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The odds against women
– by Bimbola Oyesola
© Bimbola Oyesola
Trade unionists celebrating the international women’s day
Rose Adu is a mother of two and expecting a third child. She teaches at a private school in Lagos State. Her day begins at four in the morning when she wakes up to get the kids ready for school. Rose always has to prepare lunch for her children – and often dinner too. The school where she teaches is over an hour-and-a-half’s bus ride away. Due to traffic jams, the trip can take up to four hours one way. She leaves home at 6 a.m. and returns in the evening at eight. Because of her household chores, however, she may not get to bed before midnight. This kind of demanding routine is typical of Nigerian women’s lives.
As an expecting mother, Rose is entitled to three months maternity leave according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). But even though Nigeria is an ILO member, she never had a break longer than six weeks in her previous pregnancies. She may have to work until the baby is born before getting maternity leave this time.
Protecting the maternal role of women workers has been a core issue of the ILO since its establishment in 1919. The first Convention on Maternity Protection (Convention No. 183) was adopted that year. The essence of maternity protection is to reconcile women’s reproductive role with the demands of earning money. The ILO wants to prevent unfair treatment at the workplace.
The issue of gender policies has been a challenge to the Nigerian Trade Union Movement. The track record of implementation remains disappointing however. Women make up 45 % of Nigeria’s people. The percentage of the women in leadership positions – whether in government, the private sector or non-governmental organisations – does not correspond to their share in the population.
Many Nigerian women suffer injustices and marginalisation at work. One result is that their participation in trade unions is low. When western education was started in Nigeria, most parents were reluctant to allow their daughters to go to schools or to acquire the skills needed in various trades. The idea was that girls would become housewives. This understanding of women’s role in society is still quite alive, reducing the opportunities women have to live up to their full potential.
The Women Commission
The ILO is promoting equal opportunities for women. So are, in principle, Nigeria’s trade unions. There are two umbrella organisations for trade unions in the country, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). In the 1990s, they set up a joint Women Commission. The idea was
– to help to coordinate gender-related union work,
– to make women’s voices heard in male-dominated organisations, and
– to motivate more women to join the trade union movement.
Affiliated trade unions were encouraged to set up women commissions too.
Leaders of the labour movement argue that, as more women get involved, gender justice could become a priority. They are in favour of granting equal access to employment opportunities and oppose discriminatory practices against either gender.
In his address at the occasion of the International Women Day, Peter Esele, the president-general of the TUC, challenged the government to re-introduce the Ministry of Women Affairs and to promote the education of women. He also demanded that the government declare 8 March, the international day of women, a federal holiday. “We will continue to ensure that more women are elected at all levels,” Esele said.
His predecessor, Peace Obiajulu, however, expressed scepticism. She stressed that women’s reproductive role is at the root of most gender discrimination at the workplace. She was the first woman to ever lead a national umbrella organisation for trade unions in Africa. Too often, she said, business practice is not in line with international standards and national law on these matters. According to her, the government and the social partners, including the labour movement, must rise to the challenge of enforcing gender equality.
The ILO guarantees pregnant and nursing mothers employment security during pregnancy, maternity leave and a period protection after returning to work. The women are entitled to return to their old job or to an equivalent one with the same pay. Nonetheless, many Nigerian employers do not obey these rules, says Halima Ibrahim, a former chairperson of the trade unions’ joint Women Commission.
Even some government agencies, according to her, do not grant paid maternity leave to unmarried pregnant women. She laments that union members were affected by such breaching of rules, but the organisation was not strong enough to mobilise people in order to change matters.
She adds: “The advent of contract labour has eroded the right to maternity leave.” Contract labour means persons are not hired on a permanent base, but merely to fulfil certain pre-defined tasks in a specified time. Many companies do not grant leave, so pregnant workers are forced to quit their jobs and re-apply after giving birth – without any assurance of returning to their old job. Ibrahim also reports that some employers, like the Nigeria Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO), have fired female employees simply because they became pregnant in their first two years of employment.
Work twice as hard
Discrimination at work is a massive challenge. “Most employers do not believe that, if a woman has the same qualification as a man, she will be as competent as that man,” is Ibrahim’s assessment. She calls this the “stereotype of women being intellectually inferior and less productive.” For a woman to be rated as high as a man, Ibrahim says, she must work twice as hard.
Peace Obiajulu, the former TUC president general, points out that women’s share among the workers with low incomes is greater than their percentage of the population in general. She argues that the labour unions should do more to help women reconcile family needs and workplace demands. The labour movement, in her view, should push for better labour legislation and enforcement of the rules that exist on issues like maternity protection, childcare, equal pay and protection from sexual harassment.
At the same time, the labour leader stresses that gender equality is a cross-cutting issue in all fields of policy. Relevant aspects include health care, primary and secondary education and citizenship. Women deserve equal access to opportunities as men.
In Parliament, the Labour party, which is close to the trade unions, introduced a bill that would force employers to set up day care facilities for children. Such facilities would allow mothers to breast feed their infants and keep their jobs at the same time. The Labour party argues that this would boost productivity because women could pay more attention to their work. Nigerian employers in general, however, are not in favour of this approach even though it is endorsed by the ILO.
The Labour party also demands legislation to address gender equality and discrimination. For instance, affirmative action could help girls catch up in schools. Unless women become more active and fight for such demands, progress is likely to remain frustratingly slow.