Issues  

‘We want improved women’s participation in the fight against Covid-19’

‘Women’s Involvement Will Add Value To The Distribution Of Palliatives’ As the country continues to battle the spread of coronavirus, Guardian Woman went out to speak with five leading Nigerian women in different disciplines on the challenges this pandemic presents to women in particular, involving women in the fight against the virus, how women living with disabilities are more vulnerable to the infection, protecting the rights of women and girls this period as well as expecting transparency and accountability from government at all levels.

Okewale-Sonaiya

• Toun Okewale-Sonaiya, MD, Women Radio
Would you say you’re satisfied with the government’s level of response so far regarding the pandemic?
With a population of over 200 million people taking into consideration available resources to government and our level of preparedness, I will say we’ve fared fairly. However, one must commend the efforts of Lagos and Kwara states governments in managing this crisis. Kwara was the first to implement total lockdown and curfew in containing the spread. Lagos, which is the epicentre, has risen up to some of these challenges and so far has been effective especially in equipping test and isolation centres. Communicating and delivering messaging in diverse languages so people can easily understand how serious Covid-19 is across 774 local government areas is a task that is achievable.

I am unsure if we did enough. We reached out to governments at various levels for information to be disseminated to the people. It is very important in light of misinformation and fake news, which is rife in this challenging time that we give out real information. In the disbursements of palliatives, being a nation that does not operate a social welfare system, we could have done better in allocating scarce and limited resources to deliver maximum benefit to the most vulnerable and strike the right balance between spending on medical supplies, provisions and protection for key workers.

The lockdown is being lifted next week, is this a good step seeing as cases are still rising?
We operate a zero social welfare system here; therefore this calls for uncommon pragmatism. We don’t need any expert medical advice to interpret that the sustained exponential increase in positive cases does not favour lifting the restriction on movement. However, we are dealing with a peculiar situation in Nigeria, where over 70 percent of our workforce who are majorly women and in the informal sector, rely on daily wages, that have been cut-off for the last one month, thereby increasing our vulnerability with no financial cushioning. We continue to consume an average of 200 litres diesel daily to operate generators due to lack of power. Staff working from home cannot deliver because there’s no electricity to power gadgets. Indeed the government cannot afford to provide for all of its vulnerable citizens but it still does have the overall responsibility of our wellbeing. So it is either we become a causality of COVID-19 or of hunger. It’s tough but I understand why we need to ease the lockdown and strike a fine balance between taking the right decision to maintain good health and survival and the other necessity to feed for survival which opening the economy will mostly address. Enforcing use of facemask in public and less crowded transportation to limit the potential of spreading Covid-19 is very necessary.

You’ve been at the forefront of calling for improved women participation in the fight against Covid-19, what are the advantages if we have more women involved?
Involving more women will bring about a combination of expertise of both genders for better and inclusive results. Involving women gives a gender responsive approach, which ultimately gives an effective and efficient workforce in the fight against the virus. At national level, women’s involvement will add value to the distribution of palliatives because women connect at different levels of the community as members of various associations, religious and age groups. This is where both federal Ministries of Humanitarian and Women affairs must work together.

Women Affairs ministry has data of various women groups in Nigeria, which will come in handy for palliative disbursements. Also, women account for the largest percentage of caregivers in the country in the health sector, their involvement on other fronts such as the national and state planning level will ensure a holistic, prudent and gender sensitive approach to how resources are managed. If a woman is equipped with knowledge about Covid-19 and understands what needs to be done, she will educate her family and her small community because she will be operating from an informed position. When you observe the various queues around for relief from governments and charitable organisations, women make up a sizeable proportion, some with babies and infants strapped on their backs knowing the priority is to get food for her children first. Some or most of their male partners are at home and will eat out of the food she queued for. Having more women at the heart of planning and implementation will bring a gender perspective and this is called good governance.

