The Rural Woman: Story of Endless Struggle
Women battling to free a broken down bus.
Her faith and devotion, enterprise and fortitude through the varying twists and turns of a flawed Nigerian dream. This crisply captures the current struggle and hope of the Nigerian rural woman as Nigeria, in its quest for democratic maturity, marks yet, another one year of the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. As the country grapples with the basic political engineering of good governance, the Nigerian rural woman continuously hold onto the inequitable end of the baton of hope. The intervention of the First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan through her pet project, the Women for Change Initiative has undeniably opened a new vista of hope for the rural woman. Dame Patience’s plan for women received warm embrace after her huge campaign for affirmative action on the appointment of at least 35 per cent of women in the current administration. As usual, it is the women elite that got appointed Minister Special Advisers, Chairpersons of Boards and Parastatals while others clinched elective positions. The rural women received only the crumbs like wrappers, sewing machines, food items, groceries and occasional pittances for petty trading.
As the administration marks one year this week, the dominant question still remains what the future holds for the rural woman who strives under the scorching sun and rain to erk a living for the entire family while contending with basic issues of maternal mortality and child care, quality nutrition and improved living condition.
By Pita Okute
As Nigeria celebrates one year of President
Goodluck Jonathan’s administration this
week, the Nigerian woman remains the
bulwark of the country’s great national enterprise: hardy dream to forge from the disparate peoples of the Niger-Benue region, a modern Nigeria fit to claim its place in the comity of progressive countries around the world. Still, she represents the sorry turbulences of that inspiring vision. Unsung, neglected, she wallows in the grips of vicious poverty. Yet, she is the sand and mortar of the herculean effort to lift Nigeria from the mire of bad political leadership and failed economic policies to the ranks of the twenty leading economies of the world by the year 2020.
With one year already gone for President Jonathan’s admini-stration, the Nigerian rural woman still populates the remote places; the nooks, the crannies, backwaters and dead-end communities of the Nigerian landscape, where the sun rises before dawn and she with it. To describe her, it is convenient to employ a handy term as there is lack of a better expression to capture her plight in its most revealing light. However, the adjective is purely situational and external to her person. So, this remarkable Nigerian is defined first by environment: a place with a low ratio of residents to open land where farming, subsistence farming for that matter, and menial domestic production of arts and crafts are the most prevalent economic activities. In Nigeria and much of the Third World, these peculiar low density habitations suffer from a glaring lack of basic amenities, including good access roads, electricity, water, educational facilities, etc. Next, this notable citizen is marked by the cross of gender: woman, with all its stirring and depressing implications.
Voila, the “rural woman,” a truly invisible citizen of contemporary Nigeria.
In contrast, the “urban woman” who commands a more dominant place in the great tide of feminine concerns rarely features on the social radars as a distinct economic or political quantity.
Geographically, the transition from urban to rural area is usually abrupt in many parts of Nigeria, but sprawling commercial and industrial centres like Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano, Kaduna, Ibadan, Enugu etc., display gradual changes in topography that make it difficult to locate the boundaries of neighbouring rural habitats.The high population densities of the south eastern states also create such visual challenges in that geo-political zone. Besides, the statistical data by which the National Bureau of Statistics defines rural areas in Nigeria are not so clear. In Japan, any territory with less than 30,000 people is considered rural. A dwelling area having more than 400 inhabitants is categorised as an urban population in Albania. For Nigeria, this rule of thumb might suffice: any subsistent agrarian community, many of which lack the trappings of modern life- water, electricity, schools, hospitals, etc. is decidedly rural. This is the rustic environment in which the rural woman of our investigation strives to make her contributions to national development goals and aspirations.
