The United Nations Human Development Report of 2006 places Nigeria at 151 out of 177 nation-states rated basically in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment, income, seats in parliament held by women, female professional and technical workers, ratio of estimated female to male earned income, female economic activities rate, population without sustainable access to improved water source and total fertility rate, etc.
Taking into consideration the country’s huge human and material resources, it is a scandal that Nigeria is not among the nations moving up on the rungs of the human development ladder. Most of the efforts by development organisations and non-governmental organisations to alleviate poverty have failed because of the entrenched capitalist patriarchal structure, which places Nigerian resources in the hands of the few rich men and women.
The social and economic development of any society in our modern but crisis-ridden world requires the contribution of women. Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Russian revolution stated, “The building of socialism will begin only when we have achieved the complete equality of women”. This emphasises the vital role of women in building an egalitarian society. For any meaningful development to take place in society, women’s involvement must not be reduced to tokenism – just reserving some percentage of seats for women in parliament. What is most important is for women to a play dynamic role in the social transformations of society.
Education is a key factor in civilisation and development for both men and women in any society. Statistics in Nigeria have shown that 58% of teenage girls have no education at all compared with 21% who have primary education and 5% with some secondary education. Females’ education has been seen as a secondary factor compared to that of males until very recently when the issue of discrimination against the female sex became an issue. Education for girls has been developed in ways that in many cases have disadvantaged girls by excluding them from some professional courses.
Universal access to free basic education is a key element of child rights, embodied in Article 28 of the Child Rights Convention (CRC), which prescribes, “The child has a right to education and the state duty is to ensure that primary education is free and compulsory” . The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in Article 10 upholds the right of equal access to education and abhors any form of discrimination against women. But all this is just a mirage for the Nigerian civil servants whose monthly income is N18, 000 ($140) for state workers and federal civil servants who earn about N30, 000 ($231) as a university graduate on level 8. In most cases these workers have the choice of sending their children to public schools or not sending them at all to any school, instead exposing girls to petty trading on the street.
A woman’s level of education is a determining factor for her time of marriage, reproductive health rights and her role in decision-making. It will also have a tremendous impact on the health and nourishment of her children. Education is a key means to social improvement as women’s position within the family is integrally linked to progress in other areas. As women’s situation and status at home improves, the family should become a place where lessons of repression and compliance are replaced by those of partnership and equality – the ‘democratic’ family. But this is not happening in Africa.
Despite the importance of formal education, there has been a virtual deprivation of education for the girl child in Nigeria. Girls going long distances to fetch water, dropping out of school to help provide for the family through hawking of goods, lack of the necessary infrastructure and outright poverty are some of the reasons that have affected female education.
Nigerian capitalist economy is detrimental to Nigerian women. The government’s efforts to implement the international financial institutions’ (IFIs) demands for harsh economic measures and the dreadful search for cut-throat profit by business operators to survive the harsh economic situation, have suffocated the Nigerian economy, increased unemployment and widened the gap between women and men, rich and poor. While men have continued to wander in public in search of daily needs, women languish at home in line with the division of roles along lines of gender.
Increasing poverty since the end of the oil boom in the late 1970s has driven millions of women into jobs that are very exploitative, hazardous and detrimental to their welfare and development. The economic liberalisation measures advocated by the World Bank and the IMF have been accompanied by a significant redefinition in policy priorities: a decrease in state control over the economy, extended access to private enterprise and foreign investment and an emphasis on export-led development.
Neo-liberal economic policies have imposed widespread privatisation, deregulation of the oil sector, the removal of subsidies on basic goods, the downsizing of the labour force and the opening up of the Nigerian market to foreign goods. This has led to the collapse of many industries and to widespread unemployment in Nigeria, resulting in many female-headed household. The cities are full of gangs of frustrated unemployed youths. Angry and hungry women are prone to violence. Exploited women are deprived of any chance to develop their potential and enjoy basic freedoms. Sex workers in the presence of AIDS are among the poorest and most downtrodden members of society in the country.
The past eight years under the Obasanjo government have seen some increase in the number of women holding public positions, both elected and appointed. Women constitute about 40% of the appointed officers serving in the Obasanjo administration. This is more than the celebrated ‘affirmative action benchmark’ of 30%. However it has demonstrated that having women in government does not automatically translate into improvements in the living conditions of the average woman. The conditions of poor women and men have got worse under Obasanjo. This is why the agitation for increased participation of women in politics should be linked with the struggle against anti-poor, neo-liberal policies.
An increase in political participation has also not meant that the obstacles in the way of women have been dismantled. There are still some states in the northern part of the country where there are no women in government, to the extent that even the ministry of women’s affairs is headed by a man! The Sun newspaper of Sunday, March 4 reported that Iyabo Anisulowo, a former minister, says she lost the backing of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) for re-election to the senate because she refused to “succumb to sexual advances of a particular national leader of the party”.
Women’s access to health facilities in Nigeria is very poor due to poverty, the environment, water, supply, sanitation, educational levels, cultural attitudes and gender relations. The 1999 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) reported that only 53% of the population lives within one kilometer of a health centre, clinic or hospital. One third of the rural communities are accessible by seasonal roads only. Timely access to secondary and tertiary health facilities is particularly problematical for the Niger Delta women who have to travel by boat to bigger towns within the region for medical attention. NDHS statistics show that 21% of the Niger Delta households have no access to health facilities. The figure of one doctor per 82,000 people in the Delta is more than three times the national average.