As a key stakeholder in the media industry, what more can the media do in terms of sensitisation and enlightenment to the general public?
This is a critical time and the media is critical to the fight against Covid-19. A big issue now is the sharp increase in Sexual and Gender- Based Violence (SGBV) as women and children are trapped with their perpetrators in lockdown. Prostitution is adversely affected by Covid-19 and some children sadly are being replaced for heinous acts. As a female-centric radio station, we’ve had to adjust our programming to address this. We are in collaboration with various organisations and individuals to address issues around SGBV through sensitisation, reporting and action. With support from agencies like MacArthur Foundation, ActionAid, UNWomen, WRAPA, DSVRT, WANEP, the Police and so on, we have been able to give free counseling, referrals and even get perpetrators arrested. Media houses need to raise more awareness and on the significance of keeping extra vigil on vulnerable women and children and those in challenging relationships in times like these. Our best defense still remains prevention and at the very root of this, behavioural change of citizens. We must not give room for fake news or myths and together, we will beat Covid-19.

Auta-Udonkanta

• Lois Auta-Udonkanta, Chairperson/CEO, Network of Disabled Women
Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable in times like this; tell us some of the ways they’ve been surviving these trying times?
Women with disabilities remain at higher risks of this pandemic in triple ways; first as a woman, secondly as a woman with disability and lastly the barriers that prevent her from being productive and independent. Those barriers include: inability to access healthcare facilities, infrastructure, information, employment, transport, education and so on. Women with disabilities here make up the poorest of the poor, an even before coronavirus, they are the most discriminated and excluded in our society. With Coronavirus now, they are much more poorer and vulnerable. The times are hard and challenging for them, so they’re forced to depend on others to feed and perform daily tasks and activities.

Has the government and private bodies lent helping hand in any way?
Yes. Lagos, Ekiti, Enugu and Yobe States have been helpful to citizens with disabilities in their states. Some are planning to do and some are about to start distribution of the palliatives for persons with disabilities in their states including the FCT.

Would you say WWD are more at risk of contracting the virus and why?
Yes, they are at higher risks due to their disabilities. Most women with disabilities depend on caregivers/family to do daily activities like bathing, eating, dressing-up and movement from point A to Point B and there is high tendency of contracting the virus compared to others.

What are you doing to help members of your association?
I have been doing a lot by the grace of God and through the support of passionate women, in the likes of Her Excellency, Pauline Tallen, Minister of Women Affairs. Recently, there was a flag-off by the Minister of State for FCT for the distribution of palliatives and I was nominated by Jophia Gupar to represent persons with disabilities in the CSOs group. Also, I took the lead by inviting all the heads of cluster groups of the blind, deaf, albinos, people with leprosy, autism, cerebral palsy and physically challenged persons for a meeting with one of the directors in FCTA Jummai Ahmadu, because I don’t want to walk alone. We came up with recommendations that we want the palliatives for PWDs in the FCT to be given to us, (the leaders) to distribute to our members. ActionAid Nigeria and Global Affairs Canada has also supported in the sensitisation of the disabled community on our rights to preventive measures, care, hygiene, access to Healthcare facilities, right to information and communication and humanitarian assistance through TV/Radio appearances, jingles, online social media campaign, press releases and documentary. They also supported women with disabilities in the FCT with palliatives. Federal Ministry of Women Affairs is also planning to support women and girls with disabilities in the FCT.

I want to call on all governments and the private sector to ensure 100 percent disability inclusion in everything they are doing on COVID-19.

Ironsi

• Bose Ironsi, Executive Director, Women’s Rights and Health Project (WRAHP)
Would you say the rights of women and girls are being protected especially during this period?
When we talk of protection, we are talking about the existence of laws, the existence of mechanisms for implementation and enforcement of such laws. The duty to protect is primarily that of government. Government has the duty to put in place measures and mechanisms that can ensure proper implementation of the international and regional conventions and treaties that guarantee the rights of women and of which the country is a party to. Protection is about ensuring that national and local laws such as the constitutional guarantees and other national and state laws are implemented in such a way that women are sure to get justice if their rights are abused. If you consider our situation prior to Covid-19, you will agree with me that we are not there yet. With the current lockdown, there is a huge gap when it comes to protection. That is not to say that nothing is happening as some groups have tried to put in place some measures by providing online response to women who can reach out to them but most women especially rural and those at the grassroots are still not adequately protected. Their voices are hardly heard and they find it difficult to access support. Also, what most are doing is more of mitigation because courts are not working; perpetrators are not being arrested and therefore cannot be arraigned. Survivors are locked up with their abusers because there are no temporary shelter/homes.