Agriculture, is the mainstay of rural populations. The pulse and pace of farm work takes place according to the seasons. The type of farming is mainly subsistent. Various surveys indicate that women constitute 70 per cent of the farmers in Nigeria. 44 per cent of male farmers and 72 per cent of female farmers in Nigeria cultivate less than one hectare of land per household. The rural woman plays a significant role in much of the agricultural production, which is labour intensive in many parts of the country. That is why she must wake before the sun does, to make the most of the cool pre-dawn weather, and run a myriad of household errands: Clean up the compound, prepare the family meal, fetch water for the household, get the children ready for school and rush off to market to sell or buy or go to the farm, before returning home to attend to other even more basic chores. It helps if she has grown children to assist in these tasks, but the reality of the situation is that the responsibility for running the home is all hers.
A post on the ARUWE (Action for Rural Women’s Empowerment) web site declares as follows: “It is a casual joke among rural people that the men just see food on the table and have not the slightest clue where it came from.Bottom line and sad truth is this; as a woman, come rain or shine, it is your sole responsibility to find something to put on the table for your family.” The reality is just as crucial for single female parents.
Eucharia Francis lost her husband, eight years ago. They lived in Kano, where he ran a thriving business in the sale of machine parts. He left behind three children aged eight, five and two years. After the funeral, the family liquidated the spare parts shop and Ukay had to depend solely on her skills as a seamstress for survival. She elected to remain in the family home in Mbaise, Imo State, and to supplement her income, started to cultivate her husband’s farmlands for cassava, maize and vegetables. She also began trading in palm oil and palm kernels, which took her to distant markets in Imo and Rivers State. Luckily, her brothers assisted in providing money for the educational needs of her children. Still, her health suffered repeatedly from the continuous stress of single parenthood and the social pressures on a widow. That and the vagaries of the produce trade led to severe losses in two successive years. Though, she is active in the social and political affairs of her community, being also an official of the local palm kernel dealers association, Eucharia decided to rest her produce business this year- citing difficulties in getting soft loans to expand her business.
Though they are dominant players in the production, processing and marketing of food crops, the poorest of rural women often go hungry for lack of money, more so when the crops are yet to mature for harvest, the harvest is poor or the profits less than anticipated. Until recently, men in most parts of the country had more access to formal education and training. The situation has hardly changed in many parts of the North East and North West zones. Nonetheless, men generally have higher social standing and may be considered a privileged sex in many rural societies with limitless opportunities for lording it over their women folk. Women and households run by women are often the poorest groups in many rural communities. The perennial drift of productive males from rural areas to the urban centres increases the burden of survival for the women who are left behind to tackle the bleak landscapes of rural Nigeria.
Infrastructurein rural Nigeria is a sore point for discussion. Public expenditures on health, education, energy and water supply continually favour the urban populations much to the unending penury of rural dwellers. As such, the most significant characteristics of rural habitations are the extreme limitations in public services and conveniences. Lack of rural infrastructure such as good road network shinders the marketing of farm products. Without good, all-season roads, farmers cannot get the right value for their produce. Limited access to the urban areas and the seats of governance equates also to limited access to sources of inputs, equipment and new technology. This has been the bane of agricultural production in Nigeria and as many have observed in the past, the majority of women farmers are subsistent farmers. It is no wonder then that farms yields have been persistently low over the years, because the rural woman has been relegated to the dismal background in the scheme of things.
The compounding realities of a harsh existence, place her at the frontlines of disastrous environmental phenomena such as overgrasing, drought and desertification in the north, and erosion, deforestation, floods and oil pollution in the south. The electrification of many rural communities has succeeded in bringing city conveniences like television and automated equipment for work and leisure to the door steps of rural dwellers. The use of mobile telephony has spread to the farthest places in the land and made communication easier, but the less than satisfactory performance of the Nigerian energy sector, leaves little room for a rapid industrialisation of the Nigerian countryside. Back in the nineteen thirties, the US government created a Rural Electrification Authority (REA) which provided low interest loans to rural communities for the construction and operation of power plants and power lines in rural America. In Nigeria, the on-going federal initiative to beef up the energy sector through the construction of independent power projects does not pretend to specifically address the special needs of rural areas. However, plans to reactivate several abandoned hydroelectric dams could attend to the energy requirements of outlying rural communities. Still, the American experience easily remind us that though rural electrification may bridge the enormous gaps in urban and rural lifestyles, it will not dam the flow of farm workers to the cities.
