Seven ways to empower women in business

In 2008, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that 52,000 Nigerian women died annually from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. In more understandable terms, the number means 145 women per day.

Population is a critical asset for any nation, with far-reaching social, political, and economic consequences. In Nigeria, it is also a controversial issue due to regional, interstate and ethnic ramifications. However, the dwindling female population has ramifications that go far beyond the immediately apparent effects of a rapidly distorting gender ratio. Nigeria has ambitious rapid development plans to place it in the top 20 world economies by 2020. The ultimate success of this endeavor is inextricably linked to entrepreneurial achievement as well as the management of its women, who make up almost half of its total human resources.

While there are dissenting voices on this issue, it is widely recognized that women in Nigeria are systematically discriminated against, harassed and abused at home and in the workplace, and suffer violent crime and unequal treatment both inside and outside the home. Deep seated regressive and repressive practices have led to unrelenting misery for Nigerian women in various forms: social inferiority, economic disempowerment, denial of access to property and inheritance, sexual abuse, human trafficking and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

A 2000 World Bank study entitled “Can Africa Claim the 21st Century” sets out two fundamental premises that are particularly applicable to Nigeria2:

* Gender inequality is both an economic and a social problem.

* Greater gender equality could be a powerful force for accelerating poverty reduction in Africa.

Given the acute poverty situation in Nigeria – where almost 76 million are officially classified as poor and 54% of citizens live on less than US$1 a day – empowering women and their meaningful inclusion in development processes is key to sustainable development Growth. The country has vast oil and natural gas reserves that have brought it an estimated $600 billion over the past half century. However, successive decades of political unrest and government mismanagement have left the vast majority of the population destitute and confronted with multiple problems stemming from the unequal distribution of wealth and an extreme gap between rich and poor. Illiteracy, unemployment, rampant crime and organized violence are just some of the consequences of this unfortunate situation.

The impact of Nigeria’s history has been particularly severe for women, prompting many to take up traditional village-level businesses to eke out a meager living and supplement family income. The motivation here is primarily basic survival—food, clothing, household necessities—rather than wealth creation. Faced with often insurmountable circumstances and challenges, individuals and groups of women entrepreneurs have traditionally clung to extremely small ventures in the manufacturing and service sectors, largely without organizational support or guidance.

Curiously, this sad state of affairs is also an attribute that offers policymakers a significant, albeit dormant, advantage. Through their involvement in cottage and village level businesses, Nigerian women are already an active entrepreneurial group with unexplored economic and human resource potential. Perhaps to oversimplify, all they need is a political nudge in the right direction to help them capitalize on their accumulated talents to achieve full-scale development in their country’s ailing landscape.

The fate of both Nigeria’s 2020 target and the Millennium Development Goals hinges critically on its ability to drive an entrepreneurial revolution that adequately develops and unlocks the latent skills of its massive female population. Below are 7 creative suggestions that could make this possible:

1. Introduction of legal reforms to ensure women’s equal rights to property, inheritance and financial control; to enhance their unique capabilities and assets and to use them for immediate and long-term macroeconomic benefits at both local and national levels.

2. New prioritization of budget spending and official spending models with the specific aim of improving gender equality through the introduction of special regulations and programs that effectively promote women’s participation in entrepreneurial activities.

3. Enforcement of equal gender participation through the development of targeted entrepreneurship for women that takes into account their socio-cultural, legal and economic constraints. Policy changes need to be introduced to overcome barriers to women’s participation in viable businesses.

4. Initiate government incentive programs for existing and emerging companies that proactively include women in different hierarchies. Educate current and future entrepreneurs about the unique business and social benefits they can reap from this dynamic group.

5. Facilitating partnerships between women and financial, advisory and support agencies; in a way that compensates for their lack of formal business acumen, experience and access to finance. Fostering partnerships between women entrepreneurs in related sectors to support the sharing of expertise and resources.

6. Establish effective start-up and ongoing support structures with safety net arrangements to provide ongoing financial, technical and expertise support and minimize failure rates. Ensuring the effectiveness of such a measure at ground level through continuous monitoring and surveys.

7. Improve accountability on issues of women’s empowerment at the state and federal levels through impartial evaluation of executive agencies and relevant government-sponsored programs. Appropriately highlight successes and shortcomings to allow for constructive evolution of such practices.

In terms of basic subjective reality, these proposals are by no means definitive or exhaustive; However, they maintain the broad framework that any major policy realignment must entail in order to achieve the sustained and accelerated economic growth that Abuja has projected. Local adjustments are necessary for each guideline to meet historical and regional needs. In addition, a significant amount of introspection and groundwork needs to be done before these parameters can be set. Fundamental human development initiatives, particularly those related to easy and universal access to health care and modern education, are of paramount importance. Nigeria has inherited a wide array of fundamental infrastructure, logistics and energy deficiencies that need to be adequately addressed upfront. With policy changes come additional and significant risks that need to be both recognized and anticipated.

For encouragement, Nigerian leaders and policymakers might do well to heed an old aphorism: One that says that when you invest in women, you invest in the whole community!