Being Female In Nigeria


The world sat up and listened two weeks ago when Nigerian women used Twitter and the hashtag #beingfemaleinnigeria to share their experiences – a catalogue of stories about navigating a world coloured by patriarchy and deep-rooted social and culture stereotypes. The most popular tweets were the ones that dealt with the double standards around marriage, employment and bearing sons, but in between what seemed like playful ribbing about dumbing down and under achieving to protect fragile male egos, there were the bruisers: haunting references to rape and domestic violence and the heavy burden of responsibility which lies on the victim in our society.

Relief from the status quo will only come with time and persistently negotiated spaces/changes over time between millions of sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, girlfriends and boyfriends. It will take a re-orientation about what it means to be female and male – which is something the rest of the world is also still working on and through.

While this is hopefully a conversation which has started, albeit in muted voices, it is important to examine where the responsibility of the state lies in creating a safer, more equitable and nurturing environment for women and girls to thrive in.

In Nigeria there is little doubt that women and girls have made strides – there are many inspiring stories of entrepreneurs, academics, professionals and care givers- but like everything else in Nigeria, there is a wide gap between the successes and the not successful. The abysmal social development indices on violence against women, maternal mortality, infant mortality, economic empowerment, access to justice, girl child education and structural discriminatory practices means that the latter group is the majority, so we must focus on trying to raise more women and girls up and out.

It is crucial to determine what will help change the tide against women and girls. Twenty years after the creation of a ministry of women affairs – a feat Nigeria was proud of achieving as one major milestone from the Beijing Platform for Action, it must be painful for those who fought and advocated for its creation to admit that things have not gone the way it was imagined. Having a ministry for women has not significantly improved the life of Nigerian women. At our most generous, the ministry has prevented things from getting worse.

Today, Nigeria has the 3rd highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. The good news is that the numbers are dropping. In 1995, when the Ministry of women affairs was first created, we were averaging 50,000 deaths every year now we are down to 40,000. Should responsibility for this lie with the Federal Ministry of Health with a budget of N264 Billion in 2014 and N237 Billion in 2015? Or with the Ministry of Women Affairs with a budget of N4.5 Billion in 2014 and N1.3 Billion in 2015?

The effectiveness of the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and the 36 sisters as institutional mechanisms for ‘promoting the development of women with equal rights’ has been hampered by several critical factors. This lonely state structure for improving the lives of women and girls is hobbled by chronic under funding, under capacity (in terms of understanding the science and art of gender equality and empowerment), political interference and a lack of will.

Unfortunately, if President Buhari adopts the recommendation of the Joda committee for the rationalisation of ministries these issues will be compounded. The proposal is to merge Women Affairs with Sports and Youth Development to create Gender, Family Affairs, Youth and Sports. We must not be deceived by the priority given to some of the words; youth development and sports have always received more funding than women affairs, ironic if anyone remembers that the first gold medal Nigeria ever won in a sporting event came from a female athlete. In 2014, Youth Development received N80 Billion to the Women Affairs N4 Billion and in 2015 the former will get N69 Billion compared to the latter’s N1.3 Billion.

A tussle for supremacy within the merged entity should be expected despite the suggested three ministers (1 senior minister and 2 junior ministers) and it is likely that power will follow the money. What will being submerged in this structure mean for the struggle to empower women?

Those who are worried by this possibility, see this development as a negation of over 20 years of advocacy and support for institutional structures and mechanisms for dealing with the gender gap. It will mean that work to strengthen gender institutions, which is intrinsically tied to women empowerment, would be further submerged, weakened and devalued. Besides, it is a regression from the global best practice of having gender-focused institutions.

Others see this development as an opportunity. To say, ‘thanks, but no thanks’. Instead of staking a claim to a goulash ministry, women would be better served without a ministry of women affairs but by gender being mainstreamed into government policy and implementation with gender desks in every ministry and agency.

Proponents of this option believe that the current political structures and the superficial acceptance of the need for gender equality and empowerment mean that the structures are designed to fail, or at best to provide infinitesimal progress which, when adjusted for time and population growth, accounts for nothing.

When the wind of change blows, it will often bring the wanted, unwanted and unexpected. This is the time for women in Nigeria to view what is coming as an opportunity. There is room to negotiate for more innovative state controlled and funded mechanisms with inbuilt accountability checks for citizens and civil society and with checks to minimize political interference. It is one thing to take the world by storm with stories about #beingfemaleinnigeria and quite another to create a world for women and girls where we can say

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