Poor health is another cause for worry in rural communities. Incidences of malaria and other rampant diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis regularly attract the attention and intervention of public agencies and non- governmental organisations. Recently however, major challenges like cancer have topped the scale of growing health concerns in the country. Six months ago, Sweet Mother Initiative Development Partners (SMIDP), a Bauchi-based NGO, began to sensitise rural women in that state on the dangers of cervical cancer. AminaOkeke, the secretary of SMIDP, disclosed that her organisation was disturbed by the upsurge of cervical cancer around the country. A lot of rural women, she said, were familiar with the signs of breasts cancer and how to get appropriate medical attention before it got out of control. “For cervical cancer, most women are ignorant of it.Cancer of the cervix sometimes affect the uterus of a woman and before you know it, the issue of childbearing is affected. Some victims continue suffering without knowing the exact ailment.”
The cumulative effects of these daunting challenges, from poor infrastructure and poorer access to the corridors of power, poor nutrition and poorer health, lead inevitably to the mind boggling statistics on the level of poverty in Africa’s most populous nation.The National Bureau of Statistics has released figures showing authoritatively, that 112.52 million of an estimated population of 163 million Nigerians live in conditions of relative poverty. This measure is a comparison of the living standards of people living in a given society within a specified period.It is the most acceptable poverty measurement adopted by the NBS for many years. Other measurement standards include the absolute measure, which puts the country’s poverty rate at 99.284 million or 60.9 per cent,the dollar-per-day measure, which sets a poverty rate of 61.2 per cent, and the subjective poverty measure, which places it at 93.9 per cent.
Analysts point to the fact that all the four poverty scales used by the NBS showed a glaring divide between the country’s Gross Domestic Product growth rate of 7.75 per cent and the high poverty index.“Economic growth is not development,” Yemi Kale, Statistician-General of the Federation made bold to tell reporters. “If you look at our GDP numbers, you will see that agriculture, wholesale and retail trade, and oil and gas constitute over 70 per cent of that growth.How many people can those three sectors employ? Not many. Agriculture is largely subsistence in nature because the local farmer is not looking at employing people and it is when agriculture is commercialised that it will be employment-generating and poverty- reducing.”
Indeed, agriculture is the mainstay of rural communities and hence the rural woman. Poverty is widespread, Dr Kale appears to be saying, because, the rural woman is still concerned with feeding her immediate family and not providing employment for anyone else. Trite as it sounds, this is the hard empirical evidence from countless documented studies by development scholars from Nigeria and around the world. Kale’s submission on the underlying causes of pervasive poverty in Nigeria alludes to a lack of entrepreneurial ability, which Drucker considers to be the understanding of business opportunities in scarce resources and the ability to use them profitably. The pertinent questions to ask therefore, are these: Do rural women, who constitute the bulk of rural farmers, lack entrepreneurial ability? Why do they fail to take advantage of business opportunities?
Surveys already cited indicate that 72 per cent of female farmers in Nigeria cultivate less than one hectare of land per household. Typically also, a small scale farm project is described as one having a land area not less than five hectares. It would be foolhardy to suppose that rural women do not desire to expand their operations. On the contrary, countless studies show that many challenges relating to gender, economic and socio-cultural barriers including adverse government policies militate against this goal. Behavioural scientists greatly contend that the natural abilities of women when properly exploited for entrepreneurship, yield very positive and profitable results.
