2012. Vol.2, No.4, 388-393
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/sm) DOI:10.4236/sm.2012.24051
The Social Phenomenon of Women Empowerment
in Nigeria: A Theoretical Approach
Eucharia N. Nw a g bara1, Grace R. Etuk1, Michael Baghebo2
1Department of Sociology, University of Calabar, Calaba r, Nigeria
2Department of Economics, Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island, Nigeria
Received July 8th, 2012; revised Aug ust 14th, 2012; accepted August 22nd, 2012
Women have continued to make immense contributions to development in Nigeria. These landmark
achievements have not been without challenges, hence the predominance of women issues at local, na-
tional and international seminars, workshops and symposia. Issues such as women’s status, roles, and
needs have been of utmost concern. Efforts to address these issues led to the adoption of various strategies
towards making women relevant in every sphere of life in the society. One strategy that had gained cur-
rency over the years among scholars and practitioners of women and gender studies has been that of
women “empowerment”. The continued persistence of women’s problems in the areas of gender equality,
gender roles, improved social status, etc., raises a number of questions about the empowerment strategies
of governmental and non-governmental agencies. Are the strategies based on faulty theoretical assump-
tions? Is their application in the Nigerian situation faulty? What is the problem of their application in the
Nigerian context? This paper attempts to examine these questions against the background of the tenets of
women empowerment strategies.
Keywords: Empowerment; Women Participation; Gender Issues; Women’s Status; Policy
Gender and women’s studies have come a long way in Nige-
ria since the first United Nations world conference on women
held in Mexico City in 1975 (Ogbuagu, 2004; Gabriel, 2000;
Nwagbara et al., 2007; Salihu, 2001; Para-Mallam, 2006;
Ogunleye & Mukhtar, 2009; Afolabi, 2008; Adeleke, 2012).
One common thread that runs through these studies is the af-
firmation of the enormous contributions made by women to
development in the face of socio-cultural, economic and health
Women in Nigeria have continued to make immense contri-
bution to national development in their various areas of en-
deavors in addition to domestic responsibilities which are un-
dervalued. In the area of agriculture, rural women in Nigeria,
like their other African counterparts have played key roles in
food production, processing and distribution. As scholars have
observed, rural women in Nigeria like their counterparts in
other African countries have been seen to excel in agricultural
production (Famoriyo, 1988; Adekanye, 1988; Ogbuagu, 2004).
The enormity of their contribution in this sector of the economy
has made Boserup (1980) to proclaim Africa as the region of
female farming. Yet they face the problem of access to credit
facilities, ownership of land, and overwhelming domestic
chores, discrimination and marginalization, among others.
In the modern employment sector, women have shown evi-
dence of efficiency and effectiveness through hard work, hon-
esty, transparency and accountability in their service to the
country even though they are marginalized and discriminated
against. Thus women like Dora Akunyili and Ngozi-Okonjo-
Iweala, to mention but a few, have recently become household
names in Nigeria due to their outstanding contribution to na-
tional development in their respective positions. These are few
privileged ones out of the many women that lack opportunities
due to patriarchal traditional practices that relegate them to
subordinate status in the society. Yet women constitute about
half of the population in Nigeria according to the 2006 popula-
tion census (Rotimi & Agande, 2007). This unfortunate situa-
tion raises some pertinent questions as follows: why is the
status of women generally low in spite of global efforts towards
its upgrading? What is happening to women empowerment in
Nigeria? These and more will guide our discussion in the re-
maining part of the paper. The paper presents a multi-varied
and prismatic view of the problems of women which still re-
main to be solved in the world in general, and particularly in
This is a theoretical paper in which the authors tried to
stimulate general intellectual curiosity on the persistent prob-
lem of women empowerment in Nigeria, hoping that new and
innovative strategies for attaining gender equality will emerge
at the end. The paper is fundamentally based on library research
enriched with internet resources and government publications.
The concept of “empowerment” has been diversely used by
scholars and practitioners in the field of gender and develop-
ment studies. According to Crawley (1998), the concept of
empowerment itself is used to “justify development proposi-
tions which are rooted in diverse ideological political positions”
and thus is fraught with mixed reactions among people. This
observation is evident in the contrasting views of Griffen (1989)
and Rowlands (1992) on empowerment. In reacting to Griffen’s
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
E. N. NWAGBARA ET AL.
(1989) description of the term as adding to women’s power,
Rowlands (1992) observes that such definition raises confusion
as the concept of power itself is much disputed.
