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‘My friends were amazed’: Nigerian women break ‘male’ jobs barrier amid cost-of-living crisis

At the Owode Ede bus stop, Bunmi Adewale steers her brightly painted yellow auto rickshaw with one hand, using the other to gesture to passengers to hop in. Her rent is due, and she has to get up and be out by 6am, to earn as much as possible. “My job is a challenging one, but I have no choice but to engage in it to fend for my family,” says Adewale, a mother of two from Kwara state, in the west of Nigeria.

Her husband works as a primary school teacher, earning less than the the minimum wage and, according to Adewale, not enough to cover the needs of their household.

Adewale, 45, left her own teaching job two years ago to sell locust beans in a store to try to boost their income. But it helped very little. After saving and borrowing money, she managed to pay half of the price of a rickshaw, amounting to 350,000 naira (£356). The seller agreed to let her take the vehicle, provided the balance was paid within seven months.

“My friends were amazed when I decided to become a tricycle rider last year. They questioned why I would even consider taking up a job typically seen as meant for men. Some even laughed at me, thinking it was a joke,” she says.

A growing number of Nigerian women, such as Adewale, are moving into traditionally male-dominated roles as the country battles with increasing unemployment, a high cost of living and soaring inflation that has plunged more than 133 million people below the poverty line.

A report by US thinktank the Council on Foreign Relations’ women and foreign policy programme highlights that Nigeria’s gross domestic product could rise by 23% by 2025 if women were equally engaged in the country’s economy as men.

Experts say that although the Nigerian constitution advocates gender equality, women are still economically marginalised because of cultural norms and gender stereotypes.

Audu Bello, economics lecturer at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, says: “Women should have the opportunity to contribute to the economy. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country, cultural and religious barriers tempt society to confine women to specific roles. There are still people who believe that women should not be allowed to take up certain jobs.”

In 2022, Nigeria ranked 123 out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index, underscoring significant gender disparities and inequalities in various aspects of the country. Despite a population approaching 225 million, only about 60.5 million people are active participants in Nigeria’s labour force and, according to the World Bank, female labour force participation in the country has fallen markedly since the early 1990s. The World Bank reported that the labour force engagement rate for women in 2022 was 52%, while for men it stood at 65%.

But only a fraction of women secure formal employment, and many face workplace discrimination based on gender.

According to a study by the Nigeria Labour Congress and US-based Solidarity Center, 56% of female workers in the country reported experiencing gender-based violence or harassment at work; 52% said they had been threatened in, or on their way to or from work.

For Gift Udeh, a 25-year-old barber in Enugu, in the south of Nigeria, passion, not gender, has determined her choices.

In 2021, while still a student at the Abia State Polytechnic in south-east Nigeria, she persuaded her former boss to teach her how to be a barber. “He hesitated initially about having a lady apprentice at his barber shop. However, I persisted and convinced him, even offering to pay for a six-month training period under his guidance,” she says.

“I have loved barbing right from childhood, and after completing my education I made the decision to work in a barbershop full-time. I wanted to pursue something unique, as hairdressing and clothing sales are common among females. Now my goal is to establish a big shop where other women can learn the skills,” she adds.

But there are challenges, she says, as some male customers “hold patriarchal views and resist allowing me to touch their heads”.

Racheal Bahago comes from Kaduna state in the northern part of Nigeria, where only about 30% of girls attend secondary school, and more than 70% are married before they are 18.

Bahago is a flight dispatcher at Nnamdi Azikiwe International airport in Abuja.

“I do everything my male colleagues do. I resume duties very early in the morning, and some days I can be on duty till 11pm,” she says. But Bahago considers herself fortunate, acknowledging her parents’ support for her aspirations. She points out that in her community, most young women are confronted with few, if any, options.

Dorcas Sheffy Bello, a communication and gender specialist in Abuja, says: “Culture and religion pose significant barriers for many women aspiring to achieve greater heights. Here, women are often expected to fulfil roles as cooks and housewives. Even our education system was not designed to favour women. While there may have been some improvements, we must reflect on how well we have truly progressed, considering that the numbers of women in elevated positions are still low.”

The world is changing and women are going into the job markets because a man’s salary may not be able to cater for the home

Ejiro Umukoro, a women’s rights advocate, says that African societies should regard all occupations as a level playing field where anyone who is capable can participate.

She adds: “Job segregation based on sex has long been a practice but now technology and civilisation is shifting the narrative. In Africa, it is believed that the man’s job is to protect and provide and sometimes, a woman who earns is seen as a threat. But these patriarchal norms no longer hold water. The world is changing and women are going into the job markets because a man’s salary may not be able to cater for the home.”

For Blessing Madaki, who works with the government’s Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, the various programmes and policies aimed at empowering Nigerian women are moving the dial. “Take for instance, in several states, we are witnessing a positive shift in providing more leadership opportunities for women. A notable example is in Kaduna state where, for the first time in history, the former commissioner for local government was a woman,” she says. “The previous commissioner of planning and budget, as well as the commissioner of education, were both women.”

However, Nigeria has a persistently low representation of women in politics and decision-making roles. In the 2023 general elections, of 15,307 candidates, 1,550 were women. Women had 15 out 423 seats in the country’s legislative chambers, and only one woman emerged as a presidential candidate.

“At times, I do feel like giving up because of the economic downturn. But if I quit, who will provide for my son?” says Lilian Ezeugwu, an Uber driver who used to run an arts centre for children in Lagos.

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In May, President Bola Tinubu removed subsidies that led to a surge in fuel prices, and since then Ezeugwu has had days when she did not drive. However, she says she nevertheless prefers driving to her previous job.

Ezeugwu had saved up to buy a car because the arts centre paid very little. Initially, she considered hiring someone else’s car for the job, but the weekly fee of 20,000 naira required was “outrageous”.

“I am a single parent, and I wanted a job that would give me the flexibility to spend time with my child while also earning a living. My main goal is to provide for myself and my eight-year-old son. The first day I picked up a customer, I felt nervous. In fact a couple I picked up that day was shocked to see a woman at the wheel. It is difficult, but I will keep pushing,” she says.