In its 2009 study, Ogunlela and Muhktar report that rural Nigerian women constitute about 70 per cent of the agricultural labour force. Citing other respectable source, they also show that women’s participation in the decision-making process in farm management did not reflect their superior contribution. Their greater numbers notwithstanding, they were consulted, only 20 per cent of the time on farm operations and about 28 per cent in the sourcing of farm credit. Age, education and wealth had considerable weight. Older, richer and educated women took greater part in decision-making than their younger, poorer and less educated sisters. Various case studies involving Igbo, Junkun, nomadic Fulfulde and Kulka women give credence to the vast but unsung contributions of rural Nigerian women to the agricultural fortunes of the country.
The key to unleashing the creative powers of rural women lies in practical education programmes such as the model proffered by Ugonma Ebirim, who pays glowing tribute to the Better Life Programme for Rural Women (BLP) for raising the social profile of rural women through adult education.
The Programmelaunched by former First Lady, Mariam Babangida on September 18, 1987, was the first ever to call attention to the plight of the rural woman in Nigeria. Ebirim lauds the BLP for initiating an adult literacy exercise that organised the women into functional productive units with elected leaders in their various communities. The income generating activity of each productive unit provided subject material for the literacy exercises to which the members were exposed. “The need for the women to become producers of marketable products now created in the women, the need to calculate…to be able to keep accounts and records on income and expenditure to avoid being swindled in the markets where they sold their products.” Deriving from Ebirim’s argument, it would seem that the development of entrepreneurship is a vital key for the economic empowerment of women. The benefits are myriad, beginning with the social enrichment of her immediate family and leading to positive multiplier benefits for the nation and humanity. To this end, it is important to raise the ability of rural women in contiguous business areas such as marketing, management, planning, execution and monitoring of business plans.
The Women in Agriculture (WIA) programme established in 1988 through the defunct Directorate of Foods, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI) sought to achieve these tasks. For a long while too, it seemed as if WIA held the key to unlock the great potentials of rural women farmers in Nigeria. Researchers in Imo state reported in 2006 that the wide extension services network adopted by WIA was instrumental to its success. These investigators found that high awareness of WIA technologies by the women’s groups did not always translate to hig hadoption rates, because some of the innovations were too complex for the women to grasp. They also reported a greater economic dependency of men on their wives and improved family food security as other benefits of the WIA programme. In recent times however, WIA has suffered from vastly diminished extension services due to poor government funding with attendant negative effects on rural farming communities around the country.
In the wake of the BLP, several other NGOs have risen to promote women entrepreneurship in Nigeria. Women Farmers’ Advancement Network (WOFAN) began work in the 1990’s by assisting rural women farmers in Kano on issues of health and labour-saving technologies and the use of solar energy. These days, the network organises members of rural communities to seek agricultural credit and insurance facilities. By 2010, WOFAN was working with 250 women’s groups in five northern states to mobilize and train rural women in its core areas of interest. The network also runs a weekly radio broadcast on the activities of rural women.
Assessing “Women NGOs and Rural Women’s Empowerment in the Niger Delta, ”Iniobong Akpabio contends that women NGOs or WNGOS, impacted positively on the socio-economic status of their beneficiaries “through increased income generation, health awareness and acquisition of food processing skills.” Nonetheless, they were also constrained in their effectiveness by the paucity of credit institutions and poor deployment of credit leading to poor loan repayment. Akpabio establishes a direct link between increased credit advances and increased income of beneficiaries.
Francisca Isi Omorodion finds,in a “case study of Esan Women who took part in Better Life for Women Program”that the distance between their place of residence and the financial institutions and their spouses’ control over their income hindered regular loan repayments. Her conclusions support the much asserted view that culture practices and traditions negatively impact on poverty alleviation programs. Studies among Pella village women in Adamawa State and the Berom women of Plateau state also showed that their high levels of awareness not withstanding, only the men benefited from government loans and were members of co-operatives.The women desired the benefits of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and tractors but had no direct access to these except through their husbands who must first satisfy the needs of their own farms. None of the women had benefited from government loans because their husbands would not approve or when they do, would take the money from them.
