When Rights Slip Through the Cracks of Culture: Women’s Rights and Justice in Nigeria—Or Lack Thereof

When Rights Slip Through the Cracks of Culture: Women’s Rights and Justice in Nigeria—Or Lack Thereof

. 7 min read

In 2013, Nigerian senator Ahmad Sani Yermina was accused of having married a thirteen-year-old girl in 2009. Reportedly, Yermina then blocked attempts to modernize the Nigerian constitution; he, along with the majority of the Nigerian Senate, voted to keep a law that treated married girls, regardless of age, as adults when it came to the right to renounce their citizenship. Critics, such as Toyin Saraki—the founder of Wellbeing Foundation Africa, an NGO dedicated to the health of women, infants, and children—said that the clause “implicity endorses child marriage.” While child marriage was explicitly prohibited under the Childs Rights Act, opponents contended that the law gave “special status” to “girls who are brides,” in an attempt to “construe them as adults.”

Nearly ten years later, in May 2022, Yerima stood as a presidential hopeful, and when pressed about his alleged marriage to an underage girl, he defended his actions—according to Yermina, “there is no law in Nigeria that determines when and how you get married.” At one point, citing religion to defend himself, Yermina went on to say: “if I had done anything wrong, I would have been tried in court.” He claimed that the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons “dropped the matter because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

In Nigeria, local customs obstruct justice and exacerbate child marriage, denying women access to rights supposedly guaranteed to them. The Nigerian case exposes social and legal dynamics evident elsewhere, for there are many countries in which cultural and religious forces coalesce to prevent the full enforcement of constitutional and legislated law.

Women’s Right to Property Upheld De Jure and Denied De Facto

Matters of inheritance are one context in which the law and culture clash—in Southern Nigeria especially, women are typically passed over. Onyinye Igwe of Nigeria’s Anambra state experienced this form of inequality firsthand. She and her five sisters were ignored in favor of three male relatives when her father died. No longer able to afford university, Igwe dropped out and began a small business selling cooked noodles to survive. Her brother, who inherited their father’s house, explained that “fighting for inheritance in your father's house is just like fighting for [a] double portion, because when you [women] get from your father's house, definitely you will get from your husband's house.”

Despite the cultural framework in place, women have risen to challenge these customs. On April 14, 2014, the Nigerian Supreme Court ruled unanimously to put to rest a decades-long case over the constitutionality of Igbo customary law, which excluded female children from inheriting their fathers’ property. Beginning in 1981, Gladys Ada Ukeje sued her stepmother and stepbrother over her removal from the line of inheritance based on local custom; the case was appealed in two lower courts before the Supreme Court ultimately upheld their decision, declaring the practices unconstitutional.

However, disparities continue despite this ruling: in October 2020, sources reported the disinheritance of widows in the Nigerian area commonly called the Igbo homeland. Local leader Igwe Cassidy Eze, the traditional ruler of Breme Community, openly supports the favoring of men in inheritance battles, and he believes that this practice is unlikely to change in the near future. Eze said, “Whatever a man had when he was alive belongs to the male children. You don’t have to include a girl-child in your property while you are alive sharing it.” Instead, women could come to inherit property through the “goodwill” of male relatives. Another traditional ruler of a community in Anambra State, Igwe Joel Egwuonwu, stated that “in Igboland, girls don’t inherit their father’s estate.”

In the case of inheritance—although the constitution has spoken and the courts have upheld it—enforcement remains largely impossible due to cultural beliefs. Until sentiments shift, women in this region of Nigeria will be denied their right to inherit property.

A War on Women’s Health

A confluence of public health crises continues to harm Nigerian women. In 2013, Nigeria suffered 14 percent of maternal mortality cases worldwide; as of 2012, it reported a rate of 33 unsafe abortions per 1000 women of reproductive age, with young, uneducated, rural, and poor women more likely to have unsafe abortions compared to their educated and urban counterparts. Currently, Nigeria also fights the second-largest HIV epidemic in the world, with women constituting more than half of all victims.

According to a 2019 study using 2013 public health data, religious laws, the ethical and moral teaching of religion, and customary laws—which are general practices accepted as law, albeit not enshrined legally—worsen these women’s health outcomes in certain states compared to in states without these laws. Ethnic practices vary by region, and Islamic law is codified in many northern states. As of 2013, women in states with customary and religious laws were less likely to receive antenatal care, less likely to use contraception of any kind—four percent compared to 26.4 percent in states without these laws—less likely to deliver in a facility, more likely to have more children, and more likely to start having children at a younger age. Conflict persists between federal and international law and the local laws actually practiced: for example, Nigeria’s Child Rights Act established a marriage age of 18 for both sexes. However, some states circumvent national legislation and set their own marriage ages, which may be by the “age of puberty” or as young as nine years old.