How can women effectively manage their mental health in light of all what is going on?
Women need to maintain social networks no matter how remotely. They need to speak out and refrain from bottling up abuse. They should know when their life and sanity becomes a priority and give it all that it requires by seeking help before it is too late. Spirituality is very important and has been found to be very helpful; they should engage in mindset development, engage in exercises, be creative and seek necessary support on time.

With increased violence, how can agencies assist them even beyond this pandemic?
One thing that is coming out clearly is that women are enduring violent relationships/situations because they have limited choices. Agencies need to commit more resources into programmes that enable women recognize available choices and also help them acquire agency to be able to act on such choices. Oftentimes, women zero everything down to money. Such limited and narrow perception of life often lands many in deeper problems. Empowerment should not be about money alone. Self-respect and self- autonomy are critical. We need to help women get to that level where they are able to make informed and un-coerced decisions.

What are the improvements in women-centered healthcare you would like the government to put in place now and after this crisis?
Nigeria has one of the worst maternal mortality ratios in the world. There are many reasons for this, however, one key factor is the issue of inequality, which drives access. Most of the women who die having children have limited or no access to the kind of care that they require when they experience complications and require specialised care. Our philosophy regarding healthcare services needs to change completely. We need to begin to value the lives of women reproducing life. We need to develop our healthcare delivery system based on the ideology that all human beings are equal. You cannot have a health care system that has total disregard for women in the rural areas or who cannot afford to pay for services. This is not to say that every rural community should have a comprehensive health care facility but there must be a functional system that allows every woman, irrespective of where she is located, to access care when she needs it.

Fijabi

• Mufuliat Fijabi, CEO, Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund (NWTF)
Of the purported 25 percent of the country’s population supposed to receive palliatives from the government, how many women do you think have benefited?
There is no sufficient statistics on ground to buttress the fact that the palliatives have reached 25 percent of the population let alone disaggregate the data to know how many people benefited. This gap is an evidence that the country needs to work on its social structure more effectively to make it easy to reach, not only those who need support, but to be able to reach every Nigerian.

In your opinion, is the government effectively handling the containment of this virus?
The fact that it caught everyone unawares is enough reason to say that the government was not prepared but responded relying on its existing strength and strategies. As to whether it is effective or not is better explained by the state of our health system before Covid-19. In my own estimation, effectiveness is a function of expertise built over time and our expertise is neither strong nor effective enough. The handling of the spread requires more tact considering the level of illiteracy, poverty and population of the country. The government has made some efforts but it can be best described as a drop in the ocean.

Do you think the government is involving enough women in the fight against this virus?
The absence of the Minister of Women Affairs in the constitution of the Presidential Task Force is equal to the absence of women and their voices in the entire process. In addition, the percentage representation of women generally in the Task force is extremely low. It is also a reflection of the current poor representation of women generally in governance in Nigeria. The pandemic has further brought out the need for women’s inclusion in processes. Unfortunately, the pandemic has further reiterated one of the consequences of patriarchy, unequal power relations leading to increased violence against women who are trapped at home because of the lockdown. Women should be deliberately targeted in the distribution of palliatives because they are more in the informal sector and earn their living on a daily basis.  Also most of the women rarely own accounts through which they could benefit from palliatives through the banks.  Also some of them are challenged healthwise because of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and childcare.

Prof. Ngozi Ezeilo

• Prof. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, Dean of Law, UNN/Founder WACOL and Tamar SARC
Are you happy with the handling of this pandemic so far by the federal and state governments?
Not really. Nigeria Government had early warning as the virus was rampaging globally to put its plans together. The pandemic containment actions have been haphazardly done, politicised and government at all levels have not gotten their priorities right. Between the first index case and subsequent cases, Nigeria had enough time to upgrade its testing capabilities and invest massively, but the Government, especially at the Federal level failed to do so. We started palliatives and voted billions yet to be felt by Nigerians, whilst paying lip service to testing, laboratories and healthcare infrastructure, including surveillance capacity. We started lockdown when in reality we lack everything to sustain that. The priority should have been to strengthen NCDC and other actors to make the much-needed difference in testing as well as mobilising and funding our scientists to research on cure and also manufacturing test kits. We are witnesses to what Senegal is doing. I believe we has the best of minds, unfortunately leadership always fail to harness and leverage on our greatest assets.