“The latent consequence of this,” says Adeyinka Aderinto “is that society places limits on the extent to which women can aspire. The women do not think they are being ‘oppressed’ by the social structure. It seems to them that whatever roles they perform in the society are naturally ordained. Indeed, it is ironical to note that those who are perpetuating the practice of some traditional harmful practices, like female circumcision, are the victims themselves.”
Indeed The Source found out, that Women NGOs have played an active role in the elimination of cultural, traditional and religious practices that hitherto curtailed the advancement of women. This is the informed view of KO Ajadi, JA Adebisi and FM Alabi in their joint “Assessment of the Impact of Women’s Organisations on Sustainable Rural Environment and Livelihood in Nigeria.”Still, they lament that the effect of their interventions and those of public sector agencies are limited to the urban areas and less felt by rural women. They contend that the challenges confronting rural women spring from poor infrastructure. Breaking the circle of poverty around rural women and setting up appropriate frameworks for rural development shall inspire a renaissance in the rural areas of which rural women shall be the greater beneficiaries. Ajadiet-al recommend the co-option of rural women into WNGOs that focus on rural community development.
They posit that“Women’s organisations should encourage and support initiatives which would inform rural dwellers, especially women, about their rights and the practical steps they can take to improve their quality of life. They should also work through the existing community-based organisations to initiate conventional savings and loan schemes and provide credit and other financial services to poor rural dwellers, especially women.” In conclusion, they call for consistent and comprehensive urban and regional planning policies so that public sector initiatives such as NEEDS, NEPAD, MDGs or sustainable development will have desired impact in sensitive rural areas.
Taking a different tack, H. Ene-Obong, G.I. Enugu and A.C. Uwaegbute investigated the health and nutritional status of rural Nigerian women and reached the following conclusions:
The longer she worked, the more energy foods she consumed, the lower her intake of protein and essential vitamins and the lower her body weight. Poor, uneducated rural women consume mostly unbalanced starchy root and tuber meals, for example, boiled coco yam/yam, and palm oil/boiled cassava slices. Hence, these women failed to meet their iron, niacin and riboflavin requirements leading to high rates of iron-deficiency anaemia among them. Citing a medical report that riboflavin plus niacin decreases the incidence of oesophageal cancer by 14 per cent,they aver that deficiencies of essential vitamins among rural women have far-reaching nutritional implications for everyone. They fingered the sacrificial tendencies of women as a prime determinant of the health and nutritional status of women. “The findings of our study have showed that where the amount of food is small, most women would give preference to their husbands and children.”
In a post for the Rural Poverty portal of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Toyin Falola, professor of history at the University of Texas maintains that “the image of a helpless, oppressed, and marginalized group” has undermined the proper study of Nigerian womanhood. Scant recognition, she says, has been accorded to “the various integral functions that Nigerian women have performed throughout history.” Her view is somewhat corroborated by the astounding personal battles won by rural women in the endless struggle for social freedom and economic empowerment.
“In a country where two-thirds of the population live on less than US$1.00 a day, and banking and credit are not readily available for those without existing capital, the challenge for Nigerian women is formidable,” the Rural Poverty web site declares. The managers are content to report however, that winners can survive and flourish in this “sometimes difficult environment”
AdetotunTomiwa, a poor young widow from a small village just outside of Lagos, she laboured alongside her husband to make a living from the sale of wooden planks. Swindled by their suppliers, the Tomiwas applied for a small loan under the IFAD Special Programme in 2003. With this, they bought a boar and two sows. Soon the pigs increased and yielded a healthy profit in the market. Sooner still,Adetotun lost her husband and had to pay back the loan and raise her family of two small children alone. She devoted all her energy into the piggery. At the time of the report, she had 37 well-fed pigs to show for her effort; had nearly repaid the initial loan and could afford to hire an assistant to help clean, feed and market the pigs.