When we put together the various views on the empower-
ment debate, it becomes obvious that the concept goes beyond
the issue of participation. As Crawley (1998) aptly observes, “it
is more than simply widening access to decision-making”. De-
fining the concept, Gajanayake (1993) notes that empowerment
implies “enabling people to understand the reality of their
situation, reflect on the factors shaping that situation and, most
critically, take steps to effect changes to improve it”. This vi ew
was re-echoed by Ake (1994) who sees the term as a process
that enables the ordinary people to effectively participate in
governance. In the view of Garba (1997), women empower-
ment involves enhancing their capacity to influence and par-
ticipate in making decisions which directly or indirectly affect
their lives. Garba further distinguished between static and dy-
namic dimensions of empowerment which was summarized by
Gabriel (2000) thus:
“The static concept defines empowerment of women as
their capacities to participate in making decisions which
directly or indirectly affect their lives and influence deci-
sion. In this regard, women are said to have effective
voice. On the other hand the dynamic concept regards
empowerment as a process of developing the capacity of
individuals… to not only participate effectively in making
decisions that directly or indirectly affect them but also in
implementing such decisions.”
Essentially, empowerment must include the processes that
lead the individual or group to perceive itself as able to occupy
a decision making position. In other words, “an empowerment
focus involves the radical alteration of the structures which
reproduce women’s subordinate position as a gender” (Craw-
Women Empowerment in Nigeria:
The Journey so Far
Globally, United Nations organs such as the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Popula-
tion Fund (UNFPA) have continued to play key role in women
empowerment. According to the UNFPA, the empowerment of
women is a sure way to attaining g e n d e r e q u ality
(http://www.unfpa.org/gender/empowerment.htm). As part of
its activities toward the attainment of the Millennium Devel-
opment Goals and sustainable development, the UNDP vigor-
ously initiates programmes and activities aimed at fast-tracking
gender equality and women’s empowerment in many societies
However, the problem of women empowerment—like the
“global concern about the environment”—has continued to give
rise to more organizations (government and non-government),
treaties, conventions, summits and conferences. The period
opened with a resounding criticism of the whole empowerment
concept and staunch defense of the status quo for women. In the
bid to mainstream women and address their special needs, the
UN declared the year 1975-1985 a decade for women. This
decade which had equality, development and peace as its goals
witnessed two prominent conferences—Mexico 1975, and
Nairobi 1985—addressing women’s issues and the way for-
At the end of the decade, stock was taken regarding the at-
tainment of its goals. While pockets of achievements were re-
corded, most countries including Nigeria experienced many
obstacles towards the attainment of the goals of the decade.
Among these obstacles are predominant traditional attitudes
towards women; low priority attention by government to
women’s issues, the vulnerability of women to the worsening
world economic situation, increasing maternal mortality, as
well as conflicts in some societies. These constitute major ob-
stacles towards the advancement of women.
The 1995 epoch-making Beijing conference was a follow-up
on the Nairobi 1985 conference, and was aimed at assessing the
extent of compliance of member countries in addressing
women’s issues in certain critical areas including health needs,
discrimination, and access to credit, and so on. Following these
conferences, more than 100 countries of the world launched
new initiatives to improve the status of women (Lopez-Claros
& Zahidi, 2005).
Nigeria is one of those countries that ratified all the UN
Conventions on women. In 1998, a national policy on women
was designed by the Federal Government of Nigeria to protect
women against all forms of discrimination. The policy merely
exists on paper as little or nothing has been achieved since it
came into being (Nwagbara & Ering, 2007).
This policy was as a result of several years of resolutions by
the United Nations, Organization of African Unity (OAU) as
well as non-governmental organizations. Ubanna (2000) gave
an insight on Article 18 (3) of the OAU Charter which Nigeria
ratified in 1983. The charter, following the convention on
Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women
(CEDAW) and other conventions, made it obligatory for Afri-
can countries to eliminate all forms of discrimination against
women and ensure the protection of the rights of women and
children (Nwagbara, Ering, Abia, & Osuchukwu, 2007).
Since the Beijing conference in 1995, the Nigerian govern-
ment has formulated policies on women in the areas of health,
education, employment, agriculture, culture and industry. To
ensure that these policies were effectively implemented, it was
enshrined in Chapter 11 Section 17 (2) of the 1999 constitution
of the Federal Republic of Nigeria where it was emphasized
that “every citizen shall have equal rights, obligations and op-
portunities before the law”.
