Nigeria: Empowering Women Means Exposing Them to Violence

Women at work in Nigeria.

Dakar — Helping women find jobs or raise their incomes in Nigeria can put them at heightened risk of violent abuse by boyfriends, husbands and the public, a World Bank study has found.

The study aimed to assess the risks of the Nigeria For Women project, a $100 million programme to improve women's livelihoods by providing grants, skills training and business advice.

It found there was a substantial risk of "backlash", particularly by intimate partners, as women gain independence or their financial contributions increase, said Varalakshmi Vemuru, a lead social development specialist at the World Bank.

"This is a society where gender norms are strictly defined," Vemuru said.

"As soon as you see women showing independence... people feel threatened," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The team interviewed about 200 people, including political, religious and traditional leaders and community members of various ages to understand the culture, she said.

The research was completed last year and the project is due to begin soon. Some men said they feared their wives would leave them if they were financially independent, and women told stories of being verbally and physically abused for entering the workforce.

To reduce the risks the study recommended portraying women as hard-working and virtuous rather than "empowered", holding meetings in the daytime in safe places, and giving men roles to play so they would not feel insecure.

The programme will also map services for victims of violence and train community members on prevention and response.

The United Nations women's agency in Nigeria said they have also found that increasing women's agency or income can lead to a violent backlash, even to the point of murder.

Including men in programmes and emphasizing the benefits to them is key, even though the aim is to benefit women, said U.N. Women national programme officer Patience Ekeoba.

"We try to make men feel that this is not about taking power away from them, it's about the family," Ekeoba said.

"If by involving men we can save the life of one woman, I say why not."

The risks are primarily short-term, since women's economic empowerment programmes have been shown to reduce gender-based violence over the long-term, in part by giving women the power to leave abusive relationships, according to the World Bank.

(Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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