Women, Access to Justice and the COVID-19 Response in Nigeria

*By Ngozi Chuma Umeh

The coronavirus (COVID-19) was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on the 11 of March 2020.[1] Governments all over the world are making efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic. While the Nigerian federal government ordered the lockdown of three states in Nigeria namely; Lagos, Ogun, and Abuja on 29 March 2020,[2] other states have already started to take steps such as barricading of land borders, closing of markets, schools, courts, places of worship and the prohibition of all forms of ceremonies and gathering in order to the contain coronavirus.[3] Civil servants in most states have also been directed to stop work immediately, sport and cultural events are canceled and banking and all retail trade are suspended, save for essential goods (including food, medicines and their supply chains). Bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, hair salons, gyms, and the like are also closed.

The extraordinary measures during public health crises are no doubt pursuant to the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution or the Quarantine Act (CAP Q2 LFN 2004). Surely, one thing is clear, these developments constitute different shocks to our communities and economies and the impact on women cannot be underestimated and I discuss a few of these. In the first place, most of the closed formal sectors have a high female workforce, and in some reported cases, salaries were not paid before the lockdown. Aside from that, most women are involved in the informal sector and typically lack the social and economic safety net to fall back on in times like this. Secondly, with the home becoming a crowded space, women now shoulder a greater burden of care involving childcare, home-schooling, elder care, husband care, cooking, and various domestic chores.

These activities leave women exhausted, stressed and impact on women’s health and safety. The situation is worse if the woman is pregnant. Accessing maternal and antenatal care becomes very difficult as services are being directed to essential medical needs. Accessibility of contraception, menstrual hygiene products, and services for other needs also become disrupted. Some abusers also use stay-at-home and restrictions on freedom of movement to unleash abuse on women.

Media representation and discussions on the current pandemic is also telling. When one switches on the television, you find mostly men as key decision-makers in the process of planning and implementing the epidemic response.[4] This is not unexpected knowing that gender concerns in Nigeria are not yet shaping decisions that are mainly made by men. If women are not involved in the decision-making processes, the outcomes for women will most likely be less optimal.

The few challenges mentioned above thus leads to the need and urgency of enhancing multiple levels of access to justice for women. Human rights and specifically the rights of women must be at the center of all response efforts. Social protection measures including, incentive and bailout packages from the formal sector and compensatory reliefs or disbursement for informal sector workers must take into account the gendered division of labor across sectors.

Ensuring that the pandemic does not lead to more distress is very important. Incorporating the health and safety needs of women into all aspects of the pandemic response should be taken into account. is very deserving. Similarly, information on where to find help must be disseminated and hotlines provided. Women should as much as possible be involved in the decision-making process regarding the COVID-19 response. Including women ‘s voices will definitely bring to the fore issues that concern women and others who often fall within the caregiving offered by women.