Nigerian women have always stood out for their resilience and survival instinct in an arid, hostile environment.
Although written records of Africa’s traditionally oral history are relatively recent, as early as the end of the 19th century they began to extol the courage of a warrior queen, a figure of resistance to the colonists – Sarraounia Mangou.
From 1960 to 1974, Niger was back in the limelight thanks to its first “First Lady”, Mme Aïssa DIORI, who charmed not only with her great beauty, but above all with her unrivalled charisma and rare intelligence. Her prestige radiates around the world. “Rubbing shoulders with the greats of the world (Elizabeth II, Haile Selassie, Nasser, De Gaulle, Johnson…), Madame Diori commanded respect and admiration. At her husband’s side, she began the process of female emancipation through hard work and rigor in this Afro-Muslim region.” She embodied resilience so well. So disturbed, in fact, that she was personally targeted and mortally wounded in the 1974 coup d’état.
In 1992, in addition to the world-famous March 8, Niger established a Nigerien Women’s Day to honor this resilience. Indeed, following the historic 1991 march by women to demand greater representation on the preparatory commission for the Sovereign National Conference, May 13 came to symbolize Nigerien Women’s Day, instituted by presidential decree.
As a reminder, here are a few aspects of this hostile environment. Although they represent 50.60% of the population, women have the highest illiteracy rate, at 78% (compared with 60% for men), and are also the poorest. Indeed, four out of five poor people are women, sinking under the weight of socio-cultural and economic barriers such as material dependence, characterized by low decision-making power, arduous work, and difficult access to basic services. Financial dependence, reflected in low monetization, laborious access to knowledge, jobs, and productive resources.
Niger holds two sad records, both impacting women: the highest fertility rate in the world (6.2 children per woman in 2021 vs. 7.6 in 2012) and the highest rate of early marriage: 77% of our girls are married before the age of 18 and 28% before the age of 15. And these are just the official figures… many believe that the reality is even more alarming.
In this context, women have been quick to realize that solidarity – in line with the now fashionable concept of sisterhood – is their only option, and female entrepreneurs are no exception to this trend.
Culturally, they are confined to a type of profession that is “acceptable” for women: sewing, beauty care, food processing or fruit and vegetable marketing and cooking, which are also low-margin, low-income sectors. And with low barriers to entry, competition is high and activities are often informal.
In cities, they run or invest in very small businesses and SMEs. They accumulate initiatives and jobs. When they have had access to training, they keep their salaried jobs and develop their VSEs at the same time. Insecurity doesn’t affect them much; they simply adjust their working hours and take precautions to avoid dangerous areas on the outskirts.
In rural areas, they engage in IGAs – income-generating activities. In villages, women are traditionally involved in market gardening, raising poultry and small ruminants. This income enables them to help support their families. With insecurity, looting and attacks have deprived many of them of income, leading to higher market prices and the impoverishment of entire communes. Forced migration, rural exodus and the loss of fathers and sons at the front have increased the vulnerability of rural women as well as gender-based violence.
However, since 1992, they have been organizing themselves into a Union. This is an association or structure of women who have voluntarily decided to band together to defend common interests, but above all to build their financial autonomy through tontines – most often 100% female. Insecurity has further strengthened this solidarity.
The financial system has also adapted, and is increasingly offering products to these groups, giving them access to savings and then credit, and freeing them from the guarantee or surety previously provided by a man. The dematerialization of traditional tontines also makes it possible to combat looting and secure the assets of these women’s unions.
Whether rural or urban, women entrepreneurs in Niger are organizing, building and maintaining their resilience. Groups dedicated to women entrepreneurs are springing up on social networks, as are professional associations and incubators dedicated exclusively to women. For over 20 years, one microfinance institution, MECREF, has taken up the challenge of catering to a clientele made up of 100% women. Indeed, in Niger as in the rest of the world, studies show that women entrepreneurs are better paid than men.
“Whether rural or urban, women entrepreneurs in Niger are organizing, building and maintaining their resilience”
However, the situation remains critical in many regions. Since the beginning of 2023, according to official figures, some 670,000 forcibly displaced persons have been registered in Niger, 52% of whom are women.
Nigerien women will have an increasingly important role to play in rebuilding peace in Niger. Military families are often left to fend for themselves. And just as we saw during the great world wars in Europe, women are now perfectly capable of heading these families and generating income to support the family.
Their resilience is still being tested by the coup d’état of July 26, 2023. Sanctions are taking their toll on households and women in particular, including rising food prices. Nigerien women are calling for peace and a diplomatic way out of the crisis, but they are also passionate about this historic page that the whole country is now writing.
“Their resilience is still being tested by the coup d’état of July 26, 2023”
So, more than ever, empowering women is part of economic development and must be a priority. This has a greater impact on health, education and economic development in general. And the fact that they are more involved and that we can provide them with more support will have an impact on safety across the board and at local level.
Further reading: in our “Resilience and Adaptation” series, discover Mohamed Keita’s article, “Mali’s renewal will come through the private sector“.