institutionalized male dominance was in no small measure due to the Victorians' own philosophy, in which women were restricted from participating in the public sphere.

Discrimination Against Women in Nigeria: A Contemporary Overview

While women in Nigeria have always been active economically, the extent and significance of their activism has not always been rewarded by commensurate degrees of political power vis a vis men. The situation remains the same at present despite the willingness of women to exercise the rights that they have. Structural constraints from the pre-colonial, colonial and decolonization eras continue to prevent the elimination of discrimination against women. It is possible to distinguish between two major positions by organized women's groups within Nigeria, the one stressing more visibility in prominent positions for women as part of the decision making apparatus and the other calling for radical changes and structural transformation in order that the rights of all women will have as much de facto as de jure relevance. The first position constitutes the top-down approach held by the National Council of Women's Societies (NCWS) and the second, the more comprehensive and broadly-based approach of Women In Nigeria. (WIN) Both organizations have made attempts to generate academic and other interest in the elimination of discrimination against women as they define it. Thus far, the NCWS position has received more support by the successive Nigerian governments. Thus, the approach usually taken to correct discrimination is to appoint a few token women into positions where they have high visibility. However, this in no way helps the majority of women.

Discrimination affects women's political and civil rights. The enfranchisement of women in the North was one of the political demands made by women's organizations in both the East and West after their own enfranchisement but the right to vote was only granted to women in the North of Nigeria in 1976. In the East, it had been granted in 1954 and in the West in 1958. Some have argued that the exercise of this right may be problematic even where it is guaranteed because of social constraints on the movement of women in purdah. Akande suggests that women who are secluded in purdah may be unable to vote as a result of the electoral rules which end the voting day at 6 pm while women in purdah cannot go out until after sundown. However, Oruene claims that women in purdah turned out in such large numbers to vote in the 1976 local government elections (which was the first in which they could participate on an equal footing with men) that the voting day was extended by two hours. Thus, it is clear that women are willing to exercise their rights with adequate and institutionalized protections. Women have also always exercised their rights as well as organized collective action within political interest and pressure groups toward the struggle for the enhancement of women's' rights in society.

There are still fewer women contesting for elections as compared to men, a situation that is also observed in the United States and most democracies. The implication of Nigerian citizenship differed for men and women until this discrepancy in the status of women as compared to men was corrected by Nigeria's 1992 constitution. Nonetheless, the attainment of some rights may still be outside the grasp of women due to continuing social and administrative mores.

According to the Nigerian constitution of 1979, discrimination on the basis of sex is prohibited. With reference to political and civil rights, all women have a right to suffrage once they are above the age of 18 and can contest in political elections once above the age of 21. No customary prohibitions prevent women's participation in politics but women have not contested for political positions on a level matching men. The hesitancy of women to be involved in politics also dates back to the period of decolonization when politics was characterized by gross abuse and physical violence. Akande contends that Nigerian women do not have full legal capacity insofar as they are unable to "independently enter into contracts, ... acquire and own property ... enter into other legal transactions, sue or be sued." The extent of practical freedom that a woman has also varies with class, level of education and type of marriage. Within polygynous marriages, women may have more freedom than within monogamous ones because there is a presumption of legal unity in the latter form of marriage which gives the man the advantage. In terms of the capacity to marry, the right of consent and the requirements of dowry-payment, women's right to independent decision making may be curtailed. There are also limits on the rights of a woman in marriage under all three legal systems that are currently operative in Nigeria.

Penal laws affect men and women differentially regardless of the fact that constitutionally, there are no legal distinctions "between citizens in the protection of their property, freedom, reputation and personal safety." The distinctions that exist are also attributed to "prevailing social mores" Inadequacies exist in access to health care, family planning facilities, social security programs, education and in employment. Child betrothal and the marriage of individuals who are in contemporary terms considered to be minors in chronological age are carry-overs from the pre-colonial era which continue today in some parts of Nigeria. In terms of the social systems that were operative then, individuals were determined to be competent to be married at puberty. This violates contemporary provisions for the protection of women against discrimination but considering community standards at that time, did not constitute discrimination insofar as it applied to both sexes, although it may be considered a denial of the right to self-determination to both males and females in the sense that the consent of the individuals getting married was not a prerequisite. Discrimination enters into the question where one of the partners was older than the other and thus was more competent to take such an important step and when marriage was imposed on unwilling parties.