Very few women and women-centred bodies are actively involved in this Covid-19 fight, do you think this is deliberate or an oversight on the government’s part?
It is indeed business as usual in a country where women decision-making power is constantly undermined and gender equity and inclusion hardly matters. A cursory look at Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Finland, all with women heads of state that have succeeded in being ahead of this virus, will demonstrate the power of women’s leadership. When I saw the list of members of the Presidential Task Force, I felt that at least, the Minister of Women Affairs should have been part of that. Again, civil society organizations have also not been mainstreamed and this is crucial for prevention messages and mobilisation of communities for action to defeat this virus. I strongly believe that women and women-led organizations can add tremendous value in identification of persons in need, monitoring and providing feedback to strengthen the process at every stage whether it is on people’s access to testing or with regard to the distribution of palliatives. We mustn’t forget that the caregiving role of women often put them in harms way as they usually care for the sick in most families and also are generally over-segregated in healthcare work like nursing.

The FG says the cash and palliatives being distributed are for the poor and most vulnerable, yet many women seem not to be beneficiaries.

What can the government do to effectively reach more women at the grassroots level who desperately need assistance?
To be honest, the Federal government cannot be the one doing the identification and distribution of palliatives materials. This should be left to local governments which are closest to the people. They should have names by households and clans and can also use political wards, polling units to reach the people, including the most vulnerable and hard to reach persons and hard to reach places.

In fact, effective collaboration and cooperation with traditional and religious leaders can assist in getting down to the minutest details of persons and families in need or at risks of contracting and dying from the virus.

Meanwhile, it is extremely important that women benefit from adequate palliative to support their families, especially female-headed households. At grassroots, you would be amazed as how organized women are and involved in developmental projects, especially in my part of the world. In Igboland for example, August Women’s meeting gets every woman wherever located involved in community action and they have effective and on ground leadership to ensure fair and equitable distribution of palliatives. They have church/religious groupings; different women’s association from immediate household to clan, village and town and these are veritable means to reach poor rural women and their families. In fact, the local structures are there but hardly utilized by government except for political purposes.
This lockdown has seen an increase in SGBV as most are stuck with their abusers; how can we better help these women?
True, there has been a steady rise in cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The direct reports of cases being handled by Women Aid Collective (WACOL) shows that the spike is real. For example, we have received over 50 cases of violence against women and girls within this month alone. The nature and forms of violence reported include, rape, defilement, incest, threat to life, spousal battery, abandonment, forceful ejection, torture, deprivation of livelihood, verbal and psychological abuse, child physical abuse, discrimination, contentions on custody and welfare of children, malicious damage to property and dispossession of widow’s property. Even on Easter Sunday, we received two cases of women being locked out of their matrimonial homes during a lockdown. Can you imagine the vulnerabilities of such women, thrown to the street and living at the mercy of others? This is unacceptable and avoidable. With the current state of emergency and exigencies of time, the stay-at-home order and lockdown policy have limited the physical accessibility and interventionist approach to rescuing victims of gender-based violence. We have to embrace innovative technology in order to continue our work as service providers. We are collaborating with partners like Action Aid and Global Affairs Canada under her Women Voice and Leadership (WVL) project, UNDP/EU Spotlight Initiative on elimination of violence against women and girls, to surmount operational challenges posed to the centre due to COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Thus, we have activated our hotlines, media and online services through radio and TV jingles, real time chat integration of website and Facebook to enable victims of SGBV to have a live chat with our counsellors and legal team. This has helped in fast-tracking matters in some focal states like Enugu, Ebonyi and Cross River States. This hopefully will also help fast track the matters that are reported and prevent delay in getting justice and effective remedies for the victims/survivors during this pandemic. People should find productive things to engage them while at home or in self isolation, including a safe place to hide in case of threats and how to find prompt help and rescue when in danger.

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