The Shadow Pandemic: Importance of Data In Curbing Gender-based Violence

I wrote this article with Ayisha Osori for Premium Times who published it yesterday.

As governments and activists across the world respond to the increase in gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria’s response raises questions about how well data (or the lack of it) influences advocacy and policy. In an ideal world, federal and state governments would know that gender-based violence always increases during health crises, insecurity, heightened fear, and economic shocks. They would then prioritise and plan accordingly to ensure services are in place to prevent and respond to violence.

This is not our wold. Prior to COVID-19, Nigeria was known for a high incidence of gender-based violence. A United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) study revealed that one in four girls (and one in ten boys) experienced sexual violence before the age of 18. There have been widespread verified reports of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls in northern Nigeria by camp officials, vigilante members and soldiers. The sex-for-grades scandal of 2019 and the resistance of the Academic Staff Union of Universities to a bill to address sexual extortion in tertiary institutions is a recent example of a culture of abuse of power.

Where Is the Data On Gender-based Violence In Nigeria?

Nothing has highlighted the need for centralised gender-based violence data collection and analysis as the inability of the state and civil society to present trends and say definitively: the numbers are up, how and why? Without a base to compare with, it is difficult to sound an alarm, especially to a nonchalant government with a history of underfunding ministries of women affairs and other social services.

We know Kenya recorded a 34 per cent increase in calls for help within the first three weeks of the pandemic curfew and calls for help doubled in Lebanon and Malaysia, and tripled in China within a similar period. Nigeria cannot make similar claims due to the absence of a base to rely on, comparable to the annual violence against women and girls report published by the United Kingdom’s Crime Prosecution Services. Only Lagos State’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team has reported a 62 per cent increase in calls to helplines.

The lack of data collection and analysis means that, two months into government restrictions, we still have no accurate picture. Are cases increasing? What are the reasons and why? What types of gender-based violence are we seeing? Were perpetrators violent before or are they committing violence for the first time? Is violence increasing in frequency and severity? Are levels of violence affected by specific government measures? How has violence changed? How can survivors escape violence?

Data is missing but we do know this: Women’s rights activists report that domestic violence is increasing. There have been a number of media reports of male family members and neighbours raping young girls. Violence occurs both online and offline. In addition to trolling, insults and attacks against women, we are likely to see increased revenge porn and non-consensual sharing of intimate photographs and personal information, when relationships break down.

Unfortunately, neither President Buhari nor any state governor has mentioned this often overlooked silent second pandemic that women and girls have always faced. Lagos aside, there is no sense that gender-based violence is a priority or a consideration in the federal or state COVID-19 response. While it never gets top billing, not having the numbers and the stories behind these numbers makes it even more difficult to advocate for action or to respond effectively.

What Can Be Done?

Even within our existing limitations, there are opportunities for action.

We need an easy reporting template for organisations working with survivors, including women’s rights activists, civil society organisations, the Police, and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). This information should be analysed by one central body, ideally the NHRC, working with women’s rights activists. The NHRC should work closely with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons which, under the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act 2015, is required to submit annual reports on the implementation of the Act.

We must encourage reporting – not only by survivors but by neighbours, family and friends – and use traditional and new media to disseminate details of where to seek help, what help is available, and how to engage survivors. All too often, we see personal details of survivors indicating that we need more public education on the importance of anonymity, confidentiality and not blaming survivors.

State and federal task forces or committees on COVID-19 must prioritise the prevention of and response to gender-based violence. First, states should categorise gender-based violence organisations as essential and provide them with passes and items to enable better hygiene and protection. States must also channel public funds towards providing urgent support for alternate accommodation, the feeding and health care of survivors, and this should be transparent and publicly reported on. Finally, focus needs to be put on prevention. A global repository of knowledge on what works to prevent violence has been built up over the last decade. The time to look at how we can learn from and adapt this knowledge to our own context is now.

