Nigeria: Women’s oppression under patriarchy and capitalism

We women in Nigeria live in utter privation. We still face oppression of various kinds both at home, work, schools and in society – such as the refusal to legalize abortion (abortion rights), divorce rights, rape/harassment and so on. All these cannot be disconnected from the capitalist system – a system that reinforces patriarchy and creates inequality and discrimination. It is a system that survives mainly by oppressing and exploiting the vast majority, including women, to further enrich the tiny minority.


Indeed, for women it is a double tragedy. In addition to being exploited as workers under the capitalist system just like men, women again suffer gender oppression in a patriarchal society like ours. Women are discriminated against in almost all areas because we are viewed as the ‘weaker sex’; i.e. in the education system, health, political representation, labour market and in many other areas.


In Nigeria, many girls do not have access to adequate education beyond a certain age. There are many reasons for this i.e. cultural, religious factors etc. For instance in the North, for cultural and religious reasons, a great proportion of girls are not enrolled in school. Instead they are married off to older men as soon as they reach puberty. But the most significant factor is the soaring cost of education, arising from government policies of underfunding and education commercialization, which forces working class and poor parents to decide on which of their children the family will invest its lean resources in to educate. Usually the male child is preferred to the female child when choices of this nature are to be made.

Of course, there has been some improvement in terms of enrolment in the past few decades. For instance, not only has the proportion of girls enrolled in primary school increased (from 45.7 % in 2010 to 48.6% in 2015),  also the completion rate for girls in primary schools has increased from 46.7 % in 2010 to 48.3% in 2015.  Similar trends can be observed in the secondary school enrolment of course with allowance for local and regional peculiarities. However, enrolment into tertiary institutions across the country remains male dominated on average. 

Currently, the female adult literacy rate (ages 15 and above) for the country is 59.4% in comparison to the male adult literacy rate of 74.4% (National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) “Statistical report on women and men”, 2015). In 2010, the percentage of females completing tertiary institutions decreased from 41.3 percent to 38.4 percent in 2015. Unless a mass movement is built with the active participation of women to fight for improved funding of education, provision of free education at all levels and democratic management of schools, the situation can get worse over the next decade.


Nigeria had the world’s second highest maternal mortality rate of 1,100 per 100,000 births in 2007. This scary statistic has not significantly improved as the most recent estimate in 2015 put it at 814 deaths per 100,000 live births. It is the underfunding of the health sector that has led to this high mortality rate of women during childbirth and the pregnancy period and the deaths of women with curable diseases. Lack of access to prenatal and postnatal care, obstetric services and family planning information contributes to the high maternal mortality rate. Other contributing factors include unsafe abortions, inadequate post-abortion care, early and child marriages, early pregnancies, inadequate family planning services, the low rates of contraceptive usage, lack of sex education etc. Also, about 59 percent of deaths from HIV/AIDS are women.

Since abortion is illegal in Nigeria, many women resort to unsafe abortion methods, leading to abortion-related complications and increasing mortality and morbidity rates. Research has revealed that only 40% of abortions are performed by physicians with proper health facilities while the remaining percentage are performed by non-physicians. Consequently, abortion accounts for 40% of maternal deaths in Nigeria, making it the second leading cause of maternal mortality in the country.

Female genital mutilation in Nigeria accounts for the largest number of female genital cutting/mutilation (FGM/C) cases worldwide. Nationally, 27% of Nigerian women between the ages of 15 and 49 are victims of FGM. In the last 30 years, prevalence of the practice has decreased by half in some parts of Nigeria but it is still prevalent in the rural areas where cultural practices are strong.


As a group, women do as much work as men, if not more. However, the types of work, as well as the conditions under which women work, and their access to opportunities for advancement, differs from men.   Women are often disadvantaged compared to men in access to employment opportunities and conditions of work.

In 2015, the Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) was 65.1 percent for women and 71.4 percent for men (National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) “Statistical report on women and men”, 2015). This reflects the changes that have taken place in the structure of society over the past three decades. Increased access to education and the impact of capitalist neo-liberal attacks on living standards are undermining some of the cultural and traditional beliefs that have consigned women to the home. In any case, given the fall in real wages, many working class households can only survive each month by relying on the income of both parents. As a result many women are now going out to work.

But instead of this constituting the basis for the full liberation of women, it has further increased our yoke because we now have to combine taking care of the home and children (unpaid care work) with our jobs. This is aside from the fact that the jobs readily available to women are low paid, contract jobs in industries producing garments or hair attachments or as teachers, nurses, bank cashiers, market traders, office assistants, petrol station attendants. A big proportion of women still work on the farms tilling small plots that can barely yield enough to feed the family.

Also, despite increased participation of women in the labour process, gender inequality still persists. At the primary level of education, female teachers constitute the highest proportion, where the pay and conditions are poor, while constituting just about 25 percent of teaching staff at the tertiary level of education where the pay and conditions are relatively better. For the period, 2010-2015, on the average, 72.3 percent of senior positions in State Civil Service were occupied by men compared to 27.7 percent occupied by women. At the junior level and across the staff, a similar pattern was maintained. The proportion of men employed in the reference period was consistently higher than that of women.

In addition, women earn less than men in both manual and non-manual jobs, where there is work of equal value. All these are clear evidence of the double exploitation women experience under the capitalist system. Women also face lots of challenges in the workplace such as insecurity, sexual harassment, inequality in pay, insufficient maternity leave.

Rape and sexual assault

Rape, sexual harassment and violence against women are prevalent in Nigeria. Physical and sexual violence against women affects mostly females in the age bracket of 20-24 years old.  A few cases of domestic violence leading to death have dominated the headlines in recent years. Some of these cases involved middle class families. But the situation is even more tragic for women on low incomes who may not have the choice of leaving violent relationships due to the inability of affording decent housing and adequate means of livelihood. In other words, poor women are at risk of suffering greater domestic violence.

Likewise, sexual harassment is prevalent on the campuses. Male lecturers often compel female students to have sex with them in exchange for good marks. If they refuse, they stand the chance of failing their courses. There was a case last year at Auchi Polytechnic, Edo state, where male students were compelled to hire sex workers at a cost between N10, 000 and N20, 000 to sleep with lecturers on their behalf in order to pass courses or plead with their girlfriends to sleep with the lecturers if they could not afford the cost. On their part, female students often had no other choice but to yield to the desire of the lecturers or keep failing the courses. Several schools and even the students unions have no mechanism or programme to deal with these issues. Also most victims are afraid of the stigma and also do not trust that anything will be done.

Cases of women being brutalized for infidelity, especially in the North, cannot be overlooked. Whereas if their male counterparts commit the same “offence” they are never questioned rather they are celebrated, defended and praised for showing their power and control.

All these attitudes and practices are rooted in a patriarchal view and way of life which has to be fought. Also religious ideas like Sharia law further reinforces patriarchal beliefs by portraying women as the property of men.

As the mass misery in Nigeria intensifies, trafficking is rising. This is because while young men who leave the shores of the country to escape poverty may have the choice of selling their labour power, the girls, mostly uneducated or half-educated, have only their bodies to sell. Consequently between 2010 and 2015, more females were trafficked, with the proportion of females trafficked for prostitution as high as 70.8 percent for people aged 18-27 years. This reflects the worsening conditions of women and the working masses in general under capitalism.  

Women have also suffered atrociously from the violent crises breaking out across the country. The herdsmen versus farmers clashes have made women on both sides widows meaning they now have to take up the burden of the whole family. Several women have also been killed and had their farms and livestock destroyed in the unfolding crisis.

Boko Haram attacks

Perhaps more than any, the Boko Haram crisis which started in 2009 has affected women and girls disproportionately. In fact women, especially girls enrolled in school, have become targets of the Islamic fundamentalist group which is against western education. Just a few days ago on Monday 19 February 2018, 110 girls were abducted by suspected Boko Haram militants from their dormitories at the Government Girls Science Technical College (GGSTC) in Dapchi, Yobe state.

This comes about four years after a similar abduction of 276 girls on the night of 14 to 15 April 2014 from a boarding school in Chibok, Borno state. All these attacks have had an enormous impact on school enrolment, rolling back recent progress made in girl-child education. Also, many women have been turned into widows and many have lost their homes and means of livelihood. Many are now at Internally Displaced Persons camps (IDPs) as a result of the insurgency.

The labour movement must fight for women

Organised women constitute a sizeable portion of the labour movement especially the teachers’ union, nurses’ union etc. Unfortunately, the trade unions rarely reflect in their propaganda or agitation issues concerning women. Also the trade unions have no active campaign targeted at the sexual harassment, unequal pay, sexism and rape that many female workers undergo. Also on the campuses, the students’ unions and education workers’ unions have no programme to campaign against these issues even when their members are affected.

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) – CWI Nigeria – calls for active campaigns led by the labour movement and students’ movement against women’s oppression and discrimination in workplaces, communities and campuses.

We need active campaigns that link the discrimination and oppression women face with the fight against attacks on public education and heath, for increases in the minimum wage and improved working conditions, against privatization, deregulation and all anti-poor capitalist policies.

Crucially too, we need a campaign that is fully conscious that women’s oppression can fully end only when patriarchy and the capitalist system that reinforces it are defeated. This means a workers’ and poor people’s government coming to power armed with socialist policies of the public ownership of key sectors of the economy under democratic public control and management as a step towards mobilizing and using the resources of society only for the benefit of the vast majority of the populace.

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March 2018