When countries experience economic growth and development, women - as well as men - should benefit due to more opportunities and access to higher levels of income. Yet, this is not the case in resource-rich nations like Nigeria. The advantages of oil booms tend to go to men alone. With the exception of Folorunsho Alakija, the oil field is predominantly a mans world.
It is well known that oil can be a curse rather than a blessing to resource-rich countries. However, one key aspect omitted from the discussion is how it affects gender rights and opportunities. One of the many tentacles of the natural resource curse is that it hinders female empowerment. Achieving gender parity is a tremendous challenge for many nations; but, it is even more tasking for an oil producing country like Nigeria.
As far-fetched as this correlation may seem, a study carried out by UCLA professor, Michael Ross proffers a novel explanation as to why women in Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia still struggle with gender rights. Ross argued that Islam has a minute role to play in the backward gender policies in these nations.
Instead, he suggests that the main problem is oil wealth. It would seem that the same issue is applicable to resource-rich Nigeria. Culture and tradition have been labelled as the main reasons why women have limited opportunities in the country’s struggling economy. But, oil might be the real culprit here.
Crowding Out Women
A popular consequence associated with the emergence of the resource curse is the abandonment of key traditional sectors which are considered less profitable - otherwise known as the Dutch disease. Oil can lower the demand for female labour. The increase in oil production activities catalyses growth in sectors that tend to hire men such as mining, extraction and refining. Conversely, it crowds out the core sectors that traditionally employ women such as agricultural processing and light export-oriented industries.
Of course, women joining the labour force is by no means a sufficient end in itself. Yet, the marginalisation of women from the workforce, particularly the non-agricultural sector has profound social ramifications.
Let's take Nigeria's population growth problem for example. When there are no visible job prospects, the case for education is weak, which then leads to higher illiteracy rates and consequently higher fertility rates. Likewise, when income-earning opportunities for women reduce, the opportunity cost of raising children falls - meaning women are more likely to have children due to a lack of career options. This vicious cycle reduces the autonomy of women and reinforces the popular misconception that the role of a woman is limited to childbearing and domestic work.
Adding Fuel to Fire
There are also political consequences.
Most women are almost forbidden from working in the oil industry because of physical and social barriers. Lower female labor force participation limits their access to economic opportunities and the likelihood of females running for elected office.
When women work, they begin to have crucial conversations with their coworkers that engage their interest in politics; they also create informal networks that foster collaboration; allowing them to address gender discrimination issues. In countries where women are largely employed in the industrial and service sector e.g. India, Indonesia, and Morocco, they have formed coalitions to protect their political interests and clamoured for wider gender reforms.
Women in oil-rich countries like Nigeria tend to be behind their counterparts across the globe. For instance, Nigeria has one of the lowest rates of female political participation in the world; with women representing only 6% of parliament members as of 2017. In the recently concluded 2019 presidential elections, only 6 out of the 73 candidates were women.
One of the major reason behind this is that many women do not have the kind of financial resources required for Nigeria's money politics. These figures are also very discouraging when compared with African countries like Rwanda and Namibia which have prioritised female participation in their economic and political space.
The presence of oil also interacts with the quality of institutions in the country. As a result, entities such as the National Assembly are not representative of the population and laws in favour of gender equality struggle to get passed.
Leveling the Playing Field
Overall, petroleum perpetuates patriarchy in Nigeria. When women do not have a stake in the economic and political decisions of their country, traditional institutions and systems founded on patriarchal values remain uncontested.
This points to the fact that Nigeria needs to take the idea of industrialisation seriously and strengthen the fragile service sector. Not only would it improve our trade position, but it will also create more jobs; jobs that hire women and ultimately empower them to live a life outside the walls of their home.
South Korea is a perfect example. After embarking on their industrialisation journey in the 1960s, the share of women in the labour force rapidly grew and simultaneously, female incomes also increased; all of which had a positive effect on GDP.
The Nigerian government should also consider revisiting the gender-based affirmative action bill to promote female inclusion in the labour market and political space, alongside growing the service sector, to ensure that everyone benefits from oil booms.
Till then, next time you pull up to your nearest filling station to buy a litre of fuel, remember how Nigeria's oil curse is also damaging the rights of Nigerian women.
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