Covid-19 in Nigeria: A gendered perspective

Women Nigeria

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to major disruptions in social and economic activities in virtually all the sectors in all countries in the world. The impact has been in terms of increased level of mortality and morbidity, as well as in terms of different types of social and economic problems such as increase in mental health, loss of jobs and income.

In Nigeria, the first case of Covid-19 was recorded on February 27, 2020. As the number of confirmed cases continued to increase, the federal government of Nigeria responded on March 30, 2020 by restricting movements of persons for two weeks in the country’s capital Abuja, as well as in Lagos and Ogun States, among other things. Different states followed immediately and invoked the provisions of the Quarantine Act to restrict movements of person, while ramping up efforts in contact tracing, testing and isolation, and case management. As at 4.54PM on Sunday 20th June 2020, there were 15,682 confirmed cases, 5101 recoveries, and 407 deaths in Nigeria spread across 35 of the 36 states and Abuja according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). 

The initial two week lockdown imposed by the federal government of Nigeria on March 30, 2020 was extended for another two weeks on April 13, 2020 due to increasing number of cases in the country. President Buhari acknowledged the economic difficulties that the extension of the lockdown would have on people who depend on daily wages. This was against the backdrop of existing socio-economic challenges in Nigeria: it had overtaken India in 2018 as the country with the highest number of poor people by poverty headcount and is performing poorly in other indices of development. In the human development index, for example, Nigeria is ranked 158 out of 189 countries. In a recent report, the National Bureau of Statistics classified 40.1% of Nigerians as poor (NBS, 2020). On April 27, 2020, the President laid out plans for the gradual and phased reopening of the economy in a nationwide address.

Nigeria market
Market in Nigeria. Photograph: Andrew/Flickr

Several studies have examined the gender dimension of the impacts of Covid-19 pandemic (Wenham et al., 2020; Alon et al., 2020). In Nigeria, women are already at a disadvantage position on the socio-economic ladder due to several underlying factors. For example, the Women, Peace and Security Index which provides important insights on the well-being, social, economic, and political empowerment across different countries in the world ranked Nigeria at 145 out of 167 countries.

Gendered Dimension of Covid-19 Impact in Nigeria

The informal sector plays a vital role in the economy and contributed about 67% to Nigeria’s GDP in 2017. The majority of workers in the informal economy are women therefore policies that disrupts activities in the informal economy affects women in peculiar ways. The restrictions on movement in different parts of Nigeria has affected different economic activities in the informal economy in different ways.

For example, markets are an integral part of any city or urban area in Nigeria as they provide the space and facilities for trading of different forms of agro- and non-agro merchandise. Markets are usually dominated by women as part of the informal economy. Given the large number of persons who congregate in markets on daily basis to buy or sell merchandise, it became one of the first places to be shut down as government placed restrictions on movement. The shutting down of markets significantly affects the income and livelihood of women who depend on selling in these markets.

Similarly, even though the transportation of food items and agricultural produce is excluded from the ban on movement, there is still a remarkable reduction in the volume of agricultural produce transported due to the high number of security personnel on the roads, presence of several check points which causes delays and damage to the produce, and in-turn loss of potential income to traders who are mainly women. To exacerbate the situation, as part of the guidelines for the phased easing of lockdown in preparation to re-open the economy, government placed a ban on street trading which also affects women in a disproportionate manner.

Within the formal sector of the economy, the service industry provides the highest employment opportunities for women. Women are more likely to be employed in this industry due to their roles as administrative and support staff, service attendants, leisure and hospitality workers, airline workers, health and social workers, cashiers, receptionists, etc. Consequently, they also are more likely to be unemployed or temporarily laid off when there is a plummet in economic activities. 

Child Care and domestic work

Women are usually responsible for child care within families in Nigeria. With the closing of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic, children of school age are at home and have to be looked after mainly by mothers. The opportunity cost here is that while men may be able to resume work whenever restrictions are lifted, women will only be able to resume work when schools can resume. This will certainly lead to loss of income and entrench gender inequality. This situation has also been reported in other countries. Similarly, the amount of domestic work done by women in terms of cooking and general housekeeping will remarkably increase, thereby putting additional mental and physical stress on women. The effect of the pandemic is perhaps more severe on single mothers because they may not have any additional assistance in childcare nor in financial support during the pandemic.

Nigerian women cooking. Photograph: RNW/Flickr

Gender-related violence

Gender-based violence (GBV) has been a crisis in Nigeria for a long time (UN Women, 2020). The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic seems to worsen the situation. This is because prior to the pandemic, partners who had a tendency to be abusive were engaged in activities which took them outside their homes. However, with the restriction of movements due to the pandemic, couples are compelled to stay at home together for weeks, creating additional tensions, perhaps leading to people becoming frustrated and aggressive. Reports by different organisations show that there has been a notable increase in the number of reported cases of GBV in May 2020 across most states in Nigeria (Fig. 1). The United Nations Women described the increase in GBV due to Covid-19 as a “Shadow Pandemic” (UN Women, 2020). 

Fig 1. Source: (UN Women, 2020)

Increase in unplanned pregnancies 

The increase risk of unplanned pregnancies due to Covid-19 lockdown measures has been highlighted in reports. This scenario is also applicable to Nigeria. The implication of being trapped by an unwanted pregnancy could be more debilitating for women from poorer households considering the fact that they may be forced to bear the burden of child bearing and nurturing alone. Girls who have the ambition of returning back to school may be consumed by a fear of being stigmatised by their peers. Early pregnancies in younger females also has severe consequences: aside from being psychologically affected, they also face risk of exposure to birth and health related complications such as maternal or mortality, premature births, vesico-viginal fistulas (VVF), etc. which may have long-term devastating effects on their lives 

Increase in risk of child marriages

Child marriage has been an endemic cultural phenomenon in the northern parts of Nigeria. It is not uncommon to see girls of secondary school age being married out by their parents. The United Nations Development Program reports that a considerable percentage of girls marry by 15 years. Child marriages have significant negative effects of girls because of the disruption of education and increase in the risk of developing obstetric fistulas during childbirth among other problems. The restrictions due to Covid-19 will likely increase the incidence of child marriage and poverty in the northern part of Nigeria and by extension the whole of Nigeria.

What next?

The Covid-19 pandemic clearly exacerbates the existing socio-economic problems in Nigeria. Even though the impact of the pandemic is faced by all demographics, it is generally higher among girls/women. It may be difficult to have policy measures that can address most of the problems in the short-term: rather, the aim may be to ensure that the policies and guidelines do not add to the already bad situation.

From the government perspective, a guided re-opening of the economy is needed in a manner that will minimise the spread of the coronavirus. This should be done in a manner that do not create additional long-term economic problems to the citizens. In line with this, banning street trading may need to be reconsidered. In the urban areas, government may consider using open fields as temporary markets to ensure that there is social distancing. While some work places can open for those who are in the formal employment, employers may need to development terms of service to accommodate working mother in the short term pending when schools resume.

Uduak Akpan is a Doctoral Researcher in Development Economics at SOAS University of London, sponsored by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission.

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