Another source of discrimination concerns an inability to control an individual's own reproduction, since social mores dictate the desirable number of children and their spacing. Childlessness was a stigma for both men and women, but as already mentioned, steps can be taken to redress this condition. Similarly, the institutionalization of the man as the primary and final decision maker and the head of the family after the codification of customary law during the colonial era curtailed the rights of women significantly. Even though male privilege was not universally present in all pre-colonial societies, it agreed with the Victorian conception of the normal order of things. The effect of such institutionalized male dominance was in some cases, to endanger the health and life of a woman or curtail her right to vote and her freedom of movement; the denial of equality within a family to women, inequality in childrearing and decision making concerning child care; in the right to inherit and own property. In areas of Nigeria, concubinage is another pre-colonial holdover. This is still prevalent in Sokoto and Borno and constrains women in a situation where they have absolutely no rights but exist wholly at the mercy of their male patrons.

Other pre-colonial institutions became subject to abuse as well. The requirement for the payment of the bride price in some societies was accompanied in pre-colonial times with compulsory performance of bride-service and clearly enunciated rules of behavior that was proper for all parties to a marriage. However, the payment of the bride price has become institutionalized in a negative manner that is tantamount in some cases to a drastic reduction in the personal freedom of women and a gross reduction in their capacity for independent action.

The above problems arose from ideological and structural sources--in the first place from the manner in which indigenous social structures were institutionalized during colonial rule. Consequently, men's and women's rights differed and led to their inequality in the family, lineage and political affairs. Secondly, from both the practice of Islam and Christianity came a prescription of a purely domestic role for women. Third, from colonialism came an elaboration of the differences between the sexes and the creation of "substantial legal, social and material inequalities between men and women." Post-colonial governments in Nigeria merely maintained policies responsible for material inequality. This is both for concrete gain by men vis a vis women and for the ideological maintenance of the superiority of men as opposed to women.

Nigeria is presently undergoing the implementation of a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), a program which combines policies of economic austerity with the devaluation of the country's currency, drastic cutbacks in government spending and significant economic contraction due to the privatization of government owned businesses. This affects the rights of all Nigerians but particularly affects the rights of women. Women's economic rights are affected most directly since there are fewer employment opportunities and more competition for those that exist. In the rural areas, whereas development schemes have traditionally hindered rather than helped women and technology and training benefits men and marginalizes women, the situation is more gruelling under conditions of structural adjustment. This is due to a contraction of social spending and also to less money being available from international sources for development projects.

The provision of basic infrastructure while inadequate in the past, has become even more so. Health care, education, training, access to appropriate technology and to necessities of life such as potable water have become even more inaccessible, both to rural and to urban women. This is the background against which the existing discrimination against women in Nigerian society should be viewed.

Discrimination Against Women--International, Regional and Domestic Protections

Discrimination against women persists despite the existence of international, regional and domestic protections. The persistence of discrimination must of necessity be viewed as due to structural and ideological factors. The United Nations Covenants of 1966 provide protection against discrimination on the grounds of sex, (Art.2,1 Civil & Political Covenant; Art 2,2 Economic Social and Cultural Rights). The United Nations has also adopted several other conventions directed at protecting the rights of women. The 1956 Supplementary Convention on the abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Practices Similar to Slavery emphasized the importance of consent by a woman to marriage and advocated the elimination of customs such as bride wealth and funeral rites which subject women to inheritance after the death of a spouse (Art 1). The 1962 Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages considers some customs and traditions relating to marriage and the family "inconsistent with...the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"

Rights of production and reproduction cover a wide spectrum of rights to which women are entitled. This encompasses women's rights in the family, economic, social and political spheres. Rights of production are those which affect equal opportunity in employment with regard to recruitment, promotion and training as well as in the area of benefits and entitlements. It also includes equal opportunity in decision making in all organizations. Women need equal access to and equality in the control of the means of production. The rights of reproduction relate to the capacity and competence to make independent decisions about her own body by a woman. This includes the ability to control the size of the family, exercise control over the discipline of children, to have free access to family planning, including abortion and the right to legal and practical equality in the control of family resources and children after divorce. Such capacity is enhanced by a woman's access to information concerning her rights as well as legal and other measures that can be taken to gain these rights.

