By Peter Osalor
According to the last official Nigerian census in 2006, women comprised almost half of the then 140 million
populace at 68.3 million.
Updated figures for 2009 put the headcount in Africaâ€™s most populous, as well most densely populated nation, at 148 million. Allowing for applicable variables, it would be logical to assume that the female population has grown correspondingly in the period, were it not for another set of disturbing statistics.
In 2008, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that 52,000 Nigerian women were dying annually due to pregnancy and child-birth related complications. In more comprehensible terms, the number translates to 145 women per day.
Population is a critical asset for any nation, with far-reaching social, political and economic consequences. In Nigeria, it also happens to be a controversial issue because of regional, inter-state and ethnic ramifications.
Its dwindling female population however has consequences that go much beyond the immediately obvious effect of a rapidly skewing sex ratio. Nigeria has ambitious rapid development plans to take it to the top twenty world economies by 2020. The eventual success of this endeavour is inextricably linked to entrepreneurial performance, as well as to the management of its womenfolk who comprises close to half its total human resource.
Although there are dissenting voices on the subject, it is widely accepted that women in Nigeria are systematically discriminated against, harassed and abused at home and work, and suffer violent crimes and unequal treatment both within their homes and outside. Deep-set regressive and repressive practices have led to unabated misery for Nigerian women in various forms: social inferiority, economic disempowerment, denial of access to property and inheritance, sexual abuse, trafficking and proliferation of HIV/AIDS.
A 2000 World Bank study titled â€˜Can Africa Claim the 21 Centuryâ€™ sets forth two fundamental premises that hold especially true for Nigeria:
â€œÂ Â Gender inequality is both an economic and a social issue.
â€œ Greater gender equality could be a potent force for accelerated poverty reduction in Africa.
Given the acute poverty situation in Nigeria – where close to 76 million are officially classified as poor and 54% of the citizenry live on less than $1 per day – womenâ€™s empowerment and their worthwhile inclusion in the development processes is key to sustainable growth. The country has huge oil and natural gas reserves that have earned it an estimated $600 billion in the past half a century.
However, successive decades of political turmoil and government mismanagement have rendered the vast majority of its people destitute, and left facing multifarious problems arising out of unequal wealth distribution and an extreme divide between rich and poor. Illiteracy, unemployment, rampant crime and organised violence are just a few of the outcomes of this unfortunate situation.
The impact of Nigeriaâ€™s history has been particularly severe on its women, leading many to take up traditional, village-level enterprises to eke out a meagre subsistence and supplement family income.
The motivation here, importantly, is basic survival – food, clothes, household needs – and not wealth creation. Faced with often insurmountable circumstantial challenges, individual and groups of women entrepreneurs have traditionally held on to extremely small scale ventures in the manufacturing and services sectors, largely without any organisational support or guidance.
Curiously, this sad state of affairs is simultaneously an attribute that offers policy makers a substantial if dormant advantage.
By virtue of their involvement in cottage and village level enterprises, Nigerian women are already an active entrepreneurial group with uncharted economic and human resource potential. To perhaps overtly simplify, all they need is a policy-level nudge in the right direction to help them capitalise on their accrued talents to bring about exhaustive development across the battered landscape of their country.