By Peter Osalor
“When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier and better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is also true of communities and, in the long run, of whole countries…”
This is from a 2003 speech by previous UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on the occasion of International Women’s Day celebrations in New York. The former UN diplomat’s words exhorting the inclusion of women in effective developmental strategy could well have been specific advice to Nigeria.
International observers and aid agencies have long, and frequently, cited the case of Africa’s most populous nation when it comes to highlighting women’s issues.
A recent revelation in this regard came in 2008, when the United Nations Population Fund reported that 145 Nigerian women were dying of pregnancy and childbirth-related complications every day. At this rate, the toll stands at 52,000 deaths annually: Shocking figures for a country where, according to the last official census in 2006, females made up close to half the then population of 140 million!
While Nigeria’s headcount has gone up to 148 million since, the condition of its women continues to remain much the same.
The sub-Saharan nation has been traditionally and systematically discriminatory of women, who are harassed, abused and left to fend violent crimes and inferior treatment both inside their homes and outside. Collectively regressive social practices have translated to untold misery for the extended community of Nigerian women – most prominently in the form of economic disempowerment, social inferiority, sexual abuse, trafficking and HIV/AIDS.
With an insight, close to 76 million Nigerian’s are officially classified as poor according to international standards, while World Bank figures indicate 54% of the population lives on less than $1 per day which is known not to be news anymore.
Given the nation’s current standing in global rankings and its widely announced ambitions for accelerated growth, women’s empowerment and their meaningful engagement in development programmes remains a core focus area.
Nigeria, a country of vast natural resources and uncharted economic potential, is currently the third largest economy in the continent after Egypt and South Africa. However, a long history of misgovernance and non-inclusive policies has left it overwhelmed by an acute paradox of booming oil revenues with simultaneous inflation, widespread unemployment and poverty.
Human development indices for the country are among the poorest for the African continent, the vast majority of its people reeling in destitution. Illiteracy, youth crime, organised violence and widening rural-urban divides are just a few negative aspects of Nigerian contemporary reality.
Women face even harsher realities though! Women for Women International, a non-government agency working in Nigeria, reports some striking aspects of their condition:
“ Nigerian women are routinely sold to traffickers to compensate unpaid debts.
“ Child marriages are common and customary laws do not criminalise marital rape.
“ 60% of women endure forced circumcision and genital mutilation.
“ Laws in 10 of the 36 states allow spousal abuse by husbands.
There is no denying that the burden of Nigeria’s economic and social woes has been especially harsh on its women. Faced with dire poverty and social suppression, millions of them across rural and urban areas have been led to subsist on traditional farmland operations and backyard enterprises for food, clothes and household needs. Survival, not wealth creation, is the motive behind individuals and groups of women hanging on to threadbare ventures in the manufacturing and services sector, mostly without any guidance, support or aid.
A 2000 World Bank report on Africa outlines twin conclusions that are relevant across the sub-Saharan region but especially to Nigeria:
“ Gender inequality is both an economic and a social issue.
“ Greater gender equality could be a potent force for accelerated poverty reduction in Africa.
The idea underlying these statements is better summed up in proverbial wisdom which says you invest in the entire community by investing in women.
The condition of Nigerian women, curiously, holds within itself the means to simultaneous upliftment and greater common good.
Their traditional involvement in subsistence-level activities essentially means Nigerian women are historically equipped with entrepreneurial innovation, know-how and experience that can be leveraged for inclusive growth and lasting national prosperity.
Abuja is banking on accelerated enterprise development from the micro-level upwards to help achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals and its indigenous target of taking the country to the top 20 world economies by 2020.
There is little doubt that the success of these objective rests to a large extent on Nigeria’s ability to harness the abilities of its women folk and drive them as engines of durable growth.
Nigeria’s future growth prospects are therefore irrevocably tied to the status of its women and its ability to adequately leverage their considerable economic potential. In this light, the following are some of the key issues the country’s government and policy makers need to explore.
“ Legal reforms guaranteeing equal rights of women to ownership, property and financial control. Social reforms to enforce humane treatment of women and their worthwhile participation in the development of their families and communities