The rights of women within the family are important and vital in terms of the extent to which they may be able to exercise independent decision making about their persons and define their relationship to the larger society. Relations within the family structure the extent to which women are granted reproductive and productive rights and define the content of such rights. Article 5 (a) of the 1979 Convention recommends that States Parties "modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women"

It has been argued that the male dominant elements of Nigerian society remain strong. Such elements are usually located within family law where a woman is required to take care of her husband and home. Since most women work outside the home, this creates in effect, a double burden and may limit the ability of women to devote an equal amount of attention and concentration to their careers or trade. The family, as mentioned previously is one of the most important institutions in society. The remedies which existed in pre-colonial times such as varieties of family support are now being steadily eroded.

In Nigerian law and administrative practice, the predominant attitude is that men are the heads of the household and the primary authority. This attitude persists regardless of past and contemporary examples of cross-gender cooperation in many households and also despite the existence of many family units in which women are the heads. Women within the family while active as producers thus continue to be defined just in terms of their reproductive and associated roles. Under statutory law in Nigeria, the woman must cook and care for the home and health of her husband and children. Problems as rightly identified by the Nigerian government's report to CEDAW, arise out of the prevailing social mores which prevent women from taking legal action even where fundamental rights are not granted. Besides the acknowledgment of the pervasiveness of social mores which cause discrimination against women, a more critical approach is necessary to discern the origins of these mores and to fashion workable solutions to the problems that are caused by them. There is also gross lack of awareness on the part of women as to the extent and content of their rights. However, there are legal and administrative measures which perpetuate the inequality of men and women within the family. Adultery is considered sufficient grounds for divorce only where women are concerned but the same condition is not applied to a man.

The 1979 Convention guarantees the full equality of men and women in the family but prevailing practice in Nigeria is to overlook customary and traditional practices which prevent the achievement of full equality. While the government acknowledges the "need for public enlightenment in the area of marriage and family law, by the time its report to CEDAW was handed in, very little of substance has been done beyond the institution of a Pilot Legal Project on Family Law. Today, there is a Women's Bureau which is attached to the Office of the Presidency and a more aggressive stance is taken about the improvement of the status of women in society. The Better Life for Rural Women program is directed at correcting some of the deficiencies noted in the report to CEDAW, although the program is only a beginning, and should not be taken as having achieved total success in correcting the anomalies that exist. From 1979, more women have formally competed for political office.

There is not at present, any legal recourse for women who suffer abuse within the family, although there are traditional recourses. More commitment has come to be required from women than men to childrearing since their careers and desire for upward mobility through higher education are expected to play a subordinate role in their lives once they are mothers and the men are expected to play a superordinate role since they are regarded as the "breadwinners". In traditional social systems, women did not necessarily have to bear the brunt of childrearing alone. There were social institutions which provided much needed support and enabled a woman to pursue her trade undisturbed. In contemporary times, women suffer legal discrimination in the administration of custody law. While the Covenant provides in Article 16, 1, d, that parents shall have equality of rights and responsibility with regard to their children, and that the interests of children should be given primary responsibility, under customary law, the equality of the spouses is precluded sometimes as a result of great disparities in the ages of the spouses, which gives the man more control over the wife and also in the case of divorce in some areas where women are only entitled to custody prior to weaning, or in some cases, after the child is 7 years old, and under Islamic law until the age of puberty or marriage. On a positive note, the woman has a right to claim maintenance from the father of her child even if she is not married to the man, but in some cases, divorce is only possible after the refund of the bride wealth, although among some groups, deductions are made based on the number of children borne by the woman during the marriage.