An Opportunity To Reset

Even during times of relative normality, gender-based violence has been a pandemic in Nigeria. Gender-based violence will not end with the lifting of government restrictions on the COVID-19 situation. The economic, social, and political ramifications of the pandemic will fundamentally change how we interact. Tensions and frustrations wrought by these changes will be relieved on the bodies of women and girls. Societal buffers against violence, already often ineffective, will have become further eroded as family and friends visit less often, schools and businesses stay closed, women’s incomes are impacted, and social and recreational opportunities remain unavailable.

This is why we need to think and plan long-term, even while in response mode. If Nigeria had some of the required built-in mechanisms and institutions to collect and analyse data, our work to prevent, respond and advocate in the past few months would have been more effective. We must not waste this opportunity to design a system during this pandemic to collate and analyse data and improve state response. This way, we will have the basis upon which to build a responsive and enduring system in the years to come.


Analysis of Violence and Insecurity in Northwest Nigeria

Right at the start of this year (it feels so long ago already), I was in northwest Nigeria. I had been wanting to go there for a long time. Elsewhere in Nigeria we had been hearing about violence in the region, particularly in Zamfara state, but it was very difficult to know exactly what was happening particularly as there were few reliable sources of information. I spent the better part of a month in Zamfara, visiting  many of its local government areas and speaking with 80 people including government officials, security agents, people working of NGOs and UN agencies. Crucially, over half of the people I spoke with were living through the conflict, including those who had taken part in the fighting on all sides. Here is an overview:

Zamfara state in northwest Nigeria has seen high levels of violent conflict yet conflict dynamics are little studied and understood. This analysis fills this gap and answers the following six questions, integrating analysis on age, gender and disability throughout:
1. What are the root causes of violence and insecurity? What are the key grievances held by different groups and how do they manifest in violent and non-violent ways?
2. What is the impact of violence and security on people (differentiated according to age, disability and gender)?
3. What are the gender dynamics around conflict and how do gender norms and realities drive violence and/ or peace?
4. What are the factors (including government, security force and community action) bringing people together and/ or promoting peace and stability?
5. Who are the key actors with influence, means and motivations to mobilise groups and resources into collective action for peace or for violence and what are links between them?
6. What are the potential trajectories, both positive and negative, around peace and security?

My analysis does its best to integrate analysis around age, gender and disability throughout. Indeed, some of the findings about the scale of sexual violence, the contribution of gender norms to driving conflict and violence, and the experiences of people with disabilities have not been really properly documented elsewhere.

You can read it here.

Gender Influences Risk of Dying From COVID-19

I wrote about how COVID19 affects women and men differently in Nigeria for The Daily Trust earlier this week.

COVID-19 has taken the world by storm. In months, it has crossed borders and brought economies to a near halt. Although most of humanity is affected, COVID-19 and related government measures are increasing existing inequalities when it comes to age, class, gender, disability, income, geography and other factors. The last few weeks have already shown us that women and men are impacted very differently in Nigeria.

We know people with pre-existing conditions (such as asthma and diabetes) and the elderly are more at risk if they contract COVID-19, as are people in conflict affected areas who may not have had proper nutrition and healthcare for a while, leaving them with weakened immune systems.

What has been under-reported is how health outcomes vary according to gender. Worldwide, more men than women have died of the disease. We do not yet know why this is the case. It could be due to sex-based immunological differences. Gendered differences in how women and men act, for example men being more likely to smoke or less likely to wash their hands, is another possible explanation. An alternative reason is men’s higher rates of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and lung disease, all of which we know increase risk.

Nigerian women’s and girls’ lack of access to healthcare has always been life-threatening. It is even more so now.

Whether you are diagnosed, properly treated and recover also depends on gender. Accessing good quality healthcare is difficult for almost everyone in the country but women and girls particularly struggle. They are less able to afford hospital bills. Particularly in northern Nigeria, husbands may prevent them from going to clinics, especially if there are only male health workers there. They are also more likely to have disabilities, which also makes going to clinics difficult.

