COVID-19: Social distancing and the plight of women in rural areas

Religion and culture make it impossible for some of us to say ‘no’ to our husbands – say Nigerian women

By Ebere Agozie

As the world grapples with how to prevent and cure the #covid-19 outbreak #social distancing has become a buzzword in everyone’s mouth.

Incidentally, many of the recommendations given by health experts as to the required distance between people have of course to do with what makes life pleasurable.

According to Wikipedia, Social distancing, or physical distancing is a set of non-pharmaceutical interventions or measures taken to prevent the spread of a contagious disease by maintaining physical distances between people and reducing the number of times people come into close contact with each other.

Also, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) it involves keeping a distance of three feet (one meter) from others and avoiding gathering in large groups.

 Maintaining at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and others. Why? When someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus.

If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person has the disease.

Avoid going to crowded places. Why? Where people come together in crowds, you are more likely to come into close contact with someone that has COIVD-19 and it is more difficult to maintain physical distance of 1 metre (3 feet).

Going by the above definition, one wonders how women will be able to stick to these recommendations by health experts, considering the roles they play in the society.

In Nigeria where there are basically no institutions that take care of the elderly and children with special needs, the challenge of taking care of them is dumped on the door step of women.

Women as care givers do not only take care of the young children at home, feed and bathe them. They equally take care of their husbands and their aged ones.

Even as the typical belief or culture of a Nigerian woman revolves around domestic chores, some of these women are also the breadwinners of their homes and so must go out to work to put food on the table.

They go out and are exposed and come back to give care.

For instance, no matter how incongruous it may sound, one cannot but wonder how a nursing mother can keep distance from her suckling child without the attendant psychological trauma that follows every woman separated from her child.

Social distancing cannot also be observed by rural women because of lack of information or knowledge about the dangers of contracting the deadly virus.

From my findings, even when the information is passed across to the them, social distancing can never be completely observed since they basically live in slums and a family of seven could share one room.

Social distancing is literally impossible for people living in small apartments. For some of them the one room could also serve as bedroom, living room, kitchen and store.

It is therefore unimaginable that social distancing could be practiced here.

 What about women who are stuck with the men who think that the coronavirus is a scam by their respective governments to squander public funds, or that the #COVID-19 is a kind of third world war, narrowing it down to the fight for supremacy between the United States of America and China?

These men will always demand for sex from their women, even when they are sick, and of course there are also the factors of culture and religion.

Sometimes culture and religion give them no chance of objecting and they are therefore forced to succumb to their husband’s advances, which sometimes come in the form of commands.

While the #social distancing is part of prescribed ways of curbing the spread of #COVID-19, it is nonetheless going to be very difficult for some women trying to go about their lives to stay healthy while still carrying the burden of the people around them.

Most of the women interviewed lamented that their religions and culture have put much burden on them as women.

This has caused many of them to cast around for excuses on the back of (forced) indoctrination, almost amounting to brainwashing.

Some believe that eating of spicy African foods will prevent, and even cure, the virus.

For some, it is a big man’s sickness and for those who eat the oyibo (foreign) kinds of food.

They all believe that women’s immune systems are made strong by God, and that that is why more men get the virus than women.

Hajia Fatima Muhammad, a Civil Servant jokingly asked, ‘how can I observe social distancing when my husband will not keep away from me?’

Her religious, turned cultural belief practice, made her believe that women are not supposed to have a say of their own.

“My husband has three wives, he goes out, all the wives go out too to do our different businesses and come back home to have bodily contact with our husband.

“If he gets infected either through any of the wives or even from his contacts outside and still wants to sleep with me, what do I do since I cannot say ‘no’ to him”?

When asked why she would not deny her husband sex until after the pandemic is over, she said: “My religion and culture forbids that’’.

Mfon Effiong, a business woman angrily responded, “Abeg leave that big man sickness, I am a nursing mother, how do I breastfeed my baby?

“I heard more men are infected than women, and more women survive than men even though we still sleep with them and bodily fluids are exchanged in the process.

“Besides God has seen all the loads we carry as women and has thus given us strong systems. I will not be infected in Jesus name,’’ she declared.

From the foregoing, it is clear that the impracticability of social distancing in Nigeria, and indeed other African settings, is a quandary to most African societies.

There is no easy way out of this predicament and the real or perceived inequality in the society does not help matters, either.

The less privileged members of the public still believe that the government has always left them with the short end of the stick.

They therefore see the current pandemic which they still see as the ‘big man’s disease as divine punishment for their perceived oppressors.

It is therefore clear that the government organs responsible for public education, have their work cut out for them.

More than anything else, there is an urgent need for a much more aggressive grassroots education to let them know that it is not about the government but about their health, and that of everyone around them.

The way it is right now, we have barely scratched the surface.

It is that dire.


So dire indeed that Nigerians, especially the women, would do well to heed the advice of the relevant health authorities.

The WHO has pointers on what to do if symptoms develop.

If you have minor symptoms, such as a slight cough or a mild fever, there is generally no need to seek medical care. Stay at home, self-isolate and monitor your symptoms. Follow national guidance on self-isolation.

If you live in an area with malaria or dengue fever do not ignore symptoms of fever. Seek medical help.  When you attend the health facility wear a mask if possible. If it is a child who is ill, ensure the child adheres to this advice.

Seek immediate medical care if you have difficulty breathing or pain/pressure in the chest.

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) equally has some advice for breastfeeding women who have coronavirus infection, summarized as follows:

You, along with your family and healthcare providers, should decide whether, and how to start or continue breastfeeding.

It said that limited studies, COVID-19 has not been detected in breast milk; however, it is not known for sure whether mothers with COVID-19 can spread the virus via breast milk.

If you are suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 infection and choose to breastfeed, maintain strict hygiene and wash your hands before each feed and wear a facemask.

Another good option is to pump or express by hand the breastmilk and have someone who is not sick feed it to the baby. If you pump or hand-express your milk, make sure you wash your hands.

It should be noted that not everything we read about COVID-19 is true. It said that reliable information can always be sourced from the Ministry of Health, or the NCDC.

Be aware that media speculation is rife about COVID-19 and not everything you read in the newspapers or online or hear is accurate or verified.

NCDC, therefore, reiterated that release of trusted and accurate information will always be released by the Ministry of Health or Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.

You can find the latest information and advice by contacting NCDC on: • NCDC Toll-free Number: 0800-9700 0010 • Website for additional resources: https://covid19.ncdc.gov.ng/guidelines.php• Twitter and Facebook:@NCDCgov

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