In my city, Abuja, an NGO called the Society against Prostitution and Child Labour has been collaborating with the city’s Environmental Protection Board to round up any woman found on a sidewalk after dark and charge them with prostitution. There is rarely any evidence of sexual solicitation in these cases. The only evidence used being the women’s locations (out of the house) and dressing (a vastly subjective “indecent”). These women, usually between the ages of 18 and 30, are often extorted for money with authorities threatening to take them to court if they don’t pay a “fine” of N5,000. There are no opportunities for appeal and no protection from arrest. And this has been happening without comment for nearly two years.
In 2011, a young woman at Abia State University was assaulted by five men who broke into her dorm room and raped her for hours. The assailants recorded themselves perpetrating the act and uploaded the video to the internet. To date, none of those young men have served jail time.
In July, on a 12-hour road trip to my hometown in Eastern Nigeria, I watched four popular Nollywood movies. Each one depicted a scene of domestic violence – from a boyfriend slapping his girlfriend for “disrespecting” him, to a husband shouting abuses at a wife who dared to contradict him and a father hitting his daughter. And in every film the abuse was treated as normal – unremarked upon by any of the characters.
The British Council’s 2012 Gender in Nigeria report shows that these are more than isolated incidents. According to the report “Nigeria’s 80.2 million women and girls have significantly worse life chances than men, and their sisters in comparable societies. Violence compounds and reinforces this disadvantage and exclusion.”
My country has some of the highest rates of gender disparity in the world. Women earn less than men, are less educated, more likely to die in childbirth and are barely represented in positions of power and authority. Many of you might not think this is a problem, but research has shown that excluding women from economic, health, educational and political opportunities costs societies. Our security, growth and long-term welfare are seriously compromised and we doom ourselves to being a less productive, less healthy and ultimately less progressive society than we could be.
Women earn less than men – regardless of their educational qualifications. In Nigeria a woman with a Bachelor’s Degree can expect to earn the same as a man with a secondary school certificate and a woman with a secondary school certificate will earn the same as a man with no education at all. A woman can expect to be paid 20 to 50 percent less for doing the same work as her male counterpart. She can also expect a slower rate of promotion.
Part of this is because gender roles which place the bulk of housework, childrearing duties on women often lead women to choose lower-paying jobs that allow for more flexibility or are part-time. Women spend a much larger share of their time doing unpaid work in the form of informal household chores than men do. But a bigger part of this is gender bias. We have a widespread view that the proper place of a woman is at home under the dominance and care of a man (a husband, father or male relative). So women are not expected to work outside of the home unless there is a familial “need” for it. This is reflected in the Nigerian tax code which taxes men at a lower rate because they can be classified as “breadwinners.” Women with dependents cannot – even if they are the sole earners in their household.
When it comes to owning property and assets which can be used as collateral, such as land, women often face discriminatory inheritance practices which bar them from inheriting land or property from their parents. In many traditions inheritance is patrilineal – from father to son. So you have a situation where, “although women represent between 60% and 79% of Nigeria’s rural labour force, men are five times more likely to own land than women.” This affects women’s ability to access credit. Few banks will grant a business a loan without some form of collateral from the owner. However, even with collateral women have a harder time getting finance as men are twice more likely to get a bank loan than women.
One of the areas with the widest disparity for women in Nigeria is the access to health. Nigeria has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. Let me repeat that: One of the highest rates of maternal mortality. In the world. Our maternal mortality rate means that 144 women die each day and one woman dies every 10 minutes from conditions associated with childbirth. As a woman I am more likely to die giving birth than being shot by a gun or killed in car accident. Childbirth in Nigeria is more dangerous to a woman than smoking or drinking alcohol.
Access to contraceptives and gynaecological care is appallingly poor and often actively discouraged. Our country currently spends 6.5% of its total budget on healthcare, which means that health facilities are often difficult to get to, poorly staffed and barely equipped. And because the major burden of payment for healthcare in Nigeria falls on the individual, the poorest women are the least likely to get proper care. In fact, the poorest women are six times more likely to die when they get sick than the richest women in Nigerian society.
There are also social barriers to women’s health. Many unmarried women worry that going to a gynaecologist or purchasing contraceptives – even when they have access to them – will signal that they are sexually active and expose them to derision and harassment. It is not uncommon for a woman buying a condom to be treated as if she were a moral pariah. Thus, many women leave the decision to use contraception to their partners and even more women’s first visit to a gynaecologist is when they are pregnant. The attitude of healthcare professionals is also a problem. Many doctors still treat their female patients with condescension – often minimising and ignoring their complaints. Nurses in Nigeria are notorious for their insensitivity and outright cruelty – particularly to female patients – making a visit to a hospital a generally unpleasant experience.
This has terrible implications for a woman’s health throughout her lifetime. Infrequent and poor-quality gynaecological exams mean that a woman could be struggling with health issues that she may not know about until they become acute enough to require emergency medical treatment. And since for many women, the decision to visit a doctor is not their own to make, it is not surprising that many women die from easily preventable conditions.
