How COVID-19 has strengthened the role of women in the Niger Delta
he Nigerian federal and state governments’ restrictive measures to contain the spread of COVI-19, such as the implementation of a lockdown and promotion of social distancing, have reduced men’s ability to earn an income this year. On the contrary, women’s income has not been significantly affected. In many oil communities, the pandemic-induced economic hardship has therefore affected gendered roles, diminishing the socio-economic position of men as the primary providers of the family. My previous research on the environmental, socio-economic, political and cultural issues that intersect with extractive activities in the oil communities of the Niger Delta provides new insights into the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic might actually be strengthening the role of women in their communities in this region.
Gendered impacts of COVID-19
Many observers have highlighted the harms suffered by women as a result of the pandemic. Reports have cited spikes in domestic violence, the exposure of female health workers to risk of contagion, and mental health challenges. Rita Segato, for example, specifically cites the dramatic spike in gender-based violence following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa, Asia, Europe, the UK and elsewhere. In Nigeria, there have also been reports (see here, here, here and here) of a rising numbers of rapes of women and young girls.
"In the Niger Delta, women account for 90 percent of family food supply."
These discussions have focused on the negative impact of COVID-19 on women. While this is a reality for many women, such generalisations also fail to demonstrate how the roles of men and women prior to and amidst the health crisis can shape new gendered social relations.
Indeed, the impact of the health crisis on gendered social relations is not all negative, as is currently evident in the case of the oil communities in the Niger Delta.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in the rural oil communities, government responses to control the spread of the virus along with the recent collapse in the oil price have had a more dramatic effect on the economic activities of men than women.
Pre-pandemic gender relations within oil communities
In the Niger Delta region, women play a prominent role in the local economy and in the maintenance of the household, as they do across much of Africa.
n the Niger Delta, women comprise 60 to 80 percent of the agricultural labour force and account for 90 percent of family food supply. Here, they are responsible for farming food crops such as cassava, plantain, okra, pepper, and cocoyam. This resembles the distribution of labour across the rest of Africa as well, as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that 70 percent of Africa’s food is produced by women. In the Niger Delta, women are also the principal caregivers for the children and the aged. Many women take responsibility for the sustenance of their household from which their husbands are largely absent.
On the other hand, men’s sources of income in the Niger Delta are derived mostly from seasonal jobs with oil companies, from the carving of canoes, timber lumbering, and metal welding. Men are therefore the major beneficiaries of seasonal jobs with oil companies and pipeline surveillance contracts. Moreover, local men – either as elites or militant youths – are known to benefit from oil company and government patronage systems. This patronage system coupled with the adverse impact of oil pollution on farmlands and fishing waters have largely led to men’s aversion to farming.
In light of these roles in the Niger Delta, women have typically been excluded from decision-making processes in the region and lack access to the socio-economic and political resources enjoyed by men.
The socio-economic impacts of COVID-19
In line with global measures, the Nigerian government has restricted movement through the implementation of a lockdown and promotion of social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19. During the lockdown, government allowed for the trading of food items, which is categorised as an essential good, while non-essential goods and services were banned.
"42 percent of Nigerians - mostly men - lost their [oil sector] jobs due to COVID-19 between April and May."
As such, the lockdown affected men whose activities have mostly been focused on non-essential categories. In addition, the fall in global oil prices this year led to many job losses in the Niger Delta, particularly for contract staff. A report by the National Bureau of Statistics, for example, showed that 42 percent of Nigerians - mostly men - lost their jobs due to COVID-19 between April and May.
However, while men have lost their jobs, women in these oil communities have been able to continue their farming activities and trading. Moreover, because COVID-19 mitigation measures and the emerging global recession also disrupted the functioning of food supply chains, the role of women in supporting their families and communities against this food crisis has been elevated even further.
Women’s roles in local actions to cope with COVID-19
As food security has declined, local leaders have called on women to help out at the community level as well as the family level, putting women in new leadership roles. Insights generated from my research with local women in the Eyo Abasi community confirmed that they were consulted by local leaders to assist their communities with food harvested from their farms. Some of the local leaders reaffirmed the fact that women played a crucial role in providing support to their communities during this period.
For example, a local chief in Ellu community told me that local leaders have called on women to come to the aid of the people by providing food for the communities to survive. As such, in the oil communities, women’s roles as caregivers and their capacity to produce food from their farms to support their communities have made them important agents.
Moreover, men are also acknowledging the vital role women are playing in this regard. A local youth in Deken community told me there is a strong communal bond fostered through the contributions of women in local-led actions to mitigate the economic hardship cause by government’s COVID-19 pandemic-related responses. Women are now gaining more traction in the pandemic, as they are consulted as agents of community development.
People at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder live in a state of regular, systemic deprivation that renders them especially susceptible to harm from catastrophe. At the same time, such catastrophes do not always have to render these vulnerable groups worse off. While many observers have suggested that COVID-19 has been more devastating to women, there may be some positive outcomes for women and their community status in the long-term. As witnessed in the Niger Delta, it is women’s historical capacity to produce food that has created new opportunities for their involvement in local governance. This deserves recognition and support if women are to further their position as critical agents of community development during and after the pandemic.
The opinions expressed in these article(s) are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.