With the patriarchal traditional culture that lays a lot of emphasis on bearing children and if possible, male children, Nigerian women can go to great lengths to fulfill expectations often to the detriment of their own health. Early child birth tends to leave women and their babies with permanent forms of disability. Many women suffer from avoidable or preventable problems during pregnancy and childbirth. Numerous women with disabling conditions due to pregnancy end up being divorced or abandoned by their husbands and are socially ostracized. Women’s health is greatly affected by the decaying Nigerian health system.
Last year I experienced what many women go through in Nigeria. I gave birth to my first child – a baby girl – prematurely. I saw and heard her crying. Seven hours later I was told she was dead. I found out there was no permanent pediatrician in the hospital and the drug they ought to give a premature baby cannot be found in Nigeria.
Water and Sanitation
The majority of under-five deaths in Nigeria result from diseases related to unsafe water, inadequate sanitary facilities, poor housing conditions or lack of hygiene. Malnutrition – a major cause of child deaths – is closely related to diarrhea caused by poor water quality and sanitation facilities. Inadequate drainage leads to accumulated waste water and provides breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies. This leads to the spread of malaria which is the single most important cause of death in the country.
The use of a single water source such as a local well, stream, pond or river, for multiple purposes, including bathing, washing etc. results in the contamination of water and has contributed to the high incidence of water borne disease. The indigenous people of the oil producing communities, where the nation’s wealth is obtained, do not have access even to the basic amenities of life, such as clean drinking water, good health facilities and electricity. Meanwhile, the oil companies drilling and exploring oil and gas on their land have these amenities for their staff, in the same environment.
The fetching of water inflicts a heavy burden on women and girls in Nigeria. They have to walk very long distances to the few sources of clean water and queue for a long time to fill their buckets. Carrying water on their head and walking long distances has a lot of consequence on the health of women and girls. In most cases, the water containers they carry have a capacity for 20 litres of water. Carrying such a heavy weight on the head has a severe health implication for the back and hips of women and girls who experience back-ache and joint pains.
Women and the Niger Delta conflict
The exploitation of oil resources in the Niger Delta has resulted in particular economic and environmental conflicts. Oil provides over 90% of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings, yet the people of the Niger Delta are among the poorest in Nigeria. In the upland areas where agricultural activities are high, crop yields have greatly declined. Farmlands have been taken away from women, who are the main farmers, for laying oil pipelines which criss-cross the land and contaminate it. Food shortage within the region has led to importation from other parts of the country leading to high costs of food and higher poverty levels. To make matters worse, Nigerian women do not have access to the technology or information to improve agricultural production.
Women suffer great hardships in times of conflict. The women of the Niger Delta are no exception. During the conflicts with oil companies and the Nigerian government, women are subjected to all kinds of violence – sexual violence such as rape, physical violence such as beatings, maiming and murder, and destruction of properties. Niger Delta women suffer unimaginable human rights abuses for which redress is unattainable because the agents of government who perpetrate the abuses “cannot” be subjected to the rule of law. Husbands, fathers and sons have been killed or maimed in the conflict and women have had to assume burdensome responsibilities as the heads of households.
With all this suffering, women have found their capacity to fight. They are no longer passive in issues affecting their communities. The massive non-violent protest by women from several communities in the Niger Delta in 2002 serves as a reference point. The women demanded the cleaning up of oil spills, environmental protection, jobs, education and health services and economic investment in their communities. The tactics and determination of the women forced the Chevron Oil Company to send their senior executives to negotiate with them. The parties agreed to a deal that meant Chevron-Texaco was supposed to employ local people, fund schools, electricity provision and other infrastructure projects and also assist women in setting up poultry and fish farms.
Unfortunately for the women, the Chevron Oil Company did not implement their Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Instead the company chose to use divide and rule tactics to destabilise the women. The success of their protest against the Chevron Texaco did not elevate their political status in society nor has it given them more participation in community development decision-making. The reality of the situation in the Niger Delta shows that women gaining political power is considered a threat to the male-dominated political structure.
Although poverty and exploitation affect men and women, elders and youth, women’s subordination and lack of opportunities as well as their exclusion from decision-making, make them more vulnerable to poverty. In addition women in the region do not have access to jobs and social services. This situation has created a large commercial sex market in the region with all the associated health and social problems. It is the Niger Delta region that is the worst affected by Nigeria’s HIV/AIDS burden. The presence of affluent oil workers in the midst of such poverty in the region has led to high rates of prostitution.
To improve the situation of women, we have to agitate for equal opportunities, free health care and education, provision of useful employment, etc. The temporary gains that can be achieved under capitalism, as a result of mass struggles of the oppressed masses, can only be made permanent through the socialist reconstruction of society which would end the oppression of women in general.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we of the Democratic Socialist Movement dedicate ourselves to building a powerful socialist alternative, which will emancipate poor working class women along with all other exploited sections of society.