Violence, Lack of Opportunities Plague Nigerian Women


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ILE-IFE, NIGERIA -- Moni Alagbe, 44, is good looking and successful. She makes an above average salary and is the mother of beautiful daughters. Despite her public persona, Alagbe is miserable. She says her husband beats her nearly every day. Her crime? She gave birth to daughters instead of sons. “I receive [a] beating for every mistake I make because I am a mother of girls,” she says through tears. “I could not give him boys.”

Alagbe said her marriage was blissful at first. But now, her husband is considering bringing another woman into their home – one who can give him a son. For many experts working toward the goal of sustainable development in Africa there is one nagging issue that continues to hinder progress – the oppression of women.

For years, international figures from Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State to the United States, to James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, have argued that African nations have not progressed socially or economically partly due to what they describe as disrespectful and violent treatment of the continent’s women. Ritual killings, sexual abuse, rape and prostitution are still common throughout Africa, and Nigeria is no exception.

The degradation of women has continued for many reasons – patriarchal societal rules as well as limited jobs and other opportunities. Many argue that the primary obstacle remains that women are under-represented in local and national leadership. “Empowerment of women is the secret weapon of the development in Africa,” declared Wolfensohn at a benefit in Nigeria in 2006. “The problem is you (men) beat them up. Gender violence has got to stop,” he said. But in the years since, few tangible developments or improvements have been made.

This stagnant state of progress, Wolfensohn and others agree, is among the major causes of African underdevelopment and can be traced to the disrespect, enslavement, oppression and disempowerment of women in Nigeria and other African nations. “The issue of unequal relation of power is too much and it is very strong in Africa,” says Dr Toyin Mejiuni, professor, activist and founder of Nigeria’s Women Against Rape, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Exploitation. Mejiuni said Africa is at a breaking point and must address the needs and rights of its women, if it is ever to attain maturity. Disrespect, though, remains the least of many women’s worries.

Throughout Nigeria, millions of women, like Alagbe, are subjected to a life of physical and psychological trauma and in extreme cases are made victims of ritual killings. In Nigeria, a deeply religious society, many believe in the existence of the supernatural beings and appease these god-like entities through ritual acts and sacrifices. Rituals play a major role in people’s traditional religious practice and observance. Generally, these acts are to appease spirits and to ward off misfortune. According to recent media articles, in eight of every 10 ritual killings, young women are the victims. The threat of ritual killing is perhaps the most outrageous, but it is just one of many possible physical and emotional traumas women may face.

In Nigeria, many women have limited their work and social hours in an attempt to avoid sexual violence, now common in the streets. Forced prostitution has also become common in Nigeria. There are many “mushroom hotels,” or small bars where individuals can rent rooms by the hour with women who are paid weekly or monthly stipends for their sex.

“Poverty is defined by low income, low human development, lack of voice and vulnerability to abuse. Women suffer all the above,” says Dr. L. M. Durosinmi, acting dean of student affairs division of Obafemi Awolowo University.

Women like Dr. Durosinmi and Mejiuni are a rarity here. They are educated. Throughout all of Africa, there is only one female head of state – the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In Nigeria, where women make up 45 percent of the population according to the last population census in 2006, there has never been a woman governor or president. In the Senate, out of the 109 seats, only nine are held by women. In the House of Representatives, women take only 24 of the 360 seats. Beyond government, women continue to have limited roles in other prominent professions throughout the country. Research conducted by the Center for Gender and Social Policy at Obafemi Awolowo University revealed that women make up just over four percent of academic staff and 13 percent of university leadership.

In Nigeria, very few women stand out as professional examples of success. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Nweala, Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance during President Obasanjo’s regime, was able to settle most of the country's foreign debt burden. Sometimes, women’s progress leads to smaller, more personal achievements. Alagbe said she would have stayed in her abusive marriage forever, but recently a team from Operation Stop Violence Against Women helped her to move out of her husband’s home. Today she lives in a small apartment with her daughters. “Even though I dread this,” she says referring to being separated from her husband, “I must confess that I am now at peace with my daughters.”

This article was created in partnership with Voices of Our Future.