Nigeria’s women drivers rally together to navigate male-dominated industry

From help in emergencies, to loan assistance and campaigning for women’s rights, female drivers lend one another a hand.

Nigeria taxi driver
A woman looks at her phone on a pavement while a female e-hailing driver waits in a car in Abuja, Nigeria [File: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

Lagos, Nigeria – It was after 11pm on a night last February when Victoria Oyeyemi received an urgent phone call as she was getting ready for bed.

A fellow taxi driver, Gladys April Abanang, had been in a serious accident. Her car lost control, climbed a curb and somersaulted while she was working in the Oshodi area of Lagos.

After a crowd of passersby and neighbourhood thugs who saw the accident helped remove her from the vehicle, the first thing a slightly injured and bleeding Abanang did was phone Oyeyemi, the chief security officer (CSO) for Ladies on Wheel Association of Nigeria, or LOWAN.

“I was on the floor but somehow I was able to get my phone and put a call across to LOWAN CSO,” the 47-year-old mother of one told Al Jazeera.

Within 10 minutes, Oyeyemi was at the scene. In her volunteer role at the non-profit that supports women drivers, she mans a helpline for members needing emergency assistance.

While Abanang’s husband took her to the hospital, Oyeyemi stayed at the scene to settle things with the thugs who insisted on getting paid for their help. She also arranged a towing service for the car, which LOWAN paid for. And in the weeks that followed, the group regularly checked on Abanang and supported her until she was back on her feet.

“They took care of me, they kept encouraging me and they were so supportive … It was only LOWAN that came to my help,” Abanang said.

Six years ago when the association first started, there were six women in the group. Now there are some 5,000 members ranging in age from 25 to 60 – all of them female commercial drivers working across Nigeria. As their membership grows, so do the ways they support each other.

LOWAN is a close-knit group, says founder Nkechi Abiola, with members looking after each other, looking out for one another on the road, and even exchanging trade advice and secondary business opportunities.

They also facilitate loans to help the 60 percent of the group’s members who do not yet own their cars, and they assist one another through a regular savings scheme.

Beyond driving, members also engage in campaigns against gender-based violence and domestic abuse to raise awareness about issues women in Nigeria face.

Ladies on Wheel Nigeria (LOWAN) members
Nkechi Abiola, Glory Ashiru, Akpan Dorothy, Princess Abiola, Tolase Olorunnihi and Victoria Oyeyemi from LOWAN in Lagos [Pelumi Salako/Al Jazeera]

‘Fighting’ for acceptance

In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of women venturing into the commercial transport business in Nigeria – working as taxi, danfo bus, tricycle and motorcycle taxi drivers.

Experts say this increase is driven by Nigeria’s worsening economic situation which is forcing women to earn more money to support their families – ushering many into industries that have traditionally been more male dominated.

Seyi Awojulugbe, a senior analyst at Lagos-based geopolitical risk advisory firm, SBM Intelligence, told Al Jazeera that while more women being employed in Nigeria’s formal sector “is due to increased campaign for female participation”, in the informal sector, it’s because of “mainly economic reasons”.

“They need a constant flow of cash,” said Awojulugbe. “Some of them may be due to the loss of a breadwinner in the family, or job loss.”

However, Nigeria remains socioculturally patriarchal and the shift has not been easy for female drivers. Some passengers even go so far as rejecting a ride as soon as they see a woman behind the wheel, because of the false assumption that women are bad drivers, LOWAN members said.

“People, both female and male, don’t really like women driving them. Even the rate of acceptance for us as commercial drivers is low. We are still fighting for that,” Abiola told Al Jazeera.

Before she started LOWAN in 2018, Abiola belonged to a mixed-gender drivers’ forum. However, after the women in the group were shunned by their male counterparts when trying to share input, she decided a new space was needed.

That’s when she established LOWAN as a women-only association where they could speak without intimidation, and more importantly, provide support for fellow female commercial drivers.

Nigeria taxis
Commercial buses locally known as ‘danfo’ line a bus stop to pick up passengers along the marina in Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos [File: Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters]

Among women drivers, many say they face forms of sexual harassment, assault, rejection, extortion, discrimination, and intimidation by passengers, fellow road users, and even law enforcement agents.

“Some men come into the car and start touching you outrightly, those things are rampant,” Abiola said about the situations they encounter. “We have collaborated with a foundation to report and get perpetrators punished.”

SBM’s Awojulugbe said the difference in the way female drivers are treated is also due to society not being used to seeing them in such roles, and “because of the nature of the role”.