In the area of education, the educational policy made it man-
datory for women to receive proper education as enshrined in
Chapter 11 Section 17 (2) of the same constitution. According
to Ubanna (2000):
“The highlight of the policy was that the Nigerian woman
should enjoy the full benefits of contemporary living.
They required basic education to contribute meaningfully
to the development of the country. The policy also forbids
through legal sanctions, the withdrawal of girls under 18
from school for marriage.”
There are also policies on health, culture and employment.
The health policy is to ensure, that women are protected from
health problems of high maternal mortality, unsafe abortion,
HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.
The national health policy functions to enhance the imple-
mentation of primary health care delivery system to meet the
health need of women and children.
The policy on culture overhauled the nation’s legal system
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 389
E. N. NWAGBARA ET AL.
hence permitting women to stand as sureties and also be able to
bail suspects from police custody. It was this policy that pegged
age of marriage at 18. This policy also recognized women as
primary environment managers, extractors and users of envi-
ronmental resources and sought to ensure women’s participa-
tion in national ecosystem management and control of envi-
ronmental degradation (Nwagbara, Ering, Abia, & Osuchukwu,
On the other hand, the employment policy was to ensure
equal opportunities and equal pay for men and women with
same qualification. In all, these policies, meant for the opening
up of new challenges to Nigerian women are yet to be properly
One policy which has engaged the attention of scholars in
Nigeria is the year 2000 policy on women that was enacted by
President Olusegun Obasanjo (Salihu, 2001; Para-Mallam,
2006; Afolabi, 2008; Adeleke, 2012). In a study to evaluate the
impact of the 2000 policy on women farmers in Akungba and
Oka Akoko areas of Ondo State, Adeleke’s (2012) findings
suggest that the policy has not impacted positively on the
women. Of the five (5) key substantive issues in the study—
access to land, labour and water, modern technology, credit and
access to training in agricultural production and utilization—all
the respondents complained of lack of access. Based on the
findings, Adeleke (2012) concluded as follows:
“Despite the implementation strategies that were endorsed
by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2000, women
still have limited access to modern, improved techniques
and there have been no much improvement in general
working-conditions of this particular set of women under
Essentially, the above findings support earlier studies carried
out by scholars such as Damisa and Yohanna (2007) and
Afolabi (2008). On her part, Salihu (2001) lamented that there
has been little qualitative change in the lives of women since
Obasanjo’s regime, arguing that:
“What positive development there has been is not a direct
consequence of the leadership of the regime, but a sys-
temic benefit as can only be engendered by a regime
which comes after a military dictatorship such as Nigeria
experienced. This is why the observable changes them-
selves are peripheral, because they have not challenged
the existing structures of oppression.”
Of all the studies on the national policy on women cited in
this paper, the work of Para-Mallam (2006) is outstanding in its
ability to present a graphic analysis of the policy and its loop-
holes. In a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the national
policy on women and the challenges in mainstreaming gender
issues in Nigeria, Para-Mallam (2006) summarized the prob-
lems within and around the year 2000 policy on women as fol-
“…awareness of the policy is low among most women.
Consequently, there is no concerted agenda to push for its
implementation. The gender management system put in
place by the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs to over-
see the mainstreaming of gender is undermined by institu-
tionalised and routinised gender bias and distortions in the
wider policy environment… successful implementation of
policy objectives remains elusive in the absence of com-
prehensive measures to reverse significant gender dispari-
ties in access to socioeconomic resources, opportunities
Hence, while Nigeria ratified all the international conven-
tions that gave rise to these policies, there is little political will
for their full implementation. Some of them exist just on paper
and the psyche of the formulators. Nigerian women are yet to
reap the full benefits of the policies. A litany of factors, ranging
from cultural and religious practices, to illiteracy and patriarchy
function to compound the problem of Nigerian women’s par-
ticipation in decision-making to influence policies which affect
them (Nwagbara, Ering, A b i a , & O s u c h u k w u , 2007 ) .
