Women?s rights activists are lobbying Nigeria?s National Assembly to formalize women?s rights in the constitution. They want the assembly to incorporate the UN?s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. Their effort comes in advance of International Women?s Day (March 8, 2008) Voice of America English to Africa Service Reporter Isiyaku Ahmed in Abuja says at Nigeria?s National Assembly, women?s rights activists have come to lobby about an issue that is dear to their hearts: passage of the Convention.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted CEDAW in 1979, but it has not yet been made law in Nigeria.

Some legislators object to parts of the convention, like articles 10, 12 and 14. They urge an end to discrimination against women in health care and family services and include a provision making information on birth control available to those who want it. Critics of the women?s rights convention, CEDAW, cite those and other articles, which refer to protecting a woman?s ?bodily integrity.? They say the concept could lead to the legalization of abortion.

Muslims say the convention reflects Western views of women?s rights, which violate Islam. Some Muslim leaders do not like references to equality for women. Many believe men and women have different roles in society, including in work, and don?t want to see those roles change.

Supporters of CEDAW disagree. They say the political and economic rights of women of all religions should be protected and that the convention does not encourage abortion rights. Nigerian women already have access to family planning, which supporters say helps avoid abortions. But over 54,000 women die in Nigeria every year during pregnancy or childbirth because of inadequate access to health care.

Charity Ibeawuchi is a senior program advisor on reproductive health issues with the NGO called Enabling HIV/AIDS and Social Sector Environment, or ENHANSE. The organization helps the federal government develop legislation and policies. CEDAW is one of the bills supported by ENHANSE that has been introduced to the National Assembly.

Ibeawuchi says women activists are doing a lot of lobbying for it, ?The agenda now which I know is being driven by government is towards developing appropriate strategies that will impact on the well being of women and children.?

The bill in support of CEDAW includes a national gender policy describing how government and businesses should treat women.

Ibeawuchi says because CEDAW can not be accepted by legislators as it is written, women activists are working to introduce parts of it that apply, for example, to improving health of women and children. She says those protections are included in a separate piece of legislation, called The Health Bill, ?The bill proposes free medical care for pregnant women at delivery and post delivery and for children up to the age of five years. So that bill is an important legislation for the well being of women and children.?

While CEDAW focuses on the removal of any forms of discrimination against women and girls, the Health Bill provides for the general health of all Nigerians, like free health care services for both men and women.

Ibeawuchi says Nigerian women need both laws, CEDAW and The Health Bill, ?The Health Act and CEDAW need to be looked at and considered even if it means removing some of those controversial articles. We need a law that will help to protect the rights and well being of women.?

Ejiro Joyce Otive-Igbuzor is country director at the Center for Development and Population Activities in Nigeria. She says international covenants or treaties can indeed be changed to better reflect a country?s cultural norms and values.

?If people are too afraid of a certain clause in CEDAW, why do we throw away the baby with the bath water? Why don?t we sit down and say, ?Okay, we are not comfortable with these particular statements so we (should) domesticate the rest of the document because it protects women against sexual harassment, against abuse, and creates access to education? Why don?t we domesticate [this or that] provision minus X,Y,Z [controversial aspects], and we continue to debate X,Y,Z until we come to an agreement

Oyefunso Orenuga is the acting executive director of the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices in Nigeria. She says Nigeria already has many good policies and laws. She favors bringing CEDAW more in line with Nigerian values.  But she says the issue is not only to approve CEDAW, but to be sure it and other pro-women laws are actually implemented. 

?How do we enforce these legislations? Maybe the law enforcement agents will help us with the answers, but government has to put policy in place and enforce and make sure that these policies are implemented to the letter. Not just putting things on paper. We have a lot of policies, on gender, maternal mortality, even on FGM [Female Genital Mutilation].?

Nigeria has already adopted the National Gender Policy and the African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. For the women activists at the National Assembly, the agenda goes beyond encouraging signing international treaties and making policies. They say they want to be sure that what is signed is carried out so positive changes for women are not just on paper.