Moreover, although everyone is talking about COVID-19 at the moment, Nigerians continue to get sick for other reasons. Despite being ill, many people are scared to go to hospital for fear of infection. Focus on COVID-19 is also resources from other areas, for example access to family planning, ending maternal mortality or immunising children. This is dangerous. In Sierra Leone, more women died of obstetric complications than Ebola and rates of maternal mortality increased by 70 percent during the outbreak.

Government restrictions economically impact women more.

Everyone’s jobs and incomes are affected. People cannot go to work. Even in states not under lockdown, restriction on inter-state travel has affected trade and markets. Street children risk being stigmatised and criminalised and have more difficulties in finding food, water, and shelter.

Even before the pandemic, women in Nigeria earned less than men. They were more likely to live in poverty. They were less able to get credit and build up savings that could take them through times of economic hardship. Most people working in the informal sector in Nigeria are women. In states with movement restrictions, their livelihoods are on hold as they can no longer sell in markets or by the roadside. In the formal sector, women are more likely to be in precarious positions and may be the first to lose jobs or not paid if their companies are affected. Lack of livelihoods may force women and girls to engage in sex work in return for money, food or shelter or to eat food last and least – ways of coping already seen in parts of Nigeria with high levels of food insecurity such as Borno and Zamfara.

Restrictions have also increased women’s care work. As more people are at home and given gender roles, assign housework to women and girls, their tasks have increased. To follow government advice on hygiene and handwashing, women and girls will need to spend more time finding clean water, a burden that often falls on them. School closures have led children to stay at home, further adding to women’s burdens. Women also provide care to family members who fall sick – either of COVID-19 or other illnesses that are untreated as people fear going to health clinics.

Women and girls are trapped in increasingly violent situations – with no end in sight.

All over the world, government restrictions have led to increased violence against women and girls. In China, police reports of domestic violence tripled during the lockdown. In the UK, at least 16 women were killed by men in the first three weeks of the lockdown. Less than 36 hours after the start of the lockdown, the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team had already received more calls to its telephone hotline, requiring them to start two new telephone lines to cope with this increase.

As families spend all their time together in a context of fear and economic stress, arguments have increased. Men are engaging in new, more frequent and more violent abuse against wives, girlfriends and children. Women and children are trapped, with no respite through time away from the house and less access to family, friends and colleagues who could support them.

Services that support survivors of violence, already underfunded before COVID-19, are struggling to cope with this increased demand, particularly given lockdown conditions. Those who work for them are not automatically exempted from movement restrictions, so find it difficult to reach those experiencing violence. They also face difficulties knowing where to house them given physical distancing measures in place to prevent spread of infection.

The impact on women is stark but women and gender analyses are missing from the decision table.

Despite all of this, women remain excluded from COVID-19 decision making. It is not yet clear why countries with women leaders, from Bolivia and Namibia to Nepal and Taiwan, are doing better than their neighbours at limiting the spread of infection but there is a wealth of evidence that shows having a balance of women and men in leadership leads to more effective governance.

To date, government healthcare, economic and other measures do not take the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls seriously. As the numbers of confirmed cases continue to increase and COVID-19 spreads across the country, this needs to change.


Podcast: What’s Changed for Women in Lake Chad Region

I was recently interviewed by Lauren Herzer Risi of the Wilson Center on gender dynamics in the Lake Chad region.

“Women and men face very different risks and challenges,” said Chitra Nagarajan, a writer and journalist who covers climate change, conflict, and gender. She spoke in this week’s podcast about what’s changed in the Lake Chad region. In the last few years the combination of profound climate change and high levels of insecurity have made life harder for the local population. To get a sense of how recent changes have affected Lake Chad’s residents, Nagarajan interviewed more than 250 people. These are some of her findings.

“It’s very clear and we know this from other contexts as well,” she said, “that the people who face the most risk and who have been affected the most are those who were already vulnerable and marginalized beforehand or people who acquired vulnerabilities.” As a result, the conflict has impacted men and women differently. Men are much more likely to be viewed with suspicion by all parties to the conflict, more likely to be in detention, more likely to experience extrajudicial killing, and more likely to be recruited by force. Women, on the other hand, face high levels of gender-based violence like sexual abuse and exploitation, forced sex work, increased early marriage, and domestic violence.

