The National President of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, Nigeria, Mrs Amina Agbaje, tells ALEXANDER OKERE why states should abrogate laws barring women and girls from inheriting their parents or husbands’ property
FIDA has been at the forefront of the fight for the right of women to inherit family property. What is your reaction to the Rivers State Prohibition of the Curtailment of Women’s Rights to share in Family Property Law No. 2 of 2022, recently signed by the state governor?
Let me reiterate FIDA Nigeria’s deepest gratitude to the Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, for his pragmatism and charismatic leadership in Rivers State for this giant achievement for not only women in his state but all over Nigeria. I say this for all women in Nigeria, not because the law has a national application but because it is a very good example for other governors in the country to emulate. As you are aware, the cultural practices in almost all parts of Nigeria disallow women from inheriting family property. As a girl child, she cannot inherit property from her deceased father and as a widow, she cannot inherit from her deceased husband. This is a huge discriminatory practice against women and girls in our country. This is one of the issues that FIDA Nigeria has been fighting against. Consequently, Governor Nyesom Wike has given us hope that one day, female being disinherited will be a thing of the past in our country.
The new law came years after the Supreme Court nullified the Igbo native law, barring women from inheriting their fathers’ estate. Will you say the Supreme Court is being adequately enforced?
The culture of patriarchy is still engraved in the country. Discrimination against women is still an issue in most states. Women need to rise up and put more effort into the push for legislation against female disinheritance in our country. The attitude of most of our leaders is to reinforce cultural values and practices, whether they are good or bad.
Do you foresee an easy implementation of the new law in Rivers, considering how exponents of the culture of patriarchy strongly hold onto it?
I do not envisage that it will be an easy ride with the implementation of the law in Rivers State because of the engraved patriarchy in the system. However, I must also say that a law is a law, whether anybody likes it or not. The law has come to abrogate the old practice and as FIDANs, we are celebrating Governor Wike for this wonderful parting gift to the women and people of Rivers State.
What should the state government do to ensure that the law is effective and does not gather dust?
To monitor implementation, I recommend that the law should be domiciled in one of the government agencies. Sensitisation around the law must be carried out. Where provisions of the law are breached, they should be tested in the law courts.
The government should also go further to simplify the law and if possible in Pidgin English and local languages for citizens to know that there is a new sheriff in town. A law is not beneficial to anyone until it is implemented.
What do women in Rivers stand to gain from the law?
Women stand to gain a lot from the law and its implementation. Women can now inherit property from their husbands and fathers. Women will no longer be treated as part of an inheritable property. Women, particularly widows, will no longer be treated badly upon the demise of their husbands. Women and children will be better protected upon the demise of their husbands or fathers. It is a great source of encouragement to women and girls particularly. At least, this is a restoration of women’s dignity in Rivers State.
How has FIDA been involved in breaking the patriarchal barrier against women?
As you are already aware, FIDA is all about struggling for the promotion, protection, and defence of the rights of indigent women and children. Our programmes all over the country and indeed nations where FIDA exists are geared towards our main mandates, some of which are creating awareness on the rights of women and children, speaking out against cultural practices that devastate women and children, where possible, and working hard to promote the promulgation of a legal framework for the protection of women and children. We are involved in mediation and or litigation where the rights of women and children are in jeopardy. We train and build the capacity for people to realise the devastating impact of patriarchal cultural barriers against women.
From your association’s involvement and findings, in which states is the culture of patriarchy prevalent, and how does it manifest?
I can on good authority confirm to you that there is no such state in Nigeria where the culture of patriarchy is not prevalent. Let me say that FIDA Nigeria has 44 branches in the country. The branches are battling with one form of cultural patriarchy or the other against women. The culture of patriarchy manifests itself through female disinheritance, lack of girl child education, lack of economic empowerment for women, lack of political participation for women, female genital mutilation, lack of a voice, that women should not talk; and early and forced marriage for the girl child; that a man can marry a girl child irrespective of her age. A man thinks and talks for the woman. Let me not begin to mention names of states that are doing poorly. This is for strategic reasons. But let me mention some states that are doing well rather. Rivers just passed the women’s inheritance law. Ekiti, Plateau, and a few others have gender and equal opportunity laws in their states. Others have also domesticated the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act. Most states have also domesticated the Child Rights Act. We shall get there by the grace of God.
Can you cite some of the pathetic cases of female disinheritance FIDA has handled or is handling?
Without mentioning the names of states, one reported case had it that a man and his wife died without a male child. They, however, had a daughter who was not married but remained in her father’s house. The surviving son of his brother went and threw the girl out, claiming that her father’s house was his property since her father died without a male child. FIDA took it up and secured a judgment for the girl in a law court on the grounds that the culture was against natural justice, equity, and good conscience.
Many examples abound.
Many state Houses of Assembly have female members. Are you aware of any bill sponsored by female lawmakers to end cultural discrimination?
I am happy to say that most of the few female lawmakers that we have in the country are doing well. The gender and equal opportunities bill that was passed into law in Plateau State was sponsored by a female lawmaker, Joyce Ramnap. The gender and equal opportunities bill that has suffered rejection at the Senate twice has been presented by our dear Senator Biodun Olujimi.
