Working Women—A View From the Third World
By “Awake!” correspondent in Nigeria
Since 1950, the number of women in the paid labor force has virtually doubled worldwide. Much has been written about the effects of this revolutionary trend in marriage and family life. However, in the so-called Third World, this is hardly a new development. In many such countries, men and women have long worked together as economic partners. But how similar are the problems of Third World working women to those of their counterparts in the industrialized nations? What motivates them to take on such a weighty role? In order to gain some insight into these fascinating questions, Awake! here presents an interview with three Nigerian working women: Elizabeth, Ulrike, and Lola, along with Lola’s husband, ‘Shola.
Awake!: Why do African women work?a
Elizabeth: In the midwestern regions of Nigeria, women do not work merely to make ends meet or to provide extras. In many families the wife is expected to earn money. She—not the husband—often must care for her extended family, that is, nieces, nephews, cousins, and so forth.
Ulrike: I am a native-born German but have become a naturalized Nigerian. I observe that for women here, working is simply part of their culture. A husband regards his wife as an asset only if she is productive, and that often means more than just having children and supplying meals. In many cases, the responsibility of providing for the children materially still rests to a great extent on the mother.
Lola: Among the Yorubab people, husbands have long recognized that their wives have a gift for trading. Hence, while the husbands produce the goods, the wives market them. This has proved to be a rather efficient division of labor. The woman sees it as her role to support her husband in bringing to a successful conclusion what he started on the farm. Besides, it is seen as a sign of industriousness to combine homekeeping with some trade or business. Like the capable wife described in the Bible in Proverbs chapter 31, she gets up early, looks after her home, and feeds her family. This allows her to use the rest of her day for other things, such as planting a field, sewing for the merchants, or running a small business.
Elizabeth: Too, many women feel the need to be exposed to the world outside the family. Often their only real education comes by means of trading or other forms of work.
Awake!: How is that?
Elizabeth: Well, trading improves their arithmetic and basic language. Business teaches them organization, which helps them manage their homes and families better. Further, working gives the women self-confidence and respect.
‘Shola: Polygamy is another strong reason why women work. Few wives in polygamous homes can expect their husbands to satisfy their every need. A wife thus reasons that if she does not look out for herself, she will get in trouble. Indeed, the uncertainty of polygamous relationships has driven many young wives to become economically independent of their husbands. Also, many women want the very best education for their children. Since the husband’s resources may also have to be used to support his children by other women, the wife works—and works hard—to educate her children and perhaps leave an inheritance for them.
Awake!: What kind of work do women do?
Elizabeth: Mostly trading.
‘Shola: It differs among the various ethnic groups. Some farm, others trade.
Ulrike: Women are often willing to do work that men do not wish to do, such as sitting by the roadside roasting yams or maize, selling iced water, or even running sewing shops. Yet these can be very profitable little industries!
Lola: Interestingly, when families move away from rural communities, the wives often become restless. They find it difficult to sit at home doing nothing. This shows that their initial motivation to work was not merely economic. For in the past, needs were few and sights were lowered.
Awake!: To what extent is a wife’s income really important to the husband?
Ulrike: Because of the instability of the economic situation in Africa, a wife’s income is very important. Companies regularly lay off workers. Why, even government workers often have to wait for months to receive their salaries. And Christian men frequently lose their jobs because they refuse to yield to worldly pressures and compromise Bible principles. But a woman who is a trader cannot easily lose her job if she is skilled. Often she becomes—at least temporarily—the sole breadwinner!
‘Shola: As the structure of society has changed, needs have become more complex, expectations have heightened, and the economic pressures have grown. So a wife’s contribution to the family budget has become increasingly more significant. A husband may therefore choose to pay the rent, electricity, and a fixed sum for food. The wife, in turn, may buy extra food and clothing, and pay school fees.
Awake!: What are some of the problems working wives face?
Elizabeth: Working is obviously physically demanding, and often a working wife comes home tense and irritable. It can also cause marital strain. Men do not mind that their wives are reasonably successful. But if she is too successful, the husband may become jealous and feel threatened.
Lola: The wife may find herself neglecting her children and ignoring her husband—which makes him jealous and resentful.
‘Shola: The greatest danger for a Christian wife, though, is that her spirituality may suffer.
Lola: Yes, often so much time is spent on becoming successful that spiritual activities, such as preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom, may become secondary. Attendance at Christian meetings may suffer, and there may be little time left for personal study of the Bible. And her children see an example of striving for success in business placed before them. They just might decide to make that their goal in life.
Awake!: How can the Christian working wife prevent that from happening?
Lola: She must keep her balance in all things so that her family and her spiritual life do not suffer.
‘Shola: It can be done. There are many Christian women who are fine examples of such balance.
Although the economic and cultural forces at work in Africa are different from those in industrialized nations, the working women quoted here express needs and aspirations that are universal.
True, following Bible principles can relieve such women of some of the pressures to work secularly. Many Christian couples, however, find it necessary to have two incomes. Such couples should count the cost of secular work. (See Luke 14:28.) Where an economic need exists, “a capable wife” can feel proud that she is making a material contribution to the welfare of the family.—Compare Proverbs 31:10, 13, 16, 24.
On the other hand, Third World families—like other families—must remember that marital harmony and spiritual activities are of more value than material comforts. (Proverbs 15:17; Matthew 6:19-21) And if a wife simply feels the need of a more fulfilling activity than housework, she does well to remember the Bible’s encouragement to ‘have plenty to do in the work of the Lord.’ (1 Corinthians 15:58) Some, like Lola, can arrange to engage in the full-time preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For the most part, though, Christian wives in African Third World nations must face the challenge of being housewife and breadwinner. Balance is the key. And as Lola’s husband ‘Shola reminds us: “It can be done!”
a By “work” we mean paid employment. This is not to imply that housewives are not workers.
b A Nigerian ethnic group.
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