Academic journal article Gender & Behaviour

Harmful Cultural Practices and Gender Equality in Nigeria

Academic journal article Gender & Behaviour

Harmful Cultural Practices and Gender Equality in Nigeria

Article excerpt

For many years the issue of gender equality has continued to generate interest across the world. While it is generally agreed that human rights apply to all human beings regardless of gender, in reality women's fundamental rights and freedoms have been limited by patriarchal tradition (UN, 2009). The situation is even worse in many African societies where cultural and religious practices tend to assign different roles to men and women. In most cases, cultural practices often render women invisible and subservient to their male counterparts (Teriy, 2007). This in turn makes it difficult for women to participate in political and economic activities and live a productive life (Metcalfe, 2011). Hence, while men continue to dominate political activities and enjoy economic power, women are relegated to the roles of homemakers and childbearers and are predominantly engaged in menial jobs such as farming (Eboh, 1997; Tamale, 2004; Ssenyenjo, 2007; Cornwall et al., 2007). It is now recognised internationally that promoting gender equality is an important development strategy for combating poverty and ill health in society. Indeed, one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (goal no. 3) is to realise gender equality by 2015 (UN, 2000).

The adoption of an appropriate policy and legal framework can help to address gender inequality and improve the status of women in society. Such a policy should aim to empower women (Sen and Batliwala, 2000). Although the Constitution of Nigeria contains provisions prohibiting discrimination on various grounds including sex, religion or political beliefs, some cultural and religious practices continue to discriminate against women and undermine their fundamental rights and freedoms. In different parts of the countiy harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, male preference, early marriage and wife inheritance continue to fuel gender inequality and pose threats to women's exerciseof their fundamental rights.

Against this backdrop, this article discusses how cultural practices may impair women's fundamental rights, particularly the rights to nondiscrimination and equality guaranteed in numerous international and regional human rights instruments. More specifically, the article discusses three main cultural practices: son preference, primogeniture system and burial rites, and their implications for women's fundamental rights and freedoms in Nigeria. It analyses the conflict that may exist in adhering to cultural practices and in promoting women's fundamental rights to equality in a plural society like Nigeria. It further examines the legal and structural framework for addressing gender equality in the countiy and makes some suggestions for the way forward. It concludes by urging the Nigerian government to take more decisive measures in eliminating harmful cultural practices against women in line with its obligations under international law.

Understanding Culture

Geertz (1973) defined culture as a 'historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men [and women] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.' Culture can be distinguished from customaiy law, but the latter is nevertheless a legal expression of customaiy norms and values (Bond, 2010). Generally, culture represents the ways and means of living of a particular people. It more or less symbolises the totality of the existence of a group of people. To that extent, and contraiy to views of Western commentators, culture is a positive manifestation of people's norms and values. Indeed, Tamale (2008) has argued that African cultural practices and norms are essential for cohesion and for upholding moral values in society.

Despite these positive aspects of culture, however, it is not in contention that some cultural practices are harmful and inimical to the enjoyment of women's fundamental rights and freedoms. …

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