Poverty Is A Feminist Issue

One of my favourite Nigerian feminists is Karo Omu. She’s the founder of Sanitary Aid NG, the founder of Lil Libraries and a member of Feminist Coalition amidst several other interests. 

She has written a book on menstruation called Little Red Spot and she continually draws light to how issues of class, gender roles and poverty can affect the choices made by women.

It was through her work highlighting period poverty that I first heard of it. Although my family is not the richest, we were always comfortable for the most part and I never lacked sanitary aid. I will never forget the shock I felt in January 2017 when I saw a tweet by her crowdfunding to donate pads to low income women and girls. 

The shock has not fully left my body and it was the first step to me addressing how poverty can alter the very nature of a woman’s biological processes.

After seeing her tweet, I started being more active on Twitter and then I saw another tweet where a feminist was speaking on period poverty and how men exploited that. She said that men promised often underaged girls that they will give them money for pads if they slept with them. Most times, they failed to fulfill their promises and these girls went without pads.

Again, I remember being in shock and wondering the extent of wickedness that has continually being perpetrated towards women and girls.

When people speak of poverty, it often ends with a lack of basic amenities and the inability to access things like food, shelter and water. 

All those are necessary and valid things to discuss when it comes to poverty. That said, there is hardly discussion on how poverty affects a woman’s choices and social mobility.

There is hardly the discussion of how poverty and the disinheritance of widows and daughters can see women homeless, without the ability to continue their education and can see girls losing their ability to write important exams because they stay home due to lack of access to period aid.

One hardly hears how even in families that are dirt poor, it is usually only the female children who get married off to older men and have their bride prices used to educate their brothers. 

Again, it is hardly heard in discussions of poverty how women who already earn low as househelps and maids, see their money taken by their husbands to the point where they are banned from having bank accounts of their own and may lack transport money.

It is hardly discussed how poverty can affect a woman’s access to things like abortion, contraception and access to treatment for things like fibroids and PCOS. How does a woman with barely enough to feed treat herself for things like endometriosis and run expensive tests? How does she buy drugs and come for checkups?

Poverty is indeed a feminist issue because lack of money alters how women perceive the world and how we can access lifesaving medical care.

This is why initiatives that focus not just on lifting women out of poverty but also focus on emotional independence are very important. It is one thing for a woman to earn money and it is quite another for her to know to flee from a man who wants to marry her but insists she quits her job or give him her salary as the “head of house”.

Again: Poverty is a feminist issue.

Speaking with Amy*, a doctor in training, she explains using two scenarios how being in the medical line has exposed her to the manner in which lack of money leaves a woman vulnerable.

In her words: “Recently I was reminded of two incidents. One was during our Pediatrics posting. One night during call an infant came in with severe pneumonia, with his mum, dad and dad’s mum. I don’t recall some details but after some resuscitation, we needed to give the baby oxygen and admit. So we spoke to the father that he needed to pay for it so that we can proceed (cases like this, we go ahead especially during emergency as long as we know they have gone to make payment). 

The father refused to consent to admission and to bring money for the oxygen. We begged this man. Our senior resident sat him down and was explaining and pleading; we thought we were getting through, he still refused. He said he has somewhere to be or something (my Hausa wasn’t so good so I lost some info), and he was not going to leave his wife and child here. Your mother nko? Can’t she stay with her, he said no. You could see how helpless the mother of the child looked. She had no money, no say, no education to take care of her child. He threatened her with divorce if she stayed ( this man had like 3 wives and many other kids btw). She was crying. We in the hospital too, I don’t even know why nothing could be done. There’s no social program in place for things like this. That’s how they left. If that child survived 24 hours after, it’s some miracle.”

Amy went on to explain how most times, men abandon their wives when the wives are ill.

“The first story feels more geared towards the child, though still relevant. Here is the second. I remember one night our senior colleagues doing their Obstetrics & Gynecology posting came back and were just insulting men (not a new thing, you will want to strangle men during O&G). So apparently this woman had either cancer or something else but it was bad, her chances of survival were slim. 

They needed money to do several things. Okay o that’s how after some days they didn’t see the husband. They first thought he was hustling for money. It was the woman’s family that was checking on her and they too they’re not well to do financially. Only to find out that her husband, within the time he abandoned her in the hospital, went to marry another woman. That this one was now useless or will soon die so he needed another wife or something like that. 

And it’s not a new thing, they say many men dump their wives in critical condition and only come back for their corpses. Because these women have no money, there’s little they can do for themselves.”

For Maureen*, watching her mum being ill treated encouraged her to seek out better finances for herself.

She said: “My dad is abusive, physically, emotionally and verbally. I first realized this shortly before I turned 5 and I watched him mess with my mum almost every day of our lives and my mum will say to me “I can’t leave him oo, it is better I suffer than you and your siblings suffer, you see I don’t have money”. One of the ways he made sure of this is that he never gives her money, let it be clear that he is not poor but my mother will have everything provided for her, from food to clothe but she is never allowed to own money until now. 

The next question will be as grown as I am now, what have I done? I only tried stopping him from hitting her before I left the house, but I left. I left to save myself when I realized that I can not save her except I had enough money because until now she insists that she cannot leave him until my brothers finish from university (this is also an excuse because he has conquered her mentally). This is 2024 and my mother does not own a bank account. This is 2024 and my mother cannot visit me because her husband does not allow her to travel. Poverty is dangerous, and men know this, this is why their mantra is “You get rich or die trying.” They understand that poverty limits you and humiliates you. We are now in full blown capitalism; anyone who gives you money controls your life even in ways that you might not admit. My father still controls my life even though he no longer pays my bills; if he controls my mother he controls me indirectly.”

Speaking with Tamara*, she says that sometimes, a woman may be earning well but will subject her finances to a man and put herself in a poor situation courtesy of the doctrine of submission.

To quote her: “Women stay longer in toxic places yes, but it’s not only when they’re benefiting from the man, in some cases it’s because their funds are tied to the man as head of the house who she submits to, especially financially.

My mum was a well-to-do working woman. 

She earned sufficient funds to do things and despite all the career breaks and limitations that came with being a family woman, she was doing okay though she could have been so much more.

So yes, add career stunted growth because she’s a child-bearing family woman, she also had to submit her funds to a man and only keep a small portion of it because they were supposedly building towards some family goals; of owning properties and all.

She’s retired now, those goals never happened because the man was steady withdrawing from the joint account without putting anything in despite earning higher than her. When we spoke to her about it, she would confront him but nothing came out of that; no action on his part besides ignoring her words and probably talking her into submission and whatever else repeatedly. My mum was a good woman 🥹 kind and understanding, even to a fault.”

She went on to say: “Even now when she’s retired and her kids are grown up, she’s still staying because amongst other reasons it was her life’s investments; the union and her money that went into it.

Some time before her retirement, she gathered the courage to say no to the joint account(all hell broke loose then, because she wasn’t being submissive even when the other part wasn’t being transparent, accountable and financially wise).

A few months after, she became a land owner, now she’s retired but living well. Since she stopped contributing to the joint account, they now live like roommates, which truly isn’t so different from before.

He doesn’t eat with her, which isn’t new because he usually spends money outside and all, but it’s more obvious now and that’s okay.”

The reality is that getting women to be financially free is an important aspect of the fight for women’s liberation.

Women will be better liberated when our financial health is not affected by doctrines like submission.

Until women are financially and emotionally independent, it cannot be said that poverty is not a feminist issue.

*Name changed to protect identity

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