LAGOS, Sep 28 (IPS) – Bukes Saliu wakes up very early every workday to beat the gruesome Lagos traffic to head to a job quite unusual for a woman to engage in Nigeria. She is a forklift operator in one of the busy depots in the coastal city, a task traditionally meant for men in the West African country.
“People are always thrilled when I tell them what I do. Sometimes I get snide remarks from some men I work with, but I don’t allow that to get to me,” Saliu says.
In August 2022, her curiosity was piqued when she came across a post on WhatsApp from her friend featuring a woman confidently posed beside a forklift machine. That ignited her interest in the job. Soon after, she enrolled in training to become a skilled forklift operator.
“It was a change of career path for me. I used to be a project manager with a non-profit, but I left the job to be a forklift operator. The first day I started work, I was a bit afraid, but now I operate the machine like any other man would do. I believe that women should be allowed at the table because it brings different perspectives, ideas, and experiences,” she adds.
Patriarchy Lives in Nigeria
Discrimination against women has been a serious problem in Nigeria. Women still grapple with an array of challenges and are marginalized despite the Nigerian constitution providing for gender equality and nondiscrimination
Women face a heavier burden of violence, and different types of bias, which creates significant obstacles in their quest for gender equality. This is frequently caused by unfair laws, religious and cultural traditions, gender stereotypes, limited education opportunities, and the unequal impact of poverty on women.
Although the government has attempted to tackle these deep-rooted issues, the pace of progress remains sluggish. Women’s representation within politics and decision-making spheres remains poor. For example, out of a total of 15,307 candidates in the 2023 general elections, only 1,550 were women. Only three women were elected as senators as against nine in the last election, and only one woman emerged as a presidential candidate.
Women are often excluded from economic prospects. Within Nigeria’s populace exceeding 200 million, a mere 60.5 million people contribute to its labor force. Among this workforce, around 27.1 million women participate, a significant portion of whom find themselves involved in low-skilled employment. Nigeria’s position on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index is a lowly 123rd out of 156 nations.
Swimming Against the Tide
A limited number of women are challenging conventional gender norms for the purpose of livelihood, stepping into roles that are male dominated in Nigeria. However, this transition is often met with resistance and negative reactions.
In 2021, Iyeyemi Adediran gained widespread attention for her exceptional mastery of driving long-haul trucks for oil companies. However, despite her remarkable skill, the then 26-year-old shared that she faced derogatory remarks for daring to break gender norms associated with truck driving—an occupation traditionally considered male-dominated.
In 2015, Sandra Aguebor, Nigeria’s first female mechanic, gained widespread attention for her all-female garages across the country. However, she revealed that her mother initially did not support her ambitions, believing that fixing cars should only be done by men.
Faith Oyita, a shoemaker in Benue State, Nigeria, is not letting patriarchal norms stop her. Despite Aba, a growing men-led market in southeast Nigeria, dominating the shoemaking industry, Oyita has been determined to make a name for herself since 2015, even though she resides kilometers away. She says she has trained over 300 other people on how to make shoes.
“When I first started, I didn’t care about the challenges that came with shoemaking. I had a deep passion for it, and I wanted to beautify people’s legs. Even though it was a skill dominated by men, I was determined to do things differently. I knew that greatness doesn’t come from convenience. In the beginning, many people questioned why I chose shoemaking. Even the man who taught me was hesitant and doubted my potential. I was the only female among all his apprentices, and many assumed that I came because I wanted to date him. Despite all the negative remarks, I never gave up,” she tells IPS.
Patriarchy Came Through Colonialism
“A lot of what is happening today is not how we originally lived our lives as Nigerian women. Patriarchy actually entered our society during the colonial era. Before colonization, both men and women were able to do things without being restricted by gender. Historically, women were involved in trading goods and services, and they could even marry multiple wives for themselves.
“However, when the colonialists arrived, they distorted our culture and, using religion, promoted the idea that men held more power. We should strive to correct this narrative. It’s unfortunate that we have been socialized to believe that men should always be in leadership positions and that women should only be in a man’s home,” says Añuli Aniebo Ola-Olaniyi, Executive Director, HEIR Women Hub.
Speaking further, Ola-Olaniyi argues that women who want to break gender norms must have a change of mindset and be ready to face challenges.
“The country that colonized us has their women driving buses and flying planes. They have progressed from where they colonized us. But Nigeria has failed to empower its women. When a Nigerian woman does something that is traditionally seen as only for men, it is seen as a big accomplishment. However, she has always been capable of doing those things. It’s just that the opportunities were not available. I don’t even think it’s a switch in gender roles. I believe that women are simply starting to realize their potential,” she tells IPS