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Women as Breadwinners of the Home

Chiamaka writes about the dynamics of women being the breadwinners of a home in a patriarchal society like Nigeria.

You always talk a lot about your mother buying you things. What about your father?” This statement, innocent as it was at the time, made twelve-year-old me freeze. At the time I had been showing off to my school roommates. It was the beginning of a fresh semester and my locker was stuffed with body sprays, casual clothing, essentials basically. It was not easy to be asked something that was accorded so much shame by society, especially in the presence of many. Unfortunately, I had not realized that my frequent discussions in the room had been picked apart so carefully that one of them had noticed the gaping financial responsibilities of my mother. It is amazing how even young children can pick up on such tiny details. I must have mumbled something in response, something about how my dad was always so busy so my mum ‘bought’ most of my things instead, not that he was not financially present. Thankfully, the conversation carried along after that.

Growing up in a home where my father was not the breadwinner did not bother me, not even in the slightest. However, I quickly learned that in a staunchly patriarchal society like Nigeria, openly discussing it or even admitting it was a serious faux pas. I found clever ways to ‘cover up’ for my Dad, making his job as an ‘entrepreneur’ sound fancy and sometimes even exaggerating the reach of his business to my friends. I learnt that many other homes operated this way: women doing the bulk of the earning but ensuring to keep it under wraps as any such braggadocio or simply admitting to the fact was considered a disgrace to their husbands and marital homes. Even my father suffered all manner of complexes as a result of this issue. He made sure to make my mother (and us, by extension) feel small in other ways. He strongly objected to any form of independence, an independence that he felt would make her become a ‘stubborn wife’. He felt that it was his right to receive the bulk of her salary every month and readily expressed that any behaviour which erred from complete subjugation was a direct insult to his person.

And so we did many things in order to not shame the proverbial head of our home. We ensured that our ‘dirty secret’ was not publicised. Sadly, so many Nigerian families operate this way. Do not air the family’s dirty laundry outside, let’s keep it within the family, it’s nobody’s business, practices that continually allow worrisome and harmful behaviours to continue unchecked. The truth is that there is nothing inherently wrong with a woman contributing the bulk of the money to a home. Unfortunately, many men would rather eat jeans than let that happen in their homes. A patriarchal society cannot function that way. In order to ensure the head of the house status, a man must out-earn his partner. What happens when that is not possible? When the woman earns more? Insecurities start to show, needless arguments become frequent and several other unnecessary things. The narrative is usually against the woman though. She’s become proud, she’s starting to feel better than her husband.

The truth is husbands (who earn less) do not want to be treated the way they know so many wives are. They know the abuse that women face in their marital homes simply because they are financially under a man. They know that if the roles were reversed, they would not hesitate to financially abuse their own wives. And so, they heap their insecurities on their wives in order to make sure they do not go through the same conditions. This creates an uncomfortable dilemma where Nigerian women are abused regardless of who the primary earner of the family is. Literally, a damned if you do, damned if you do not case.

Women must be protected because even money often does not shield us from the strikes of patriarchy. While being classed can be of help, especially when making decisions or during emergencies; it is more than likely that in countries where being married is prized over a woman’s life and all her achievements, even earning a living does not save you from deeply ingrained social conditioning.

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