Analysis Commentary

Covid-19’s socio-economic threats for Nigerian women

COVID-19, similar to most public health risks and disease outbreaks, has raised significant gender concerns. Would the disease affect men and women differently? How would the pandemic change or exacerbate existing gender concerns? Early evidence already suggests that there are varied implications of COVID-19 for the human rights and wellbeing of men and women, the old and the young, the healthy and people living with underlying conditions among others. Even though public health policy researchers in an article in The Lancet Journal caution against early assumptions because of sparse sex-disaggregated data available, they cite the female-dominant demographic of the health workforce and an apparent higher male mortality rate as evidence of the need to deeply consider the gendered nature and implications of the pandemic. Distinguishing between the pandemic’s impacts on men and women is therefore critical for designing effective and inclusive policies and interventions. 

Of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria, it is not clear how many are women due to lack of disaggregation of the data by sex; Nigeria’s National Centre for Disease Control disaggregates the data on confirmed cases based on the locations where they occur. As such, it is unclear how many confirmed cases of the COVID-19 in Nigeria are women. However, the initial indications from Lagos showed that 30% of the cases were females and the remaining 70% were males. In addition, of the 4 patients discharged in Lagos on 3rd April 2020, there were 3 females – including a mother and her baby – and 1 male. On paper, the statistics of the disease infection look better for Nigerian women. However, underlying the infection rates are socio-political consequences of the pandemic and its response measures which disproportionately impact women which this article seeks to assess.

Overall, the government response measures in Nigeria have ranged from imposing travel restrictions, adopting fiscal and monetary policies, to imposing mandatory quarantines and various degrees of lockdowns. In his national address on the COVID-19 pandemic on Sunday 29 March, the President of Nigeria, His Excellency Muhammadu Buhari, declared a lockdown on Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States, with effect from Monday 30 March 2020, 11 pm. This lockdown planned for an initial period of 2 weeks is to support isolation, contact tracing and testing efforts. The address also announced plans to deploy relief materials to cushion the impacts of the lockdown on the public. Exemptions to the ban on movement generally apply to health institutions, food processing, distribution and retail businesses, petroleum distributors and retailers, power generation, transmission and distribution companies, private security service providers. There was also partial exemption for workers in telecommunication and media. At the subnational level, states such as Rivers and Delta have also announced closure of their borders to neighbouring states and a ban on inter-state travels, as part of their measures to curb transmission of COVID-19.

There are at least five ways in which women and girls are disproportionately affected by these response measures by both the federal and state governments, particularly the lockdowns. 

To start with, an estimate of 89% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa are employed in the informal sector. Think of street vendors, contract domestic workers, home-based garment makers, etc. In Nigeria, the informal sector suffers the double disadvantage of being highly vulnerable to the impact of the lockdowns and social distancing and being excluded from the governments’ economic stimulus packages. On March 26, the CBN announced a N50 billion Targeted Credit Facility (TCF) stimulus package to support households and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic including but not limited to. However, it only cites hoteliers, airline service providers, health care merchants and the like as beneficiaries of this package. It makes no mention of how this stimulus package will benefit households or enterprises that run in the informal sector. Even with the current partial lockdowns in many parts of the country, there is significant economic slowdown. Already under normal circumstances women informal workers face food and income insecurity, as well as difficulty accessing health care and child-care. Furthermore, security measures to ensure the lockdown disproportionately affects informal workers who are moved by financial peril to disregard the orders because they have no economic protection from employers or the government. Women working in the informal sector are further exposed to security threats, loss of their livelihoods and income to meet basic needs. 

Two. With ‘stay at home’ orders put in place now, the home has now become a site of increased activity and responsibility which would fall on women who are already tasked with greater responsibility over domestic affairs in Nigeria. The lockdown has also meant that the responsibility for young children during work/school hours has shifted back to parents (women to be precise, in Nigerian homes than not). More so, women working in sectors that are exempt from the stay at home order are faced with an additional conundrum in the absence of mitigating measures such as emergency or parental (paid) leave policies during school closures. Even when the pandemic is over, the responsibility for health impacts on individuals especially children will more likely fall on women. During the Ebola epidemic for example, rates of childhood vaccinations declined and later when children contracted preventable diseases, their mothers had to take time off to work.

