ABUJA, Nigeria — Twenty-eight-year-old Racheal Adetunji longs for a country where girls are nurtured to “have dreams beyond marriage.” In a patriarchal and traditional society like this one, however, her hope appears far-fetched. From the pre-colonial era, which ended in 1960, women in Nigeria have functioned as the building blocks of their families. A man can choose to neglect his family roles under current social mores but the woman is responsible for ensuring the wellbeing of her home and children. The key role women play and the value attached to their domestic roles in families have helped stifle many women’s personal and career aspirations.
Some are trying to change that. In 2015, the trending hashtag #BeingFemaleInNigeria encouraged women and men to share experiences and challenges of being a woman in the country. The hashtag was mentioned over 80,000 times on Twitter.[modern_footnote]BBC Trending. What it means to be female in Nigeria. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-33239356. Accessed: 01/05/2018[/modern_footnote] One tweet said that being female in Nigeria means “I should succeed but keep in mind that I cannot be more successful than the man in my life.” Despite such attitudes, Nigerian women are known to be resilient. Although their voices often go unheard and they remain in the background of society (witnessed by the high rates of unemployment, abuse, mortality and their marginal role in politics), women are very much engaged in national development as they struggle for greater economic advantage, better livelihoods and a deeper sense of self-worth.
Below are profiles of several Nigerian women and the realities of their lives in different regions of the country.
Racheal is a native of Ondo state in southwestern Nigeria. After graduating from secondary school, she stayed home for five years before earning admission to the prestigious University of Lagos. When she was finally accepted, her parents said they couldn’t pay her tuition because her grandmother had died and they had to use the little money they had for her funeral. Nevertheless, Racheal paid her way through university following advice from a secondary school teacher who told her “save and it will save you.”
Racheal managed to save 150,000 naira ($419). Twenty years old at the time, she spent 39,500 naira for her acceptance and registration fees and 25,000 naira for her hostel registration. The remaining sum went toward her personal expenses, including food and daily transportation. “I enjoyed myself during the first year of university because I had a lot of money that I had saved up.” However, she exhausted all her funds by the second year. Her roommate introduced her to a job as an usher at various events. “You have fine legs,” she told her.
On her first day on the job, a 30-something man stalked Racheal, telling her, “You are going home with me tonight.” When she resisted his overture, he said, “I can see you are the expensive type.” He offered her 50,000 and then 100,000 naira. She told him that she was not interested. But the man persisted to the point of following her to the street, where she managed to evade him by getting on a bus.
Racheal’s friends later mocked her for turning down the man’s offer, reminding her that 100,000 naira ($279) is a lot of money in Nigeria; she would have to take 20 ushering jobs to make that much.
Racheal worked as an usher throughout her time at university. She graduated with an honors degree in political science. Since then, she has struggled to make a living and take care of her aging parents and four siblings. She told me that critical challenges facing girls include a “lack of informed role models and mentors, access to impartial support, quality education due to funds and more important, fear of rejecting and changing what is perceived to be ‘normal.’” By that, she means having to sell one’s body for money to meet basic needs, not having dreams beyond marriage, and receiving no basic training at home beyond “how to save your home,” meaning stay silent even when you are not happy in your marriage. In August 2017, Racheal began working as an assistant program officer with the non-governmental organization The Education Partnership (TEP) Centre, where she advocates for improved literacy across Nigeria.
Wentu is a 51-year-old businesswoman from the Sagbama local government area in southern Bayelsa state. With only a primary school education, she has had to find an informal way to support herself and her family. Like many women in Nigeria, her education stopped early—in her case, following her father’s death because it left no one to help pay her school fees. She is the mother of four children and has a grandchild. She moved from Sagbama to the regional capital city of Yenagoa in 2014 following the death of her first husband in a quest for greener pastures.
Wentu began roasting and selling plantains and fish (a popular local staple) on advice from her brother. “This is what I use to support my family,” she told me. She sells the plantains for 50 naira ($0.1) and the fish for 150 or 200 naira ($0.5). She makes a tasty sauce made by combining cut fresh pepper, tomatoes and onions, which attracts a loyal customer base from far-away parts of Yenagoa. “I am very happy with this business,” she says. “I get a lot of customers for various occasions—weddings, birthdays, etc.” But she says the profits are not enough to provide for her family’s needs. “Sometimes, I cannot afford to pay school fees. I borrow Garri [a staple food made from cassava flour] sometimes. But God is helping me.” Although she remarried, her husband is a civil servant who has not been paid in the past year. Wentu believes everyone must do what they can to find something to “feed their stomach.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Nkiru Emmanuel in the city of Jos, central Plateau state, is a widow who lost her husband in the fight against the militant group Boko Haram. He was a soldier in the Nigerian military. “He died in 2015 during combat with Boko Haram terrorists in Maiduguri,” Nkiru says of the northeastern city where the militant group was founded two decades ago. “But I was only told about his death in March 2017.” The last time Nkiru saw her husband was in September 2015. After losing contact, she tried to get in touch for two years. The military told her that he was in a cellular phone no-network zone, but that he was “fine.” She found out about his death during a phone call from a man who said he was calling from the army barracks. “I was not allowed to see my husband’s body,” she said. “There was no corpse. I was told that he was killed in an explosion and that they conducted a mass burial for him and others.”
Nkiru’s husband had served in the army seven years until his death. “It’s not easy being without a husband,” Nkiru says. “Life has been hard for my daughter and me.” Three months after finally notifying her of her husband’s death, the military stopped paying his salary. “I don’t have any work now,” she says. “I’m hoping to get something soon.”
A native of Imo state in eastern Nigeria, Nkiru graduated from secondary school and got an Ordinary National Diploma (OND)—after a two-year program—before getting married in 2013. She has a two-year-old daughter with her late husband. “When you are a widow, people treat you differently; they throw [derogatory] words at you,” she said. With very minimal aid from the Nigerian government, Nkiru is currently enrolled in a vocational training program through the support of a non-government organization called Strong Enough Girls’ Empowerment Initiative. She is learning catering and hopes to begin a business that would enable her send her daughter to school. The NGO is soliciting funds to provide Nkiru with a starter package to launch her business. When asked about her plans to further her education, Nkiru said, “Yes, I’m interested in attending university. But my major target now is my child. I just really need a job so I can afford whatever I need for my child and not depend on somebody. Once I get a job, I can plan for my education.”
Stella is a 31-year-old woman from the city of Aba in southeasten Abia state who migrated to Yenagoa in Bayelsa state in 2014. She lost her parents when she was a child and grew up with her elder brother. Stella stopped going to school after fifth grade because there was no one to pay her school fees. At the age of 15, Stella had a baby girl. Unable to take care of the child, Stella’s paternal aunt took the baby to Kano state (northern Nigeria) where, as a result of neglect, the girl was sexually abused. In a bid to provide a better life for herself and her daughter, Stella moved to Bayelsa, where she was introduced to prostitution. After months of surviving on her earnings, Stella stopped selling sex, but picked up drinking and smoking—on advice from friends as a way to overcome depression. Along the way, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. The father soon left Bayelsa, leaving Stella alone with the boy. She has not heard from him to date.
Stella currently works cleaning offices at Pact, an international anti-poverty non-governmental organization. She lives as a single mother with her 17-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. Because of the neglect and abuse her daughter experienced while staying with her aunt, she developed vaginal fistula (which makes her unable to control her bladder) and has been out of school for a number of years. Stella wants a better outcome for her daughter. “I don’t want her to experience the hardships I experienced.” Stella recently enrolled her daughter in school (8th grade) with the support of a woman in her community. She has yet to seek medical attention for her daughter’s fistula.
“Girls’ Hostel.” That’s how 29-year-old Margaret Bolaji-Adegbola (in the pink dress) describes growing up in a family of seven girls. Although her parents are natives of Osun state (south-western Nigeria), she was “born, bred, and buttered” in the northern town of Zaria, Kaduna state. In a culture, country and continent where male children are preferred, life in the Girls’ Hostel was not easy for Margaret’s family, especially her mother, who once told Margaret “I had seven children because I needed a boy child to be accepted by society.” The most significant experience in Margaret’s life was “waking up daily to see some people feel pity for my mum not because she was working so hard to make ends meet but because she was doing all that for her seven girl children,” she said. Community members believed it was ridiculous to expend such energy on girls. A woman once asked Margaret’s mother, “Why do you work tirelessly to train ‘mere’ female children?”
Despite having only a primary school education, Margaret’s mother believed in the potential and value of her female children. “She did not only raise wives and mothers as expected; she raised world-changers,” Margaret told me enthusiastically.“ I had really big dreams,” she added. “I dreamed of becoming a president, not a first lady. I dreamed of becoming a world-renowned doctor like Ben Carson. My faith in God was strong and I believed all things are possible and I just could do anything regardless of my gender. I wanted to put a smile on my mum’s face; I wanted my dad to be a proud father of girls and I wanted to live my God-given purpose of leaving an indelible mark behind.”
Today, Margaret works as a youth-program adviser with the Nigerian Urban Reproductive Health Initiative (NURHI), a five-year family planning advocacy project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Growing up in Zaria, Margaret said, “was amazing.” Although her Christian family has been impacted by the religious and ethnic violence that plague the northern region—their home and everything they owned were burned down during the 2011 post-election violence[modern_footnote]Human Rights Watch. Nigeria: Post-Election Violence Killed 800 https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/05/16/nigeria-post-election-violence-killed-800. Accessed: 01/05/2018[/modern_footnote] following the defeat of the Muslim presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and re-election of Christian President Goodluck Jonathan—she says Zaria will always be their home. “It was considerably friendly, peaceful and quiet. The ethnic and religious crises molded me to become dogged,” Margaret said. Her message to girls in Zaria is “there are inspiring female role models all around you. You only need to look beyond the veil and you can be all you want to be. Do not settle for less, you can break any barrier to reach your goal.”