In countries such as Nigeria where there is no guaranteed access to social security in old age, unequal access to and control over children in divorce imposes multiple discrimination on a woman who is expected to be primarily responsible for child care. The 1979 Convention guarantees women equal rights and responsibilities in marriage and at its dissolution but some women are still affected by inequitable access to divorce. In Nigerian muslim communities, divorce by repudiation is still acceptable. Under customary law, women have a right to support and housing, but not to the husband's property or incomes. Conversely, men have no right to their spouse's property or income as well. However, pre-colonial marriage laws allow for conciliation and negotiation in the event of marriage breakdowns, which may result in better treatment for the woman. In addition, a divorced woman can return to her lineage where she has access to property after application to the male head of the lineage. Under statutory law, a woman has equal right with her husband to the custody and guardianship of the children of the union upon divorce but the application of the law may be such that work within the marriage is not considered an economic contribution and there is no enforcement of maintenance payments.

Customs such as child betrothal, early and forced marriages, genital operations and funeral rites are integral parts of community lives in many parts of Nigeria. These customs are also generally considered by such communities as involving principles of good faith and as necessary for the preservation of society. The situation is complicated because traditional protections provided by the extended family and lineage are now almost completely eroded. The crucial issue regarding the rights of women in marriage and the family is that these rights are central to their rights as individuals. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' rights in Article 2 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, but makes no other specific references to the protection of women's rights. Howard however argues that some other articles may be taken as applicable to women, particularly Article 4's specification that "Human beings are inviolable (each is)...entitled to respect for his life and the integrity of his person" and Article 16's guarantee of every individual's right "to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health". For Howard, both of these may be used in arguing for the defense of women against physically harmful practices. Women's lives also tend to be affected more profoundly than men's by their reproductive roles. When reproductive rights are lacking, rights in other areas are affected. Reproductive rights in this sense are not limited to the right to abortion. They include the right of a woman to employment and the means of production which enhance her ability to take care of her children financially. There is an observed conflict between community and individual rights since the preservation of the family is considered the fundamental duty of society. Can the law be used as a means of transformation in this case? Howard considers this near-impossible but sees the role of law as enabling individuals who wish to escape from traditional family controls to do so. The law in this sense would then be a building block toward the future realization of cultural change.

Problems arise from provisions that may potentially pit the need to maintain community values against the rights of women. These may be observed in Article 18's specification that "the family shall be the natural unit and basis of society...the State shall ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women." and Article 17, 3 considers the State instrumental in "The promotion and protection of morals and traditional values recognized by the community" There is evidence of such a conflict in the Nigerian government's report to CEDAW which presents the constraints against the achievement of the eradication of discrimination against women as arising in the main, from the lack of enforceable laws when women suffer discrimination from customs, administrative directives and discriminatory religious practices. The government also laments the absence of a favorable attitude toward litigation in Nigeria and considers this another problem preventing the elimination of discrimination. What is left out in this part of the report is the salience of an individual's total environment in shaping that individual's perception of her/his possibilities and constraints in the wider society. It is doubtful that even litigation that results in positive acknowledgment of a woman's rights would amount to much without far_reaching social and other structural changes.

Altogether, there seems to be inadequate acknowledgment on the part of the government, of the significance of structural constraints and insufficient provisions for the institution of Articles 3 and 4 of the 1979 Convention's recommendations. Article 3 calls for legal and extra_legal measures for guaranteeing the full exercise of women's rights. While there is an acknowledgment of the need for extra_legal perspectives by the Nigerian government, no concrete attempt is made to address imbalances which may arise from the conflict between individual and group rights. The government also laments the absence of a litigious attitude in general among Nigeria as contributing to the appearance of the paucity of protections. This is not borne out by historical evidence. Mba shows that women in the South of Nigeria used new family laws under colonial rule to support their claims in the legal system, thus, it is more relevant to consider poverty as preventing the use of litigation by women who are in need of the most protection--the urban and rural poor.

Article 4 of the 1979 Convention calls for "temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women" in order to achieve the objectives of equality of opportunity and treatment. Toward this end, Nigeria appointed the first woman Vice Chancellor of a University, and the first woman member of the Federal Civil Service Commission. Other nominal appointments of women were made mandatory at both state and federal government levels. These appointments still show evidence of the inadequacies in the access of women to high levels of decision_making. There seems to be more an evidence of a "tokenism" which does not recognize the extent of educational and professional achievement among Nigerian women. The government also made some institutional modifications at Federal and State levels. Women are now granted the capacity to take on bail individuals in Police Custody subsequent to a directive by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice. However, the statement that women should "bear any unpleasant consequence that may flow from that action" indicates that there is still some perception among policy-makers that women are in need of protective legislation, even if this restricts the exercise of their rights. Most of the improvements made concentrate on giving more access to urban, elite women. The introduction of the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructures, (DFRRI) is the government's new master-plan for agricultural development, and the plan was for it to improve rural infrastructure and encourage higher productivity in agriculture. Since the government realizes that a large percentage of rural women are farmers, they were considered some of the primary beneficiaries of the plan. However, this effort is largely believed to be failing.

Chapter IV of the 1979 Constitution of Nigeria contains provisions for the defense of the fundamental human rights of all Nigerians but express provisions for the protection of individuals from discrimination are to be found in subsection 39 which provides that

  1. A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community or ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person -
  • a. be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria and other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions, or political opinion are not made subject; or

  • b. be accorded either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any such executive or administrative action, any privilege or advantage that is not accorded to citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin , sex, religions or political opinion.

This section in effect, provides for equal treatment of men and women under the law. According to the report of the Nigerian government to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, there is no need to create enforcement mechanisms for the Convention because its provisions could be used as the basis of any argument against derogations in any court of law within Nigeria. The problem with this argument is underlined by the same report which states that while protections exist, there may be no progress toward the elimination of discrimination if women do not actively pursue the realization of this goal. However, the argument that it is up to women to seek legal redress may be a "straw man" because without the right tools and considerable institutional support provided by the government for the majority of women, such active pursuit of their rights may be impossible.

If development is defined as the "maximization of happiness via the enhancement of life and life possibilities for the individual, whatever his or her status or position in life," both the right to equality in production and reproduction may be encompassed within the right to development. These are rights due to all human beings by virtue of being human and should be guaranteed by governments who should maximize the felicity and well-being of those under their rule." However, the right to development is also considered to confer equality in social development to the peoples of the world. Problems arise when the rights of individuals conflict with the rights of groups or communities; and also because individual rights do not mean the same thing for the starving as it does for the affluent. While the United Nations then has contributed to the internationalization of Human rights by making it impossible for states members to claim that the maltreatment of their nationals falls within their exclusive domestic jurisdiction, and by clarifying the scope of member state obligation to promote human rights, a great deal of vagueness remains.

The 1979 Convention provides for the equality of men and women in the family. The implication of considering the man the head of the household is felt the most in cases as in the North where the husband's approval is required before a woman can receive health care, even in emergency situations. This creates grave health and social problems since some preventable illnesses remain untreated and may cause maternal and child mortality. Early and forced marriage continues in parts of Nigeria and is acknowledged by the government in its report to CEDAW in the following statement: "in traditional society, a woman is treated as a chattel, to be bought and sold, discarded at will and disposed of with other property upon the death of her husband without her consent" This statement in itself, reveals gross over-generalization, the lack of understanding cultural mores and inability to distinguish between the experiences of the different ethnic groups in Nigeria. There is growing evidence that even among Northern moslems, women are neither chattels traditionally nor are they totally unable to exercise whatever freedoms are guaranteed by their society. Significant erosion of women's traditional rights and entitlements have occurred due to the codification of "Native Law and Custom". These misrepresentations continue to wax strong and are often taken to be traditional, when in fact, some are very recent inventions.

Discrimination in property ownership exists under customary law as it now exists. While women are entitled to property acquired by trading, ante_nuptial property is considered to belong to both parties in the North and East but among the Yoruba, to the husband. Once divorced, the woman is considered unentitled to the husband's estate. The 1979 Convention, Article 16 (1, h) considers both spouses as having the same rights "in respect of the ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition of property" The report of the Nigerian government states that the same standards apply to both married and unmarried women in the allocation of government owned land and housing. The main avenue of discrimination in property ownership is considered to lie within customary law. This is not only inaccurate, it constitutes a refusal to acknowledge that majority of women who apply for access to government-owned property may be educated, wealthy, well connected or based in urban areas and also that these are usually those women who may be able to take legal action against discriminatory practices by using the provisions of the Convention in support of their claims. There is also no acknowledgment of the vital role that family negotiation plays under customary law as a mitigating factor against most abuses, and consequently, the realization that poor women living in urban areas lose doubly since kinship ties become more tenuous under conditions of urbanization.

Women in Nigeria also suffer legal discrimination in the control of contraception. Couples are entitled to the fundamental human rights of freely and responsibly determining the number and spacing of their children and according to Article 12, 1 of the 1979 Convention, "States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning."but the contemporary practice in Nigeria is that women are not given access to contraception by the Planned Parenthood Foundation of Nigeria if they do not have the signed consent of their spouses. This restriction is coupled with a situation where contraceptives can be acquired over the counter and without any medical advice or monitoring. Women are thus exposed to potential danger and also denied competency to make independent and responsible decisions. The control of reproduction in this manner is indicative of society's conception of the locus of power within the family and social control of the behavior of individuals and can be linked to accepted traditional methods of contraception where women are expected to periodically abstain from sexual intercourse while the man does not have to in a polygynous marriage.

There is also evidence of the exercise of both legal and social control of reproduction in the case of abortion. There are strict prohibitions against abortions in Nigeria which date from the English Offences against the Person Act of 1861, which was the source of colonial regulation of abortion and remains in force under Nigerian statutory law. The only condition under which abortion is permitted by the Act is if it is performed in good faith and for the preservation of the mother's life. Under Sections 228-230 of the Southern Criminal Code and Sections 232-236 of the Northern Penal Code, abortion is considered a crime punishable by varying terms of imprisonment. This creates practical inequality in access to abortion since affluent women are largely able to have access to it while poor women on the whole are exposed to unsafe abortion. The 1975 UN Report on the Status of Women & Family planning suggests that abortion should be legalized since "unjustified state interference (with regard to abortion) is likely to be not only socially repressive and discriminatory but personally traumatizing in its effects. This is especially true as it affects women's attempts to gain autonomy over their bodies"

The key issues surrounding the question of abortion are whether a woman is considered competent and whether she is considered to have the capacity to make independent decisions about her body. The 1976 recommendation of the Nigerian Medical Association and the Society of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians of Nigeria that the government allow abortions on request for health and welfare reasons was not approved by the federal government since there was considerable opposition from some religious authorities. It is obvious then that the Nigerian government is wrong in assuming that the main road-blocks to the elimination of discrimination are extra-legal. Legal and extra-legal constraints coexist in both the letter of the law and in its administration. It is generally acknowledged that customs and traditions still persist which prevent the elimination of discrimination against women, and also that positive action must be taken by women to attain the full enjoyment of their rights. What is usually not addressed is the provision of practical measures through which women can, if denied of their rights can gain support for their pursuit of the granting of these rights through legal action and organization for political action.

Another source of discrimination is to be found within the practice of religion. In both Christianity and Islam, there is a presumption of the inequality of women to men which does not necessarily exist in traditional religion. In spite of Islamic provisions for the equality of all believers, purdah and polygyny are considered obligatory. Since peasants cannot afford to seclude their wives, these phenomena have a class nature. In Christianity, the orthodox position is that women should be totally submissive to men. The restricted access of women to information in Islam enabled them accept a submissive role. Even in the case of Christianity, education and a re-conceptualization of the role of women is still necessary if significant changes are to be made in the situation of women. Any prescriptions or conditions that may be found in the definition of the role of women in the Bible remain inadequate as the sole harbingers of change. Both religions contribute to the continuation of discrimination against women.

In education, the emphasis in the pre-colonial era was to prepare both men and women for their role in society, and the family was the forum within which education took place. Education under colonialism was not initially extended to women. When it was, women continued to be prepared for predominantly domestic roles. Contemporarily, this is reflected in the concentration of women in tertiary institutions in the Arts and Humanities as well as the lower percentage of women in all professions and subject areas. Article 10, Sections a-h of the 1979 Convention makes detailed provisions for the guarantee of equal rights for men and women in education. However, in 1975, female enrollment in elementary schools was 32 percent for students 6-11 years old and 14 percent for students 12-17 years old. From 1975-76, female student enrollment in Universities was 15.9 percent and in 1981-82, 27.96 percent. The Nigerian National Policy on Education, according to the Report, makes only the following reference to women's education.

