Nigeria: The GEO Bill – Can Battle Lines Be Drawn Up?


The situation persists because women and girls have not harnessed any political capital.

If more of us understand how structural oppression of one group affects us all, we would collaborate more effectively to make the world fairer and ultimately safer for all. We need people in government who understand that until women and girls are given equal rights, opportunities and protection, especially in education and health, Nigeria will continue to struggle.

A week ago, as we celebrated the anti-sexism theories of bell hooks, who understood as black women do, the personal and collective loss of denying people their humanity, the Nigerian Senate was setting aside for the third time, a gender and equal opportunities bill. The bold and sexist reasoning provided by the Senate 14 months to the general election is an indication of at least two things: Women’s votes are not valued and Nigeria does not have the legislative leadership required to improve.

The denial of women’s full humanity is older than Nigeria’s most threatening challenges but the relationship between them is tightly woven. Three interconnected problems besieging the country today – insecurity, unemployment and poor governance – are tied to the well nurtured traditions of oppressing women and girls and denying them equal opportunities and protection in the name of culture and religion.

A little over a decade ago, as Boko Haram morphed from being a group of men disgruntled with the vices of the power class, to a terrorist cell, a 2010 UNDP report on human development described Sub-Saharan Africa as having the highest incidence of multidimensional poverty. West African countries such as Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger were the worst, with Nigeria not far behind, ranked at 142 out of 169 countries. 10 years later, Nigeria has dropped three places.

Efforts to dilute and compliment government machoism with the recommended 35 per cent women in the legislature, required to promote more gender balanced law and policy making, have not been effective. The highest ratio of women in the National Assembly since 1999 has been 7.6 per cent, between 2007 and 2011. Today, it is 4 per cent. The lack of adequate representation and a strategic nation-building capacity is why it took over a decade to pass the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) act.

Research has established the connection between girl education, forced child marriages and Nigeria’s birth rate of 5.3 children per woman. This translates to five million births – the total population of Palestine – added to our population each year; in two to three decades, estimates are that Nigeria’s population will be third only to China and India. 33.3 per cent of Nigeria’s labour force is unemployed. This means every day, 26,600,000 Nigerians – more than the entire population of Cote d’Ivoire – wake up with nothing to do. People will eat, one way or another, and the six million small arms and light weapons that are reported to be in circulation will get them their daily bread.

Nigeria’s government is male dominated and oriented, paternalistic and largely ineffective on human development and safety. The ready army of unemployed and unemployable youth are from the cohort of out-of-school children, one of the highest rates in the world. Those aged 12-18, who were out of school in 2015, are now 18-24 and in fine crime form and the children out of school today, displaced by a mix of the pandemic, poverty and insecurity, will be ready to surge in 2028. It is an indication of a lack of capacity to govern that the executive and legislators do not realise that there is no sustainable military solution to Boko Haram and privatised violence. The pacification of terrorists, bandits, kidnappers, SARS and armed robbers might be the easiest part. The difficult part will be building an economically and socially equitable society that will keep them, and the millions coming into adulthood each year, away from trading in violence.

Efforts to dilute and compliment government machoism with the recommended 35 per cent women in the legislature, required to promote more gender balanced law and policy making, have not been effective. The highest ratio of women in the National Assembly since 1999 has been 7.6 per cent, between 2007 and 2011. Today, it is 4 per cent. The lack of adequate representation and a strategic nation-building capacity is why it took over a decade to pass the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) act. Six years later, the same ilk can impose their personal beliefs and culture on a country of 200 million individuals.

Nigeria ranks 27th out of 53 African countries on the World Bank’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index and if legislators have given any thought to sustainably addressing the complex challenges, they would know that by ensuring that girls are educated and remain unmarried until the age of 18, we can disrupt the disastrous conflation of jobless youth, unchecked population growth, exploding insecurity and collapse of governance.

The situation persists because women and girls have not harnessed any political capital. The disinterest of the leading opposition party to make political hay from the rejection of the GEO Bill by the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led Senate is telling, especially since the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) incorporated the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women in its party constitution. Despite being the party of the president who signed VAPP into law and had the highest number of women in cabinet, not even the national woman leader has issued a statement distancing PDP from December 15. Soon the parties will begin to campaign as progressives and advocates for empowered (but not equal) women. They will expect women to be swayed by election incentives – free party forms and deputy governor positions – that are largely ceremonial. In the name of pragmatism, women will accept, arguing that they must remain nourished for the struggle but this argument wears thin in the face of data on the declining political, social and economic wellbeing of women.