The Senate has struck out a bill seeking to amend the National Youth Service Corps Act to allow the uniforms worn by corps members to accommodate their religious beliefs.
If it had been passed, female corps members would have been allowed to wear skirts and hijab.
Sponsor of the bill, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha (Taraba-South), while leading the debate for the second reading at the plenary on Wednesday, said the proposed amendment sought to amend Sections 13 and 16 of the principal act.
He said the amendment was to “increase the penalty for the offences contained in the Act to make such fines reflect the present value of the naira.”
He also said the amendment was intended to “ensure that regulations made by the NYSC directorate prescribing uniforms and exercise regimen do not violate the religious practices and beliefs of corps members.”
Bwacha proposed that a new Sub-section 3 be inserted to Section 16 of the NYSC Act to read, “In exercising its powers under Sub-section 2(a) and (b) of this section, the directorate shall take into consideration the need to prescribe or adopt uniforms and exercise regimen or drills that do not violate the religious practices relating to modest dressing, and accordingly specify alternative uniforms and exercise regimen that conform to the religious dictates and conscience of corps members as recognised by the 1999 Constitution.”
Several senators who spoke on the bill however faulted its intention.
While the Deputy Minority Whip, Senator Biodun Olujimi, asked why religious sentiments were being introduced to the dress code of the scheme, Senator Jeremiah Useni stated there was no need for the bill.
Also, Senator Sam Egwu, said, “We should not waste our time on an issue that we have no constitutional right to amend. This is a paramilitary organisation and that is why drilling and exercise are contained. We have major issues to discuss. If we want to talk about NYSC, it is not uniform; that is a minute issue that we should not waste our energy on.”
The Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, who presided over the plenary, called the attention of the lawmakers to the fact that amending the NYSC Act would require an amendment to the constitution, which is a long process that would require the input of the state Houses of Assembly.
Ekweremadu, “I am not trying to stop the bill. Even if you pass the bill, you must send it to all the states in accordance with Section 9(2).”
The bill was rejected after its second reading was put to voice vote.
Addressing journalists after the plenary, Bwacha, however, said the lawmakers misunderstood the intendment of the bill.
He said, “As you are aware, the bill that sought to amend NYSC Act did not scale through because it was largely misunderstood. The issue in question, particularly the dress code has to do with the powers vested in the directorate by itself. The constitution does not mention dress code for the NYSC.
“The objective of the NYSC is essentially for the purpose of the unity of Nigeria. It has not touched that area at all. This bill arose as a result of a series of complaints I have received across Nigeria from those who had to fall out of service because they were not in agreement with the use of trousers as female members.”
The senator, who pointed out that he is a Christian, said he chose to sponsor the bill to cater to those who were being denied of participating in the scheme as the uniforms and drills did not consider their religious beliefs and practices.
“As I speak, there are several corpers who refused to continue with the NYSC because they believe that wearing of trousers as female members in public offends their faith,” he said.
Bwacha argued that the issue was not controversial, saying a policy statement by the NYSC could have addressed it.
He said, “It has nothing to do with Islam or Christianity. In fact, both Christians and Muslims should be in agreement on this particular matter. A woman who feels offended by wearing trousers in public could be allowed to wear skirts on top, even during drills so that they do not inconvenience her. Those who can wear trousers can do so, but it shouldn’t be forced on anybody.”
Bwacha said he would explore alternative means of achieving his aim, including moving a motion on the matter.