Saturday, June 20, 2009

Passports issuance and the rights of married women

THE ruling of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt denouncing the policy that required married women to produce their husband's consent before they could be issued international passports is a major victory for Nigerian women. This is a landmark judicial pronouncement, even if all it does is to affirm extant provisions of the constitution regarding equal rights and non-discrimination. It is more instructive that the policy has gone unchallenged for decades until now.

In view of the unambiguous statement of the court emphasising the equality of persons, and forbidding discrimination on the grounds of sex or on any other ground, it is imperative that the authorities concerned immediately give effect to the judgement. This should start with giving appropriate relief to the complainant in the matter, as well as all other female applicants to whom the obnoxious policy previously applied.

The policy in issue is an administrative one employed by the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) to compel a married Nigerian woman to produce a letter of consent from her husband as a condition for issuing her an international passport. Justice G.K. Olotu has now declared the policy unconstitutional, stressing that this kind of policy has no place in 21st century Nigeria.

It became a matter of dispute when Dr. Priye Iyalla-Amadi, wife of renowned author, Elechi Amadi applied to the NIS for a passport and was given a list of documents she was required to submit with her application. One of these is a letter of consent from her husband to which she objected, insisting that as an adult, she should not require anyone's consent to obtain the Nigerian passport.

When her protest was ignored, she filed the suit against the NIS and its Director General. The court held that the requirement offends the equality of citizen's principle enshrined in section 17 (I) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution, as all citizens are put on the same pedestal irrespective of sex and status. The court also agreed with the complainant that the policy discriminates between Nigerian citizens on the grounds of sex, contrary to section 42 of the Constitution.

According to Justice Olotu, the policy is obnoxious, repugnant and unconstitutional, and the defence of the defendant merely showed the policy as a "cunning, surreptitious and high-powered, calculated attempt to subjugate women as if they are still in the medieval times."

We cannot agree more with the ruling. The NIS policy is one of such chauvinistic policies still enforced against women without the backing of any law or the constitution. By taking the pains to go to court Mrs. Iyalla-Amadi provided an opportunity to test and expand the frontiers of the law.

Her case is straight-forward considering the clear provisions of sections 17 and 42 of the 1999 Constitution. The requirement of a husband's consent as it concerns married women, is also a violation of article 18 (3) of the West African Charter on the People's Human Rights. But it is instructive that those provisions had not precluded immigration authorities from tenaciously holding on to a policy that has no more than a cultural explanation. It is in fact curious that rather than dispute the arguments advanced by Mrs. Iyalla-Amadi, the NIS simply sought to justify the policy.

The authority's reasons include a contention that government has classified married women in Nigeria alongside minors, and therefore are persons who require consent from the head of the family. Besides, the requirement is meant to sustain the authority of a man over his wife, and also to avoid a breakdown of the marriage institution.

Mrs. Iyalla-Amadi's response, which is in line with the Constitution, is that although there is nothing wrong in protecting the marriage institution, it is inconsistent with the constitution as well as internationally accepted standards to put the burden of consent on women alone and not on both women and men.

We commend the court, the complainant and her counsel for insisting on fundamental human rights in this manner. The judgment should serve as a guide to correct all similar discriminatory practices in the country. It is unfortunate that these practices abound without the support of the law or judicial precedents.

For instance, in the popular case of Mojekwu V Mojekwu, the Court of Appeal denounced in strong terms the custom of barring women from inheriting the properties of their husbands or parents. There are other similar court pronouncements. Yet, women are still not allowed to stand as sureties for suspects or accused persons in applications for bail. While this practice has no legal or constitutional justification, it thrives all the same, as a matter of discretion by the police or other law enforcement authorities.

Mrs. Iyalla-Amadi has done well. Women can naturally stand on their own whether they are married or not. Practices or policies that tend to discriminate against them or debar them from exercising their full rights should be denounced.