You can read the rest of article and listen to the episode here.


Shoring Up Stability: Addressing Climate and Fragility Risks in the Lake Chad Region

I’ve been working with adelphi on uncovering the links between changing climate and security in the Lake Chad region since October 2017. We launched the report in mid May and it’s great to be able to share it now.

Since 2009, the parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon bordering Lake Chad—which are home to more than 17.4 million people—have been locked into multiple and overlapping crises. Climate change is having profound adverse impacts on the conflict, intensifying existing dynamics and creating new risks. Communities in this region are thus vulnerable to both the impacts of climate change and the ongoing conflict. If the region is to break free of the conflict trap, we must tackle the impacts of climate change as part of peacebuilding efforts. Communities are vulnerable to both the rising impacts of climate change and the ongoing conflict. This creates its own feedback loop: violence undercuts communities’ capacity to adapt to climate change, but climate change undermines efforts to escape the conflict trap. While the situation varies significantly between and within countries, we identify four key climate-conflict risks.

1. Climate and conflict dynamics undermine livelihoods

2. Increased competition for natural resources

3. Recruitment into armed opposition groups

4. Heavy-handed military response

Have less than a minute but want to know more? Read this comic strip to find out Mohamed’s story.
Have just over 3 minutes? Watch this video.
If that’s whetted your appetite, you can find the full report and its executive summary here.

Apathy reigns supreme in Nigeria’s fledgling democracy

My latest, published last week, in the New Internationalist on Nigeria’s elections.

After a one-week delay, it finally happened. Despite murmurings of further postponements, Nigeria’s presidential and national assembly elections were held on Saturday 23 February with one of the worst turnouts in the country’s history. The results were announced in the early hours of this morning.

The winner? Seventy-six-year-old incumbent Muhammadu Buhari of the All People’s Congress remains President, elected by a healthy margin of almost four million votes or 57.4 per cent of votes cast. His party also swept the national legislative elections, winning 47 Senate and 75 House of Representatives seats out of a total 73 and 105 seats up for election.

Within hours, his main opponent Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party rejected the result, alleging widespread electoral malpractice.

Buhari had previously served as Nigeria’s head of state, taking power in a December 1983 military coup before being overthrown himself by another coup in August 1985.

After running for the presidency in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections, he succeeded in the fourth attempt and was swept into power by a margin of over 2.5 million votes.

His campaign spurred a tide of confidence that Buhari could bring back peace and security, address corruption and create jobs and economic prospects. The 2015 elections were the first time power had changed hands non-violently since Nigeria’s transition to democracy in 1999.

But this initial optimism waned considerably over Buhari’s four-year term, months of which he spent abroad seeking medical treatment. While the Nigerian military made considerable gains in recovering territory from armed opposition groups in the country’s northeast, attacks and violence continue until the present day.

Since late last December, fighters have been launching a number of attacks on military bases, seizing weaponry and medical supplies which has led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people to neighbouring towns, state capitals and even across international borders in Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

The convoy of Kashim Shettima, one of Nigeria’s state governors, was attacked two weeks ago as he was on his way back from an election rally. As many as 100 people are estimated to have died and between 100 and 200 people taken captive.

Hours before polls were due to open, blasts and gunfire were heard in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Hundreds of people fled Geidam, another town in northeast Nigeria, after a reported attack.

Buhari’s first term also saw insecurity across the country due to rural banditry and inter-communal violence between farmers and pastoralists. There were also protests calling for an independent Biafra and violence against the Shi’a Islamic Movement of Nigeria, with unarmed protesters being shot by soldiers in the nation’s capital Abuja. The presidency set up a commission to investigate military human rights violations but its report has yet to be made publicly available.

Buhari’s administration made some progress in ensuring a social safety net for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. He also focused on fighting corruption with high-profile investigations and systems put in to place to encourage whistle blowers. Yet his critics noted that key allies suspected of corruption remained unpunished.

But, fundamentally, Buhari has not been able to live up to the high expectations his election campaign stirred. As a result, this time around, hopes were dimmer than in 2015.

