Meet the Nigerian women shattering stereotypes by working in male-dominated jobs

As Nigeria's economic crisis deepens, hundreds of women are working in non-traditional roles to help their families

Olaniyi Yemisi is one of several Nigerian women who have started driving rickshaw taxis in the city of Ibadan. Abiodun Jamiu for The National
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As heavy traffic slowed to a crawl on the narrow road passing the University of Ibadan, Olatunde Omolara swerved her yellow autorickshaw to the left, drawing a stream of abuse from the driver of the four-wheeled minicab beside her.

“Go home and look after your family!” he shouted, his words reflecting the traditional view of a woman’s role in Nigeria’s highly patriarchal society.

Ms Omolara gave him a disdainful look before waving at another car behind her to slow down so she could merge.

Although the 38-year-old mother of three's job is a difficult one, it is necessary. And she is not alone in challenging cultural norms: a growing number of Nigerian women are taking up traditionally male-dominated roles as the country pitches further into economic crisis.

Some of these women are single mothers or widows who have been forced to take on the role of provider, while others are helping to support their families in the face of rising unemployment and soaring inflation.

Before she started driving a marwa – as the three-wheeled taxis are locally known – Ms Omolara ran a thriving beauty salon in the popular Shasha Market area in Ibadan, southern Nigeria.

That ended when it was burnt to the ground during two days of violence in February 2021 between the Yoruba and Hausa communities.

Members of the two ethnic groups had clashed before, but never so violently, and the incidents left a lasting mark.

After the clashes, most of Ms Omolara’s customers, mostly Hausas, relocated.

“Business started to get worse. Some days, I would not make a single dime. We were barely surviving,” she said with tears in her eyes.

A year later, her husband suffered a stroke.

“We spent virtually everything we had. To get something to eat became very difficult,” she said.

Last October, she decided to do something about their financial situation.

“There was a woman in my area who rode a tricycle, so I reached out to her,” she said.

“And she guided me for about three weeks, after which a friend lent me 150,000 Nigerian nairas ($193) to get a tricycle on an instalment payment. I return 32,000 nairas ($41.18) every week.”

At first, her husband did not approve of her new job because he believed it was his role to provide for the family, despite his poor health.

“My husband wasn’t supportive at the very beginning. In fact, throughout my three weeks training, he knew nothing about it,” she said. “But after I got the tricycle, he sat me down and we talked about it.”

In addition to driving taxis, women have been taking on other traditionally male-dominated roles and working as mechanics, barbers, shoemakers and in other jobs.

According to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy Programme, Nigeria’s gross domestic product could grow by 23 per cent by 2025 “if women participated in the economy to the same extent as men”.

This position is echoed by the International Monetary Fund, which argued that strengthening gender equality in Nigeria, especially in the workplace, would be an economic game-changer that could lead to greater stability in the country.

Most of the way women are going – all out of their traditional roles – is a result of the socioeconomic upheaval that has occurred in Nigeria over the past decade or two which has changed family dynamics
Leena Hoffmann, associate fellow at Chatham House

“Most of the way women are going – all out of their traditional roles – is a result of the socioeconomic upheaval that has occurred in Nigeria over the past decade or two which has changed family dynamics,” Leena Hoffmann, associate fellow at Chatham House, told The National.

“When both genders contribute to the economy, the kind of growth we would witness will be more dynamic and resilient to both internal and external turbulence.”

Nigerian women are now grappling with a challenging economy that has pushed most middle and low-income families farther down the economic ladder in the West African country.

During his inaugural speech in May, President Bola Tinubu sent shock waves through the country when he announced the removal of fuel subsidies that have kept prices low in Africa's most populous country, adding more pressure on families.

Almost immediately prices of fuel tripled, along with rising inflation, and more than 133 million people were plunged into poverty, according to an official report by the country’s statistics agency.

The World Bank says that an additional 7.1 million people in Africa’s largest economy could slip below the poverty line before the end of the year, if the issue of the fuel subsidies is not properly managed.

The removal of subsidies has made life difficult for Nigerians already facing rising unemployment, a weakened currency and surging inflation, which passed 24 per cent in June, according to the statistics agency.

Mma Amara Ekeruche, senior research fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa, believes the policies have a huge effect on the soaring cost of living in the country, but they are also necessary to tackle the country’s economic crisis.

“There is never a perfect time to bite the bullet. Although these policies are going to further exacerbate the cost-of-living crisis, they are important in bringing about the structural transformation the country is in dire need of,” she told The National.

But for driver Opeyemi Adeyemi, 36, the long-term benefits of such structural transformation are difficult to appreciate.

She parked her tricycle along the road and leaned back in the driver’s seat, looking exhausted.

The removal of the fuel subsidy has taken a huge toll on her business, she says. Her customer numbers have plummeted after the cost of commuting skyrocketed.

“It’s been really difficult in the last couple of days,” Ms Adeyemi told The National.

“Before the increase in the price of fuel, I used to make between $12 and $15 daily. But now, we hardly make $9.

“This is because we spend so much on fuel without much patronage. I’ve been here for nearly an hour without any passengers. It’s really frustrating, but we don’t have any other options.”

Ms Omolara echoes Ms Adeyemi's concerns, saying she has been working weekends and longer hours since the removal of subsidies to make up for the shortfall in her earnings.

“Since the fuel problem started, I no longer have a specific time for ending my workday,” she said.

“What determines it now is the amount of money I make, including money for the fuel I will use the next day.”

Despite the increased hardship, she is optimistic.

“It is tiring, but we will be fine,” she said.

Updated: September 08, 2023, 6:00 PM