Women and the burden of cultural impunity

May 26, 2021
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AFRICAN women, including Nigerian women, have had to cope with the exploitation and suppression of patriarchy that are couched in culture and cultural precepts mainly because culture is also a reflection ultimately of the biases of those who hold the reins of power in the society. And with men in charge of the different African and Nigerian societies and communities, it has been easy for them to put up cultural structures and precepts that not only discriminate against women and girls, but treat them as less than equal human beings with dignity, often treating them with such disdain not deserving of full human beings. Women and girls are denied of their rights as human beings and are subjected to indignities under the cover of culture, with blatant discriminations packaged as cultural precepts. Imagine cultural requirement in some parts of Nigeria stipulating that wives could not inherit property from their husbands even after working together in the marriage to build up the properties. Or that girl-children are not in a position to inherit their fathers just because they are girl-children as the culture would stipulate boy-children as the only valid inheritors.

Yet, you would ask in vain how and why these cultural requirements came up beyond the fact that these were all cultural structures reflecting the desire of the patriarchal society to continue to hold women and girls down and not treat them as significant equal human beings with men and boys. For why would children of the same father – boys and girls – not equally have the right to inherit their father’s property outside of the discrimination of patriarchy? Unfortunately, these cultural impediments against women and girls do not just attempt to deny them of rights and dignities, but sometimes are sources of threat to life and good living for the women and girls as recently witnessed at Ogugu in Olamaboro Local Government Area of Kogi State. There one Blessing Abbah was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment by a gang of boys on the suspicion that she must have been responsible for the death of her husband, Goodnews Abbah. Blessing and her husband got married in October 2020 and after the marriage, the husband developed an illness that eventually took his life. But according to dictates of some cultural inquiry concerning the death of the husband, the conclusion was that the wife must have engaged in infidelity or some sacrilegious acts that must have resulted in the death of the husband.

Here, nobody was interested in the scientific report of the husband being diagnosed with hypertension and kidney problem, resulting in his being placed on dialysis. The husband’s family would not be satisfied with the scientific report, and insisted on going with the cultural explanation holding the woman responsible for the death of the husband. And the response was to have a gang of boys going to force Blessing out of her home, in kidnap fashion, to forcibly take her to the market place, and subject her to the ignominy of humiliation as an unfaithful wife responsible for the death of her husband. To be sure, the proponents of this cultural explanation and precepts are not going to provide verification for their assertion or provide inter-subjective evidence to justify such assertion. They would rather expect us to jettison scientific reports and accept their cultural concoctions. They are also unmindful of the reality of the modern world in which we live that is defined by rule of law, due process and the absence of impunity. As far as they are concerned, they are in a position to impose their unverified and unverifiable cultural claims on the rest of the society whether they like it or not.

Which is why those gang of boys at Ogugu would take the laws into their own hands and see nothing wrong in storming Blessing’s home to drag her out and forcibly subject her to public ridicule and humiliation on the basis of unproven cultural claims. This is the trend of cultural impunities that women and girls are subjected to in our society, with many of the women and girls powerless to do anything about such impunities. Mercifully, where other governments and civic authorities have been failing women and girls, the Kogi State government was different this time around, quickly wading into the issue and rescuing Blessing from the gang of abductors and the permissive environment in the town. The Kogi State Office of the Public Defender and Citizens’ Rights Commission (PDCRC) in conjunction and collaboration with the Kogi State Ministry of Women Affairs and the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Kogi State chapter recognised that the treatment meted out to Blessing was an attribute of cultural impunity which should not have a place in a society and community governed by law, and that those behind such impunity have to be called to order and made to pay for their unlawful act.

It is gratifying that the state government, through its concerned agencies, has not only rescued Blessing with a view to rehabilitating her, but has filed a petition with the police on the violation of the rights of Blessing such that the people involved could be apprehended and prosecuted to make them pay for their evil act. In truth, the persistence and pervasiveness of cultural impunity against women and girls across the country is largely because of the reluctance and inability of the agencies of modern government to stand up for the rule of law. There is no justifying cultural impunity in an environment of law and order if not for habitual connivance of governmental structures and even the society and the communities themselves in these acts.

We have enough laws and regulations in the society to prevent the recourse to cultural impunity if we all stand up for the laws and strive to protect women and girls from those who want to continue to exploit them through the instrumentality of culture. We have seen how the Supreme Court in Nigeria has helped to outlaw not allowing wives to inherit their husbands while also ruling that it is legitimate for girl-children to be part of inheritors of their fathers. The same way that the Kogi State government has shown the way that through decisive action by relevant government agencies, those enamoured of cultural impunities against women and girls could be stopped in their tracks and made to realise the foolishness and futility of their acts through imposition of penalties on them. Culture is a dynamic part of societal life and whatever part of culture that seeks to exploit women and girls, constituting half of the population, cannot be expected to continue in the face of our concerted efforts to see that women and girls are not made to suffer unnecessarily under the guise of culture. We must see the wisdom in the words of ChimamandaNgoziAdichie that, ‘culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.’ And as Johan Huizinga reminds us, ‘if we are to preserve culture, we must continue to create it,’ telling us about the responsibility to continually and continuously jettison any aspect of our culture that is not in consonance with development and respect for the dignity and rights of all as we strive to create new progressive additions to the culture. And one way to do this would be to learn from the positive example of the Kogi State government in resolving never again to allow agents and purveyors of cultural impunities to seek to continue to impose unnecessary burdens on women and girls in Nigeria using the avenue of culture.

  • Yakubu is of the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan,.

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