This change was reflected in voter turnout. While numbers of those registered to vote rose from 67 million in 2015 to 84 million voters in 2019, turnout dropped from 44 per cent to 35.6 per cent. Many of those who had travelled home to vote last weekend were unable to do so again given the last-minute postponement of elections.US election observers said this delay had probably reduced turnout.

But turnout, along with trust in the political system, has been steadily declining from nearly 70 per cent since 2003.

Across the country, elections this weekend were marred by reports of vote buying, intimidation, failures of card readers which accredit voters and late opening of many polling stations – all leading to voting continuing on Sunday. Civil society monitors reported that more than 260 people had been killed since the start of campaigning in October, with 47 people killed during and after voting this weekend.

Against this backdrop came runner-up Atiku’s response to the results. Before voting had even taken place, he was widely expected to challenge any declaration of Buhari’s victory.

Producing documentary evidence, he alleged that ‘there were manifest and premeditated malpractices in many states, which negate the results announced’. He claimed suppressed and disrupted voting in his strongholds and announced his intention to challenge the results in court.

Any such challenge brings into relief a decision made by President Buhari weeks before the elections. He suspended Chief Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, the head of the judiciary, less than 24 hours before he was to swear in members of election tribunals.

Of course, Atiku himself is hardly a beacon of hope. A former vice president from 1999 to 2007, this election was his fourth time running for the presidency. His candidacy has been marred by accusations of financial impropriety and widespread corruption.

Although these charges have never been tried in court, and Atiku rejects them as being politically motivated, many voters remember allegations from his previous time in office of diversion of public funds into personal business interests and bank accounts.

These memories were reinforced during the campaign when he stated he would enrich his friends if elected and committed to privatizing the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, an easy way of gaining personal income by selling off a national asset in an oil-reliant economy.

Faced with unenviable choices in this election, it is not surprising many Nigerians chose to stay at home.

Politicians who switch parties for personal gain and run campaigns based on slogans rather than credible political platforms make it difficult to vote on the basis of anything other than personality, ethnic, religious or regional loyalties.

But, the process of democratic consolidation is not smooth and only 20 years in, Nigeria is still a fledgling democracy.

Nigerian hopes for democracy on hold

My latest, published on Monday, for the New Internationalist on the postponement of Nigeria’s elections.

In an alternate world, we would now be waiting for results to start coming in. Nigerians should have voted in national elections on Saturday and we should be seeing, 20 years since the transition from military dictatorship, a further consolidation of Nigeria’s democracy. Yet, elections were rescheduled just five hours before polls were set to open. Around 8pm on Friday night, the first indications appeared that all was not well. Nigerian newspapers reported that Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the agency in charge of running elections, was meeting. The agenda? To see if all necessary preparations were in place for voting to open at 8am or if a postponement would be needed.

Many Nigerians went to sleep not knowing if elections would take place the following day. Others stayed awake until the early hours of the morning waiting for INEC to make an announcement. In the end, INEC made its statement at 2.45am. Voting would now take place on 23rd February for the Presidential and National Assembly elections and 9th March for the elections to elect state Governors and Houses of Assembly members, a week later than originally planned. Some people only found out about these changes in the morning when waiting for polling stations to open.

We have been here before. The last two elections were rescheduled. In 2011, INEC, while voting was actually underway, announced that elections would be stopped due to unavailability of election materials. The most recent elections in 2015 were postponed by six weeks, this time six days beforehand. The official reason given was that security agencies needed extra time to make progress in the fight against Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati wal Jihad (JAS), also known as Boko Haram, to enable the security required for elections to proceed. However, many Nigerians believed the government, fearing they would lose, were buying more time to do the work required to win elections. Nonetheless, the presidency passed from incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party, the party which had ruled Nigeria since its transition to democracy in 1999, to Muhammadu Buhari of the All People’s Congress.

