YENAGOA, Nigeria — Heavy rain poured down on a cool Wednesday evening as crowds of young and middle-aged women flocked to the lounge of the towering Aridolf Resort Wellness & Spa in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. They were dressed in a variety of casual and business clothing—from the middle-aged women who wore wrappers of traditional fabric tied around their waists and bathroom slippers to young ladies in spaghetti-strap and off-the-shoulder shirts and jeans, even some in glamorous evening gowns and high heels.
Although they represented all walks of life, most were from the disadvantaged and unemployed or underemployed lower classes of Bayelsa state. The women included sex workers, victims of rape and sexual assault and single mothers. The diversity was so astounding that one surprised young woman, walking by a group of middle-aged women, turned around and said derisively in pidgin English “Why una come? Dis program na for single women and young ladies.” Meaning that the older women shouldn’t have bothered coming. The women stopped for a minute, looked at the young lady with puzzled expressions and kept walking. They had been told the event would “help women find jobs.”
Unemployment and underemployment rates in the region are the country’s highest despite its large oil revenues.[modern_footnote]Paul Francis, Deirdre LaPin, Paula Rossiasco. Securing development and peace in the niger delta: a social and conflict analysis for change. 2011.[/modern_footnote] The unemployment rate stands at 27.4 percent, according to the National Bureau of Statistics,[modern_footnote] Nigeria Data Portal. Labor Force. http://nigeria.opendataforafrica.org/kzaqzh/labor-force. Accessed: 11/17/2017[/modern_footnote] and even higher for Nigerian women because socio-cultural norms place higher value on women’s work in the home than on formal employment. Many girls drop out of secondary school as a result, or show no interest in furthering their education after graduating because their guardians simply don’t see the value. Girls therefore miss out on knowledge and critical thinking skills needed for gainful employment and economic independence. Many are taught to believe higher education is unnecessary because in any case they will end up in a man’s home, taking care of children while he meets all their financial needs.
I had come to the Aridolf building after hearing about the employment event, called “Dignified Women’s Dinner,” on local radio earlier in the day. The announcer said something that struck me. She spoke in pidgin English: “Dis program na for women and young girls dem wey dey depend on men for their survival.” Translation: this event is strictly for women and girls who depend on men for survival. She went on to say that the program, initiated by Priye Derefaka Okara—founder of the Priye Achievers Foundation, an organization focused on rehabilitation and empowerment of commercial sex workers as well as sexual health education—was targeted at young unemployed women who needed entrepreneurial skills to become self-sufficient.
The poorly lit club lounge where the event took place was jam-packed with more than 200 attendees. Speakers included the Bayelsa state government’s deputy chief of staff, the chairperson of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Nigeria and a local radio personality, among other accomplished women. The annual event seeks to help restore the dignity of women in society, the organizers say. “Some of these girls on the street don’t have vision; they don’t know their gifts, they don’t know who they are and they cannot identify anything useful they can do for themselves,” Okara said at the dinner. During the three-hour event, the women were asked their vocational and career interests for matching with local organizations. One participant characterized the event saying, “We should not sell our bodies out and we should not give up because we don’t have someone to train us or because our parents don’t have money.”
That kind of support will be essential if Nigerian women are indeed to become financially independent. Nigeria has one of the lowest rates of female entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a 2012 gender report by the British Council. “The majority of women are concentrated in casual, low-skilled, low-paid informal-sector employment,” it said.[modern_footnote]British Council. Gender in Nigeria report 2012: Improving the Lives of Girls and women in Nigeria. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/67333/Gender-Nigeria2012.pdf. Accessed: 11/18/2017[/modern_footnote] Although state employment data categorized by gender is hard to come by, the World Bank reported in 2015 that 17 million Nigerian women were not working.[modern_footnote]The World Bank. More, and More Productive, Jobs for Nigeria: A Profile of Work and Worker. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/650371467987906739/pdf/103937-WP-P146872-PUBLIC-Nigeria-Jobs-Report.pdf. Accessed: 11/14/2017[/modern_footnote]
Besides socio-cultural norms and gender stereotypes, government policies (and the failure to enforce laws) also affect women’s economic independence. Nigeria’s National Gender Policy, adopted in 2006, seeks to “eradicate poverty, achieve equality of the gender, and encourage inclusiveness in the process of governance and development.”[modern_footnote]Ethel Innocent Amadi. Implementation of Nigeria’s National Gender Policy, Revisiting the Affirmative Action http://www.academicresearchjournals.org/IJPSD/PDF/2017/August/Amadi.pdf. Accessed: 11/14/2017[/modern_footnote] Still, girls make up more than half the 10.5 million out-of-school children. Of the Nigerian senate’s 109 members, only eight are women.[modern_footnote]http://qz.com/642396/how-we-make-sure-nigerias-gender-equality-bill-passes-next-time/. Accessed 11/13/2017[/modern_footnote]
The highest educational level many girls in Bayelsa attain is secondary school, as I’ve indicated, after which they typically decide to marry and/or have children. Many live with a man because they can’t afford higher education. Low education levels contribute to the high unemployment and underemployment rates for women because with only a secondary school education—often sub-standard—they struggle to find jobs. Financial insecurity remains one of the biggest challenges women face.
