At the occasion of International Women’s Day, we reflect on the impact of Covid 19 on gender equality.
One year on, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated that the work women do – both paid and unpaid – is crucial to keeping our societies and economies running, even under the most extraordinary of circumstances.
However, the pandemic has exposed and worsened pre-existing structural inequalities. Too many women and people already on the margins of our societies because of discrimination, exclusion and violence are experiencing the worst of the health and socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.
Compared to “regular” recessions, which affect men’s employment more severely than women’s, the employment drop related to social distancing measures has a large impact on female dominated sectors. In addition, closures of schools and daycare centers have massively increased child care needs, which has had a particularly strong effect on working mothers.
Beyond the current crisis, there are opposing forces which may ultimately promote gender equality in the labour market. First, businesses are rapidly adopting flexible work arrangements, which are likely to persist. Secondly, there are also fathers who now have to take primary responsibility for child care, which may erode social norms that currently lead to a lopsided distribution of the division of labour in house work and child care.
The immediate effects of the pandemic included restrictions on mobility, imposed by countries to limit human-to-human transmission of the virus. As a result, many migrants and refugees have been left stranded in host countries, without food, shelter, access to essential services or the ability to return home. Numerous migrants are also at risk of falling into an irregular situation, as they are unable to meet legal requirements or access visa processes.
The pandemic has increased stigma, xenophobia and discrimination, and migrants have been accused of contributing to the spread of the disease. Furthermore, migrant families and communities in countries of origin are expected to be significantly impacted owing to a drop in remittances, particularly affecting food security, nutrition, and access to public services, such as health care and education.
In recent years, economic inequality in Nigeria has reached extreme levels, despite being the largest economy in Africa and having an expanding economy with abundant human capital and the economic potential to lift millions out of poverty.
Economic and gender inequality are interconnected and reinforce each other. The life of Nigerian women is affected by a myriad of discriminatory traditional and socio-cultural practices that put them at disadvantage in a number of areas compared to men. The majority of women are employed in casual, low-skilled, low-paid informal jobs; women are less likely than men to own land and 75.8% of the poorest women have never been to school.
As a result of these disadvantages, women are more likely to be poor than men, and keep being excluded from full participation in the country’s economic, social and political life. Many women are forced to work long hours in precarious jobs which pay salaries that are insufficient to meet their basic needs. Women who try to run their own business face numerous constraints. In fact, Nigeria has one of the lowest rates of female entrepreneurship in Africa.
Nigeria is the country with the lowest share of female parliamentarians in Africa. Political capture and male dominance in governance have made it hard for women’s voices to be heard, and their concerns factored into decision-making. As a consequence, the political space continues to be structured in a way that perpetuates male control, thus sustaining gender discrimination. This situation does not create room for women to effectively contribute to nation building and makes it difficult to place issues which are fundamental for women well-being at the core of the national agenda.
Nigeria also has a rich history of strong women leaders that stand up for their rights. from Queen Idia of Benin in the 16th Century to the Aba women’s riots in 1929 – also referred to as the “Women’s War” – were sparked by plans to tax southern market women. Over two months, thousands of women were involved in protests that saw colonial shops and banks attacked and courts burnt down. In the end the colonial administrators backed down.
Eighteen years later, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, mother of the famous Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, successfully mobilised thousands of women against more proposed taxes to be levied on small traders. Dubbed the Lioness of Lisabi, she became a firm advocate for women’s suffrage and an important figure in the fight for independence. The estimated 20,000 women who joined her Abeokuta Women’s Union were known for their persistence, never giving up until achieving their aim. More recently, the #EndSars protest was led by the Feminist Coalition, a group of young Nigerian women that do not accept the status quo.
In 2012, Nigeria spent just 6.5 percent of its national budget on education and just 3.5 percent on health (by comparison, Ghana spent 18.5 percent and 12.8 percent respectively in 2015). As a result, 57 million Nigerians lack safe water, over 130 million lack adequate sanitation and the country has more than 10 million children out of school.
The low educational status of women is in some cases rooted in early marriage. Increasing levels of domestic violence are also manifestations of gender inequality which often go unpunished. This state of affairs has been attributed to the pervading culture of patriarchy in Nigeria, one which ascribes numerous benefits to men, while systematically placing serious constraints on women’s rights. Patriarchy is widely regarded as the root cause of Gender Based Violence (GBV), as it has enshrined inequality into social life in such a manner that most women have become socialized into accepting male domination, GBV and discrimination as the norm.
The effects of response measures to COVID-19 pandemic, including stay home measures and the resultant close physical proximity between perpetrators and victims in the confines of the home setting – usually overcrowded – coupled with family economic hardships have created a perfect storm of circumstances for sexual and physical violence, abuse and exploitation to happen with limited public scrutiny. For many, this has become a ‘paindemic’.
With more than 120 million school girls at home in Africa, there have been numerous reports from countries of child abuse and exploitation, including domestic violence and child marriage. School teachers are mostly the first people that abused children come in contact with and thus report the abuse to; that is no longer the case now that schools are closed, enabling violence against girls in the home to go on without someone noticing or trying to stop it.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Dubravka Šimonović, has rightly noted that “For too many women and children, home can be a place of fear and abuse. That situation worsens considerably in cases of isolation such as the lockdowns imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In this context, we have to ask ourselves the question what can be done to address these multi-layered old and new causes of gender inequality? We have to look closely at our homes and workplaces and ensure that sexism and discrimination have no place there.
Challenging the status quo has to start with us. Supporting women and their businesses – however small – is low-hanging fruit in the pursuit for gender equality. Access to education and quality public services, creating an environment that is more inclusive, is part of a holistic agenda that has to address the root causes for the absence of such services for millions.
The call for change is loud and clear. If we all – individually and collectively – make our contribution to this goal, every day will be 8th of March.
Happy Women’s Day.
Sources: World Bank, Public Services International, International Labour Organization, Oxfam, BBC