Opinion

Nigerian Women and the distant reality of Gender Equality

I do not consider myself an authority on feminism or sexual politics. I’m still a student of the movement who imagines having a conversation with Gloria Steinem and Chimamanda Adichie someday.

As a child, I was a dreamer. If I’m honest, I still am.

I have lived a thousand lives in my head and seen various versions of myself in every scenario I choose. In my dreams, my life is full. I was no different from any young girl in any part of the world. We begin to daydream early, creating a fantasy world where we reign. I realize that it is because our limitations and possibilities are impressed upon us from the moment we strung together our first few coherent sentences.

Even then, we know that we can do and become, whatever we want to be with the help of everyone around us. But, becoming what they want us to mean being accepted by them. Some girls dreamed of prince charming, as the English story books teach us, and a wonderful wedding. I dreamed of owning my world; a gated society where I lived by my own rules. In this dream scenario, I ran an independent corporation employing my friends, who of course, lived in this world which I created. I was 7. Of course, I did not know what an “independent corporation” was – I wasn’t a genius. I called it Nelly’s World. Yep. I did that. Even now, I still don’t know how to name a thing.


It feels like a lifetime ago. There is no corporation, not yet anyway, but I do try to live by my own rules. This choice to live on my terms is considered a major feat for a woman in Nigeria. Even women look at me with conflicted admiration, the kind that says I wish I could be as brave, but you will probably die alone.

However, to achieve these dreams, I need basic security that only my country can provide. I need education and financial independence, without which my choices are marriage and marrying up. I need health care so that maternal mortality isn’t the end of my dreams.

In 2012, the Supreme court made a landmark ruling that allows an Igbo woman to inherit from the paternal line. This ruling established precedence for another in August that allows a woman the right to her father’s inheritance. Some traditional leaders called this an intrusion in the Igbo way of life. However, this is pivotal to me because I’m an Igbo woman.

Two years ago, my brother suggested we invest in agriculture, starting with a large farm in our village employing the local women. I was all for it, women empowerment, agriculture, diversification, why not? Then I found out that in my village, I am unable to own land unless the males in my family gifted me one, even then the property remains in their name. Well, look at that. So much for my corporate dreams, huh?

My friend, Fola Folayan, says she would like to become the Director-General of NBC someday. The National Broadcasting Commission, (which recently now looks like) the gagman-in-charge of the free press in Nigeria? All I do is laugh whenever she says this. It isn’t impossible, and she might be the only woman in that position, at the national level in its 28 years since. I laugh because I see what it would mean and how hard it will be for her. How hard it already is to be a female broadcaster in our beloved count

Let me tell you about being a female broadcaster in Nigeria.

My radio career began in 2010 on a music station. There were a few female presenters, many of whom were sidekicks to the famous male hosts. Those who weren’t just seemed to disappear after a few years. That was not the path for me. So, I researched and studied myself on air.
I had several sleepless nights. I would call my friends and talk unendingly about my prospects and sound off on my possible decisions.

Who was I? What was my value on a mic? The moment I was able to answer these two questions, I quit. I had decided it was time for talk radio.

NigeriaInfo FM was where I grew up. You see, being a sidekick and echoing the words and actions of what the male host says was the norm. You were the sweet little voice in the room. But, I was never a sidekick and entertainment is non threatening – try talk radio. Try having a voice and a brain on the radio in 2013.

NigeriaInfo FM was the first time in a long time the Nigerian audience heard female anchors with opinions on the air, saying them boldly and unapologetically. Questioning everything that passes. Everything. And they weren’t sidekicks. They were running the show. Oh, it was maddening.

In 2013, there were 7 female and just 3 male hosts. We had male callers who were unfamiliar with being told that their loud opinions were wrong, that they couldn’t go on talking forever on the radio. Goodness! It created monsters in an audience.

At first, they would try complaining to our male colleagues on the air expecting that they’d reign us in when that didn’t work, they decided to handle it themselves. They called us anti-Christ, devils whose feminism would bring about the end of the world.

Some they reserved for me: witch, antichrist, prostitute, and lesbian. These are not insulting when you think about it. A person can be anti-Christ but pro-buddha for instance; intelligent women have been called witches as far as the Salem Witch trials. So, we turned this around and owned it. We started a radio show called “The COVEN”. A show with unapologetic opinionated women who owned their voices.

And we really should legalize sex work.

People ask me how I got them to stop and how the NigeriaInfo you experience today came to be. It was because we stood our ground and asserted ourselves. We established ownership. I was in charge here. I decided what we discussed, what was allowed and where to go from here.

But this was a teachable moment, not just for me, but for our male listeners too. For every punch we took, we hit harder. For every time I was called a prostitute, I talked about consent and safe sex. For every time they said lesbian, I talked about LGBTQ rights and freedom. I demanded respect. They learnt constructive words and how to apologize. They learnt that a compliment could be patronizing. They would even caution “newbie misogynists” that dared to misbehave while acknowledging that I did not need their help.

What this experience taught me is that true equity and equality is a war fought on resilience, authority, perseverance, and elimination. The more resilient the message is, the more universal its acceptance. Even when progress seems slow.

