Lady mechanics putting the brakes on prostitution

Sandra Aguebor- Ekperuoh, Lady Mechanics Initiative, Nigeria, Social Enterprise

Sandra Aguebor- Ekperuoh’s is the boss, brains and brawn behind Lady Mechanics Initiative

In Sandra Aguebor- Ekperuoh’s Nigeria women are exponentially more likely to work as prostitutes than as car mechanics.

But woman by woman Sandra, a mechanic herself, has a plan to change this with a project that began as a teenage dream and turned into the Lady Mechanic Initiative.

The fact she chose the most male-dominated profession in Africa speaks volumes about her resolve, a little about a personal career obsession, but mostly her need to not simply rescue women and girls from a life of vice but to help them build confidence, ultimately placing them on the path to independence through a “sustainable career”.

Thirty-two-year-old Janet from Delta state, a single mother with a teenage daughter, is a typical reason why Sandra set Lady Mechanic Initiative in motion back in 2003.

Janet travelled to Europe to work as a prostitute (her family and daughter were not aware of what she went there to do). Her “madam” paid for Janet’s passage, demanding that the money be paid back, but she could not afford it so she was effectively trapped.

“I did it for my family, myself and for my daughter,” Janet says. “It was bitter, terrible, difficult and I cried a lot.”

Janet spent eight months in jail after her arrest in Turkey and was then deported to Nigeria. She tried again, working as a prostitute in Barcelona for a few years, until she was again arrested and deported. In a downward repetitive cycle, she repeated the process again, this time in neighbouring Ghana.

Back in Nigeria, Janet heard Aguebor-Ekperuoh talking about her initiative on radio - and decided she wanted to be a part of it.

Janet is now able to support herself and her daughter, one of more than 70 young women and girls who have graduated the Lady Mechanic Initiative programme and are now working in the car industry (the target group is “physically strong” females between the ages of 14 and 35). There are a further 150 trainees currently in the three-year programme, which operates across three Nigerian states, with expansion plans that include other states and cities in Nigeria and eventually other countries as well.

After assessment and basic training, trainees are sent to one of Lady Mechanic Initiative’s partners, the likes of Peugeot Automobile Nigeria, where they receive schooling in fault-finding, repairs, installation, dismantling and assembly (three months in each). Apart from the technical training the women attend lectures and receive other more personal support.

Sandra is bullishly single-minded in her ambition; she has to be to pursue such an ’unladylike’ profession in the machismo culture of Nigeria.

The first hurdle was convincing her father, who was married with seven wives, that being a mechanic was the right career path for his teenage girl. He “scoffed at the idea, until he travelled to the US in the 1980s and saw women working in positions considered ’men-only’ in Nigeria”.

“I had a dream this is what God wanted me to do and it became reality and that’s why I became the first female mechanical engineer in Africa,” she says.

“When I was growing up I didn’t have friends because everybody was alienating me and they wanted not to be my friend because of the job that I hoped to do. That wasn’t a problem for me, because that made me more serious with my chosen profession.”

She attended technical college, graduating in mobile engineering, forging ahead with her dream at only 14 years old. Her first ’garage’ was a small patch of ground shaded by cardboard which the authorities demolished.

She later opened Sandex Car Care in 1997 and in 2003 started to put profits from this business into the Lady Mechanic Initiative. The initiative, now run as a not-for-profit with help from grantmakers, started “with a pilot of seven young ladies and one refugee boy”.

Sandra, who hails from a “moderately rich” background, says her only role model is herself, but she gets her inspiration “from the number of young girls/women whom I have been able to give a voice and a future.”

Of course there are constant challenges when running a not-for-profit organisation, mainly revolving around funding, but ever the dynamic leader Sandra is on the road constantly looking for new ways to help the project grow.

“We call on well-meaning organisations, corporate organisations, churches, foundations etc to support us and if they cannot give back in terms of money, we always solicit with them to bring their vehicles over to our workshop for servicing from which we give back to the initiative.”

Despite the daunting scope of problems that poor woman in Nigeria are faced with Sandra sees her part in it as a simple, grass roots solution, fitting just like a key into an ignition.

“Nigeria needs the Lady Mechanic Initiative, because there are a whole lot of cars to work on. And the initiative is helping to put an end to social vices as well as help in the reduction of poverty and also create a sustainable livelihood for young girls and women.”

And she is emphatic about her choice to focus her efforts towards poor women, as opposed to men, seeking to bring an ethical feminine touch to an industry that’s apparently crying out for it.

“We emphasise ethics in trainings. Where male mechanics have earned a reputation for inflated prices and shoddy workmanship, our trainees maintain an image of professionalism and customer care.”

“[These] women are now seen differently, especially in a field that was once seen as male dominated. They are now holding their own and showing that what a man can do, a woman can do - and even better”.

Steve Madgwick