Opportunities for Women
Thirty-year-old Luckyere Wokoro lives with her mother in the town of Sabageria in Bayelsa. She engages in petty trade, including selling gasoline and kerosene on the black market to motorcycle drivers, generator owners and boat drivers. She’s been out of secondary school since 2009. For many girls like her, being out of school with no money to further their education results in early marriage or unwanted pregnancies. But Luckyere has chosen a different path. While marriage is important to her, it’s not her priority right now. She recently enrolled in a part-time program at the College of Education in Sagbama and participates in a training program called “WORTH” implemented by Pact, an international development organization. The program teaches literacy, numeracy and financial skills to increase economic resourcefulness and potential.[modern_footnote]Pact. With better financial footing, families able to make health gains in Nigeria. http://www.Pactworld.org/features/better-financial-footing-families-able-make-health-gains-nigeria. Accesses: 11/13/2017[/modern_footnote] Because joblessness is the foremost cause of poverty in Nigeria,[modern_footnote]Ohimain, E, et al. Employment and Socioeconomic Effects of Semi-Mechanized Palm Oil Mill in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. March 2014. Accessed: 11/13/2017[/modern_footnote] programs like WORTH are critical for providing women with valuable economic and social skills to help them support themselves and their families.
Growing up with a single-parent mother and eight siblings (three brothers and five sisters)—her father died when she was eight years old—Luckyere has faced a number of challenges. Her mother farms cassava, yams and plantain to sell to locals from her home. Luckeyere and her mother live with her aunt, who has three children of her own. “Life is not easy here because you have to struggle for yourself to find something to eat,” she said. She wants a job as a trained teacher, but “there is no employment.”
“If you don’t have a supporter, life is difficult,” she said. When I asked where she hopes to be in five years, Luckyere responded that she wishes to be married, living in her own house, with a business and a salaried government job. She joined the WORTH program in September 2016 because “it is teaching us to save money and do better things.” She loves the literacy and vocational skills (baking and soap-making) classes, she said. When I asked how much she has saved so far, she chuckled and told me, “as for here, we are not saving big money.” The program has two savings plans: mandatory and voluntary. As part of the mandatory plan for Luckyere’s group, each participant contributes 50 naira ($.014) a week. In the voluntary plan, they contribute whatever they’re able to afford. Although she has gained some valuable skills and knowledge, Luckyere said, she has not been able to make a profit from the goods she has baked. “I’m still piloting my skills,” she said.
She hopes to install a solar panel in her house because that way “I can get a refrigerator and sell frozen fish and chicken” in a community where electricity remains scarce. She also advocated providing affordable pesticides for farmers because rodents eat up crops already threatened by floods during the rainy season.
Overcoming socio-cultural norms
Women are most burdened by the expectations their communities place on them. “Women are the ones really caring for the family, especially the children,” Luckyere said. “They are more concerned about the wellbeing of their families than the fathers. Only few fathers provide for their families.” The primary caretakers of the home, most are not allowed to pursue income-generating work, especially in rural Nigeria.
That’s the case for Jane Ayogo, an unemployed, divorced university graduate of business administration who lived in the capital Abuja before relocating to Bayelsa in 2016. A mother of four children in her mid-thirties, she told me, “The only time I worked was when I was not married to my husband.” He refused to allow her to work or start a business during seven years of marriage, saying he was taking care of the family. However, with the divorce came a very harsh reality Jane had to bear alone. Her husband left her for another woman, providing nothing for Jane and his children’s survival. “The saddest day of my life was the day [my ex-husband] changed toward me and the children,” she said. She never expected her marriage to crumble and that she’d be left with nothing. “When you’ve not entered [marriage], you fantasize about getting married. But marriage is not all that it is cut out to be,” she said, reflecting the general perception that marriage provides happiness and financial security.
As for what she wants now, she said, “I don’t want my [university] certificate to be in the box. I want to give my children anything they want. I’m still praying to God to give me work, any work.” She is a woman who, despite earning a university degree, is not able to use her education to make a decent living. Programs like the “Dignified Women’s Dinner” and WORTH are filling the gaps. But more comprehensive and strategic action is needed to ensure that women avoid crushing economic dependence.
In the Southern Ijaw community of Ammasoma, Ebiere Ibomoh told me, “women are really suffering” as she reflected on what it means to be a woman in her community. Dark-complexioned Ebiere is 46 years old, married and a mother of five children. She lives with her husband and children in a two-bedroom bungalow. Ebiere is a community volunteer with Pact, working to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV by mobilizing community and government support for prevention. As a volunteer, Ebiere received training in HIV prevention and advocacy, family planning and care for people living with HIV. She does not earn money. But, as she told me, her activities give her a sense of fulfillment. “People now respect me; they see me as someone who can impact lives,” she told me.
Ebiere’s husband is a civil servant who has not been paid for several months. She has had to support the family selling personal items and food to students from the nearby Niger Delta University from her small store in front of her house. One of the few women who sells goods in the area, she makes relatively decent profits, up to 7,000 naira ($19) a day. However, her sales depend on students being in school. “When they’re on vacation, my sales are low.”
Ebiere and other women volunteers started a financial savings scheme according to which each woman deposits money into a group bank account each week. Initially, the women were asked to deposit 200 naira every Sunday, but the policy was later changed to allow each to contribute any amount she can afford. At the end of the year, the women receive their total contributions. The savings scheme teaches them how to plan and save for the future.
Providing women with education, skills and opportunities for gainful employment is critical for poverty reduction. Women must also know that they are allowed to speak up about the challenges they face and what they want in life. I left Bayelsa feeling hopeful about the future for women because of organizations like Pact and Priye Achievers Foundation that are giving women a second chance at life. As a 23-year-old Bayelsa woman told me, “We need to imbibe girls with a hard-working spirit to be able to come up with something to do to sustain themselves.” In a time of economic challenges, when livelihoods can no longer depend on government salaries as they once did, it is critical for women to receive quality education to acquire skills and generate income.