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COVID-19: Economic woes of women in Port Harcourt

Mrs. Inyang

Like many other women who live in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, for 65-year-old Mrs. Christiana Inyang, a petty trader, life has not been easy since she lost her husband in 2010.

Although she was evicted from her former residence soon after his death, she was able to fend for herself and their three children until Coronavirus struck. 

Since the outbreak of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, prices of food have increased astronomically, forcing her to use her capital to sustain her family. During the citywide lockdown, which lasted about two months, Mrs. Inyang drained her business capital and now, she is in distress.

When The Guardian probed further, she explained: “Since this COVID-19, I don’t have anything; we have been thrown out of our house at NPA, Port Harcourt. We have been walking from door to door, asking for help and no one helped us. Even the state government palliative, we did not receive.”

Presently, Mrs. Inyang lives in a makeshift house in Rupoku/Igwurita axis of the state and the lockdown has certainly added extra strain to a life already struggling for survival.

After the state government eased the lockdown on May 26, the Inyang family went without food for days. Desperate to feed her children and with no help forthcoming, her only option was rummaging for plastic beverage bottles from the streets.

She bemoaned: “One day, we became very hungry, so I went out and started picking plastic bottles and sometimes, I buy. When I sell them, I get between N300 and N500. Though it is not enough for food, we are managing to eat at least once or twice daily.

“I am willing and ready to do any work so that my children and I can eat.”

Undoubtedly, women have been worse hit by the pandemic. With their future looking increasingly uncertain, many of them are frustrated and mentally and emotionally depressed, especially as they tackle the growing demands from their children and husbands. These pressures have resulted in some women behaving in absurd and unusual ways.

Several incidents showed how frantic mothers have become to meet the growing needs of their families. During the lockdown in March, four women died when the boat they were traveling in capsised as they attempted to ferry foodstuffs from Bayelsa to Rivers states. 

In a community in Emuhua Council of Rivers State, one woman reportedly stole a bunch of plantains to feed her children. Just recently, a single mother, Folashade Bello, allegedly committed suicide in Port Harcourt after her cry-for-help post on Facebook was ignored. Two days after the post, she reportedly consumed some harmful liquids and died. Her friends claimed she died as a result of depression.

“Our children are starving, we have no other source of income. We need government’s assistance to revive our economic life,” cried some other women interviewed by The Guardian.

These women, who teach in private schools, but are now groundnut sellers, small-scale farmers, small shop owners and market women, said the pandemic has impeded their incomes for over five months.

Sadly, during the period, the state government’s task force destroyed the wares of some women who defied the lockdown order to seek daily bread for their families. With the situation still unfolding, their precarious situations have adversely affected their health.

A visit to the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH) and Rivers State University Teaching Hospital revealed increased cases of high blood pressure, especially among women.

A consultant Obstetrician and Gynecologist, Dr. Eli Sukarime, explained food gives energy and lack of food causes dizziness and also leads to fainting, adding: “If there is no resuscitation at the level of fainting, it can lead to death. 

“Lack of food reduces the level of blood because food helps in blood building. Shortage of blood leads to weakness and exposes one to various disease.”

While the state government had given out palliatives to residents to cushion the impact of COVID-19, the assistance did not consider the plight of women, just as some palliatives distributed were paltry and only sustained recipients for a few days.   

Many households have been impoverished by the pandemic. Given that women are said to bear the brunt of families’ responsibilities, it is imperative for the government to extend some form of social assistance to this vulnerable group. 

(This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Centre (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check Project)

Women and Entrepreneurship advocate, Mercy Bello Abu, said the COVID-19 affected women more profoundly in so many aspects, which could lead to depression, noting that in African societies, women are burden bearers who produce and process food for the family, while their income and labour is channeled towards children’s education, health and well-being. 

She said the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the Nigerian system in protecting women and the girl-child, saying the country’s infrastructure is weak and this affects the mental health of women.

While urging the government to adopt a new empowerment strategy, Abu said: “Presently, there are several intervention funds for SMEs and more are geared towards women-owned businesses, but unfortunately, a lot of women are not accessing these funds due to lack of information.”

She suggested the government increase in its engagement campaigns to achieve the objectives of loans and grants so that women already overburdened by the current situation would have more opportunities to carry out their businesses with ease. 

Abu concluded that helping women increase their income would empower them to combat poverty, achieve independence and improve their mental health.  

Gender activist, Constance Meju, pointed out that most other countries that asked their citizens to stay at home provided sufficient palliatives and stipends for them, but lamented that that was not the case in the country.

She stated that some residents only got some cups of rice and packs of noodles, which lasted a few days, noting: “It is good that the state government got some refund from the federal government, but it is also good to say, ‘let’s use some of this money to fill some gaps the COVID-19 has caused.’

“Women need food and soft loans they can easily access to start life again. There is also a need to improve healthcare services.”

For Martha Agboni, the challenges faced by women during the pandemic is very alarming. “Most women are subsistent earners and the total lockdown, which no one prepared for, hit them hard. There are a lot of women heading households and due to the heavy burden, they can no longer take care of their health and families, so the government needs to consider gender-based palliatives for them, bring them into cooperatives and raise soft loans to enable them to go back to their businesses.”

Victory Olulu, a community leader, described the present condition of women as very pathetic, urging special palliatives for them.

Efforts to get the position of the state Ministry of Women Affairs, proved abortive, as a commissioner had not been appointed to oversee the ministry yet, while the permanent secretary retired recently.

However, a source in a sister ministry, who spoke anonymously, said the state government plans to revive the economic life of the people, post-COVID-19, adding: “You know the pandemic was an emergency; nobody planned for it. That was why the lockdown was lifted to ease the economic challenges occasioned by the pandemic.

“But no matter the number of palliatives given to the people, it will not be sufficient. The state government is mindful of the post-COVID-19 era. There are plans to assist small-scale businesses to resuscitate, but some of these plans are not even in the budget; they are emergencies government deemed necessary because it is concerned.”

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