Never the same village, Victoria Amiekeh took a loan to raise poultry. Within a short time, she was able to triple her stock of 250 birds and produce over 20 crates of eggs each day. The extra income was a much needed supplement to her husband’s salary, which was never enough to meet all the household expenses. “Before the loan we had to struggle,” Victoria told the website.“We never seemed to make ends meet. Now we’ve repaid the loan and things have really improved for us,” she added. Apart from raising chickens, Victoria also trained to become a para-veterinarian and now provides veterinary aid to other farmers around her.
Farther up in Katsina state and close to the encroaching desert, women assemble in the compound of a small farming community that is part of the Special Programme for Food Security. The women took a small loan with which they bought simple spaghetti-making machines. Their spaghetti is especially popular on local feast days and other special occasions. The proceeds, though modest, help the women to complement the me agre subsistence incomes they earn from other activities in this very harsh,very dry environment.
Accordingto the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, over a hundred million people could escape the clutches of poverty if rural women had the same access to productive resources as men. Productivity on women’s farms would increase by 30 per cent; the population of the world’s hungry would drop by as much as 17 per cent – which could result into brighter futures for about 150 million people. The benefits would multiply even more as the offspring of these women gain better access to health services, education and nutrition
Yet another means of empowering rural women by raising their social consciousness, lies in creating new forms and channels of communication over long distances to galvanise a communal spirit and kinship with other rural dwellers and communities around Nigeria and the world. But for inhibiting factors like low literacy and computer skills, etc., a website such as RURAL WOMEN ROCKcould make the difference in bringing together rural voices from around Nigeria to share information and ideas on how to make a better deal of the rural situation.
“We are an online community of women inspiring women. Help us create a voice for rural women around the world. Like us. Love us. Join us. Engaging, Empowering, and Connecting women one story at a time” the content managers announce. Bloggers on the site share everything from recipes to insights on decoration and women’s health and many more.
The Source recalls that some years back, rural radio networks, the so-called community radio stations had pride of initiative as the likely agents to speed up rural transformation. No one has mentioned that in a long while and private investors do not seem interested. There is no gainsaying however, that access to the internet and improved knowledge of information and communication technology could make a serious impact on rural development.
It is only recently, particularly in the months leading to the presidential elections when First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan brought to the fore the plight of Nigerian women an she mobilized them through her pet project, Women for Change Initiative (WCI) across the 36 states in the country for active participation in the political process. Dame Patience Jonathan’s campaign for more women representation in government paid-off greatly with the current appointment of more than 35 per cent women by the Federal government into key positions.
October 15, the International Day of Rural Women provides yet another window for worldwide cogitation on the challenges of rural habitation. The day honours women and girls living in rural areas and celebrates the huge role that rural mothers, daughters and grandmothers play in producing food, and building agricultural and rural development worldwide. In Nigeria as elsewhere around the globe, rural women provide food, water and fuel needed by their families. The quality of the care that mothers give to their children and other household members must be such that enhances their health and productivity. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are IFAD’s main weapons for tackling rural poverty. This is at the core message of The Rural Poverty Report 2011released by IFAD in 2010 which offers a coherent and comprehensive survey of rural poverty around the world and the prospects for “making poverty history.”
According to IFAD President, Kanayo F. Nwanze:“The report makes clear that it is time to look at poor small holder farmers and rural entrepreneurs in a completely new way – not as charity cases but as people whose innovation, dynamism and hard work will bring prosperity to their communities and greater food security to the world in the decades ahead… We need to focus on creating an enabling environment for rural women and men to overcome the risks and challenges they face as they work to make their farms and other businesses successful.”
The IFAD offers the key to achieving investment goals: Invest in rural women. Eliminate discrimination against them in law and in practice. Ensure that policies respond to their needs. Give them equal access to resources. Provide rural women with worthy roles in decision-making.