But it should never be this hard. It is wrong for it to be this difficult.
Many of these men changed. And more progressive male callers became normal. It simply became that those who couldn’t change disappeared.

I believe these changed men are those we call allies. However, I do not believe in allies for feminism and equality. Especially now when it seems the modern thing to be. Alliances form when people need to join forces towards a common goal. Don’t get me wrong. The path to equality is a long, drawn-out battle. But it is also a choice for right and wrong. It is a stand for good and evil.

I refuse to give a badge to a father who treats his daughter equal as his son. Or a boss who gives equal pay to his staff. It is either right or wrong, and every man’s choice should be clear to him. I’ve never believed in an allyship towards equality of feminism or to push global equity. I think that it allows for performative feminism. Or performative support of unpopular ideas which really should be normal and popular because it is fair.

Let me give some context; Onimisi “OJ” Adaba was my boss in NigeriaInfo. Oh, I gave him headaches, but he has proven to be irreplaceable. I am here today because he let me shine. He let the strength of my voice be heard even when he had to bear the consequences for my authenticity. He ignored every request to control me. Why is she so bold, they asked, so blunt? That is so unprofessional.

Yet will I call OJ an ally? No. He doesn’t need to be called one. He knew that his male and female anchors were equal, no question. He did what he believed to be right.

Equality, Equity, and Fairness. For me, it is not something you are either for or against, it is not a debate. It is either wrong or right; good, or bad. This concept of “the good vs bad” should be quite familiar to a highly religious society such as ours. Yet, it is something we struggle to understand.
It is in the way a father raises his daughters.

It’s in the way my father let me contribute to conversations and allowed my voice to be heard. It’s in the way his friends let me debate them on varying issues, so I grew up with a voice. You can either choose to hear a woman or silence her. It is not a debate.
And this defines what it means to be a Nigerian woman.

Nigeria has one of the lowest rates of female representation in parliament across Africa, and globally, it ranks 181st out of 193 countries, according to the International Parliamentary Union. In the current Nigerian 9th National Assembly, women occupy 7 out of 109 Senate seats and only 11 out of 360 seats in the House of Representatives. Nigeria is far behind Ethiopia, Rwanda, and South Africa.

Here’s another record for you, Nigeria adopted the Child Rights Act in 2003. This act, among other things, protects our young girls from underage marriage, another area where we rank so high we just put other countries to shame. 17 years on, 12 states are yet to adopt this act. During the lockdown weeks, Nigeria recorded an astronomical rise in domestic violence between March and April. According to the UN, 56% in the first two weeks alone. This is what it means to be a woman in Nigeria.

It means making up more than 50% of the informal labour force without any support or government policies to advance my development, all the while suffering double taxation. It means dominating the agricultural sector but relegated to subsistence farming with crude farm tools. It means poor maternal health, and it means making up 38% of Nigeria’s out of school children. Another area where we dare the world to catch up to us. But it also means that we can turn things around by resilience and amplifying our voices.

It falls on the journalist to seek, and demand female representation in all of Nigeria. And we cannot be effective at this if we do not stand for the same in our industry. To get better representation at the national level, we need to be intentional in covering female politicians. Amplify their voices and eliminate the trophy seats.

In 2015 Remi Sonaiya was the only woman on the ballot for the Nigerian election. That in itself was unprecedented. Yet, I remember saying on the radio that I will not be voting for a woman just because she is a woman. Even today, I stand by that. But I should have done the work. I should have educated myself and my listeners on why she is more than just a woman on the ballot. What made her different from other female politicians? I will never make such a mistake again.

The media knew that she couldn’t stand a chance in this country, but we should have amplified her voice more than we did. That is only fair. Fairness and equity are right. That is our role in the media, that is how women in media will find equality. We must be intentional in gender parity, telling the stories that no one else will. And, tell it until people begin to listen.

As a broadcast trainer with Broadcast Radio MasterClass (BRMC), I vet scholarship applications, and the thing that stands out for me is the lack of effort and commitment from female applicants. We must encourage our young women to apply themselves. Put in the work as men do. Let us earn our place. Let’s not depend on a quota system to offer us a seat.

We need to grab those seats. Learn. Read. Train.

Give no one an excuse to shut the door on you. There are so many women breaking ceilings, and the cards are stacked against us already. But we need to keep the windows of our minds open, ready and alert for the slightest crack in our individual and collective ceilings.

I have been called many things, but my favourites are stubborn and rude. I stubbornly hold on to my values and the belief that fairness knows no gender, race, or orientation. And I am impolite in living on my terms. I hold on to my dreams and values. I am inspired by my mother’s resilience, as she holds onto hers at 60 despite sacrificing them to marriage and children.

As Remi Sonaiya once said; “Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t get sucked into the prevailing corrupt system which needs to be changed”.

I remember fondly the seven-year-old who wanted a world of her own, to be free. And I build that world in some way every given day.

Nelly Kalu is a journalist and fact-checker with a ten-year experience spanning broadcast, digital and media advocacy. Her work spotlights social, political, and economic issues.


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