COVID-19 has ravaged through societies and affected lives in very unprecedented ways, including the finances of women. Many of them have lost their means of livelihoods and are now struggling to keep body and soul together as a result of the pandemic. In this report, JUSTINA ASISHANA analyses the impact of COVID-19 on Nigerian women.
IN April, when Mrs. Chinyere Philips was sacked, it seemed like the end of her world. She never knew she would be a victim of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My employer could not keep paying me for services not rendered,” she said.
Mrs Philips worked in a museum attached to a private school. However, since the Federal Government had ordered all schools to shut down as part of measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the museum has not been functioning.
She said: “I had hoped that when school reopened, I would resume my work when the school resumed classes. Then they started online classes and since the museum was for practicals and there were no practicals at this time, all the staff at the museum were sent home at the end of April. I was in shock,” the widowed mother of three, said.
She is job-hunting and worried that if she does not get an opening soon, she may deplete the little savings she had made. “I have nowhere to go and the debts are steadily piling,” she said.
She is one of the millions of Nigerians, many of them women, who are likely to be pushed further down the poverty ladder.
The World Bank Nigeria Development Update (NDU) titled ‘Nigeria in Times of COVID-19: Laying Foundations for a Strong Recovery’ shows that the human cost of COVID-19 could be high in the country.
“Beyond the loss of life, the COVID-19 shock alone is projected to push about five million more Nigerians into poverty in 2020,” the report, which was released in June, noted.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics Nigeria Living Standards Survey 2018-2019, 82.9 million Nigerians or 40 % of the population were living below the poverty line of 137,430 naira per year. An estimated 70% of those living in poverty are women.
“In Nigeria, 40.1 per cent of the total population was classified as poor. In other words, on average four out of 10 individuals in Nigeria has real per capita expenditures below 137,430 naira ($352) per year,” the report by the Statistics office said adding that 52 per cent of people in the rural areas lived in poverty compared to 18 per cent in the urban parts of the country.
The Nigeria Development report says that more Nigerians will be pushed into poverty by the Covid19 outbreak than had been expected. The number of poor Nigerians was, before Covid19, estimated to grow by two million. Instead, it is now estimated that seven million Nigerians will sink into poverty. The poverty rate is projected to rise from 40.1per cent in 2019 to 42.5 per cent in 2020, according to the report.
Mrs Philips joins an estimated 510 million women, or 40 per cent of the women employed in the hard-hit sectors, including accommodation and food services; wholesale and retail trade; real estate, business and administrative activities; and manufacturing.
The ILO said, globally, millions have lost their jobs during the pandemic and vulnerable groups are the hardest hit, especially women who were already facing an uneven playing field in the workplace. “They are now being laid off and furloughed at higher rates than men.”
Before the outbreak, the unemployment rate was estimated to be at 23.1 per cent. A higher percentage of women were unemployed with their unemployment rate estimated at hard-hit sectors, including accommodation and food services; wholesale and retail trade; real estate, business and administrative activities; and manufacturing 26.6 per cent. The collapse of businesses, the closure of manufacturing concerns, the economy leading to job losses. Unemployment is now estimated to rise to 33 per cent by the end of 2020.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who chairs Nigeria’s Economic Sustainability Committee (ESC), had said the government was anticipating 39.4 million job losses by the end of the year.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in its COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Report, also reported that 40 per cent of Nigerian workers had stopped working in June and they lost their jobs as a result of the impact of COVID-19, diminishing incomes of 79 per cent of households in Nigeria.
The National Vice President, North Central of the National Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, (NASME), Auwal Bununu Ibrahim, said about 50,000 workers have been sacked in the MSMEs sub-sector of the economy. Ibrahim said over 10,000 MSMEs businesses have collapsed across the country.
COVID-19 financial crisis for women
The pandemic has further worsened the situation in Nigeria, especially for informal workers and the poor because they mostly live on a daily income. This category of people includes street vendors, petty traders, taxi drivers, motorcycle riders, artisans, hairdressers and garbage collectors, among others.
According to the ILO, these informal workers constitute about 60 per cent of the global laboUr force.
According to the NBS 2010 to 2019 data on unemployment, unemployed Nigerians in 2010 stood at 3.5 million, increased to 21 million in 2018, and by 2019, it had hit 23 million.