While rates of enrolment for girls has risen worldwide – in some countries there are more women in colleges and universities than men – the gender gap in sub-Saharan Africa, and Nigeria in particular, has stubbornly persisted.
Nigeria has more children of primary school age who are not going to school than any other country in the world and more than half that population are girls. Fewer girls than boys make the transition from primary to secondary education and even fewer from secondary to university level. Overall, more girls drop out of school than boys. Lack of access to education is costly, but for women, it can be deadly. Women with less education are more likely to have more children, increasing their risk of dying in childbirth. And their children are more likely to be malnourished and undereducated themselves.
The poor educational statistics are a direct result of the poor status of women in our society. Despite our claims to free universal basic education, going to school is not free. Most parents still have to pay school fees, as well as the costs of uniforms and books. For most households, school fees are the largest expense in a family’s budget – next to rent and feeding. And for a lot of families that money is better spent on male child who will bring better returns in terms of higher income and carrying a greater burden of parental care. Many families still believe that it is more important for a woman to marry than to have an education and so will withdraw their daughters from school at various levels once they feel they have had “enough”.
There is also a perception that schools are dangerous places for women – and that is not entirely wrong. Nigeria’s educational system still uses corporal punishment which often leads to excess and abuse for both boys and girls. But research has shows that girls from the poorest backgrounds suffer a disproportionate amount of the beatings and public humiliations that come with this system. Girls are often required to do more school chores like sweeping classrooms, fetching water and cleaning school grounds which can cut into their study time. Finally, there are the dangers of bullying and sexual harassment from teachers and older students that can cause many girls to drop out.
Violence against Women
The low status of women in Nigerian society is reinforced through violence and threats of violence. And the violence isn’t just physical. There is the verbal violence of harassment, bullying and intimidation. There is the sexual violence of rape and molestation and there is the “soft violence” of rumour-mongering, innuendo and insults.
The fear of all these things keeps women in their “place”. Many women curtail their social lives for fear of being labelled prostitutes and subject to physical and verbal harassment. Others limit their education and employment opportunities for fear of “overshadowing” their partners and being victims of physical violence. And many more circumscribe their personalities and desires in order to stay within narrow definitions of what makes a “good” woman.
Violence against women is a problem all over the world – regardless of education, status and location. According the UN’s 2010 report on Women in the World, most but not all of the physical, sexual and psychological violence experienced by women comes at the hands of family members, especially husbands, partners and fathers – and much of it is normalised. In Nigeria, statistics show that unmarried women between 15 and 35 are the most vulnerable to violence but this masks the fact that married women who experience violence within their homes are less likely to report it.
A high number of women in Nigeria believe it is acceptable for a man to beat a woman if she “disrespects” him. Acts such as speaking out of turn, taking decisions without permission, failing to submit to sexual advances and failing to perform household chores are all grounds for physical violence. And the question of rape is still a hotly contested issue where many regard it as a punishment for the bad behaviour of the victim.
There is also institutionalised violence against women where certain bodies are structured in such a way as to actively discriminate against women. Institutions such as the police, the judiciary, political offices and higher education where there are “entrenched cultures of impunity” for the perpetrators of rape and other violence, all work to harm women. For example, women are not allowed to post bail in Nigerian jails, law courts tend to favour men over women in domestic disputes and sexual harassment and rape is endemic in many schools and universities. Many men in positions of authority – especially in these institutions – regard opportunities to receive sexual favours from female subordinates as one of the privileges of their positions.
Soft violence against women is used to keep women out of patronage networks which disproportionally favour men. Women who try to break into these networks can find themselves the victims of whisper campaigns designed to destroy their reputations – and because the social consequences of a “bad” reputation are higher for women than men, many women simply opt out of the process.
The future of Nigeria
There are many reasons why despite our vast natural resources we continue to lag behind comparable countries but I think it ultimately comes down to one thing. Our society is deeply unequal. In fact, Nigeria is among the 30 most unequal countries in the world, particularly when it comes to income distribution. Yet, studies show that societies with greater gender equity have lower crime rates, fairer distribution of resources, and are healthier and more stable, in general. This is not an accident. Right now, Nigeria is like a runner trying to compete in a race while tying one leg to his back. We simply cannot progress as a country without the full and equal participation of women.
Our political system must be more accountable to women – they must take women’s issues of health, education, economics and violence more seriously. We have to begin by electing and appointing more women into positions of power. The lack of representation by women in political office (just 9%) is one of the reasons why our country has not allocated as much resources to sectors such as health and education that are key to our development.
And our social dynamics need to change. We cannot continue to accept violence against women in any form. We cannot continue to limit the opportunities of women and girls for our own comfort. For when we exclude women from participating fully in society, when we insist on narrowly defined roles for both genders, we are limiting ourselves to using only half of our resources, half of our creative spirit. Ultimately, when we work to hold women back, we are only holding back ourselves.