QCEA reads #2: Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta

QCEA reads is a new series reviewing books related to QCEA’s values and work on peace, justice and equality. Working in Brussels on EU policy, policy briefs to read are some of the most common literature we are exposed to but they can be technical, abstract with little connection with everyday life. Fiction, essays, poetry etc. give us insights into people’s lives and how they experience the consequences of policies. 

QCEA reads is a deliberate choice to broaden our horizon beyond the “policy bubble”, to keep our work grounded in lived experience and the felt impact of EU policies in Europe and beyond. A better future and new solutions require us to open our imagination. To put the human at the center of policy making, what better way than taking inspiration from the aspirations, achievements and experiences that can be found in the pages of a book?

If you would like to suggest books for QCEA staff to read and review, please send us an email.

Second Class Citizen  

by Buchi Emecheta, 1974

When the QCEA human rights programme decided to seek and highlight the perspectives on Europe by non-Europeans, the first book we thought about was Second Class Citizen. We both had read this book a few years ago and found it striking. Although the story of Adah – the main character of the book – took place decades ago, some of the challenges she faced and the themes covered in the book are familiar to our lived experiences and to the stories we have heard from so many other racialised women who moved to Europe.

Second Class Citizen was written by Nigerian author and feminist Buchi Emecheta. The novel illustrates what, in policy terms, is called the “feminisation of migration.” It narrates the story of Adah, a young Nigerian woman with big dreams, the struggles and hurdles she has to face as an African woman and migration as a means towards achieving her aspirations.

Issues and themes covered in the book and how they relate to the contemporary world

The title Second Class Citizen refers to the multiple and often intersecting oppressions Adah faces including:

  • Sexism: In Nigeria, in the 1950s, Adah, as a girl, is a second class citizen. She is considered less important than her brother and has to fight for the right to go to school. Adah is only allowed to continue with her education by her family to increase her bride price value. The idea of girls and women being viewed as possessions is still unfortunately present in some societies. Obtaining more rights and freedoms is one of the many reasons women migrate.
  • Continuum of violence: Adah witnesses and suffers from multiple forms of violence, including corporal punishment at home, bullying in school by teachers or other students, excessive, arbitrary, and at times illegal use of force by the police, and domestic and sexual violence. The prevalence of gender-based violence indicates that too little progress has been made since the book was written nearly 50 years ago.
  • Classism/ elitism: Adah’s trajectory sees her go from being a servant to becoming part of the Nigerian elite through her education and relatively well-paid job. Moving to England, she once again becomes a “second class citizen”; the process of migration puts her at the bottom of the societal ladder. Current European education, housing or economic policies appear to be based on the premise that migrants to Europe must start in entry-level positions. Often, the qualifications, skills and knowledge acquired elsewhere are “second rate.”
  • Racism and internalised oppression: Adah faces overt and covert racism, particularly in her housing search. The fact that it was only in 2021 that the EU held its first Summit on Anti-racism shows how little ground has been gained.

The book illustrates well the pervasive legacy of colonialism and white supremacy in its exploration of internalised oppression. The creation of artificial borders and the divide-and-rule policies of the British colonial rule in Nigeria exacerbated ethnic rivalries. Those rivalries were exported to England and are explored in the book when “Nigerian compatriots” in the diasporas offer hostility rather than solidarity faced with the same adversity in the English environment. 

The “fragmentation” of diasporas is still one of the reasons given by EU decision-makers not to include migrant voices in EU policy-making and implementation. Recognising and considering the diversity within migrant groups would help design policies that are better adapted to the realities in EU societies.

  • Agency and survival strategies: Adah adopts various strategies to find a place in unjust societies. Whether through avoidance, confrontation, or negotiation, Adah’s aspirations are a driving force and the source of her resilience and determination. Too often, women, particularly migrant women, are portrayed in public discourse and policy as vulnerable and thus in need of rescuing. This portrayal undermines their agency and reinforces patriarchal norms.


Despite being written in the 1970s, the issues covered in the book are still relevant today.  It is sobering to realise how little ground has been gained in promoting migrants’ rights in Europe. It is now more difficult than ever for many people from formerly colonised places to seek opportunities in the UK and Europe because of punitive migration management policies coupled with the rise of populism in Europe.

Adah’s story gives us some insights into the lives of many women who migrate to Europe or are part of Diasporas. 

Migration brings specific challenges to the physical, psychological and financial welfare of many migrant women that are compounded by the lack of access to adequate services. 

Adah’s story is the familiar story of so many migrant women in Europe – a story of hope, resilience, and courage despite adversity. A story that takes policies from abstract concepts into the realm of everyday life. A story that should inspire people to take action so that no one in Europe feels treated like a second class citizen.

See also:

Interview – Buchi Emecheta on the book – Buchi Emecheta interview | Civil Rights | women’s rights | Today | 1975 – YouTube


Kékéli Kpognon, Head of the Human Rights Programme at QCEA

Pamela Nzabampema, former Outreach and Community Organiser at QCEA

%d bloggers like this: