Solidarity and Power: Impact of Covid-19 Pandemic on Women’s Groups in Northern Nigeria

This blog was originally published on the website of Evidence Consortium on Women’s Groups (ECWG), here.

Since March 2020, Nigeria has been under a COVID-19 lockdown. There have been travel restrictions between states and Local Government Areas (LGAs), stay-at-home orders, bans on large gatherings, and limits on economic and market activities. Schools, offices, banks, and other services were closed down; residents can only restock on food and necessities on specific days of the week. Currently, Nigeria has a growing number of confirmed cases in (22,614 at date of posting).

As the number of cases grew in the states where Women for Women International operates its women’s group programming, poverty has worsened, but women group members have also shown remarkable resilience in the face of the pandemic. While all group-based trainings paused to protect program participants and in line with restrictions, the Nigeria team deployed new approaches to continue to support women without in-person trainings. Staff made phone calls and conducted over-the-phone surveys to understand the effect of the pandemic on women across Plateau, Bauchi, and Kaduna States. They found women participants – who live at the intersection of poverty, conflict, and gender discrimination – pushed into even more economic difficulty and longing for the friendships they enjoyed during in-person trainings; but they also found women demonstrating solidarity with one another to survive the pandemic and leadership to protect their communities.

Investing in Women’s Power and Connections

Women for Women International invests in women in conflict-affected settings through a gendered graduation approach. In group-based trainings, women build knowledge, skills, and resources in four key domains – health and wellbeing, economic stability, family decision making, and social safety nets. Women for Women International started working in Nigeria in 2000 supporting ultra-poor and socially excluded women in Enugu State (2000-2016), and currently works in Plateau, Bauchi and Kaduna States. 

During the twelve-month program, women learn to form and join Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) and Cooperatives; these are financial inclusion vehicles that enable women to save more and access credit to grow their businesses and create social support structures which foster resilience and solidarity. Some program graduates go on to become Change Agents: they receive an additional seven days of training and a year of follow-up and support to strengthen their leadership and advocacy skills to identify issues in their communities and initiate plans to resolve them. Additionally, men are trained as allies through the Men’s Engagement Program to address discriminatory norms and practices and enhance opportunities for women within communities.

Trainers provided information about COVID-19 and the preventive measures to their trainees before trainings paused. Without in-person trainings, staff pivoted to provide cash support through bank transfers as a measure of interim support and used phone calls to provide program participants with information related to COVID-19 and to understand how the pandemic affects women.

Economic Impact Forces Women to Make Tough Choices

To better understand the reality of women during the lockdown, staff reached out to 562 women and 160 men through direct individual contact and via group leaders in VSLAs and Cooperatives, leveraging social networks and group structures to learn about members. Overwhelmingly, 75.6% of women reported reduced income while 23.7% no longer earn income to the detriment of their wellbeing and that of their families:

“Patronage kept decreasing as most customers buy on credit. My business died gradually since we feed from the little proceeds, and there was no money to sustain it,” said Dinatu from Bauchi State.

Food insecurity is yet another challenge as women – many already living in extreme poverty - strive to fight off starvation. 30% of women reported not having enough to eat and 64% sometimes have enough to eat.

Mary from Bauchi State said, “There is food scarcity and a hike in prices in the community. We struggle to eat twice a day, then drink lots of water to give us a feeling of being full. It is tough!”

Halima from Plateau State community shared, “There were times when I had to sleep without food just to ensure that my children eat. Food condiments, detergents and vaseline are a luxury we cannot afford.”

Women’s dwindling income has weakened their ability to save and the effectiveness of group activities, such as VSLAs. Abigail, a VSLA member from Plateau State, shared, “We could no longer earn and save money in the group as our attention shifted to meeting family needs. The little savings made by members were left in the VSLA box since members no longer desired loans as there was no business to invest in, and those who accessed loans could not repay.”

Women’s Solidarity and Safety Threatened

Women expressed missing the solidarity of group training sessions. Halima from Bauchi State said, “The unity that exists between me and my sisters is strong. Our similar backgrounds and experiences serve as an encouragement to me, which is why I am eager for our training to resume. I miss the warmth, support, and love we share. Their advice helped salvage my marriage.” Women also shared missing the interactive sessions in class and the opportunities to learn from and encourage each other.

Gender-based violence has increased around the country during this period. In one instance, a program graduate in Plateau State faced an abusive husband and her marriage worsened with the lockdown. She decided to enforce her fundamental rights by moving out of her matrimonial home and seeking legal action against her spouse, using information she gained from trainings on legal rights during the Women for Women International program. Importantly, staff have noted that situations such as this have been rare amongst program participants, with few reported cases of increased violence. It is possible that participation in women’s groups and training activities has contributed to the limited gender-based violence among group members (but this is difficult to say without a control or comparison group).

Women Seize Opportunities to Expand Leadership and Improve Communities 

Select graduates of the twelve-month program are identified for community advocacy roles and trained on leadership and effective communication. They become Change Agents who champion the ability of women to address the cultural and social norms that prevent them from attaining their potential and become leaders who influence change in their communities.

Change Agents in Nigeria during COVID-19
Change Agents in Nigeria

Prior to the lockdown, Change Agents carried out community education activities on COVID-19, sharing recommendations on preventive behaviors such as physical distancing, handwashing and use of face masks, while dispelling misinformation. In recognition of their efforts, the Pankshin Local Government Chairman appointed one of the group leaders to the council’s COVID-19 awareness creation committee. Another group of Change Agents in Bauchi State successfully advocated for a second borehole in their community, recognizing the need for clean water access, securing a promise from the community head to expedite action on their request.

Women’s Solidarity and Collective Power to Support Themselves, Families and Communities

Harsh economic realities have forced women to use up their savings and spend business capital and proceeds on their families. Regardless of the uncertainties and difficulties of lockdown, group members demonstrated a strong sense of solidarity and sisterhood that thrives on giving and sharing. Peace from Plateau State said, “I shared the tomatoes I harvested with five other families whose tomato farms were infested. The teaching on solidarity was very useful!”

This support extended beyond sharing with other program participants as stated by Deborah, Plateau State, “I gave some grains to three elderly women in my community because they had challenges feeding their families.” A group from Kaduna State also stepped up to provide food and grains to five widows in their community, using cash support received through the program.

In one circumstance, Zainab, a cooperative member in Bauchi State, was juggling severe financial challenges, a sick child, and constant arguments with her husband. Desperate to raise money for her child’s treatment and the incessant quarrels with her spouse over money, she moved out of her matrimonial home to her parents’ house. The members of the cooperative group rallied to provide her financial support, assist in settling the conflicts with her husband, and convinced her to return home. Zainab was reconciled with her family and her son received the required treatment.

Creative Solutions and Group-Based Support to Mitigate Economic Shocks

In this new restricted world, social and economic empowerment training, vocational training, and group structures have also offered a cushion of comfort to these women, their families, and communities.  

Some women devised different means to earn income: sewing face masks, farming, working as hired farmhands, and purchasing in-demand products to sell within their communities. Bauchi and Plateau States eased restrictions to allow farmers continue with their activities. Hasiya from Kaduna State proudly shared her ingenuity: “With markets closed and movement restricted, I make good sales as more people frequent my business. I restock by transferring money via banks to wholesalers who supply me with grains on lockdown-free days while I purchase other items from shops in town. My flourishing business makes it possible to support my family, group of sisters, and other women around me.”

Women also reported that participation in cooperatives helped mitigate some economic shocks. Some groups have taken up collective farm jobs, selling vegetables and grains, previously stored at home. One group sold off the chickens from their poultry farm and shared proceeds with members. These activities are undertaken to support members immediately and to generate savings from the proceeds for the future.

An Opportunity Borne of Lockdown: Improved Household Relationships

Though some households saw increased tensions between husbands and wives – and homes with increased risks of violence received attention and support – some households also showed unexpected positive outcomes. 73% of women surveyed confirmed positive impacts on their family relationships, while 22% reported negative impacts and 5% said family relationships had not changed.

Halima from Plateau State highlighted her experience: “The lockdown has helped to strengthen my relationship with my husband and children. My husband used to leave home very early in the morning and return late at night but now, we spend a lot of time together. He assists with house chores, bathes the children, washes their clothes, and sometimes holds the baby while I cook. We communicate better now and share our views about the pandemic, our challenges, and ways to improve our income. Sometimes there are tense moments, but these have been settled amicably as I learned to work on myself and talk respectfully to my husband.”

Male participants in our Men’s Engagement Program shared similar reflections.

Looking Ahead

From the interviews, a strong pattern emerged: while women in northern Nigeria yearn for the basic needs of life – food, clothing, safety, and shelter – they display compassion, unity, and strength in the face of severe challenges. As Halima from Plateau State said, “We don’t give because we have enough, but because we care enough.”

COVID-19 presented extreme challenges but has shown the critical importance of supporting and empowering women as a pathway to lift up their networks, families, and communities. When women realize their power, they use it to protect not just themselves but the people around them.

Acknowledgements: The authors thank all the women and men who shared their experiences and insights with the Women for Women International team. Secondly, we acknowledge contributions from the Program Team of Women for Women International-Nigeria and thank Thomas de Hoop and Chinmaya Holla from American Institutes for Research for their guidance and reviews.