Nigeria: Situation and treatment of single women and of women who head their own households, including their ability to live on their own and access housing, income, education, health care, and support services, particularly in Port Harcourt, Abuja, Ibadan and Lagos; impact of COVID-19 (2019–October 2021) [NGA200797.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

1. Overview

In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a researcher at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, who has conducted research on female education and rights of widows in Nigeria, stated that female-headed households (FHH) without male or family support are a diverse group in Nigeria, and may include widows, women who are "divorced, separated [or] abandoned," "married women with a nonresident (polygynous or migrant) husband," as well as single women and mothers (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021).

According to the [most recent (Nigeria n.d.)] Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), conducted from August to December 2018 by the National Population Commission (NPC) of Nigeria and ICF, the organization responsible for the international Demographic Health Surveys (DHS) program [1] of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), 14.7 percent of rural households and 21.8 percent of urban households were headed by women (NPC of Nigeria and ICF Oct. 2019, 1, 32). A paper on the impacts of COVID-19 on gender equality in Nigeria and Ethiopia by Chie Aoyagi, an economist at the African Department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (Aoyagi July 2021), cites the 2018/2019 Nigeria General Household Survey (GHS) as stating that 76 percent of female survey respondents who self-reported as heads of households were widows (Aoyagi June 2021, 20–21).

The 2018 NDHS found that out of 10,678 women respondents aged between 15 and 49, 49 percent of women who are divorced, separated or widowed experienced physical violence, compared to 36 percent of never-married women and 28 percent of married women (NPC of Nigeria and ICF Oct. 2019, 428–429).

Sources state that widows "usually" lose "all family money, property, and assets" (World Bank 2019, 14) or "many widows reportedly become destitute" when their in-laws reclaim the deceased husband's property (Australia 3 Dec. 2020, para. 3.78).

A report on Nigeria by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicates that unmarried women "over a certain age" and divorced women face stigma (Netherlands Mar. 2021, Sec. 3.4.5). Similarly, an article in, an online news publication in Nigeria, states that unmarried women over 30 are treated like "leper[s]" ( 20 Mar. 2019).

The Dutch report cites a confidential source as indicating that single mothers are perceived as "socially undesirable," and their families and community are unwilling to support them; many single mothers experience poverty due to the lack of social security (Netherlands Mar. 2021, Sec. 3.4.5).

1.1 Impact of COVID-19

According to sources, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate economic impact on women in Nigeria (UN Apr. 2020, 2; Aoyagi July 2021).

The fifth round of the Nigeria COVID-19 National Longitudinal Phone Survey (NLPS) [2], conducted in September 2020 by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) with support from the World Bank, indicates that among respondents who were working before the start of the pandemic, women (13 percent) were almost twice as likely to have become "economically inactive" than men (7 percent) (Nigeria Sept. 2020, 1, 5). According to a report by the UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (UN Women), COVID-19 lockdown measures "tend to" increase women's domestic labour, leaving them with less opportunity to access income (UN Apr. 2020).

Aoyagi, who compared data from the 2018 Nigeria GHS with the first round of the Nigeria COVID-19 NLPS, states that FHHs were [on average 12–14 percent (Aoyagi July 2021)] less likely than male-headed households to continue educating their children during the pandemic (Aoyagi June 2021, 22, 31–32).

1.2 Ability to Relocate

According to the researcher, single women who relocate can face "stigmatization [or] labelling, insecurity, economic hardship, family problems, trauma, among [other issues]," therefore making it "very difficult" for them to "settle down successfully" (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021).

