Nigeria’s Laws Hold Women Back, and the Economy Suffers


Alexandra Bro is a research associate at CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy program. Jack McCaslin is a research associate with CFR’s Africa program.

On February 23, Muhammadu Buhari was reelected as Nigeria’s president, beating his opponent and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. While running on different platforms, central to both of their campaigns was the poor state of the country’s economy. Broadly speaking, Buhari’s solutions bent toward social justice for the poor, while Atiku’s focused on privatization and deregulation. But of the many remedies proposed by the two candidates, neither sufficiently focused on a proven strategy to boost the economy: increasing the participation of women.

A large body of evidence demonstrates the positive relationship between women’s economic participation and a country’s prosperity. According to the CFR Women and Foreign Policy Program’s new digital report, Growing Economies Through Gender Parity, which visualizes data from the McKinsey Global Institute, Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) could grow by 23 percent—or $229 billion—by 2025 if women participated in the economy to the same extent as men. And the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has found that strengthening gender equality in Nigeria could be an economic game-changer, leading to higher productivity and greater economic stability.

These are benefits that Nigeria cannot afford to ignore. Under Buhari’s leadership, Nigeria’s unemployment rate has continued to grow, and while the country has begun to recover from an economic recession in 2016, the IMF’s growth forecast for Nigeria’s economy remains bleak. In June 2018, World Poverty Clock estimated that ninety million Nigerians were living in extreme poverty, surpassing India as home to the largest number of poor people in the world. Furthermore, Nigeria’s poverty rate is predicted to increase from 44.2 percent today to 45.5 percent in 2030, as its GDP growth fails to keep up with population growth.

This situation disproportionately affects Nigeria’s women and girls. Girls are less likely than boys to attend school and more likely to be illiterate. In the poorest parts of the country, 75 percent of girls are out of school, and in some regions, the share of unenrolled girls is close to twice that of boys. Women also have lower access to health and financial services, and are more likely to be part of the informal economy. According to the World Bank, only 50 percent of Nigerian women participate in the labor force, compared to almost 60 percent of men.

Rather than enabling women to contribute to the economy, Nigeria still has several laws on the books that make it harder for women to work than men. For example, Nigerian law does not mandate nondiscrimination in employment based on gender, nor equal remuneration for work of equal value. Women are not even allowed to work in the same industries, or perform the same tasks at work, as men; among other restrictions, it is illegal for women to work overnight in manual labor. And women who are sexually harassed at work do not have access to civil remedies. According to the Women and Foreign Policy Program’s Women’s Workplace Equality Index—which visualizes data from the World Bank and ranks 189 countries on how level the legal playing field is for women in the workforce—Nigeria comes in at number 87 on its global ranking.

Merely changing the law definitely has its limitations. Government bureaucratic capacity is extremely limited and Nigerians tend to have greater faith in traditional and religious leaders than they do in secular judges and courts. Nevertheless, ensuring equality under the law remains an important first step in closing the economic gender gap, and governments around the world are starting to take action. Between 2015 and 2017, more than 110 countries undertook legal reforms that increased women’s economic opportunities. Sub-Saharan Africa is no exception. Burkina Faso now provides civil remedies for cases of sexual harassment in the workplace, and within the last three years, Zambia has made a number of reforms. It now prohibits gender-based discrimination in hiring and promotions, and mandates equal remuneration for equal work.

Certainly, increasing women’s economic participation is no panacea for Nigeria’s ailing economy. The recession in 2016, caused by its dependence on oil prices, requires economic diversification. Nigeria’s poor infrastructure is well-documented—only half of Nigerians have access to reliable electricity and frequent blackouts force businesses to run costly diesel generators to keep the lights on—and requires greater and more efficient public expenditure.

But decades of research indicate the significant economic benefits of improving women’s status and allowing them to make their own decisions about work. As President Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo begin to think about how to improve the economy over their second term, eliminating legal barriers to women’s economic participation is a good place to start.

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