Three, the temporary closure of law offices and courts across the country “except in matters that are urgent, essential or time-bound” is likely to further limit women’s suboptimal access to justice and protection against Intimate Partner Violence (a subset of Domestic Violence) during lockdowns. Already, the UN warns of a growing shadow pandemic of violence against women. It cites a 30% increase in reports of domestic violence in France, Cyprus and Singapore since their lockdowns. We do not know Nigeria’s statistics yet but a day into the Lagos lockdown, the Lagos State Domestic Violence Response Team (DSVRT) reported an increase in calls to their hotline. Without lockdowns a 2013 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey by the National Population Commission showed that 28% of women had been abused in their homes. Given Nigeria’s population, that makes up about 26 million women. Only 5 out of 36 states have passed legislations against domestic violence and in many states the Penal Code (vestiges of colonial legislation) permits husbands to beat their wives in chastisement. Even outside homes, Nigerian women face the threat of violence from military officers who seek to make easy targets and examples of them in communities that defy the lockdown orders as this report shows. 

Four, social distancing and lockdowns are likely to negatively affect women’s sexual and reproductive health in a number of ways. Like other patients, women and girls may be reluctant to visit healthcare facilities due to the fear of infection. Furthermore, under normal circumstances, 20% of all global maternal deaths happen in Nigeria and sexual health services like abortions are legal in Nigeria only when performed to save a woman’s life. Reproductive health facilities, already understaffed, run the increased risk of desertion of staff either because of the coronavirus overwhelming the health care system or health care workers fearful of contracting the virus from other patients. Evidence from the Ebola crisis showed significant risks to the reproductive and maternal healthcare in the affected countries. Strikingly, more women died of obstetric complications than the infection in Sierra Leone during the 2013 and 2016 Ebola outbreak.  It is highly likely that the spread of COVID-19, if unchecked, would place additional pressure on health facilities, reallocation of resources or disruptions to the supply chain that in turn affect the availability and quality of healthcare services for women and girls among others.

Finally, women in low- and middle-income countries like Nigeria have lower access to internet and other computing resources than men, due to a variety of social and economic factors. This was discovered by a 2019 GSMA mobile gender gap report which shows that women are 29% less likely than men to be mobile internet users. In this unique time of lockdown social distancing, the world is depending on the internet and other mobile services such as digital banking to carry on. As less women have access to mobile and internet resources, they are less likely to be able to effectively telecommute or engage in online businesses during lockdowns and quarantines. They are also less likely to be able to take advantage of online resources for learning, entertainment and income generation. 

It is likely that even after COVID-19 is effectively contained in Nigeria and other parts of the world, there will be some changes to ways of living. In the aftermath of the pandemic, countries and business will be investing in (social and economic) recovery plans and will likely adopt new ways of operating to ensure greater efficiency. In the area of education, healthcare and access to justice for instance, it has been easier for institutions and countries with well-developed digital infrastructure to mitigate the disruptions caused by COVID-19 by moving to online platforms. This article calls for more transparency from the government on how its stimulus package will reach households and for an inclusion of security and psychological services to address violence against women and girls in its COVID-19 response measures. It also calls for an increased investment in the digitalisation of critical sectors in Nigeria and more inclusive city planning and design to protect precarious and informal workers in Nigeria as a way of minimising exposure to and strengthening resilience against crises in the future. This twitter thread by Dr. Rama Jieng gives a further reading list on the gendered implications of COVID-19 in the Global South. 

Dr. Pedi Obani is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Jurisprudence and International Law, University of Benin.
Immaculata Abba is a Graduate Student, Department of History, University of Oxford.

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