In 2008, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that 52,000 Nigerian women were dying annually due to pregnancy and child-birth related complications. In more comprehensible terms, the number translates to 145 women per day.
Population is a critical asset for any nation, with far-reaching social, political and economic consequences. In Nigeria, it also happens to be a controversial issue because of regional, inter-state and ethnic ramifications. Its dwindling female population however has consequences that go much beyond the immediately obvious effect of a rapidly skewing sex ratio. Nigeria has ambitious rapid development plans to take it to the top twenty world economies by 2020. The eventual success of this endeavor is inextricably linked to entrepreneurial performance, as well as to the management of its womenfolk who comprises close to half its total human resource.
Although there are dissenting voices on the subject, it is widely accepted that women in Nigeria are systematically discriminated against, harassed and abused at home and work, and suffer violent crimes and unequal treatment both within their homes and outside. Deep-set regressive and repressive practices have led to unabated misery for Nigerian women in various forms: social inferiority, economic disempowerment, denial of access to property and inheritance, sexual abuse, trafficking and proliferation of HIV/AIDS.
A 2000 World Bank study titled ‘Can Africa Claim the 21 Century’ sets forth two fundamental premises that hold especially true for Nigeria2:
* Gender inequality is both an economic and a social issue.
* Greater gender equality could be a potent force for accelerated poverty reduction in Africa.
Given the acute poverty situation in Nigeria – where close to 76 million are officially classified as poor and 54% of the citizenry live on less than $1 per day – women’s empowerment and their worthwhile inclusion in the development processes is key to sustainable growth. The country has huge oil and natural gas reserves that have earned it an estimated $600 billion in the past half a century. However, successive decades of political turmoil and government mismanagement have rendered the vast majority of its people destitute, and left facing multifarious problems arising out of unequal wealth distribution and an extreme divide between rich and poor. Illiteracy, unemployment, rampant crime and organized violence are just a few of the outcomes of this unfortunate situation.
The impact of Nigeria’s history has been particularly severe on its women, leading many to take up traditional, village-level enterprises to eke out a meagre subsistence and supplement family income. The motivation here, importantly, is basic survival – food, clothes, household needs – and not wealth creation. Faced with often insurmountable circumstantial challenges, individual and groups of women entrepreneurs have traditionally held on to extremely small scale ventures in the manufacturing and services sectors, largely without any organizational support or guidance.
Curiously, this sad state of affairs is simultaneously an attribute that offers policy makers a substantial if dormant advantage. By virtue of their involvement in cottage and village level enterprises, Nigerian women are already an active entrepreneurial group with uncharted economic and human resource potential. To perhaps overtly simplify, all they need is a policy-level nudge in the right direction to help them capitalise on their accrued talents to bring about exhaustive development across the battered landscape of their country.
The fate of both Nigeria’s 2020 target and Millennium Development Goals hinges substantially on its ability to drive an entrepreneurial revolution that suitably develops and taps the latent abilities of its massive female population. The following are 7 creative proposals that could make it happen:
1. Introducing legal reforms to ensure equal rights of women to ownership, inheritance and financial control; with a view to reinforcing their special skills and advantages and leveraging them for immediate and long-term macro-economic gains, at both local and national levels.
2. Re-prioritising budgetary outlays and official expenditure models with the specific objective of improving gender equality, through the introduction of special schemes and programs that effectively encourage women’s involvement in entrepreneurial activities.
3. Enforcing equitable gender participation through the development of focused entrepreneurial activity for women that takes their socio-cultural, legal and economic constraints into account. Policy changes must be initiated to overcome hurdles in the gainful involvement of women in viable enterprises.
4. Initiating government incentive programs for existing and emerging enterprises that proactively involve women in different hierarchies. Educating present and future entrepreneurs on the unique business and social advantages they stand to derive from this dynamic group.
5. Facilitating partnerships between women and financial, advisory and support agencies; in a way that compensates for their lack of formal business acumen, experience and access to funding. Fostering partnerships between women entrepreneurs in related sectors to help share expertise and resources.
6. Instituting effective start-up and ongoing support structures with safety net provisions to provide continuous financial, technical and know-how assistance and minimize failure rates. Ensuring ground level efficacy of such measure through continuous monitoring and survey.
7. Enhancing accountability on women empowerment issues at both state and federal government levels through unbiased assessment of executive agencies and relevant state-sponsored programs. Suitably highlighting achievements and deficiencies to enable constructive evolution of such practices.
In terms of subjective ground reality, these suggestions are by no means definitive or exhaustive; however, they do hold up the broad framework that any substantial policy redirection must incorporate in order to achieve the sustainable and accelerated economic growth Abuja has projected. Localized adaptation is necessary for each guideline in order to suitably address historical and regional imperatives. Further, there is a considerable amount of introspection and groundwork that must be undertaken before these parameters can be put in place. Basic human development initiatives, especially those related to easy and universal access to health care and modern education, are paramount. Nigeria has inherited a broad spectrum of fundamental deficiencies concerning infrastructure, logistics and power that have to be sufficiently addressed beforehand. There are additional and considerable risks attending to policy changes that have to be both acknowledged and anticipated.
For the purpose of encouragement, what Nigerian leaders and policy makers would perhaps do well to take heart in is an old aphorism: one that says you invest in the entire community when you invest in women!