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Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination

Reasons Why You Should Support the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill
Oby Nwankwo
Executive Director, Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre (CIRDDOC) Nigeria and Expert, United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

The Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill is seeking to domesticate some aspects of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (known by its acronym CEDAW) and the African Union Protocol to the African Charter on Women’s Rights in Africa. CEDAW is an international standard-setting instrument that establishes the universality of the principle of equality of rights between men and women and makes provisions for measures to ensure equality of rights for women throughout the world. Very open in outlook, the Convention seeks to establish equality of rights for women, whatever their marital status, in all fields. The 30-article Convention reflects the depth of the exclusion and restriction practised against women solely on the basis of their sex by providing for the adoption at the national level of legislation prohibiting discrimination and recommending the adoption of special temporary measures to accelerate the establishment of de facto equality between men and women, including changing the paradigms and models of socio cultural behavior patterns that perpetuate discrimination.
Other measures provide for equal rights for women in political and public life, equal access to education and the same choice of curricula; non-discrimination in employment and pay; and guarantees of job security in the event of marriage and maternity. The Convention underlines the equal responsibilities of men with women in the context of family life. It also stresses the social services needed - especially child care facilities - for combining family obligations with work responsibilities and participation in public life. Additional articles of the Convention call for non-discriminatory health services to women, including services related to family planning; and a legal capacity identical to that of men, with States parties agreeing that all contracts and other private instruments that restrict the legal capacity of women "shall be deemed null and void". Special attention is given to the problem of rural women.
Critics of the Convention have argued that CEDAW is a subtle way of legalizing abortion through the back door. Usually, such people base their arguments on article 12 of the convention. Others have picked holes with article 16 on the grounds that it encroaches on our religious and cultural leanings or inclinations. This is very far from the truth. Rather, the underlying motivation of the Convention is to draw special attention to the disadvantages suffered by women over the years, and to seek specific priority measures to address the imbalances.
For ease of reference and clarity I reproduce below the provisions of Articles 12 and 16:
Article 12:
1. 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.
2. States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.
Critics have equated the right to family planning with the right to unimpeded access to legal abortion. What they have have not told the people is that the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD Programme of Action) 1994 (a United Nations document) provides clearly that under no circumstance will abortion be used as a method of family planning? Paragraph 8.25 of the ICPD, states clearly that "in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning". This means clearly that no one even the United Nations for that matter, is recommending abortion as a means of family planning.
It appears that people who argue along this line are happy that Nigerian women are dying in large numbers during pregnancy, childbirth and thereafter? Do they see something wrong in the fact that that government has not made health services available and accessible to women to reduce maternal mortality? There are several acceptable means of family planning which are in place to reduce incidences of unwanted pregnancy that leads to unsafe abortion. If these are strengthened and made free and women (particularly rural women and poor women) have access to them, there will be no need for abortion. This is what CEDAW seeks to achieve.
Is it fair that in the guise of culture, women do not have a say in the determination of the number, spacing and frequency of the children they bear? It has been established that having too many children and having them close to each other are some of the factors that increase maternal mortality and morbidity rates. It is the false assumption that a husband has every right over the body of his wife (having paid dowry) that leads to marital rape, which is becoming rampant in our society. Otherwise, in what way does "equal right to determine the number, spacing and frequency of children of the family" translate into unimpeded right to legal abortion? It beats my imagination that people import all sorts of interpretation into a document that does not intend any such thing. Yes, CEDAW postulates that male dominance and oppression should be eliminated but it does not say that lawful access to abortion is fundamental to achieving this, as the critics have postulated.
They also argue that the provisions of CEDAW are anti African values. The African Union Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa 2004, (a document that is purely and un-adulteratedly African), implored state parties "to strengthen legal mechanisms that will protect women and end impunity of crimes committed against women in a manner that will change and positively affect the attitude and behavior of the African society; and actively promote the implementation of legislation to guarantee women's land, property and inheritance rights including their rights to housing”. The Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa chaired by our own President Obasanjo guarantees respect and promotion of the right to health of women, including sexual and reproductive health.
