Patriarchy is interwoven with the very fibre of Nigerian society. The predominance of the belief that man is supreme and woman subordinate is evident so much so that it has tainted every aspect of our lives including our legislation.
Culture, tradition and religion are a prominent part of what makes Nigerians, Nigerians. It also informs every aspect of our lives. It is not uncommon to see mere beliefs and biases of the people incorporated into law.
Women are seen as mere extensions of the men around them, and as secondary human beings subject to the control of the patriarchy they are embedded in as can be seen in the areas of Nigerian law that will be the focus of this discourse.
Child marriage laws
In the Nigerian society, women are believed to belong to their fathers, and then to their husbands. It is common to see women married off without their consent as long as their father’s consent is given to the proposed groom, regardless of the age of the bride or unwillingness to marry.
Culture, however, is not the focal point of this essay; the point is to illuminate how the Nigerian legislation turns a blind eye to the oppression and subjugation of women, and in some cases, even enables it.
Child marriage is not uncommon in Nigeria. And the unfortunate thing is, it is not rightly viewed as a crime because children whose counterparts are just starting middle school in other countries are of the legal age of consent in Nigeria.
As of 2017, in Nigeria, 43% of girls were married before age 18, 17% married before they turned 15. Senator Yerima, a representative of the government, married a 13-year-old child and was audacious enough to defend his action, facing no legal consequences.
The Nigerian Constitution does not outrightly establish a minimum age of marriage and, like many other aspects of Nigerian law, there is no uniformity of law throughout the country. The Child Rights Act, passed in 2003, sets the legal age of marriage at 18 years old; however, only 23 of the 36 states in Nigeria have begun to ratify and implement the prescribed minimum age of marriage.
For years, millions of Nigerian girls have been raised to believe that their sole purpose in life is to marry, serve their husbands and bear children.
Section 23 of The Constitution of The Federal Republic of Nigeria says; “A person under the age of 18 is incapable of contracting a valid marriage.” If such a marriage does take place, it should be declared null and void and of no effect.”
Contrarily, Section 29(4b) of the same constitution technically approves child marriage. It says: “This is by its provision that any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.” Many paedophiles have gladly exploited this careless ambiguity. Imagine being able to rest on the crutches of the law to perpetrate such evil.
In 2014, fourteen-year-old Wasila Umaru made headlines worldwide after poisoning her 35-year-old husband and his three friends to death. Wasila was arrested and imprisoned. Organisations that prioritise the wellbeing of women and children had to lobby for Wasila to be tried in a juvenile court as a child rather than as an adult as was intended.
The youthful innocence and joy are stolen from these girls to satisfy the perversions of older men and to fulfil the selfish desires of parents living vicariously through their children. Nigerian legislation does nothing to protect and fight for these girls.
Inheritance laws (of wives and female children)
Though the law does not outrightly espouse the cultural position on women’s inheritance rights, judicial precedents show its leanings. Customary law (which is applicable in different parts of Nigeria) is a direct reflection of the norms of this domicile of applicability.
In Igbo and Yoruba culture, women are considered ineligible for inheritance and in some instances, the court has furthered these practices seen in the cases of Ejiamike v Ejiamike and Suberu v Sunmonu.
Read more on inheritance laws here:
Citizenship laws regarding married women
As is the case in most countries, when a person gets married to another person of a different nationality (be it man or woman), if either party wishes to adopt the citizenship of the other, it is made possible through marriage.
For example, if an American man marries an English woman, the man may choose to become English and the woman may choose to become American under the citizenship laws of those countries through registration.
However, Nigerian law only extends this privilege to Nigerian men marrying foreign women and not Nigerian women marrying foreign men. Needless to say, this is baseless and rooted in misogyny.
Nigeria’s pro-life stance
As a country, the Nigerian law has leanings towards the pro-life stance that posits that foetuses are living beings from conception and as such, should be protected. Abortions are only permissible when the mother’s life is at risk and even so, with the husband’s consent. This stance disregards the bodily autonomy of women and imposes childbirth on them. There is typically no consideration for the mother or child after the birth.
Though by law abortions are illegal, sex-selective abortion and generally unsafe abortions still take place every day. This law only serves to make safe abortions largely inaccessible, leading to abortion-related complications and increased mortality rates.
The age-long notion that women are subordinate and inferior to men can not be destroyed in one fell swoop, it will take time and deliberate effort to overhaul the narrative.
The country must protect its citizens through its legislation and Nigeria so far has failed women in this charge. Cultures and traditions which further this narrative will evolve, albeit slowly; however, we can not sit and wait for that to happen while we do nothing.
Lawmakers and the government need to do better in protecting and guaranteeing the rights of women who should be seen as and ARE equal to their male counterparts.