“[Drivers] have to deal with touts and so-called ‘tax force’ on the road who do not have the patience of dealing with change,” the analyst said, referring to the men who informally collect dues from drivers in the city to allow them to pick up passengers who are not used to seeing female bus and taxi drivers.

“As things go on, people will change and adapt. But we need more awareness that these women are doing legal jobs and do not deserve to be discriminated against,” she said.

Love and support

For women drivers themselves, the profession has served different purposes: a getaway, a source of income, and a buffer against oppression.

After founder Abiola’s marriage ended in 2017, she needed a job that paid more than tailoring in order to take care of her five girls. Driving was her go-to, she said.

“I didn’t want to be vulnerable. I didn’t want to be at the mercy of any man out there.”

For driver Glory Ashiru, the move has been beneficial compared with her previous job as an egg supplier, where she usually had to wait weeks before getting paid.

She started driving for e-hailing service Bolt in 2019, and not long after was approached by a member of LOWAN who introduced her to the group.

“I was parked on Adeniyi Jones street and she just walked up to me and she told me about the association that brought women drivers together,” said the single mother of two.

“Since then I have been a member. The association has helped me financially, the love and support we have is really good.”

A woman taxi driver
Glory Ashiru has been driving since 2019 [Pelumi Salako/Al Jazeera]

Other women with families – like Tolase Olorunnihi, who also drives for Bolt – also appreciate the work driving provides, while struggling to balance it with their primary responsibilities at home and expectations from their husbands.

“I don’t drive at night, I set out when I drop the children in school in the morning and go home after the children are through at school or I close at 5pm,” the mother of five told Al Jazeera about her attempt at finding a balance.

Working in Lagos, Olorunnihi has also had her fair share of unpleasant experiences. Once, a drunk passenger became angry and started swearing at her because she was a woman driving at night.

Another evening this January, she picked up a female passenger who decided to alter the trip halfway through so that she could stop to buy chicken. The passenger then ended the ride without paying for the trip. Even after Olorunnihi followed up with her, and later reported it to Bolt, she still did not receive any payment.

“The most painful thing is that Bolt has removed their commission from my money,” she said, referring to the 20 percent fee the e-hailing service takes from every ride a driver completes.

Olorunnihi finds comfort in sharing these experiences with the other LOWAN members at hangouts where the women advise one another and find humour in their shared tales of life on the road.

Money in a crisis

In Nigeria, with inflation at 33.20 percent, the currency paling against the US dollar, and the rising cost of living, workers, especially low-income families, are worst affected.

The removal of a petroleum subsidy – which has made the petrol price jump from 160 naira ($0.11) to 680 naira ($0.48) per litre – high import duties and high inflation, have also burdened commuters and lowered drivers’ earnings.

When Ashiru started driving commercially in 2019, her daily income was about 8,000 naira ($5.59), which would cater for her family’s needs. But not any more, she said, even though she now earns between 15,000 naira ($10.48) and 25,000 ($17.45) – because the cost of food and other basics has also risen.

“If I earn 700,000 naira ($489) monthly and I spend so much money on repairs, fuel, food and others, what will be there to save?” she asked, noting that a bag of rice that was 10,000 ($7) now costs 60,000 naira ($42).

“We are making more but we are not taking as much home,” she said.

Woman taxi driver
A woman drives an e-hailing taxi in Lagos [Pelumi Salako/Al Jazeera]

In a tough economic climate, LOWAN assists its members with loans so they can work towards owning their own cars. But the group also helps in other ways that are not strictly driving-related – such as when a member has a health emergency or another crisis.

The group also runs a savings club, locally called ajo – a system whereby a group’s members contribute money daily, weekly or sometimes monthly. The money is then pooled and distributed to different members on a rotating basis.

“We organise ajo, or thrift, among members,” LOWAN founder Abiola said. “We come together, we contribute money and give it to someone to get a car. We do it like that among ourselves.

“When there is urgent need for money or there is a crisis, also when there is a celebration, we rally round,” she added.

LOWAN’s members are grateful for the lifeline the group of women provides – both physically in terms of having Victoria Oyeyemi on the other end of the helpline in case of an accident or emergency, and financially, for times when they need a loan.

But many wish the state would step up and do more.

The government should make business more conducive through impactful economic policies and the provision of grants and small-interest loans to drivers, Ashiru said.

“Driving is a very good way to empower more women,” she added.

Source: Al Jazeera