In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a professor at the University of Nigeria, whose research focuses on social conflict and political sociology of development, stated that resettlement for FHHs is "usually a big challenge these days" and that

resettlement success generally depends on the following factors:skill[s] of the woman concerned; social networks/connections; age of the woman (younger women are [better] able to resettle than older women who have spent years and time in a previous location); number of children (larger families are usually more challenging in terms of the demand for size of accommodation, schools for the children, availability of health facilities, etc.) among others. The field of employment is also a factor since those who are skilled workers in such sought-after areas as [information and communication technology], oil services, and perhaps banking may find it easier resettling since they may have more job opportunities or likelihood of finding jobs in the new location. (Professor 5 Nov. 2021)

The Professor also indicated that FHHs who are "self-employed or businesspeople with significant financial support" can relocate to a new city "[more] quick[ly] and more successfully than others" (Professor 5 Nov. 2021).

1.3 Housing

Sources indicate that single women renting accommodation face discrimination (Al Jazeera 2 June 2019; Stears Business 1 Feb. 2019).

According to a report on housing in Nigeria by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing who visited Nigeria in September 2019, the housing sector is in "complete crisis" (UN 3 Jan. 2020, para. 16). The same source cites an October 2018 estimate from the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria noting that Nigeria had a deficit of 22 million housing units (UN 3 Jan. 2020, 5). However, a July 2021 article by This Day, a Nigerian newspaper, reports that the Nigerian Minister of Works and Housing stated that there is "'no data to support'" that Nigeria has a housing deficit of 17 or 22 million, but that there is a housing problem in urban areas (This Day 20 July 2021). The UN Special Rapporteur report adds that there is no national housing action plan or strategy and indicates that "[e]ven if the unrealistic commitment to building 1 million housing units per year was fulfilled by the Government, with housing needs growing at the current rate it would take 55 years to tackle the housing deficit" (UN 3 Jan. 2020, para. 16–17).

The UN Special Rapporteur also received reports of HIV-positive women who were evicted and became homeless due to lack of access to shelters and other types of accommodations (UN 3 Jan. 2020, para. 61). The same source also indicates that female HIV-positive students who reported their diagnosis to the university's health services were evicted from university housing (UN 3 Jan. 2020, para. 61). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

1.3.1 Access to Property

Sources state that customary laws and practices for "certain" ethnic groups do not grant women equal rights in inheriting property (Freedom House 3 Mar. 2021, Sec. G2) or laws and customary practices in "some states" prevent women from owning property (World Bank 2019, 14). The World Bank report notes that in southeast Nigeria, the right of widows to own or use land "is not secured" and their property is "commonly" taken by relatives (World Bank 2019, 14).

1.4 Access to Employment

The Constitution of Nigeria provides the following:

15. …

(2) … national integration shall be actively encouraged, whilst discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties shall be prohibited.

17. …

(3) The State shall direct its policy towards ensuring that-

(c) the health, safety and welfare of all persons in employment are safeguarded and not endangered or abused;

42. (1) A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person:-

(a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject; or

(b) be accorded either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any such executive or administrative action, any privilege or advantage that is not accorded to citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions. (Nigeria 1999)

However, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) report on Nigeria indicates that the law does not prohibit gender-based discrimination in hiring (Australia 3 Dec. 2020, para. 3.76).

Sources indicate that women are the "majority" in the informal economy (Akpan 10 July 2020) or that women occupy "active and vital roles" in the informal economy, especially in agriculture, foodstuffs processing and selling goods at the market (Australia 3 Dec. 2020, para. 3.7.6). The Professor noted that women "may find it harder on average to access formal employment than men," and that women "may be pushed into informal labour involvements especially where they have neither relevant skills nor education" (Professor 5 Nov. 2021). The same source added that "vocational training opportunities for women in such areas as fashion designing; hair [styling]; baking; production of soaps and detergents, etc. exist, but those interested usually would have to pay for the training" (Professor 5 Nov. 2021).

The UN Women report notes that COVID-19 restrictions negatively impacted the "livelihoods and economic security" of women working in the informal sector (UN Apr. 2020, 2). A blog post by Uduak Akpan, a doctoral researcher of development economics at SOAS University of London, published on the SOAS website, indicates that COVID-19 restrictions that shut down markets "significantly" affected women, who "usually dominat[e]" this informal sector (Akpan 10 July 2020).

1.4.1 Employment-Related Statistics

The fifth round of the Nigeria COVID-19 NLPS found that women have had a "slower recovery" in the labour market during the pandemic, with 83 percent of men between 15 and 64 and 72 percent of women of the same age working in July and August 2018, compared to 78 percent of men and 65 percent of women in September 2020 (Nigeria Sept. 2020, 1). A joint report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Justice & Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), a human rights organization in Nigeria working to "empower poor and marginalized individuals and communities," notes that Nigeria lacks a "functioning social security system," and households facing unemployment and loss of income during the pandemic do not have access to social security (HRW and JEI July 2021, 1, 2).

According to the first round of the Nigeria COVID-19 NLPS, which was conducted by the NBS in April–May 2020 with a sample of 1,950 households, "only" 7 percent of respondents reported that they have not been affected by at least one type of economic shock since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, while 85 percent of households reported being impacted by an increase in the price of food (Nigeria 1 June 2020, 2, 6). The same survey found that 51 percent of households consumed less food as a result (Nigeria 1 June 2020, 13). The HRW and JEI report, based on HRW's analysis of data from the Nigeria COVID-19 NLPS, indicates that in November 2020, 48 percent of households surveyed could not afford food due to lack of money or other resources and "at least one member of the household went without eating for a whole day" (HRW and JEI July 2021, 2, 51).

1.4.2 Employment-Related Discrimination

The researcher indicated that "many organisations in Nigeria often use politics, favouritism, nepotism, and ethnicity when it comes to employment or training opportunities," which makes accessing employment and training "very hard" for female heads of households (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). The same source noted that it "may" be less difficult for women from wealthy families or women with connections with "strong politicians or elites" to access employment (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). Sources state that women could face demands for sexual favors in exchange for employment and training opportunities (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021) or the practice of "demanding sexual favors in exchange for employment or university grades remained common in Nigeria" (US 30 Mar. 2021, 32).

The DFAT report states that "[u]nmarried women in particular endured many forms of discrimination" in employment (Australia 3 Dec. 2020, para. 3.76). The same report indicates that "women employed in the business sector did not receive equal pay for equal work and often encountered difficulty in acquiring commercial credit or obtaining tax deductions or rebates as heads of households" (Australia 3 Dec. 2020, para. 3.76).

2. FHHs in Port Harcourt, Abuja, Ibadan and Lagos

Information on FHHs in the cities of Port Harcourt, Abuja, Ibadan and Lagos was scarce among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

The researcher indicated that it would be difficult for FHHs to relocate to Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt and Abuja due to the "different forms of discrimination" they may face (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). When asked whether any particular factors, including language spoken, indigeneity, level of education, and field of employment, would support successful resettlement for FHHs, the same source indicated that such factors would not make it easier to relocate to these cities (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). The source added that it "may even be tougher" for FHHs relocating to Abuja and Port Harcourt to survive economically, and that it "will be very difficult" for FHHs who do not have support to survive in these cities (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). The Professor indicated that "some landlords [in these cities] would be hesitant to enter into tenancy agreements with women who are traditionally not seen as fit to be directly involved in land and real estate matters" and most landlords "would insist on male referrals or guarantors when renting accommodation to women" (Professor 5 Nov. 2021). The Professor also indicated that the stigma of living alone no longer exists "in any significant sense" as there are now so many women living alone with their children in urbanized parts of Nigeria, but that there are no "government provided shelters or short-term support" available in these cities (Professor 5 Nov. 2021).

2.1 Access to Housing in Port Harcourt, Abuja, Ibadan and Lagos
2.1.1 Housing Situation

The researcher stated that accessing accommodation in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt is "difficult" for FHHs (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). This Day quotes the Minister of Works and Housing as stating that "'many'" people have difficulty finding apartments in Lagos, Port Harcourt, and Abuja, among other cities (This Day 20 July 2021). The researcher also indicated that while accommodation in Ibadan is comparatively cheaper than those in Abuja, Port Harcourt and Lagos, especially in rural areas, "'access' does not mean that [FHHs] would be able to 'afford'" the accommodation (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). The same source stated that "[m]ost of these women may not have the capability to pay rent for the accommodation because there is no support from the government" (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021).

Sources indicate that there is a housing shortage in Lagos (Al Jazeera 2 June 2019) or the property market is "notoriously crowded" (BBC 13 May 2021). The same sources also indicate that single women face discrimination when searching for accommodation (Al Jazeera 2 June 2019; BBC 13 May 2021). A BBC article notes that there are "some signs of change" (BBC 13 May 2021). Sources indicate that there are some start-up companies moving into the property market in Lagos that are willing to rent to women (Al Jazeera 2 June 2019; BBC 13 May 2021). The BBC article adds that some landlords are becoming "more pragmatic" in this regard, but that the change in attitude towards single women in accessing accommodation in Lagos is "taking time" (BBC 13 May 2021).

According to a study on single women in Rivers state published in the peer reviewed journal EPRA International Journal of Research and Development (IJRD), based on a survey of 150 single women residing in the Obio-Akpor and Port Harcourt City Local Government Areas, out of a list of nine forms of discrimination [3], difficulty renting an apartment was ranked as the sixth most common experience (Nkechi and Umokoro Jan. 2021, 157, 158).

2.2 Access to Employment and Income in Port Harcourt, Abuja, Ibadan and Lagos

The researcher stated that accessing employment or vocational training in Abuja, Ibadan, Lagos and Port Harcourt "is an uphill task for [FHHs], except if they have higher educational attainment, connections with the politicians or elites who could help them lobby for jobs and training opportunities" (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). When asked whether there are factors that could make accessing employment or training easier, they responded, without providing further details, that "ethnicity, language and religion may be a real challenge" (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). The same source added that "a few" NGOs have empowerment programs for widows and other women, but these programs are not guaranteed to remain "sustainable" (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021).

The IJRD study notes that discrimination in employment and business was ranked the fourth most common experience for single women residing in River state out of the list of nine forms of discrimination (Nkechi and Umokoro Jan. 2021, 157, 158).

The HRW and JEI report notes that the government passed a stimulus package called the Economic Sustainability Plan in June 2020 to combat the economic impact of COVID-19, which included job creation programs, skills training and start-up capital targeting youths and women (HRW and JEI July 2021, 53–54). The same source adds that the job creation programs mostly target the formal sector, and therefore do not benefit the "majority of the urban poor" in Lagos state who work in the informal sector (HRW and JEI July 2021, 55).

The HRW and JEI report cites a meeting between HRW and Nigerian government representatives in April 2021 as indicating that cash transfers were another measure that the government employed to alleviate poverty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic (HRW and JEI July 2021, 58). The same source notes that due in part to the delay of the Lagos state government in implementing the cash transfer programs, residents in Lagos state, who make up over 10 percent of the total population of Nigeria, received "less than" 1 percent of the total cash transfers (HRW and JEI July 2021, 60–61).

2.3 Access to Public Services

The researcher stated that "there are no existing or any available social support systems or any benefits" for female heads of household (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). The HRW and JEI report notes that there are no laws on unemployment or child benefits in Nigeria (HRW and JEI July 2021, 2).

The researcher indicated that some women may be able to rely on their friends or family, but "[o]ftentimes," they have no one to support them (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). Similarly, the Professor stated that women "usually rely on themselves, family members, and social networks/connections" and that "[s]ocial provisioning for the marginalised and vulnerable is almost non-existent in Nigeria" (Professor 5 Nov. 2021). The same source also indicated that while there are some government support policies, "these have not transformed into realities or actions and even where any form of support exists, one may need political connections and patronage to access such [supports]" (Professor 5 Nov. 2021).

