By Kayode Ketefe
This piece is conceived as a sequel to my last week theme on the policy of the Senate retaining the provision that encourages child marriage in the constitution. The hullabaloo that is generated by the refusal of the Senate to excise the offensive section 29 (4) (b) from our grundnorm is still reverberating through the length and breadth of the country and Senate itself has shamefacedly said it would revisit its earlier unpopular stance on the issue.
What I however discovered is that many people expressed shock that a provision like section 29 (4) (b) which indirectly encourages child marriage has been lurking safely all this while in the 1999 Constitution. They had been under the misconception that the whole noise about child marriage as reported in the media has to do with a new bill being sponsored specifically to support child marriage and not just about controversy over an amendment of a pre-existing constitutional provision.
In the light of the foregoing therefore, what I intend to do in this piece is to highlight still other areas in the 1999 Constitution, which like the child marriage issue, are gender- biased. After all, a good constitution should safeguard the interests of all the people in the country and leave no room for unfair discrimination against any person institution.
To start with, one may say the discrimination against women under the present constitution began from the process of making the constitution itself. An ideal constitution should have inputs of every shade of public opinion, every segment of the society and every sphere of distinct natural or convectional divides that constitute the eclectic mix of the country.
Unfortunately, the 1999 constitution was made without the inputs of women who constitute about half the population of Nigeria. The 1999 constitution was made by Constitutional Debating Committee comprising 25 members headed by Justice Niki Tobi, which was set up by General Abdusalami Abubakar on November 11, 1998.The committee did not make adequate consultations with all segments of peoples and shades of opinions required in a country as complex as Nigeria.
The draft constitution itself was promulgated into law by the Provisional Ruling Council comprising 26 military officers-all of them male.
Therefore, as we embark on another processes of constitutional amendment we must start making amend by making women part of the process from the outset.
Now regarding the specific provisions of the constitution itself, Section 26 of the 1999 constitution introduces a very palpable discrimination against women on spouse’s right to Nigerian citizenship.
Under that section, a foreign woman married to a Nigerian man is eligible to Nigerian citizenship by registration but the section fails to make the same right available to a foreign man who married a Nigerian woman.
This is classical case of discrimination that is at variance with section 42 of the constitution which provides right to freedom from discrimination on the bases of SEX, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation etc. when you combine that with the section 29 we have been talking about, it would appear as if the discrimination is not just an oversight but deliberate. One may also cite the language of the constitution itself which obviously is gender-biased.
There is inordinate use of male pronouns like “He” “His” and “Him” to the total exclusion of female pronouns. The male pronouns appear about 253 times in the 1999 constitution. While this may appear innocuous especially in the light of the Interpretation Act which makes all male pronouns used in statutes applicable to women as well, yet the fact still remains that most modern constitutions (e.g. South Africa) have moved away from the patriarchal mentality of using exclusive male pronouns in the constitution to the gender neutral of using ” a person” instead of “he” or to the gender-sensitive of using “He or She” instead of exclusive use of “he”.
An example of subtle disadvantages suffered by women is afforded by section 131 of the constitution which makes provisions on the qualification to the office of the President of Nigeria. In that section alone the word “He” is used four times. If no other thing, there is some sort of psychological suggestion inherent in this; as if it is only a male that is fit or expected to occupy that office.
Furthermore, the 1999 constitution, apart from making a general provision forbidding discrimination against any person on the bases of sex and other factors, completely shies away from making gender-specific provisions to protect women from discrimination.
Given the nature and scope of abuse of women right in the country, this almost amounts to a criminal omission. An example of such specific provisions is contained under section 3  of the Ugandan constitution which provides “Women shall be accorded full and equal dignity of the person with men, while subsection 4 provides “Women shall have the right to equal treatment with men and that right shall include equal opportunities in political economic and social activities”.
We would do well to include such specific provisions in our own constitution too.
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