For over five years now, the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, has been locked in a battle with some female corps members, who because of their religious beliefs and personal convictions, are opposed to the wearing of long trousers by female corps members.
They see the action as evoking immorality and have their opposition grounded in what obtained in the early years of the scheme when female corps members were allowed the use of skirts. Peeved at the insistence of the NYSC on having female corps members serve their mandatory national service in khaki trousers and shirt without giving an opportunity to those who want to wear a skirt, an advocacy group, Serve With Skirts Movement, emerged to fight their cause and is led by Udochi Emmanuel. But the NYSC is saying that contrarily, the scheme has maintained one dress code since May 22, 1973, when it was established, devoid of ethnic, religious or gender bias.
“The code remains a pair of khaki trousers and shirt; crested vest; white vest; a pair of white shorts; a pair of zebra-striped socks; a pair of jungle boots; a pair of canvas; belt and fez cap,” the agency said through its spokesperson, Adenike Adeyemi.
The defiance of the skirt-advocate corps members to the scheme’s dress code has seen some of them de-kitted, thus preventing them from completing their service. The group, at a protest rally it recently held in Abuja to demand the inclusion of skirts as part of the uniforms for the NYSC scheme, threatened to drag the Federal Government and the agency to court. Clutching placards with different inscriptions such as: “There is a difference between the world and the daughters of God”, “Our sisters cannot dress like men, they should be decently covered” and “We are not worldly we are true children of God” among others, they insisted that it was time skirts were approved for the scheme by the authorities. According to them, “year after year, female corps members are harassed at orientation camps for refusing to wear skirts,” adding, “this is a breach of our fundamental human rights under Section 38(1) of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
The leader of the group, Udochi Emmanuel, said the use of trousers was evoking immorality in the camps, adding that in the 1970s and 1980s, “we had our mothers wearing skirts and we want to go back to that. “We have for several times asked that we are exempted from NYSC if they make it a compulsory one-year service for everyone below the age of 30 and they are mandated to wear those clothes. “We have already started negotiations (with the government) and we hope that from this dialogue we will get a favourable response,” she said. Ms Emmanuel hinted that the group “may need to seek redress in the court over the NYSC insistence on excluding skirt.
A corps member, Patience Noble, who was part of the protest, said she was posted to Ebonyi State for service and when she insisted on wearing a skirt, she was asked to leave the camp. She said: “As a citizen of this country, I have the right to serve the nation just like every other graduate has. They insisted that I wear these trousers or leave camp. During the camp there were lots of insults and humiliation – one of the military guys tore the skirts I was wearing on my body.” The protest came barely two months after two members of the 2019 NYSC Stream C in Ebonyi State were sent home from camp for refusing to wear trousers.
The NYSC spokesperson in the state, Ngozi Ukwuoma, was quoted in the media to have explained that when the duo was accosted and interrogated, they disclosed that they could not wear the white shorts and the trousers given to them by the NYSC since it was against their faith. “Efforts were, however, made by the office of the Camp Director to make them see reasons why they must obey the rules and regulations guiding the orientation and NYSC, but all efforts to do that were futile,” she reportedly said. This act generated controversy among Nigerians as many were torn between allowing skirts as part of the NYSC dress code or not. Although the NYSC Act does not clearly state what the uniform should be, it only said the corps members should accept and wear whatever is given to them. Section 3(1)(ix) of the NYSC bye-laws states that every corps member shall “wear the various uniforms provided for the activities.” It also says: “Any member who refuses, fails or neglects to comply with this rule shall be tried by the Camp Court and, if found guilty, be liable to be decamped and sent out of the Orientation Camp.” Recall that the Senate had in March 2018, rejected a bill to amend the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Act. The bill was rejected following concerns that such amendment required altering the constitution which would require a long process. Officials of the NYSC have, however, continued to admonish corps members to adhere to the laws of the Corps.
CAN’s position on the matter
The Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, while reacting to the development, accused the National Youth Service Corps of applying discriminatory policy in the scheme. The Christian organisation in a message sent to Vanguard which had earlier sought its response on the controversial issue said it condemned the refusal of its female corps members from using skirts in totality. The reaction which came through the Special Assistant to the CAN President on Media, Pastor Bayo Oladeji, the body said, “We should be very careful about government’s policies that favour one religion in a multi-religious society like ours.” It read in full: “We have condemned it in strong terms. It is discriminatory, it is reprehensible, and it stands condemned. If their fellow Muslim counterparts are allowed to wear hijab that even covers the whole uniform in many instances why can’t they allow our daughters whose religious doctrine is against women trousers? “We should be very careful with the government’s policies that favour one religion in a multi-religious society like ours.” NSCIA wants skirts approved Still, on the matter, the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, NSCIA, has advised the authorities of the NYSC to approve the use of skirts for Christian women who have been yearning for it. The call came as the organisation said contrary to the belief in some quarters, Nigeria was not a secular country.
To this end, it enjoined the organisation to learn to respect the religious beliefs of citizens by not acting contrarily. Speaking to Vanguard the Head of Media and Communication of NSCIA, Ibrahim Anselem, advised the NYSC to accord Christian women wanting to serve in skirts the right just as it did Muslim women on the use of hijab. Hear him: “I think that as a people, we must learn to respect the religious views of the people and as a country, we must learn to respect the religious views of the people, especially the two dominant religions-Christianity and Islam. “Many people will tell you that Nigeria is a secular state but let me tell you here that Nigeria is not a secular state. If you look at the wordings of our National Pledge, you would see that Nigeria is not a secular state. Nigeria is a multi-religious state, that is why the Constitution allows for freedom of worship. “You would recall that the Muslims have been battling for Muslim women to wear hijabs at different government functions and offices. We have been in court on this matter in several areas and we lost some and won some cases.
“But recently, the National Youth Service Corps graciously approved the use of hijabs. So I think that if Christians are asking that women be allowed to wear skirts, the NYSC should strike a balance between what they stand for and how they can accommodate the various religious views. We cannot in a multi-religious country like Nigeria, in an attempt to render national service encroach on the religious beliefs of other people. “They have to strike a balance, there has to be a way by striking a balance to accommodate others especially given the fact that the Muslim women have been given the right to wear hijabs. “I believe they have to look for a way to accommodate the religious beliefs of the Christians as well,” he said.