With a view to correcting the imbalance between...the number of boys and girls in formal education and with particular regard to women's education, special effort will be made by Ministries and Local government authorities in conjunction with Ministries of Community Welfare and of Information, to encourage parents to send their daughters to school.

The particular form that such encouragement will take is not specified. This the government considers adequate because the 1979 Constitution provides in Section 18, paragraphs 1 and 3 that: equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels will be ensured; and that free education at all levels will be provided when practicable in order to eradicate illiteracy. While in the 1970's and early 1980's, education was free at all levels, the cutbacks in government spending that were instituted after the institution of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) affected Education as well as other policies. Twice as many girls as boys between the ages of 11 and 13 drop out to get married, especially in the North. Attempts are being made to encourage parents to keep children in school through legislation and positive inducements in the Northern states, where it is a criminal offence to remove a girl from school for marriage. These laws provide an additional guarantee on which lawsuits may be based. There seems therefore to be inadequate guarantee of equal access to education for women due to gaps in government policy, economic underdevelopment and customary constraints.

Equal employment opportunity and associated rights are provided for in Article 11 of the 1979 convention. The Nigerian Constitution of 1979 also provides that the government endeavor to ensure "equal pay for equal work without discrimination on account of sex or on any ground whatsoever." Nigerian women have a high level of participation in economic activity, but the commanding heights of both politics and the economy are still largely controlled by men. Thus, while women are represented in all the professions as well as in farming and trading, there is a concentration of men in the high levels of government as well as in the decision-making levels in the private sector. The problem with Nigeria in terms of equal employment opportunity therefore concerns under-representation in decision-making rather than non-representation. All women in the work-force face a double burden of work which tends to restrict their chances of upward mobility vis a vis men. Women are also discriminated against in the administration of laws on taxation, employment benefits and by some employers who consider men more stable for employment.

It is clear that the primary responsibility for domestic labor falls on women despite the provision that parents "share the same rights and responsibilities" by Article 16, 1, d, of the 1979 Covenant. Until men and women bear equal responsibility for household labor, women must of necessity have their rights to equal employment opportunity and their opportunity for upward mobility limited. The nature of this and other rights is to compile a list of desiderata. At the present time, most of the rights seem to be in the promotional stage probably because a great deal of social engineering is required for their realization and there are very few women in positions of authority from where meaningful decisions regarding the rights of women can be made. An additional problem is that women do not share a unity of interests, since human rights is bound to have different implications for starving than for affluent people. Class and sectional differences therefore may prevent the cooperative effort required by all women in order to gain the rights due to them. Another problem is that people have deep psychological ties to their culture and customs and "many women may prefer to live under those customs with which they are most familiar, even though the customs deny them personal freedom", as Howard argues. When these women choose to take concrete steps toward gaining their rights, they also have face some degree of social alienation. Education must therefore be directed at women as well as the whole society to foster the elimination of discrimination against women.

It has been argued that the personal right of women to exercise control over their bodies is limited also by female genital operations which in some cases create medical problems, including maternal and infant mortality, especially when combined with pregnancy at too early an age. These practices violate both Organization of African Unity, (OAU) and United Nations, (UN) principles on basic Human Rights. The Economic Commission for Africa also condemns them but rightly pinpoints the complexity of the situation. Considering the aforementioned role of culture in the lives of people, these and other abuses are only eradicable over the long-term. When women themselves find no use or rationale for these practices in their lives, they will disappear. Without such commitment by the women, efforts that are directed at eradication could prove to be fruitless. Another facet of the inability of women to exercise independent control over their bodies relates to the role of culture in the exercise of social control over individuals. Insofar as women as a group are in a subordinate position vis a vis men, one could in agreement with Howard, conceive of such control as directly beneficial to men economically, culturally and politically, with a caveat that women themselves share the thinking that these practices have some validity to their lives.

Conclusion: What is to be Done?

