One of the targets of SDGs is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (SDG 5). It is meant to bring about equality between boys and girls. In Nigeria, women and girls represent one-half of the population and hence one-half of its potential. But today, gender inequality persists everywhere and is hampering social progress and development. In Nigeria, there have been huge improvements in the enrolment of girls and boys at primary level thanks to the Millennium Development Goals, though girls still lag far behind boys when it comes to secondary education. A large number of girls do enrol at the entry point to secondary school, but a significant number of them drop out, and secondary school completion rates among girls remain low. In rural Nigerian villages, girls from poor families tend to be especially disadvantaged in comparison to boys.
It is important to understand that inequality in education is the starting point for unequal representation in society. It is universally known that providing women and girls with equal access to education, healthcare, decent work and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will promote sustainable economics and benefit societies and humanity at large. Even though SDG 5 is a stand-alone goal, other SDGs can be achieved only if the needs of women receive the same attention as those of men. In the year 2000, Nigeria took the bold step of aligning its national policy on women with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and passing it into law. The country has endeavoured to articulate policies and programmes designed to reduce gender inequalities in the socio-economic and political spheres. However, the efforts made in pursuit of gender equality in Nigeria look like a charade. The coronavirus lockdown has meant a dual pandemic for Nigerian women: economic instability and a surge in gender based violence. Women across continents and cultures are therefore demanding the right to live their lives free from violence, in peace and with dignity.
A weak government response
Recent studies have shown direct proportionality between women’s rights and social development. The increase in gender-based violence during lockdowns, labelled the “shadow pandemic” by the UN, threatens the livesand livelihoods of women and girls in Nigeria. Recent studies have shown that Nigeria has long been facing a crisis of gender-based violence, with 30 per cent of women and girls aged 15-49 having experienced sexual abuses. Lack of coordination among key stakeholders has combined with entrenched gender-based discriminatory norms to hamper government policies in addressing gender-based violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has only further compromised these efforts. In a joint article, researchers Jessica Young and Camron Adib hold that: “The pandemic has seen the diversion of priorities and resources and resulted in a surge of reports of gender-based violence because of Federal Government-imposed lockdowns in Lagos, the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) and Ogun State. As Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation, Nigeria’s response to the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will carry significant weight for the entire region.” Ongoing lockdowns and a weak government response often increase the vulnerability of women and girls to violence.
However, the reports of domestic violence in Nigeria are following a trend similar to elsewhere in the world. Based on available data, the above-mentioned authors (Jessica Young et al.) observe that between March and April, 23 out of 36 states in Nigeria showed a monthly increase of 149 per cent in reports of gender-based violence following the introduction of lockdowns at the end of March. Looking at states placed under full lockdown by the Federal Government, the increase in reports of domestic violence cases in April was even more pronounced. A recent study by Jessica Young et al. indicated that in three states, namely the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun, the number of cases rose from 60 in March to 238 in April, an increase of 297 per cent. By contrast, in Benue, Ebonyi and Cross River State, which were placed under less stringent lockdowns by their respective local governments, the increase in cases was only 53 per cent between March and April.
Difficult access to justice for victims
The lockdown has also resulted in the closure of shelter-in-place facilities and compromised access to life-saving services and justice at a time when these are needed most. Many one-stop centres and domestic abuse shelters have been forced to close or provide limited services. Frequent lockdowns have restricted the ability of victims to reach centres and shelters. The problems for victims are compounded by a lack of effective communication and having to rely on hotlines to receive any kind of support. Unfortunately, access to justice through other forms of legal redress for victims becomes increasingly difficult. Research from previous health crises like the Ebola crisis in West Africa have shown that the loss of livelihoods risks leading women to engage in negative lifestyles such as transactional sex. The fact is that Nigerian women are particularly vulnerable in the COVID-19 pandemic, as over 80 per cent of women in the labour force are employed in the informal sector with little or no social protection and safety nets.
Predictably, school closures are putting young and adolescent girls at increased risk of child marriage and teenage pregnancy. According to Nigerian government data, Nigeria has 13.2 million out-of-school children, with young girls accounting for 60 per cent of that figure. In Nigeria, 18 million female learners have been affected by school closures. Early marriages are widespread, with 44 per cent of girls being married before the age of 18. In Northern Nigeria, where cultural practices are such that the education of girls is undervalued, poor families have forced their children to marry in exchange for marital gifts. With the third (3rd) highest absolute number of child brides in the world, Nigeria could well account for many additional child marriages.
Addressing basic obstacles and needs
Addressing the challenges posed by the coronavirus to women requires commitment and trust. Post-COVID-19 education therefore needs to rely on more sustainable and holistic measures that go beyond just accessing education, but also address the obstacles encountered by girls and young women in accessing basic social facilities like hospitals and schools. There is a need for the Nigerian government to develop post-COVID-19 strategic plans for reopening schools and which take into account the needs of girls and young women. Moreover, the lockdowns have shown the need for government to invest in nationwide information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure in schools, including strategic crisis management plans and funds geared towards education. This would facilitate the smooth continuation of education in times of crisis. Furthermore, ministries, departments and agencies should be tracking the numbers of children affected by school closures and providing gender-disaggregated data for both sexes. Building up the competent legal entities in all of Nigeria’s 777 local government areas will mean justice for victims of sexual abuse and child labour. A “greener” post-COVID-19 recovery should provide greater financial opportunities and hence independence for women, as they are the ones who organise and manage their households. The inclusion of gender-sensitive programmes under laudable government schemes like TraderMoni, MarketMoni and FarmerMoni will empower girls and women. In a world impacted by COVID-19, it is urgent to act collectively against its lethal effects on the economy and on women.