From Banex Junction to Jabi, Wuse , Wuye and even the popular Mabushi bridge located along the Federal Ministry of Works express-way, a typical Abuja resident will wake up to see men- old and young- flood around these areas with their work tools- head pans, shovels, machetes, trowels, ladder- and several other plumbing equipment.
At first, you may imagine they are workers for construction firms waiting for their company vehicle but not until you make a slow drive around, you see these men besiege your car like ants after a honey drop, begging you to take them along for whatever job you have and often, without price negotiations- their pay is usually detected by the employer’s good conscience.
For them, their poverty is not a problem of laziness but that of unavailability of work. They are able, ready, and willing to work, yet, the work hardly comes, at most sparingly.
For all the labours and pain of these able-bodied men in Abuja, the macho women of Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, southeastern Nigeria, are the replicas. The only difference is that they are mostly married women fending for their families.
A commentator of this issue described it as “the most awry sight -women mixing and carrying concrete.”
Granted, Igbo women played not just complementary but very outstanding roles in the success of the traditional Igbo economy since the pre-colonial period until now, but then, women still find their place in these work environments.
In most parts of Igbo land, even when women cultivate their farms, they do not traditionally plant all kinds of crops.
Mayor Ogbodo in Enugu said that “Women are free to cultivate cassava, vegetables, maize, Okro and other ‘feminine crops’ while the men have the exclusive reserve of cultivating yams. But this does not apply to a woman who has no one to do these for her. She automatically assumes the role of both the man and the woman.”
But in Abakaliki, “it’s somewhat surprising that there is a shift in roles when you get to this town. I am not trying to say that the men are lazy, but I keep wondering what the men would be doing, where they are when their wives loiter in front of the Abakaliki Stadium and at the Spera-in-Deo Junction looking for people to work for,” Ogbodo observed.
These women work as labourers in building construction sites, granite quarrying sites, road projects and many other traditional jobs associated with men.
On seeing them, you would see their hunger, their sagging breasts and firmly tied wrappers around their waists. They are strong women and hardly would you see anyone of them fat like a traditional mother past her prime in rural society.
These women are among the most hardworking groups around on earth. As early as 6am, you will see them all seated at their locations armed with either cutlasses, hoes, head pans, shovels, diggers, axes, and more; all waiting anxiously to work for some money to feed their families.
It’s even more pathetic when you see them rush towards any car that stops close to them, thinking it is a prospective hirer.
“It even pains me more when at the end of the day, most of them don’t get any job to do and they have to go back to their starving families, empty handed. Some of them, who come from as far as Izzi local government, probably with the only money on them, would either be forced to do any job so as not to go back empty handed or better still, they trek home,” Uchendu Igbokwe, a resident of Abakaliki said.
“When I remember how I felt about these women, I feel guilty. I think I have offended these women and they deserve my apology. I used to see them as useless, wasted women,” he added.
Indeed, as Igbokwe would put it, “Abakaliki woman is a hustler. The Abakaliki woman is a man. She does not depend on anybody. She would not let her family starve. She is willing to do whatever it takes to feed and care for her family. She is willing to trek from the deepest part of the state to the capital to do menial jobs. She is willing to ride bicycles from whatever distance to get to that job that feeds her family. She is willing to jump onto a truck, sit in the trunk of vehicles provided she will work and be paid.”
A study by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) Nigeria on sexual and gender-based violence in Ebonyi state revealed that there are several harmful practices against women in Ebonyi State. One of such harmful practises has to do with early marriage and teenage motherhood.
The Executive Director of the CSJ, Eze Onyekpere said the study showed that by 2011, about 6.4 percent of all the girls (aged 15 – 19) in Ebonyi State had begun childbearing.
“As at 2011, about 9.5 percent of the women (aged 20 – 24) in Ebonyi State have had a live birth before they turned 18 years of age, whereas the proportion of women (aged 20 – 24) in Ebonyi State who have had a live birth before turning 18 years of age stood at 6.7 percent as at 2016,” he said.
Coming to the aspect of early marriage, based on the 2011 Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS), about 7.6 percent of the girls (aged 15 – 19) in Ebonyi State were married before they turned 15 years of age. On other hand, findings indicate that about 23.4 percent of the women (aged 20 – 24) in Ebonyi State were married before they turned 18 years of age.
Many who expressed views on this matter said that the government in Ebonyi State should provide a better work environment for these women to lift or lessen the impact of such laborious work on their womanhood.
“They need to lead normal lives. As much as they work to earn a living and support their families, it’s imperative we consider how these hard jobs of lifting bags of cement and carrying concrete affect them. How does it affect their childbearing status? How does it affect their aging? These considerations should not be left out,” Ejike Maduabuchi said.
Some other residents of the city accused the men of laziness as they sat and watched their wives cater for them and their children.
“Their men are lazy while the women work so hard to cater for the family. In front of my house, you will see women breaking rocks into small pieces to be sold to building contractors. The man will be somewhere drinking and wooing other men’s wives,” Antonia Orji said.
According to Otti Vincent, “Whenever women work like this, they know that their husbands, sons and fathers are lazy. Construction work isn’t for women and only a ‘disabled’ man would allow the women in his life to indulge in this. At the very least, the husband and wife should do it together if they’re so desperate for the money.”
Another resident, Benerd Ugochukwu said, “There is a need for gender re-positioning in Ebonyi State. I was there two weeks ago and I felt sad for the women. I have never seen women making heaps (of sand) in my life but I saw it in Abakaliki. There is a need to call the men in Ebonyi State to order. This is unacceptable anywhere in the world.”
He traced the cause of the problem saying that some of the women are given to marriage at a very tender age.
“It really has not stopped in some parts here in Ebonyi. They end up getting pregnant and most of the guys that marry them can barely care for themselves. I wish the government would create and give these women good jobs. Most of them are still young but look old because of hardship and hard work,” he said.
According to Mrs Mary Oyinbe, a native of Izzi, who lamented the attitude of their men towards their wives, said the mad rush into marriage is the key reason most of such women find themselves in such a situation.
“I own a provision shop here, but if I told you what some of these female labourers are passing through in their various families, you would really pity them. I have seen a case where a woman with a nine-month-old pregnancy was carrying cement in the name of finding her daily bread.
“Look, it is not a laughing matter. It is better to marry a man who we refer to as a foreigner in the land than our own people. They don’t value us (women), let alone care for us.
“Engaging in this hard manual labour has become a tradition of sorts among the people of Izzi and Ezza. It is either this job or one is forced to look for an alternative. But it is almost impossible for one coming from a poor background to get an easy and better alternative,” Mrs Mary said.
According to her, the most annoying part of it is that most of the men sit at home and wait for the women to come back with money for the upkeep of the family.
True, the diligent and hardworking character of the Abakaliki women are remarkable. Igbo culture including the religion made provision for freedom of movement, worship, as well as freedom for anyone to undertake any legitimate economic activity.
This formed the basis of the competitive spirit among Igbo women whom, it would be said, have almost no helper. It is this spirit that gingered the women to plunge into various economic ventures with a determined spirit of success and excellent achievements.
With the above mind-set, coupled with the nature of the socio-economic environment in which they found themselves, the women made giant strides in the major economic sectors of their communities- namely agriculture, local industries and crafts and commerce; but this must never be abused.
Despite their important role, these women are among the most exploited and abused workers in Nigeria.
Therefore, the state government, policymakers and other stakeholders must adopt a gender-sensitive and rights-based approach in developing labour laws and policies in line with the core human rights treaties and in particular, the convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, as well as relevant ILO labour standards.