In terms of domestic protections, the problems militating against the elimination of discrimination against women include the persistence of a stereotyped definition of the role of women in society, cultural practices which deny women an opportunity to exercise any kind of meaningful self-determination, inadequacies in the quality of legal protections and the non-utilization of the few legal protections that there are to enhance women's rights qualitatively and quantitatively. More important is the fact that de jure guarantees do not necessarily imply de facto recognition.

Imam argues that the Nigerian social structure favors men vis a vis women, resulting in a process of exploitation which effectively subordinates women to men in all spheres of life. Since exploitation is structural, for it to be eliminated, structural change must occur. The most desirable form of change must be multi-dimensional in nature, incorporating changes in state policy in the area of legal protection as well as in social policy. In addition, power relations in the family must change. However, it is refreshing that more recent works are subjecting the argument of generalized male dominance in Nigerian society to close scrutiny. The emerging consensus is that more study has to be done to bring the examples that contradict the assumed generalized male dominance of Nigerian society to light.

Concrete steps toward changing the social structure must of necessity include mass organization among women which should be directed at surmounting class divisions among them. This is necessary for purposes of consciousness-raising, as well as for the development of a common front through which issues stressing women's priorities would be generated, promoted and introduced into the political debate. Since most discrimination is justified by references to culture, evidences of the positive role of women in pre-colonial Nigeria as compared with contemporary derogations can be presented and widely promoted as one strategy of countering negative stereotypes.

Despite Nigeria's gruelling economic crisis, the education of women must be made a matter of the utmost priority in order to enhance their ability to exercise self-determination in the control over their bodies and their ability to participate in the labor force as equals. Education must also include the rest of society which has to be apprized of the necessity for the promotion and protection of women's rights and the consequent benefits for the rest of society. A re-definition of the role of women within the family is also necessary. The involvement of more women in policymaking within the government at local, regional and federal levels must be further instituted and entrenched. Some steps have been taken in this direction by the Federal Government of Nigeria, which beginning under the Mohammed/Obasanjo administration, made the appointment of one woman in every decision making and consultative body mandatory. However, this smacks of tokenism. There must also be legal reforms for the purpose of enhancing the protection of the rights of women in Nigeria, and the equal application of administrative procedures in order remove present abuses.

Some of the problems limiting the elimination of discrimination against women also arise from the nature of the system established for the institutionalization of protections internationally. Some of these problems can be attributed to the relative newness of this body of rights and the institutionalized procedures for promoting and protecting them. The Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is the body vested with the authority to conduct investigations, reviews and evaluations of the performance of States Parties to the Convention. (Articles 17-20, 1979 Convention). Unfortunately, the Committee lacks adequate resources for the pursuit of practicalizing the legal guarantees within the Convention and receives inadequate cooperation from States Parties, which are in large part, slow in submitting reports. Moreover, several countries, including the United States have thus far, not ratified the Convention, or have introduced so many reservations as to make the Convention meaningless. In cases where the Convention has been ratified, mechanisms for self-enforcement are unavailable. International protections at this point in time are basically exhortatory in nature and do not carry the force of law.

An additional problem arises from the need for the Committee to coordinate and integrate its work with that of other UN organs dealing with women. One other problem with international guarantees is that states parties to the 1979 Convention are expected to introduce constitutional and legislative changes which give effect to its protections. Governments are then expected to make periodic reports on the progress made.(Art.2). Such self-policing leaves some room for abuses. Due to these and other problems, the Committee has been somewhat limited in its ability to live up to its potential. The same problems apply to regional protections. There is no doubt that the elimination of discrimination against women involves much more than legal protections and more resembles social engineering. It is obvious that activism among women, which has always been an important part of Nigerian life, must continue. In addition, there must be more cooperative action among women of all classes, and in all areas of Nigeria. Their guiding principle must be the one found already in some groups in the country--as long as some women still live under discriminatory conditions, all women are affected.

There must also be the fine-tuning of national, regional and international protections in order to remove elements of vagueness, combat inaccurate portrayals of women as well as provide more concrete enforcement mechanisms for more effective guarantee of the rights of women. These protections must be seen as building blocks in a constantly evolving process.


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This article was originally written in 1985.