By Adekunle Theophilius
March 8, 2014 marked the celebration of the International Working Women’s Day. More than a hundred years ago, women poured out onto the streets in some countries demanding not just better conditions at work but also the right to vote, to hold office and to be equal partners with men .The first ever International Women’s Day was called to draw attention to the unacceptable and often dangerous working conditions that so many women faced worldwide. The day was set aside to celebrate the gains of working women organizing for change and recommitting to the ongoing struggle for justice. The campaign for and acquisition of civil and political rights by women has been categorized among the 100 most pervasive and significant dramatic changes and events of the past hundred years. It is under this context that an analysis of how Nigerian working women have fared in the past century will be conducted.
Undoubtedly, Nigerian women were late starters in the world of work. Infact Africans generally loathed the colonial mode of paid employment which was antithetical to their idea of communal service and subsistence farming, It wasn’t until the commencement of colonial rule and the need for manpower to service the machinery of the colonial administration and build infrastructures in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that the British as a result of the aversion of Nigerians to work resorted to forced labor and draconian measures i.e introduction of taxation in cash to compel Nigerians to man administrative offices, construct roads, bridges, harbors and railway lines etc. In many of these countries, the working conditions and remuneration of the employed Africans was terrible and grossly inadequate, women rarely featured and even when they did they fared worse than men.
Nigerians gradually started to accept and participate in the concept of paid employment with women predominant in low paying and less dignifying jobs earning lower wages for the same amount of work, experiencing more discrimination in the workplace and having deplorable conditions of work. Even after independence in 1960 and the influx of Nigerians into positions hitherto occupied by and reserved for Britons, the situation of Nigerian women did not change much. The prevalence of cultural and religious beliefs stymied the progress of women. Most communities placed emphasis on educating and pampering the boy child to the detriment of girls. The preference of married couples for male children also accentuated the deplorable situation of women as life was short, nasty and brutish for the girl child everywhere who was often perceived as a burden. Child care and other family responsibilities also constituted a formidable obstacle to women participation in and reentry into the labour market. Nigeria, being a patriarchal society, perpetrated systemic and structural discrimination against women in the distribution of wealth, power, authority etc. Socialization which allotted domestic chores i.e washing clothes and cooking to women whilst associating men with decision making, problem solving and engaging in intellectual discourses only served to further subordinate the female gender to the male gender.
However, with time, as the country began to develop, the economy began to expand, amenities sprung up, government structures created and educational institutions increased, we witnessed enhanced accessibility to more and qualitative employment opportunities for women that consistently translated to better wages, standards of living, freedom of choice and enhanced liberties. This developed fuelled dramatic increase in national employment mobility, purchasing power of women, feminization of some aspects of labour force, rise of women liberation movements and enhanced workforce participation. From this period, Nigerian Women were unstoppable, partaking in series of diverse businesses, graduating with honors in diverse courses, engaging in arrays of social activities signing up for hitherto male dominated jobs, endeavors and academic fields and striving to make their mark in the society. They have shown that with a level playing ground they have got what it takes to excel and compete favorably with their male counterparts anywhere in the world. A recent Goldman Sachs report, “The Power of the Purse,” contended that education for girls is increasing women’s decision-making power, shifting household spending patterns toward food, healthcare, education, childcare, apparel, consumer durables and financial services, categories more important to women. Likewise, women-led small businesses are seen as a key driver of job creation and economic growth
One of the greatest outcomes of the current democratic dispensation in Nigeria which started in 1999 is the qualitative participation and empowerment of women in all spheres of life and sectors of the Nigerian economy. We are seeing Nigerian women run for office, attain positions in the top echelon of social and professional groups, serve in the military, accomplish breakthroughs in science, achieve feats in medicine, and engineering, excel in arts achieve , distinguish themselves in politics and judiciary, and occupy strategic positions in government and business. We can indeed affirm that Nigerian women have seized and optimized the little opportunities they had to be where they are today. A glaring certainty that cannot be controverted is that everyone gains when women are doing well at work—individuals, unions, families, enterprises, communities and the nation at large. Inarguably, Nigerian women have made significant socio-economic and political progress over the past 100years
We cannot talk about enhancing the status of women in Nigeria without highlighting four significant epics. The establishment an intergovernmental body – Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) by the United Nations in 1947 to promote women’s rights and act as the advocate for international action in cases of extreme and severe violations of women’s rights. The launching of the United Nations (UN) Decade for Women in 1975, a ten-year plan to focus international efforts on promoting women issues. Between 1975 and 1985, tremendous awareness was created through conferences organized globally on many issues of development, equality and rights of women in many nations. In some African countries, most especially Nigeria, women made positive gains as a result of these conferences.
The adoption of CEDAW-Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women- ”an international bill of rights for women consisting of a preamble and 30 articles which defined what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination” by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 as a result of various widespread abuse of and discrimination against women, the outcry by individuals and groups against this and in response to the ever growing and louder outcry from NGO’s, CSO’s, CBO’s, INGO’s etc. The fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China 1995. The Platform for action that emerged from the Conference focused on removing the obstacles to women’s equal participation in the society. A major achievement of the Conference was the recommendation of an affirmative action that reserves or should reserve 30% of political, managerial, leadership and elective posts for women to fast-forward their integration into the decision-making bodies in the society which is partially being observed in Nigeria
Adekunle Theophilius is Chief Training and Manpower Development Officer at Micheal Imoudu National Institute For Labour Studies, Ilorin, Kwara state