On average 18.4 per cent of households in Nigeria, according to the NBS, are headed by female household members like Mrs Philips, who are also sole breadwinners for their immediate and extended families. That share is generally higher in urban areas, 21.4 versus 17.1 per cent in rural areas, with many of them now without incomes due to COVID-19.
“This is no longer only a global health crisis, it is also a major labour market and economic crisis that is having a huge impact on people,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. “In 2008, the world presented a united front to address the consequences of the global financial crisis, and the worst was averted. We need that kind of leadership and resolve now,” he advocates.
The COVID-19 economic crisis has destroyed women’s jobs more than men’s, because it is hitting economic sectors where women are overrepresented in the workforce, like accommodation, food, retail, and manufacturing.
A Covid19 impact monitoring survey carried out by the NBS and involving 1,950 households indicated that since mid-March 79% of households reported that their total income decreased. The highest rate of income depletion was in households whose income was derived from non-farm family business (85%) compared to household farming, livestock or fishing (73%) and wage employment (58%).
The survey revealed that 35-59 % of the households could not afford to buy food staples like yams, rice and beans and also had difficulty in affording soap and cleaning supplies to enable them to adhere to the guidelines to stop the spread of the virus. This is over and above the perennial problem of accessing water for consumption and domestic use particularly in the urban areas.
Dipping into meagre savings like Mrs Philips is doing is one of the coping mechanisms that many of the households surveyed have adopted. According to the households surveyed, 51% said they had reduced their food consumption while 29% were drawing on their savings to survive.
Job loss exacerbates existing inequalities. For women who are single mothers like Mrs Philips, lower-income, or small business owners, losing a source of income can be particularly devastating. Plus, the career and financial consequences are more severe and long-lasting for women than men. For single mothers, the pressure is becoming intense.
The situation that Amara Wilfred, a single mother of one finds herself, is replicated millions of times across Nigeria and the world.
She lost her job as a secretary in April after her employer was forced to cut back on staff due to declining business. Wilfred is desperate to find another job as her landlord has increased her rent.
She said, “It has been God keeping me. Trying to cope has been intense. I am yet to find a job and I need to start something to pay my bills, especially my rent and food for myself and my baby.”
Unlike Mrs Philips, who has some little savings, Wilfred does not have any savings as her salary was merely enough to pay her rent and meet her other monthly needs.
But the financial impact is only one part of the story
Economist Zaitun Sunusi of the Federal University, Gashau, Yobe State noted that women’s job loss can cause mental disorders, trauma, and frustration because their needs and demands are higher with zero income.
“The income-generating capacity would reduce their expenditure, increase poverty rates and cause a feeling of insecurity among the women who have lost their jobs and this can lead to crime or some of them embracing negative social vices.”
What other countries have done
By March 27, 84 countries had adopted fiscal measures to mitigate the economic effect on households. By June, the number had risen to 195. Most governments increased either the coverage or payout amounts from existing social-protection schemes.
Forty-seven countries have made cash-transfer programmes more flexible by waiving conditions such as the requirement for children to attend school and for women to attend ante- and postnatal appointments, such as in the Philippines. Some, such as Armenia, have provided home delivery of payments for elderly people. And 64 governments have amended unemployment benefits; 49 have adopted paid sick-leave interventions.
So far, only 16 countries have reported new or amended social-protection measures that refer to women. Pakistan, for example, has increased cash transfers to women who are already receiving financial assistance from the state; Algeria has introduced paid leave for women who are pregnant, have chronic diseases or are taking care of children; Togo is providing women with $21 per month, whereas men receive $17. President Faure Gnassingbé specified in April that this was because women are “more directly involved in nurturing the entire household.”
Canada increased its national childcare benefit, which is directed to mothers unless otherwise requested.
These policies recognise the specific and increased burden that COVID-19 is having on women because of social expectations around caring responsibilities, a move which the Nigerian government should adopt.
The NBS COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Report revealed that 13.3 per cent of the respondents got food assistance, 1.8per cent got direct cash transfers with an average amount of N19,961 to each household.
Although the Federal Government introduced several safety nets, it would be best if the policymakers consider attaching conditions to these corporate rescue packers such as workers protection and executive pay caps.