As the first time power had changed hands non-violently, the 2015 elections were rightly lauded as another milestone in Nigeria’s democratization. Nigerians were hoping the 2019 elections would prove another stepping stone paving the way for improved governance. So far, these hopes have yet to be fulfilled. Alarm bells started ringing weeks beforehand with the suspension of the head of Nigeria’s judiciary by President Buhari. The official reason provided was Chief Justice Onnoghen’s failure to declare his assets but, according to Nigeria’s constitution, the President lacks the power to remove the Chief Justice. Besides, the timing raised suspicions of political motivations as the suspension came less than 24 hours before Judge Onnoghen was to swear in members of election tribunals who would rule in post elections court cases.

Recent weeks have also seen a number of attacks by armed opposition groups and increasing insecurity in the northeast. At least 60,000 people have had to flee from their homes as a result of violence. There are reports that those with permanent voters’ cards allowing them to vote get preferential treatment in IDP camps and settlements. While voting is important, what matters to those displaced is that access to shelter, water, food and security is not forthcoming. There have been two protests in the last two weeks by those displaced due to recent violence, complaining of not receiving any food. They say politicians care more about winning elections than actually doing their job and providing for the people of Nigeria.

Then came the date change. It is undoubtedly better to reschedule an election than to have one take place that is badly run and leads to uncertainty, chaos, court challenges and repeated elections. All indications show that logistical arrangements necessary for voting had actually not taken place. In some states, elections materials were far away from polling stations and volunteers from the National Youth Service Corps who run elections had yet to be deployed. But, given Nigeria has elections every four years and dates were confirmed months in advance, why had we come to this stage at all? Indeed, INEC had insisted in the months, weeks and even days beforehand that it was ready and elections would continue as scheduled.

Many Nigerians feel this last-minute change showed a lack of respect for voters. Those who had planned weddings, funerals and other events on the new dates will have to reschedule with very little notice. Schools, universities and businesses which had already declared two or three days of holidays due to elections will have to do so again. Elections in Nigeria also mean movement of people. Some people, learning from past experience, move from areas where tensions are high to escape potential election related violence. Others move to their towns and villages where they are registered to vote, traveling long distances, taking time off work and putting their businesses on hold to do so. If they want to vote, they will have to either return home and travel back for the new dates or extend their stay at locations near their polling stations, incurring costs in terms of travel or work missed. Alternatively, they may choose not to vote at all, with even lower voter turnout than usual (only 33.53 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2015 presidential election) impacting the elections’ legitimacy.

Trust in democratic institutions is severely dented by how elections and governance play out. Over the past twenty years of Nigeria’s democracy, people have been complaining they see politicians only during electoral campaigning with electoral promises made not coming to fruition once they are elected. Indeed, for many youth gangs, getting money from politicians in the run-up to elections is described as the ‘dividend of democracy.’ If things continue in the same vein over the next 20 years, we risk ever further violence, alienation and frustration among Nigerians. While 20 years of democracy in Nigeria is a landmark, for this to be meaningful for Nigeria’s people, democracy needs to be about more than the check box exercise of holding elections.

Culture/ Religion/ Tradition vs Modern/ Secular/ Foreign: Implications for Women’s Rights in Nigeria

The latest issue of Feminist Dissent, on challenging religious vs secular binaries to promote women’s equality is out! It has beautiful artwork, poetry, fiction and, of course, articles on Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan, Tunisia…. and one by me on Nigeria.

This is the abstract:

This article examines the binary of culture/religion/tradition and modern/secular/foreign and its impact on women’s human rights struggles in particular in northern Nigeria. This binary is commonly perpetuated by state and non-state actors, including politicians, community leaders and religious leaders, who weaponise culture, religion and tradition to resist the struggle for gender equality. It highlights how progress around some concerns, such as rape of young girls, has occurred concurrently with attacks on other rights, particularly sexual and reproductive rights including abortion and sex outside marriage, and of those with non- normative sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions. This hardening of attitudes and narrowing of what is seen as permissible not only obscures the diversity of how people lived and thought in the past but is also far from the reality of how people live their lives presently. It further reflects the increased influence of religious fundamentalism and conservatism in northern Nigeria.

You can download and read the article here and the whole of the excellent issue here.