Abortion is another arena in which local resistance has undermined top-down progressive policies. In Nigeria, abortion is widely banned, and even efforts to elucidate the laws surrounding it have met swift backlash. In 2022, Lagos State developed a policy document to guide healthcare professionals through lawful termination. Explaining the need for this document, Permanent Secretary of the Lagos State Ministry of Health Olusegun Ogboye stated that though the Lagos State House updated the criminal code in 2011 to “provid[e] for abortion to save the life and protect the physical health of the woman,” abortion services “conforming to the law have not been available in Lagos State health sector” due to a lack of clear guidelines. However, religious leaders quickly rejected the abortion guidelines, with some—including the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Most Rev. Adewale Martins—claiming that not all stakeholders had been consulted during the documents’ creation. Given these criticisms, the guidelines were suspended until further notice.

A Culture of Violence

Violence against women is another critical area in which the cultural, religious, and legal realms clash. In cases of domestic violence, rape, and assaults, legal protections lag for women turning to the law for protection. Although the Nigerian police force has the Family Support unit to combat domestic violence, a 2020 report found that these units were often under-resourced and under-trained when compared to units like anti-robbery and counter-terrorism. Police officers were found to be unwelcoming and unfriendly and, in some instances, insulted and mocked victims. Of all victims who filed reports, 40 percent abandoned their cases after initial reports, with many citing police hostility as the reason for this decision. The 2020 report also described the role of the “masculinized” culture of the police force, which emphasizes values of “vigor, perseverance, strength, discipline, toughness, braveness, and assertiveness” and centers training around “parade, fatigue, bodybuilding, jungle training, early morning rising, lecture, and handling of guns,” as opposed to instruction on how to interact with victims of domestic violence. While the policing structure necessary to protect women from violence theoretically exists, a patriarchal culture again prevents full adherence to the law; due process is prevented as the culture of the police force persuades women to drop their cases.

In cases of rape and assault, the predicament is similar. Both law enforcement and the judicial system often work in tandem to dissuade women from reporting. When they do report, convictions rarely come. For example, in 2017, while the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics reported 2,279 rape and indecent assault cases, only a few resulted in a conviction. This meager punishment of perpetrators clashes with the reality that three in ten Nigerian women report knowing a rape victim. According to Sahara Reporters, victims were subject to ridicule from their neighbors, slow court processions, and a culture of inaction from police, who repeatedly released the alleged perpetrators without ever pressing charges. Other women reported financial hurdles—Maimuna Alayi of the Niasarawa state in northern Nigeria was forced to stop advocating for her infant daughter, an assault victim, when she ran out of money to pursue the case. Alayi then stated, “Everything involves money. So, let the case go.” Another woman, Victoria Philip of Kaduna, whose four-year-old daughter was assaulted outside their house, reported that a police inspector “asked [her] to provide money for transport for arrest and as well to find out where the boy now stays.” The inspector later denied this charge.

Worse even are the cases where cultural and religious norms punish women for being victims of rape and assault: a report by UN Women detailed the case of a thirteen-year-old girl prosecuted for adultery after becoming pregnant after her attack. She was charged under Sharia Law, a religious legal system prevalent in parts of Northern Nigeria. Fortunately, the magistrate referred her to a pro-bono lawyer, who was able to advocate for the alleged perpetrator’s arrest.

Where Justice Stands Today

Today, Nigeria is experiencing a wave of women’s activism. In March 2022, women’s rights advocates celebrated the lower legislative chamber partially rescinding its decision to throw out five gender-equality bills that, in part, proposed “the creation of one additional senatorial seat in each state of the federation and Abuja” and “two new federal constituency seats in each state and Abuja,” both to be reserved for women. While these sections of the bills did not survive, a bill to “expand the scope of citizenship by registration, affirmative action for women in political party administration and provision for criteria to be an indigene of a state in Nigeria” did.

Yet, the victory does not overshadow the harsh reality of womanhood in Nigeria. With a new administration on the horizon, eyes turn to President-elect Bola Tinubu for his opinions on women’s rights and justice. His wife, Senator Oluremi, who has been prominent in the campaign, promised a greater level of women and youth empowerment at a party event in January. She stated that the administration had a goal of “at least 35 percent female representation at all levels of government,” citing “the need to institutionalize female inclusion and representation in politics and governance.” However, Tinubu’s own election was marred by charges of corruption and rigging, while the election cycle itself calls into question his ability to unite the country on a number of issues, women’s rights included. Therefore, while women continue to advocate for their own justice—increasingly helped by digital platforms—change and guidance on a federal level seem uncertain and talk less of rapid cultural change.

Lessons from Nigeria

On paper, the rights of Nigerian women have been bolstered, as legislation has sought to break down barriers to property inheritance, abolish the institution of child marriage, and protect women from violence. However, rights on paper do not translate to rights in practice; in the Nigerian case, these laws are actively thwarted by religion and local customs and therefore lack the enforcement power to safeguard women’s rights. Therefore, injustice persists. In the broader, global context, rights can be eroded in the same manner. The Nigerian example is a warning: a right that is not enforced is a right that cannot be practiced—a right that effectively does not exist at all.