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Failure to pass equality bill betrays Nigerian women, activists say

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women’s rights activists condemned the Nigerian Senate on Thursday for rejecting a gender and equality law that pledged to eliminate discrimination in politics, education and employment, protect women’s land rights and tackle violence against women.

The Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill was thrown out on Tuesday after several lawmakers opposed it on religious grounds.

Some quoted the Bible while others said the bill defied sharia, which is recognized by the constitution in Nigeria - home to the world’s largest equal mix of Christians and Muslims.

Activists said the dismissal of the bill demonstrated that the government was ignoring the dangers facing Nigerian women, ranging from sexual assault and abduction to forced marriages.

“Nigeria’s Senators showed they simply do not grasp the degrading and discriminatory treatment that many of this country’s women face on a daily basis,” said Mausi Segun, Nigeria Researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The opposition to the bill for religious and cultural reasons not only denies women their rights, but reinforces attitudes that fuel abuse and discrimination, Segun added.

The bill set out equality for women in marriage and divorce and inheritance rights for girls and widows - stating that they should not face “inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment”.

The rejected bill also called for women to be able to participate in politics without any restrictions or barriers - in a country where only seven of the 109 senators are women.

ActionAid’s country director Ojobo Ode Atuluku lamented the “chauvinistic utterances” of some of the male senators.

One of the senators who opposed the bill was 55-year-old Ahmed Yerima, a former governor of the northern state of Zamfara. Reports of his marriage to an underage Egyptian girl sparked protests in 2010.

“Parliamentarians to whom women extended massive electoral support are already reneging from their campaign promises to lift girls and women out of violence and discrimination,” said Saudatu Mahdi of the Abuja-based Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative.

“Politicians recognize the importance of women in Nigeria only during elections,” said Helen Okon, founder of the Abuja-based Organised Minds for the Empowerment of Global Gender Initiatives. “They see Nigerian women as people to be used.”

Several activists questioned why Nigeria had ratified the Maputo Protocol, an international treaty on women’s rights, and the African Union Women’s Rights Framework, if the country was not prepared to enshrine women’s rights at a national level.

“We truly still have a long way to go,” said Nigerian human rights activist Bukky Shonibare.