An assessment of the extent to which women have attained
equality in the critical areas of economic participation, eco-
nomic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attain-
ment, health and well-being undertaken of 58 countries shows
that no country has managed to eliminate gender gap (Lo-
pez-Claros & Zahidi, 2005). The only African country included
in that survey, Egypt, ranked 58th thus occupying the lowest
rank. Yet Egypt and some other developing countries are per-
forming better than Nigeria as evidenced in development stud-
ies of developing countries (World Bank, 2001; Economist,
The deplorable status of women is universal and not a recent
phenomenon. Fu Hsuan, a 3rd century scholar had observed
this of women in his era. Fu Hsuan in Bullough (1971) cited in
Tischler, Whitten and Hunter (1986) observes:
“Bitter indeed it is to be born a woman; it is difficult to
image anything so low! Boys can stand openly at the front
gate, they are treated like god as soon as they are born…
but a girl is reared without joy or love, and no one in her
family really cares for her; grown up she has to hide in the
inner rooms; cover her head, be afraid to look others in
the face, and no one sheds a tear when she is married
In the contemporary time, women encounter worse preju-
dices and discrimination, albeit, subtly. These social vices
against women have been condemned by Montagu (1982) who
“We need to catch up to the social changes which have
occurred during the last fifty years, to adjust our ideas and
practices to those changes which, on the whole have been
liberating and beneficial. Because so many of us still live
by beliefs which belong to an outmoded way of life, we
tend to become confused and upset when confronted with
the living realities of our time, and to commit the sort of
follies that those who believe in stupidities will always
Women in Nigeria contribute to national development
through their multiple roles which were accorded little recogni-
tion. Women work longer hours and have less rest compared to
their male counterparts. Rural women have restricted access to
productive resources and have minimal access to credit facili-
ties in relation to their male counterparts (Ezumah, 1988). In
this era of modern technology and globalization, prevailing
circumstances and trends such as conflicts, economic setback,
illiteracy, unemployment, environmental degradation and dis-
eases such as HIV/AIDS have contributed to deepening social
inequality within the country context (Ogbuagu, 2004).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
E. N. NWAGBARA ET AL.
As James and James (1995) noted, women who are the cor-
nerstone and foundation of all societies are generally underrep-
resented and devalued. Montagu (1982) described the prevail-
ing scenario of gender based inequality more succinctly:
“…If women have passed through the period of the aboli-
tion of discriminations against them, they have not yet
successfully weathered the period of emancipation. For
millennia women have been treated as the “inferior race”
of the masculine world.”
Thus traditional beliefs based on gender differentiation has
been a root cause of the yawning gap of social inequality be-
tween the male and female sexes and by implication a major
obstacle to women empowerment in Nigeria. To redress this
situation, one would expect that the principle of equity or social
justice would be the watch word of agencies charged with em-
powering women in Nigeria through legislations and formula-
tion of policies and programmes that are gender sensitive. The
principle of social justice requires that everyone be provided
with equal opportunities for self development and self actuali-
zation irrespective of sex, class, religion, ethnic background,
HIV status or disability.
Looking Forward: Some Critical Reflections
One contribution to the empowerment debate that has served
as a useful tool of reference is the model provided by Mullen-
der and Ward (1991). These scholars’ model of empowerment
is based “explicitly on an anti-oppressive perspective and sug-
gests three simple questions to be addressed by those concerned
that participatory approaches achieve their empowerment po-
tential” (Crawley, 1998). The questions are as follows:
1. What are the problems to be tackled?
2. Why do the problems exist? And,
3. How can we bring about change?
These questions are vital and those concerned with policies
to redress the present imbalance in the status of women in Ni-
geria do not seem to be guided by them given the little
achievement i n this regard. Highlights of women’s problems in
Nigeria which have been fairly identified by government and
non-government agencies are:
Subordinate status reinforced by gender roles and patriar-
High level of illiteracy,
Lack of access to resources—technology, credit, informa-
Harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutila-
tion/cutting, widowhood rites, and male-child preference,
Lack of access to decision-making through effective politi-
Double burden/oppression through domestic activities,
Vulnerability to conflicts and diseases and infections such
as malaria and HIV/AIDS.
Scholars have continued to lament about the little result at-
tained by the various efforts at women empowerment in Nigeria
and Africa in general (Mwangola, 2006; Madunagu, 2007).
Their worry is best understood against the background of
Mullender and Ward’s (1991) second question as to why the
problems exist in the first instance. Mill (1865) has since pro-
vided an explanation that “custom; grounded either in a preju-
dice, or in the present constitution of society, which, making
almost every woman, socially speaking, an appendage of some
man, enables men to take systematically the lion’s share of
what belongs to both”. Re-echoing the view of Mill, Gardiner
(1997) notes that the “legal subordination of women with mar-
riage was the basis of women’s subjection in the political and
Addressing the problems squarely will no doubt amount to
liberating women from their relegation to the background and
mainstreaming them into key decision-making spheres of the
society. Lenin (1972) cited in Madunagu (2007) noted that the
task of liberating women from their oppressed status is an ar-
duous one which cannot be accomplished by mere exhortation.