The convention promotes equality of rights between the man and woman in deciding freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children. This means that the health of the woman including her mental health must be taken into consideration. Are people who are opposed to CEDAW happy that girls are discriminated against in many respects and given out in marriage when they are not ready for it physically and mentally? Are they enjoying the sight of increasing numbers of VVF patients arising from early marriages? These people are very protective of their own mothers, daughters and sisters but they marry other people's daughters at very tender ages. Is it fair that a woman who has the resources to purchase or own property is not able to do so in some parts of the country simply because she is a woman? Is it proper that a woman who spends her whole life with her husband and invests her energy and resources in the marriage is kicked out of the matrimonial home and property once the husband is no more? Is it acceptable that a woman with means is not allowed to take a relation on bail simply by reason of her sex and a man without means is preferred?
Do these people know that in civilised societies, maternity care is free especially for those who cannot afford to pay for the services? Do they know that corporate social responsibility requires companies to make such services available and provide them free of charge for their staff? Corporate bodies in Nigeria do not pay anti-natal and post natal bills of their staff. One of the reasons this happens is that there is no legal framework within which women can demand for these human rights and this is what the Gender and Equal Opportunities bill seeks to provide.
It is clear that many who argue along this line have not bothered to read the documents or they read them out of context and unsuspecting women whose lives have been endangered for so long in this country by discriminatory practices and government's nonchalant attitude and posture fall for this. The result is that any time bills that would improve the lives of women are brought up in the National Assembly, the women themselves carry placards to oppose them, and without finding out the truth. Surprisingly educated women are also guilty of this. Nigerian people especially women should know that the Gender and Equal Opportunities bill seeks to amplify the human rights of women, which the Nigerian Constitution in Chapter four fully recognises - the right to life, personal liberty and security of the person, freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, freedom from discrimination, etc. These rights are also contained in the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights - a document that Nigeria has incorporated into its domestic laws.
Culture, as a way of life of a people, embodies their attitudes, values, beliefs and life-styles. It is dynamic and should therefore reflect the current needs of people for meaningful and sustainable development. Aspects of our culture that inhibit the development of positive self-identity of women and their participation in society should begin to give way to progressive ones. In the past, women were home-makers and supporters of their husbands. With the new trend, women have become heads of many households and providers. Women work as hard as men and in some cases earn much higher than their husbands. Shouldn't our cultural patterns begin to change in the light of these developments?
Discrimination against women violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity and hampers the growth of the prosperity of society and the family. Discrimination makes more difficult the full development of the potentialities of women in the service of humanity. The great contribution of women to the welfare of the family and to the development of society is still not fully recognised. The social significance of maternity and the role of both parents in the family and in the upbringing of children are not appreciated. The convention recognises that the upbringing of children requires a sharing of responsibility between men and women and society as a whole and that a change in the traditional role of men as well as the role of women in society and in the family is needed to achieve full equality between men and women.
The bill seeks the replacement of all harmful practices, images, stereotypes, attitudes and prejudices against women. It seeks to dismantle patriarchy and its related practices which constitute major impediments to the full integration of women into decision making and the economy. It is all a matter of power relations and people go to any length to ensure that equality is not achieved to protect their selfish interests. This is not surprising because nowhere in the world have people relinquished power voluntarily or willingly. It is on account of male chauvinism and ignorance that Nigerian women have been denied their rights to life and sent to their graves prematurely. Women of Nigeria must say No to this oppression and rise in support of a bill that recognises their reproductive role and provides that special attention must be paid to it by government through investing funds to ensure that the role ceases to be life threatening.
My advice is that Nigerians should read and understand the documents, as it is always good to argue from the side of knowledge and the truth. This is a wake-up call for Nigeria to support the Gender and Equal Opportunities bill which is pending before the national Assembly and some states including Kaduna and Enugu states. The truth of the matter is that it is not an abortion bill as people have all along been deceived to believe.


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