Mrs Philips believes that the government should put in place wage support particularly supporting employers in the private sector. She also suggests a bailout or some form of support for private schools so that teaching staff are not rendered jobless. “This would help the schools pay their staff even if it is half the salaries,” she said.
Care packages and other economic relief packages
The government has introduced several measures to try and mitigate the impact Covid19 is having on vulnerable groups, including women. These interventions include cash transfers to those involved in small and medium scale enterprises.
These economic measures include the implementation of a three-month repayment of MarketMoni, and FarmerMoni loans while a moratorium for all TraderMoni, funded loans issued by the Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture and Nigeria
Export-Import Bank. Providing women with cash transfers was more likely to enable the women, particularly those in the informal sector, to continue working and to make their households’ food secure as well as invest more in assets.
The expansion of the social register of the poor from 2.6 million households to 3.6 million households was expected to assist women and other vulnerable groups with funding from the N500 billion COVID 19 Crisis Intervention Fund.
However, the decision to spend most of the resources in this fund to upgrade healthcare facilities and other special public works programs means that women like Wilfred and Mrs Philips cannot expect any assistance any time soon.
Zaitun said women in the informal economy need to be supported to access cash supply or transfer payment for those who have lost their jobs and also the introduction of a one-year tax-free program including reduction of interest to reduce unemployment in organisations.
“Government and organisations need to put women at the centre of their policies. It will support a more rapid economic recovery and help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” stated Zaitun.
How women in other climes are coping with job loss
In Texas, Deane Gremmel lost her job in April due to COVID-19 after 32 years working for a data company. However, she said with the casualty of the pandemic and a weak energy market, she was able to weather any downturns.
“I shed a lot of tears,” Gremmel said. “I ate a lot of chocolate ice cream and a lot of cake. I went through a lot of emotions. It was always in the back of my mind, being laid off, I just tried to push it away, but finally, it came to fruition.”
Being the sole provider for her family, Gremmel decided to try something different, although she was a part-time writer before the pandemic, Gremmel decided to become a full-time novelist. She writes four to five pages a day now, publishing under the pen names Chris Pike and Blake O’Connor. Her newest book takes place after a power grid fails in Houston.
With a renewed purpose and new goals, Gremmel is now offering advice to others who lost their jobs during the pandemic. “I experienced a lot of anger, and I know that if anger is channelled correctly, you can do great things. You can accomplish a lot. That’s what I’m doing right now.”
In Nigeria, after losing her job as a Technical Assistant, Blessing Vincent decided to deal with the challenge head-on by investing her last salary into her passion which is selling bridal materials. She had been taking physical classes on making fascinators, hats, bridal bouquets, and make-up before the pandemic and went virtual when it started. When she was relieved of her job, she decided that investing in her life-long dream was the way to go.
Due to the stay at home order, Blessing has taken up trainees who come to learn these life skills and since weddings have begun after the lifting of the lock-down, she has been contacted for providing materials for bridal showers and other things needed by brides for their big day.
According to her, a lot of people now want to learn skills as the pandemic has exposed that a lot of jobs are not secured. With schools still shut, “I get trainees who are mostly students coming to learn what I am making. For now, I have five trainees, two are learning make-up, and the other three are learning fascinators and bouquets. I make the fascinators and bouquets and also do makeup, so these are what I teach them. They are catching up very fast and I am very proud of them. They buy all their materials from me and it saves them the cost and scare of going to the market.”
Changing with the tide
Loss of jobs should not be the end of the road for women who have had such encounters this period as there is hope for them to engage in something else, economists have said.
Grace Hezekiah Isa, an economist, of the Department of Economics, Bingham University urged the women to emulate Blessing and find something to do stating that embracing entrepreneurship would help them regain their confidence and improve themselves as they could also become employers of labour.
She said the government needs to do more this period by creating room for the women to learn skills to improve on themselves and make interest free credit facilities for the women to enable them to start their businesses while expressing optimism that there is a possibility of the quick recovery of the economy pending government commitment and intervention.
Sunusi also advised women to explore the digital possibilities and seek jobs online.
For Mrs Philips and Wilfred, they cannot afford the way they are living much longer, especially with the children out of school and feeding is becoming an issue to them.
This report was supported by the Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ).