Confronting the Tale of the big Equalizer: Feminist Perspectives and Responses to the Pandemic

The Nigerian activist Charmaine Pereira outlines feminist perspectives and responses to the pandemic.

Bild: von Ebunoluwa Akinbo Inequalities of Gender: Distribution of food to an elderly woman in Lagos, Nigeria.

The pandemic does not – as it was initially often portrayed – affect anybody in the same way. Class, gender, ethnicity and social location have profound impacts on how we experience a lockdown and how much we are put at risk by Covid-19. Charmaine Pereira, feminist activist and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Legislative Advocacy Coalition on Violence against Women (LACVAW) in Nigeria, talks about the gendered impact of the pandemic and feminist responses.

FES: Charmaine, you have been part of an initiative that is urgently demanding to integrate gender in Nigeria's Covid-19 response. Why is that so important?

Charmaine Pereira: It is important to recognize that pandemics, such as the one we are currently facing, have always exacerbated existing inequalities. Inequalities of class, of region, of ethnicity, of access to resources and of course, inequalities of gender. This is not something policymakers are generally thinking about or even aware off, so the policy responses tend to assume that everybody would be affected in the same way. Policy responses to the pandemic that disregard the different contexts and realities in a society may not be effective and actually be harmful causing a lot of unintended side effects, as we currently see with the lockdowns in different African countries.  

Drawing from your observation of the Nigerian situation, how are women affected by this crisis?

First, we have to recognize that there are different categories of women in all parts of the country who may be affected differently.

Women are central in societal responses to the pandemic in so many different ways. They are often doing essential work that is beneath the radar, in the household, in just caring for people, looking after them when they're sick, making food available to their family. The obligation to stay at home and to practice social distancing assumes that there is space, that people can move around in their homes and work online, which is simply not the case in many working class families, and in particular not for many working class women.

Many women have to earn a living on a daily basis. They might be peasant farmers, who have to get their products to the market. They might be food vendors selling vegetables or cooked food. Under a lockdown, they can`t move and make their living.

Pregnant women can't get to the hospital either because of restricted mobility or because the hospitals are very poorly serviced. In Nigeria, we are not (yet) at the stage where they're being overrun by COVID-19 cases, but public hospitals are generally not providing the best service and patients have to pay beforehand, what many can`t afford. The COVID situation is putting even more pressures on public health providers.

There are sex workers – a majority of them women – who may be experiencing additional violence from customers, would-be customers or security officials. Security in the streets, which was not great even before COVID-19, tends to worsen. Then there is the problem of internally displaced people, fleeing from threats like Boko Haram in the North East or from violent disputes over land. Many migrants are women and children. They live in informal settlements or camps, which are very vulnerable to the pandemic. Existing conflicts in the country are now exacerbated by this new problem.

And finally, staying home does not necessarily mean staying safe for women. Many relationships between intimate partners are violent and women are very often the ones at the receiving end of the violence. So, you cannot just say that it's fine to be locked up in a home – even if there is space – with a partner who regularly abuses you.  

How are feminist activists in Nigeria dealing with these challenges?

Many feminist activists are engaged in work on  gender-based violence, in information sharing, awareness raising and feminist organising in response to COVID-19.

Women’s organisations have tried to raise funds to be able to continue supporting the very view shelters that exists, where affected women can find protection. There is work within the communities to strengthen prevention measures, to make information available and to spread the message, that gender-based violence is not tolerated and how women can find help. Communication campaigns are important. Traditional media, radio and TV also in local languages, are used, but also “town criers” and traditional leaders are engaged to spread the messages. Most organisations are also trying to provide their services, psychological counseling and pro bono legal counseling, online.

There are also efforts to coordinate existing initiatives better. Recently there was a large online meeting of women`s organisations supported by the EU/UN programme “Spotlight” to discuss how to coordinate and potentially adapt existing frameworks in the fight against violence to accommodate a response to COVID-19. And, of course, advocacy work continues important. The policy brief “Integrating Gender into Nigeria’s COVID-19 Response” is an attempt to put pressure on policy actors to address the blind spots in their political responses to the crisis.

What impacts will this pandemic in your view have on the political debates?

I think, COVID-19 has made it very clear, that the existing economic system with its emphasis on the extraction of profits, the extraction of natural resources, treating nature as if it could be endlessly plundered and as if there would be no repercussion is simply destructive.

The way out of this crisis requires not only a rethink of our response to the pandemic but also a rethinking of what kind of society we are aspiring to, after the pandemic, and what kind of arrangements we put into place to organize our societies and economies, putting people first, not profits. “People” is not a homogeneous mass here. We need to recognize all the various divisions that have been fracturing our societies over time. So COVID-19 actually provides an opportunity to think seriously about what the priorities of any government and economy or society should be. Without this exercise of rethinking and reconstructing we are about to find ourselves repeating the mistakes of the past. We don't have time for that.


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