“Women are fierce but afraid. COVID-19 has exposed a silent pandemic of violence.”
The current atmosphere in Nigeria is intense as communities face the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and country-wide protests erupt, demanding action to end soaring levels of violence against women and girls. As a social worker, I work with, and amplify the voices of, marginalised women and girls in some of the most remote communities in Nigeria.
I started my career as a radio presenter and DJ, and during that time I valued being able to amplify issues affecting vulnerable groups. Since moving from the radio to international charity ActionAid I feel as though I not only talk the talk but walk the walk. I have now worked for development charities for the past seven years and it has been both exhilarating and rewarding. But nothing has prepared me for the Covid-19 pandemic and the surge in violence against women that has come with it.
Like most people, the closest I have ever come to a pandemic was through films or books. My colleagues and I followed the media reports, and at first, we weren’t worried. We were living our normal lives completely unaware of how much things would change.
Since the Covid-19 lockdown began in March, ActionAid Nigeria has seen an alarming increase in reported cases of rape and killings of women and girls as a result of the pandemic. Between March and June, we’ve documented 299 cases of violence against women and girls across seven states; 51 of these were sexual violence cases involving minors between the ages of 3 to 16. High profile killings like that of Tina Ezekwe who was shot by a trigger-happy police officer in Lagos, have traumatised the nation and led to country-wide protests and demonstrations.
Women are fierce but afraid. This awakening has seen more women speaking up and supporting each other. Women are not ready to tolerate any more fake promises from the government. Alongside the protests there are lobby groups working to make sure the rights laws are in place and protection services are implemented as essential services.
The coronavirus outbreak has exposed a silent pandemic of violence and inequality. The reality that women and men’s needs differ, especially in a crisis as existing gender disparities deepen, is still something that many don’t understand. Current data suggests that women in the world’s poorest countries are more exposed to the virus because of the roles they typically take on like serving as healthcare workers and caring for sick family members. Not only this but, as we have witnessed in Nigeria, Covid-19 has caused a significant surge in domestic violence around the world.
Despite these facts the Nigerian federal government excluded The Ministry of Women Affairs from the Presidential Task Force coordinating the Covid-19 response. The exclusion of women in the fight against the virus remains a battle from the top and this makes ActionAid’s approach working with local female leaders to reach the most marginalised women and girls even more vital.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought that Nigeria would use lessons learnt from the Ebola crisis to tackle the pandemic but this was not the reality - within weeks figures spiralled and the numbers of infected people continued to grow rapidly. Many Nigerians still have no access to the internet and so are unaware of vital coronavirus information. This makes the spread of misinformation one of the biggest immediate dangers for us.
Soon after the pandemic broke out I was deployed to distribute life-saving information, food and hygiene kits. The drive to Nasarawa State was gut wrenching. Although the car was loaded with our personal protective equipment (PPE) and I knew all the steps to take, I could not help thinking of all the frontline workers who had caught the virus. Wearing a mask was a whole new, weird experience for me and sanitising my hands almost every 15 minutes made me feel paranoid, but I knew my work was critical.
Some of the remote communities where ActionAid Nigeria works do not have electricity, water, or health centres. As we predicted, misinformation was widespread among the communities and we worked hard to demonstrate handwashing and dispel dangerous myths. Some believed that drinking warm water or bathing with bleach could strengthen their immune system and one lady I spoke to told me that “the virus only affects sinners” so she thought she was immune.
Seeing the smiles on the faces of women as they received food and hygiene kits from ActionAid was both gratifying and saddening. The genuine happiness was heart-warming, but they also looked uncertain as they left which was difficult.
We are facing many unknowns about the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on health, the economy, women and the most marginalised. Global protests against violence and injustice give me hope as we have seen two more states (Bauchi and Akwa Ibom) in Nigeria domesticate the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act since the uproar began. We must continue to intensify efforts to ensure progress on women’s rights is not rolled back. More funding for local women’s organisations on the frontline, like those supported by ActionAid, needs to be committed and services like women’s shelters need to be classified as essential by governments during emergencies. Local women’s voices must be heard - they must have the power to influence and participate in humanitarian response planning so that women and girls are protected.
Other ways the Nigerian government can better protect women and girls is through the establishment of Sexual Assault Referral Centers in every state. These centers should be sustainably funded and supported by relevant government agencies of health, law enforcement and social welfare; there should be full criminalization and prompt state-led prosecution of Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) cases, irrespective of requests or interference by the victim's family or other interested parties; there should be functional Family Support Units and Force Gender Units that are well equipped to address SGBV cases – to mention a few.
I want a Nigeria where women and girls, no matter where they live, are free from violence. We know that during any emergency, violence against women and girls increases and women bear the brunt of the crisis. We therefore need to learn from the Covid-19 pandemic and prioritise protection of women and girls especially during emergencies.