Shadow Pandemic COVID-19, Women and Girls in Nigeria

In 2020, the Federal Government of Nigeria imposed a lockdown and implored residents to stay at home to protect themselves and others from the COVID-19 pandemic. But for many women and children, the home became a dangerous place.

Uwaila Vera Omozuwa was 22 years old when her life was brutally cut short. She was allegedly gang-raped, beaten, and left for dead at the Redeemed Christian Church of God parish she attended, where she had been a member of the choir for many years. The incident happened on May 27, 2020, after most public spaces including schools had been closed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. To avoid distractions from her siblings at home, Uwaila, a first-year Microbiology student at the University of Benin, regularly went to the nearby hall of the church to study.

Days after Uwaila’s death, another young woman started trending on social media. Like Uwaila, Barakat Bello, a student of the Institute of Agriculture, Research and Training in Ibadan, Oyo State was raped and killed. The incident happened on 31 May 2020, at her parents’ house in the Akinyele area of the city. Four days after Barakat’s brutal murder, on 5 June 2020, Azeezat Somuyiwa was also murdered in the same local government area. Azeezat’s head was smashed with a stone and at the time of her death; the 29-year-old was seven months pregnant.

And while Nigerians were reeling from the news of Uwaila’s, Barakat’s and Azeezat’s deaths, we heard about the gruesome death of Tina Ezekwe. Two policemen, attached to Bariga Police Station in Lagos, fired some shots, in yet-to-be-determined circumstances, on May 26, 2020. A stray bullet hit 17-year-old Tina, who was standing at the Berger, Iyana Oworo bus stop. The bullet pierced through her left thigh, and after a few days, she died from injuries.

These and many other unmentioned incidents represent the sad tales of violence against women that have been brought to our attention by both traditional and social media since the pandemic started. One thing is clear:

During the pandemic, even homes were not a safe place for young women and girls. The lockdown and the closure of schools, places of worship and other public spaces exposed them to potential abusers, who often lived in their homes, and were neighbours or relatives.

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. In Nigeria, the Federal Ministry of Health had confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in Lagos, on February 27, 2020. As the number of cases increased in Nigeria, the government responded by imposing a 14-day lockdown in Abuja, Lagos, and Ogun State to stem the spread of the virus. Several other states, including Rivers, Kaduna, and Ekiti, followed immediately, initiating full or partial lockdowns while deploying contact tracing, testing for cases, and isolating identified cases.

To curtail the spread of the virus, the government employed several measures including restrictions on inter-state movement, the closure of schools and restrictions of large gatherings, including in public spaces such as markets and places of worship.

THE LOCKDOWN: WOMEN AND GIRLS

A 2020 UN Policy Brief titled ‘Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women’, reminds us that health crises typically have impacts on women and girls that are unique from those on men. Evidence from the increase in sexual and gender-based violence or ‘SGBV’, during the 2013-2015 Ebola pandemic in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea is well documented. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception to such trends. Globally, since the pandemic, there has been an uptick in reports of gender-based violence or ‘GBV’. UN Women has also described the increase in GBV due to COVID-19 as a ‘Shadow Pandemic’.

It seems there’s been a shadow pandemic in Nigeria as well.

As COVID-19 spread and Nigeria went into lockdown, it became clear that the pandemic and the public health measures the government adopted did not factor in the impact on women and girls at risk of suffering GBV. According to the UN, in just the first two weeks of COVID-19 restrictions in Nigeria, reports of GBV doubled around the country. Victims were trapped at home with their potential abusers which increased the possibility of tensions turning violent. Statistics from the Federal and State Ministries of Women Affairs in Nigeria also show that reports of GBV almost tripled from March 2020 to April 2020 in 23 out of 36 states in Nigeria.

According to the inspector general of police, Mohammed Adamu, more than 700 rape cases were reported across Nigeria between January and May 2020. Additionally, from April 2020 to May 2020, organizations such as Women-support NGO, Women’s Aid Collective, received and handled about 156 cases of SGBV, out of which 25 were cases of sexual violence involving under-aged girls as victims. Similarly, communications specialist at ActionAid Nigeria, Lola Ayanda, explained in July 2020:

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.

THE LOST OPPORTUNITY

The government missed out on several opportunities to prevent the heightened levels of SGBV women experienced during lockdowns. For one, while developing lockdown measures, the government did not sufficiently consider the ways such measures and the pandemic might affect women and girls uniquely. Possible evidence of this was that the government excluded the Ministry of Women Affairs, NGOs, and other women-focused organizations from the Presidential COVID-19 Task Force and from the government’s general planning and decision making.

In addition, the government did not consider the provision of SGBV support services by civil society groups, shelters or sexual assault trauma centres as ‘essential services’. As such, rape survivors and other survivors of violence were precluded from moving around to seek help at hospitals, shelters, or other safe spaces. For comparison, in countries like Canada, domestic violence shelters were deemed essential services and remained open during the lockdown. Similarly, in Spain, the government assured women that strict lockdown rules and enforcement would not apply to them if they left home to report abuse.

In Nigeria, however, SGBV survivors lacked access to referral pathways following the blanket ‘stay at home’ order issued by the government. Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN) reported, for instance, that first responders in Abuja, such as the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation, struggled to reach victims who called for help and had trouble accessing state services because the courts and hospitals were closed or not accepting non-COVID-19 patients. Shelters also refused to accommodate any new women to prevent the spread of the virus. The referral pathway mechanism for managing SGBV victims failed completely in Abuja and in other parts of Nigeria.

Telephone hotlines promoted by some states were not working and even when they did, many victims had mobility constraints due to lack of funds. Government facilities, including shelters, were closed. As were police services and courts meant to coordinate the collection of samples from hospitals to document abuses and punish abusers respectively.

NAVIGATING THE LOCKDOWN

As they were not considered ‘essential services’, support services for survivors of SGBV had to suspend physical interactions. Support services faced a two-fold challenge: first, how to know which survivors of sexual assault needed help; and second, how to get the necessary support to them.

Some support services were able to innovate their way to attending to survivors of sexual assault during the lockdown. Many such services connected with survivors remotely, using mobile phone hotlines, SMS, websites, and chat functions.

In Lagos, the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team moved their services online and was the only functioning referral management pathway for abuse survivors. The response team also ensured that local service providers were given essential service passes and partnered with NGOs to expand its capacity.

The DSVRT, an organization under Lagos State government, is a collection of professional service providers offering a range of support services to abuse survivors. These include legal, medical, emergency assistance, counselling, and psychological and psychosocial support.  Speaking to the News Agency of Nigeria about the DSVRT’s response to the lockdown, Mrs Titilola Vivour-Adeniyi, the co-ordinator of the DSVRT, explained that:

We have to take advantage of technology as much as possible. We have gone online now, we are attending to clients via our email, social media, and our hotline…We are doing a lot of conference calls, speaking to both the alleged abuser and victim, we are doing referrals to the closest family support units at police stations, because some of them are still operational…We are doing a lot of counselling, we have our clinical psychologists speaking to victims, but what we are really advocating for safety.

According to Vivour-Adeniyi, more than a third of reported SGBV cases during the lockdown came through the DSVRT’s social media handles alone. As SGBV cases increased during the lockdown, the DSVRT’s online mediations became necessary. In exceptional cases, the team went out to rescue children that were reported to have been abused and women that needed assistance in abusive relationships.

The Mirabel Centre, a sexual assault referral centre managed by Partnership for Justice, remained open during the lockdown, daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. A likely reason the centre was able to remain open during the lockdown is that the centre operates from the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital and is staffed by doctors and nurses, who were classified as ‘essential services’ personnel during the lockdown.

SGBV service providers such as the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation and Women at Risk International Foundation (WARIF), included links on their websites reassuring survivors that they would provide virtual assistance through 24-hour confidential helplines, and support services deployed via text messages and social media.

The innovative approaches of the foregoing support centres notwithstanding, a common challenge remained that in Nigeria, which has a mobile and internet penetration of 90 per cent and 50 per cent respectively, mobile and digital interventions would likely leave out some abuse survivors.

HOW DO YOU REACH SURVIVORS WITHOUT A MOBILE PHONE?

The increased reliance on virtual intervention by support services during the lockdowns had several drawbacks. For one, even if survivors had access to phones and/or the internet, it was risky for them to use these tools while being closely monitored by abusers. Additionally, access to mobile and digital services could require paying for airtime and data, a barrier for low-income earners and young girls.

As such, for support services to be more inclusive, solutions would need to not depend on survivors owning a mobile or digital device or being able to afford potential airtime and data costs. Historically, low-cost interventions such as ‘silent/non-verbal alerts’ have been used by women’s organizations, security operations, and human rights activists to report abuse. Such interventions can be replicated and worked into service delivery by providers. The Mirabel Centre is a useful case study in this area.

Recently, the centre partnered with ride-hailing service, Bolt, and emergency reporting app, Aabo, to get survivors to the centre more easily. The centre hails a ride on Bolt for survivors who need help and issues a unique code that ensures that they are taken directly to the centre at no personal cost. Aabo is an application that allows survivors report cases of sexual abuse by clicking a button. Clicking the button triggers an emergency alert that pinpoints the survivor’s location, informing a trusted contact while providing evacuation support in cases where it is needed.

LOOKING AHEAD

COVID-19 and the public health measures the Nigerian government adopted to curb the spread of the virus played out uniquely among women and girls. Domestic violence hotlines, sexual and reproductive health services, referral pathways while necessary in pre-pandemic times are even more vital in a crisis.

What ought to have happened is for the government to have prioritized the protection of women and girls against the pandemic, from the outset. By not involving women-focused organizations in the planning, decision making as well as the design of its interventions and by not designating SGBV support services as ‘essential’, the government lost out on the opportunity to achieve lockdowns that were actually as safe as intended

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