Commenting further on this, Lenin observed that the struggle to
uplift the status of women through their liberation will “be a
long one, and it demands radical reconstruction both of the
social technique and of morals”.
The traditional perspective of women’s subjugation to do-
mestic activities, while men occupy super-ordinate status be-
cause they earn a living working outside the home, has been
used by functionalist theorists to explain women’s low status in
the society and persistence of gender-role socialization. Thus,
rather than serving to uplift the status of women in the contem-
porary times, the increasing globalization and advancement in
technology and information have continued to widen the
yawning gap of social inequality between men and women as
the men control key economic and social resources while the
women continue to be hemmed and chained at home by patri-
archy. Commenting on this negative attitude of male-domi-
nance against women, Montagu (1982) observes:
“… Contemporary men are, for the most part, still living
in a Victorian world of their own. That world is out of
harmony with that in which women live and most men
haven’t yet awakened to that fact… To live by the nine-
teenth-century standards in a twentieth-century world is
Men who instituted the oppression of women in society
would want to perpetuate it as long as it functions in their
favour. Thus, efforts at improving women’s status to that of
equality with men would have not yielded any meaningful
result. Concerning this issue, Mill (1970) observes: “I believe
that their disabilities elsewhere are only clung to in order to
maintain their subordination in domestic life; because the gen-
erality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with
an equal”. In a similar vein, Barrett (1982) observes of the
“Many popular remedies to improve women’s economic
status paradoxically reinforce gender-based economic roles:
the welfare system reinforces the expectation of female
dependency; comparable worth pay admits gender dis-
tinctions; equal pay keeps women out of high-status jobs;
wages for housework, part-time, flexi-time, all reinforce
traditional stereotypes while facilitating flexibility for
women as homemakers, thereby reducing stress in tradi-
tional families and accommodating gender-role distinc-
Hence, the traditional and functionalist perspectives make it
clear that while the problems of women are obvious, the forces
of patriarchal society which perpetuate them, make it difficult,
if not impossible, to empower women to the tune of elevating
their social status to that of equality with men.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 391
E. N. NWAGBARA ET AL.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The concern about gender issues and the disadvantaged
status of women and their special needs is indeed a global one,
giving rise to series of workshops, seminars, conferences and
forums at the local, national, and international levels. The Ni-
gerian government has indeed demonstrated superficial com-
mitment to women empowerment through policies and pro-
grammes designed for women that have no t yielded the desire d
impacts due to absence of concerted agenda to push for their
implementation. As such, women’s status remains deplorably
low in Nigeria and their special economic, social and other
needs are not met. The major constraints in realizing gender
equality and women empowerment in Nigeria are: an unsup-
portive legal environment, inadequate resources and the mind-
set that is not open to new approaches in addressing the needs
of women (Madunagu, 2007).
Past and current policies and programmes of government ba-
sically serve to consolidate existing patterns of gender inequal-
ity. For a proper empowerment strategy that will take into ac-
count the questions of what are the problems to be tackled?
Why are the problems in existence? And how the problems
could be solved, it is therefore recommended as follows:
1) Existing and potential policies and programmes of govern-
ment should be designed to open up equality possibilities
for men and women rather than widening the yawning gap
of social inequality between both sexes.
2) Existing and potential policies should be reviewed to ex-
amine whether or not they serve as enforcement mecha-
nisms of existing gender roles.
3) Policy-makers in Nigeria should abide by the principle of
social justice and practice it by equally involving men and
women in making policies that concern their welfare.
4) Policy makers should be more innovative such that new and
existing policy options can blend especially where such ap-
proach will be beneficial to both men and women equitably.
5) Reform in the laws affecting the status of women generally
is an essential first step in achieving gender equality. The
fundamental human rights of women should be protected by
the laws of the land.
6) Educational reforms should not only ensure that equity in
school enrolment is monitored, loopholes that encourage
girl-child drop out should be sealed and monitored effec-
7) Discriminatory traditional practices against women should
be stopped forthwith and future perpetrators should be
made to face squarely the wrought of the law.
8) Adequate sensitization of men and women on the gains of
women empowerment should be carried out by government
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