in northern Nigeria, the streets are open… just not for women

Again, I am woefully behind on keeping this site updated with what I have written. Back in June, I wrote this piece for Ventures Africa on the gendered dynamics of street work. It starts in Nasarawa with a scene I saw while observing elections there in April and ends in Kaduna. However, the situation for women working on the streets is similar beyond these states – and indeed beyond northern Nigeria.

People around me initially dismissed my concern. ‘These people are always fighting, they’re like that.’ It was only when he had his hands around her neck that they moved to intervene. He ran off as we approached, leaving her in a torn dress with her mangoes scattered at her feet.

When I spoke with Maryam (not her real name), she told me she had been walking down the street selling mangoes when this young man started talking and flirting with her. A few minutes into their conversation, angered by something she said, he dashed her mangoes to the floor. Worried about what her parents would say when she came home with neither mangoes nor money, she tried to get him to pay for the mangoes he had damaged. He refused and, when she continued to insist, the physical fight between them ensued.

Onlookers gave her the money to cover the damage, admonishing her that she should be in school at her age, not selling things on the street. Of course, as she told me, her family has no money for her education and relies on the income she brings in through hawking. Maryam is 14 years old and has been hawking for years. This is not the first time something like this has happened to her, but this time she was particularly worried as to how she would explain away the tear in her dress, so large that it exposed her entire shoulder, when she got home.

This happened in Lafia, in Nasarawa state, but the same scene could have taken place anywhere in the country.

Women in Nigeria earn just 62.7 percent of the wages that men earn. Every year, 6 million young people enter the labour market but only 10 percent of them are able to find jobs in the formal sector. Just one third of these 10 percent are women. However, research shows that nearly all women are involved in economic activities.

As such, it is not surprising that most of women’s income is earned in the informal sector, particularly in street based work. There are 7.5 million female informal sector businesses compared to the 6 million owned by men according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Of course, this work is more precarious. Income is unpredictable and benefits, including access to banking, social security and union representation, are rare in the informal sector.

Within this context, streets are a place where gendered norms of what women and men can and cannot do are clearly observable. Keke drivers, okada riders, taxi drivers, newspaper vendors, recharge card sellers and mai-guards are mostly if not always men. Women on the streets however are mostly engaged in selling food such as akara, fruit and vegetables, or sex.

Indeed, it is difficult not to come across groups of men congregating, sitting outside the houses or buildings they are guarding, particularly in the evenings. They pass the time talking or listening to football on the radio. As I walked around Abuja’s streets on a Sunday afternoon, I came across a cluster of men sitting in the shade huddled around a radio listening to the Chelsea-Arsenal match while guarding a nearby plaza. The score was 0-0 and there was good-natured banter flowing between supporters of the two teams. They told me about how guarding the plaza and listening to football together had cemented friendships between them, marveling at how well men from Benue, Kaduna and Nasarawa of different religions and ethnicities could get along. They themselves say that it is not a bad way to work.

Stanley has a very different perspective. Originally from Enugu, he has been in Abuja for 13 years. Previously an okada rider, he has been driving his taxi for the last five years. ‘This job is stressful,’ he says, speaking about the constant hassle he gets from different government agencies. He would like another job but does not know how he can find one. He tells me he has only ever known two women taxi drivers and they have since stopped. ‘This job is not meant for women. It’s a very hard job,’ he said.

The idea that certain jobs are not for women is a recurring theme in my conversations. Undeniably, a woman’s very access to streets is more restricted, particularly in the North. Here, married women face cultural restrictions that limit their movements whereas single, divorced or widowed women have more freedom to work outside the home. Women often make things at home and use their children to purchase goods and sell products. In this way, single women often support their mothers by hawking items for them. However, they also risk being marked a ‘bad woman’ for being seen doing certain kinds of work or even for being outside alone. That men can go anywhere but women’s activities should be based at home is a perception that is widespread.

Men strongly believe their wives should stay at home so they will not become ‘spoilt’. Restricting women’s movement is a type of controlling behavior that makes up domestic violence.  Levels of violence against women and girls, both inside and outside the home, are high in Nigeria, with male partners the most likely perpetrators. Often, the risk comes from within not outside the home. One in three Nigerian women aged 15 to 24 years old have experienced some form of violence.

Further, men who restrict their wives from going out to work do not recognise the dangers their daughters and sons might face. The younger the girl or woman, the more likely she is to be harassed while hawking. Girls aged 10-14 are 1.7 times more likely to experience harassment than those 20-24 years old. Women and girls who are migrants or have had no formal education are also more likely to experience harassment. This ranges from verbal abuse, seizure of goods being sold and physical bullying to beating and sexual assault. Research in Anambra found that 93.1 percent of girl street hawkers, of an average age of 13, had experienced verbal abuse. It also found that 69.9 percent of the girls had been sexually abused, with almost 20 percent of them having been raped penetratively. They spoke about the pressure to flirt and be seen as sexually attractive so people would buy the products they were selling. This explains why Maryam felt she had no choice but to be nice to the young man – she is used to having to entertain certain behaviour so that she can sell her mangoes and get the money she needs for her family.

Women who sell sex experience particular harassment from the police. In Abuja, which has passed several directives to ban prostitution, they were given 48 hours to leave the city. Picked up during raids aimed at ‘sanitising cities,’ they have to give ‘protection money’ or they are taken to police stations where they either pay or are forced to have sex with officers to be released. Kaduna, Port Harcourt and Ibadan are other cities where women are being arrested, detained and imprisoned on suspicion of sex work.

Women with disabilities are another group which faces harassment, molestation and violence due to attitudes, stigma and the poverty they are more likely to experience and as streets are not designed for them. Risikat Mohammed of Women With Disabilities Self Reliance Centre in Kaduna tells me of a recent case where a woman with physical disabilities and learning difficulties was raped by 5 men where she slept. She also tells me about how it is common for blind women begging on the streets to be raped and for the men in question to go free with little if any efforts to arrest and prosecute them.

In addition to these risks of violence, when women with disabilities try to earn an income through selling goods, people do not go to them. Often, the only way of earning income left to them is through begging. ‘It’s time to start thinking of opening markets for women with disabilities,’ she says.

Indeed, it is stressful, challenging and risky for people with disabilities to even be on the street at all according to Ms. Mohammed. They face challenges in using transportation without assistance, communication if they have hearing or speech impairments and accessibility. She has to ask passersby to help her over the central demarcation when crossing – and sometimes people complain she is disturbing them.

She recounted a recent experience where she was in the middle of the road and a keke came at high speed towards her. ‘The risk is too much,’ she said, ‘I can’t run and I can’t pass.’ She also spoke about the discrimination and stigma. ‘The way that people talk to you is that you are not good for anything but being a beggar,’ Ms. Mohammed explains. She tells me how parents leave their children who have disabilities on the street and use them as sources of income. They then grow up on the street, facing many hazards at an early age.

The streets are full of potential for women to earn money and support themselves and their families but it is not always easy. Far from neutral place when it comes to work, they are a profoundly gendered space. In a deeply patriarchal society, even getting access to working on the streets, in a manner that is safe and economically viable remains a challenge for women in Nigeria.