Letter to PMB: COVID-19 and Women’s Leadership

BY: Tijani Salami –

SIR: Just a few weeks ago I read that your Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 would be replaced by a Presidential Steering Committee. It’s aim would remain the same – to oversee efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus and mitigate its impact. What was not addressed was the fact that this important leadership group contains 10 men and only two women.  Similar panels have been established in all Nigeria’s states and all are male-dominated. In Niger State, where I practice as a physician, the task force comprises 20 men and five women.

In Nigeria, as in countries all over the world, women have suffered serious economic and social impacts due to COVID-19. So why are they not playing a leadership role in recovery planning?  We know that in countries led by women, the response to COVID-19 has often been better, with fewer deaths.  As we look to the future, we will be doing a very poor job for women if their needs continue to be neglected.

Let’s start with violence and harassment. Nationally and globally it was widely reported that there was an increase in violence against women as well as more street harassment due to COVID restrictions. I saw this for myself when I treated a young woman who was sexually assaulted during the lockdown by two men who thought they would escape justice because no one was around to help her. National women’s advocacy and gender violence groups were inundated with increased reports of sexual and domestic violence, often because women who usually left their homes to work during the day were locked in with their abusers.

At work, women are also at greater risk. I know that in the health sector in Nigeria, most staff are female and it is estimated globally that  70% of health workers and first responders are women. They are therefore at increased risk of infection from COVID, and some have sadly lost their lives.

Lockdown has also meant that for women in Nigeria and around the world, their work at home has exploded. Homeschooling, limits on social contact and other restrictions have added a huge burden to mothers and caregivers everywhere.  Imagine how men would be reacting if their workload suddenly doubled? Around the world women are bearing the brunt of the social and economic fallout of COVID-19.  A recent report shows that the pandemic will push 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty and widen the poverty gap between women and men even further.