For Nigerian Single Mothers, Society is not so Forgiving

By Precious Ewuji | Oct 21, 2022

For Nike Gbadebo, hour-long traffic jams could be a great day for sales. She had been hawking in Lagos State in 2013 after her husband had deserted her and their three children the year before.

The single mother had no choice but to take up menial jobs for the sake of her children.

"My husband never allowed me to work when we lived together, despite not feeding the family at that time. Then, I would wash gutters and toilets for people to feed myself and the children. In 2012, he ran away from the house without coming back," Ms Gbadebo said. "I tried to continue washing gutters and toilets for people but the income was not favourable. So, in 2013, a woman introduced me to this hawking business. I got into the business with my first daughter who is 18 years of age while the other two kids attend school"

Gbadebo makes between N2,000-N2,500. She would collect goods on credit from a depot, sell the goods, pay the money, and keep what profits she has made.

"Sometimes, we usually sleep on the streets, in front of the depot, or the church. I cannot afford to rent a room out of the little money I earn," she explained.

The single mother hardly sleeps at night because there’s no one to share child-rearing responsibilities. Sleep often gets put on the back burner for Gbadebo, resulting in mental stress.


Nike Gbadebo. Photo: Precious Ewuji


Halimah, who now works as a receptionist in a secondary school, tells a different story of raising a child alone. In 2010, the 15-year-old orphan was raped by her uncle. When Halimah's uncle and his wife discovered she was pregnant, they asked her to leave the house.

With nowhere in mind to go, Halimah started a job as a sales girl in a local food canteen. There, she washed plates, ran errands, and sold meals to customers.

"My madam was a nice woman. Even when I was paid N500 daily, I still loved the job. After work every day, she allowed me to sleep in the shop — even after I delivered my baby. My boss took care of my hospital bills and bought the essential baby's needs," Halimah said.

When Halimah's child turned three, she started to do all sorts of jobs to fund her education. The teenage mother bagged her ONCE and got a job as a receptionist in a secondary school.

"I am still saving up to further my education. Since I had my baby, I have never for once thought about getting married. My 11-year-old daughter is enough to be my companion," Halimah said.

Many single mothers shoulder multiple burdens:at the same time that they assume all or most of the responsibility for their children, they frequently live in poverty while still holding down a job.

Studies have shown that single motherhood is associated with an increased risk of affective disorder and poverty. These studies have recorded that higher levels of psychological distress among single mothers are more closely related to their exposure to stressors than their vulnerability to stress.

The stress often trickles down to the children, and daughters are often roped into much of the family's responsibilities.

Aishat, a 15-year-old street hawker, was sexually harassed at the age of 12 while she was hawking. Aishat's mother is a single parent who takes care of three children. Being the first child, Aishat forfeits going to school for her siblings.

"I hawk fruits for my mother, so we could survive. When I was first sexually harassed at 12, I was furious and wanted to stop hawking. But I couldn't when I thought about survival," Aishat explained.

However, not all single mothers are down and out economically, but many are poor and struggle daily to fend for their families. Many are also traumatised by the stigma of not living with a husband.

18-year-old Ifeoma had never met her father; her mother got pregnant as a teenager. Since Ifeoma's mother gave birth to her, she never remarried or had more kids.

"Whenever I'm with my friends, they would always ask me about my father. Some even say my mother got impregnated when she was a prostitute. Most times, when there's a meeting or a visitation day in school, my mum wears a fake wedding ring, so my classmates don't bully me," Ifeoma said.  "On many occasions, the case was reported to my class teacher and school director, but nothing was done to it in the end. I just hope my father returns home quickly to us because living like this is traumatic."

Nigeria, like other sub-Saharan countries, has seen a steady growth in out-of-wedlock motherhood, resulting from marital instability, widowhood or personal choice. These have resulted in many single-parent mothers catering to families across the country.

In 2014, a study revealed that about one million women aged 20 to 85 were divorced or separated from their husbands, while 1.7 million were widowed. In an earlier article, Document Women referred to the increasing inequality in living standards between men and women due to the widening poverty gap.  

According to Gallup, Sub-Saharan Africa has the most significant number of single mothers, leading with 32 per cent.

Mental health advocate Ore Oroge explained that single mothers are usually prone to mental and emotional health issues, mentioning abandonment by friends.

"Basically, they suddenly feel embarrassed by being friends with one.  It can also leave such a person feeling alienated and lonely," Ms Oroge said.  "People like to place labels and create stereotypes without caring to understand the circumstances of a situation, per human nature."

She maintained that one of the most essential needs of single mothers is social support; from friends, family, NGOs, government, or peers/colleagues.

 "A single mother would also need a listening ear and an encouraging tongue. A friend or brother who can help her see things positively or even just have a laugh. This is what social support entails – basically being a good and sensitive person to one who needs the support."