There are some gender-sensitive bills at different stages pending before the state Houses of Assembly. The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill; Child Rights Bill, and I believe that the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill will be represented before the Senate. As FIDANs, we are very hopeful that things will change for the better for women in Nigeria.
When you said leaders reinforced cultural values and practices whether they were good or bad, which categories of leaders were you referring to?
It is true that most times, leaders reinforce cultural values and practices that are not good for women. Take a careful look at the government and governance and you will find that male preference and dominance have hindered gender-sensitive policies and practices in governance. Members of the National Assembly need to do more in the protection of women’s and children’s rights. Traditional rulers need to do a lot to change some bad cultural practices.
Traditional rulers are the custodians of the custom of their domains. What role do you think they play in this issue?
Dogmatic attachment to cultural practices and beliefs about women and children, whether bad or good, is not right. Traditional rulers should begin to embrace only good cultural practices.
What role should they ideally play in modern society where the emphasis is placed on the need for equal rights?
Traditional rulers should be receptive to positive change. Culture ought to be dynamic.
They should be seen to be leaders who respect the law for the betterment of their communities. They should support equal rights and opportunities for their people.
In recent times, there has been an increase in cases of clergymen and fathers raping girls and their daughters, respectively. What does FIDA think about this menace?
Let me say that as an organisation, we have received reports and have handled cases where girls were raped by clergymen and their fathers. This indeed is very shameful for us as a country. Some of the factors responsible are moral decadence in our society, the vulnerability of our girls, a culture of silence, lack of arrest and prosecution of perpetrators to serve as a deterrent, lack of a legal framework to fight the menace, lack of implementation of the legal framework where the law exists.
What should be done to stem the menace?
Cases must be reported. We must all resolve against the culture of silence. The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, 2015 should be domesticated in all the states of the country. The provisions of the law must be implemented to bring perpetrators to book. As an organisation, we have hotlines that people can call to make reports. Wherever any form of rape or child molestation is taking place, it should be reported to the nearest police outpost. Parents and teachers should be very watchful of their wards. We will sustain the sensitisation against all these vices against women and children. We must all support prosecution to serve as a deterrent. Where rape has taken place, the victim or parents of the victim must not destroy evidence.
Who is to blame for moral decadence as a factor responsible for the spate of rape in Nigerian society? The perpetrators, the victims, their parents, or society?
It is indeed shameful, to say the least, that our society has gone this bad morally such that rape has now become so rampant. Society has a share in this blame, particularly the government, and its agencies charged with the responsibility of enforcing law and order. Perpetrators are the most to blame for this moral decay. I don’t think victims are to blame. I do not think anyone will invite criminality upon herself. Parents have some share in the blame because of the parental role they ought to play. Society has a share in the blame because, as a government, very little is done to bring perpetrators to book according to the laws of the land. Prosecution and conviction of perpetrators should serve as a deterrent. Women and girls are very vulnerable in Nigerian society. In conflict situations, they are the worst hit. They suffer a lot from sexual and gender-based violence. I say this as I remember some of the Chibok girls still in captivity and many others, as I also remember all rape victims. I dare say that women and girls are endangered species.
How worried are you about the culture of silence and why do you think it is a major problem limiting the fight against sexual violence?
The culture of silence about sexual and gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence, is our major problem in this country. FIDA Nigeria is deeply worried about this and that is why a lot of our programmes are geared towards creating awareness on the dangers of silence on any form of sexual and gender-based violence. The culture of silence is a major problem because it hides the problem while it continues to eat deep into the fabric of our society and perpetrators walk around freely and do it again and again without ever being brought to justice.
When you talk about the lack of a legal framework to fight rape, some will argue that there are laws. Are they not enough?
There are legal frameworks to fight rape in our country. We have a problem with the implementation of the laws. I think that the laws are enough except for states that have not passed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bills. Even then, in their penal laws, there is some form of provision except that the penalty may not be adequate. Implementation of the laws is key.
Some people propose stringent punishments like castration for anyone convicted of rape and defilement. Do you think that will deter others?
I agree that castration should be included in our laws as punishment for rape and defilement. I think that will serve as a deterrent.
Had you always wanted to become a lawyer as a child?
As a child, I had prayed to be a lawyer one day and God answered my prayers. Today I am proudly one. To God be all the glory. My inspiration is service to God and humanity. These have motivated me to work hard and I thank God that I am succeeding. My childhood days are full of sweet memories. I come from a humble but big family and so I grew up among cousins and relatives in a typical African setting that has left values, traditions, and legacies embedded in me that I still hold dearly. The most memorable event that changed my life view was when I discovered FIDA Nigeria and became a member over 27 years ago, recognising that it is my chosen platform to give back to society.
What form of discrimination do female lawyers face in the profession?
Female lawyers also face discrimination in the profession. Most clients will prefer to go to male lawyers to handle their cases. Young female lawyer-employees, particularly in private law firms, suffer in the area of case allocations. Female lawyers of child-bearing ages suffer some form of discrimination during pregnancies and breastfeeding. Female lawyers in such situations have always been encouraged to work hard, plan their time well, and seek FIDA’s intervention and legal intervention.