When asked whether female heads of household can access public services, including health, education, public transportation, childcare services and social assistance, in Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt or Abuja, the researcher responded that this is the case only if "they are able to pay for these services," which are not free, and no subsidy is available to this group (Researcher 19 Oct. 2021). The Professor similarly indicated that there are "no formally established" government support programs for FHHs, and that the "availability of income/money may help as [FHHs] would likely depend on private sources for health, education, transportation and even childcare since public services, where available in these areas, are grossly inadequate, unreliable, and often not particularly attuned to the needs of women and marginal members of the society" (Professor 5 Nov. 2021).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


[1] The Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) program is a project funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) "providing support and technical assistance in the implementation of population and health surveys in countries worldwide" (NPC of Nigeria and ICF Oct. 2019, ii).

[2] The Nigeria COVID-19 National Longitudinal Phone Survey (COVID-19 NLPS) is a series of monthly surveys to monitor the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (Nigeria Sept. 2020, 1). There are a total of twelve planned surveys based on a baseline sample size of 1,950 households; the first round was conducted between April and May 2020 (Nigeria Sept. 2020, 1). The results from the fifth round were based on interviews with 1,773 households out of a total of 1,856 households that were contacted (Nigeria Sept. 2020, 7).

[3] The complete results of the survey of the forms of discrimination experienced by single women in River state listed in order of ranking are: "loss of friends/social network," "insult and name calling," "disrespect by family members," "discrimination in employment/business," "suspicion," "difficulty in renting an apartment," "public shame and embarrassment," "cheating and duping by prospective spouse," and "threat and violence" (Nkechi and Umokoro Jan. 2021, 158).


Akpan, Uduak. 10 July 2020. "COVID-19 in Nigeria: A Gendered Perspective." SOAS Blog. [Accessed 5 Nov. 2021]

Al Jazeera. 2 June 2019. Aanu Adeoye. "In Lagos, Finding a Home to Rent Is an Impossible Mission." [Accessed 5 Nov. 2021]

Aoyagi, Chie. July 2021. "Africa's Unequal Pandemic." Finance & Development. International Monetary Fund (IMF). [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]

Aoyagi, Chie. June 2021. "Effects of COVID-19 on Regional and Gender Equality in Sub-Saharan Africa: Evidence from Nigeria and Ethiopia." International Monetary Fund (IMF) Working Paper. (WP/21/169) [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]

Australia. 3 December 2020. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). DFAT Country Information Report: Nigeria. [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]

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Freedom House. 3 March 2021. "Nigeria." Freedom in the World 2021. [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI). July 2021. Anietie Ewang and Jim Wormington. Between Hunger and the Virus: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on People Living in Poverty in Lagos, Nigeria. [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]

National Population Commission (NPC) of Nigeria and ICF. October 2019. Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2018. [Accessed 26 Oct. 2021]

Netherlands. March 2021. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Country of Origin Information Report Nigeria. [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]

Nigeria. September 2020. National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). COVID-19 Impact Monitoring, Round 5. [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]

Nigeria. 1 June 2020. National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). COVID-19 from the Ground Up: What the Crisis Means for Nigerians. Findings from the Nigeria COVID-19 National Longitudinal Phone Survey (NLPS), Round 1, April-May 2020. [Accessed 4 Nov. 2021]

Nigeria. 1999. Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]

Nigeria. N.d. National Population Commission (NPC). "FG Flags Off 2018 Demographic and Health Survey." [Accessed 2 Nov. 2021]

Nkechi, Nzeshi and Coral Umokoro. January 2021. "Singlehood Stigmatization: Experience of Single Women in Rivers State." EPRA International Journal of Research and Development (IJRD). Vol. 6, No. 1. [Accessed 5 Nov. 2021]

Professor, University of Nigeria. 5 November 2021. Correspondence with the Research Directorate. 20 March 2019. Motolani Alake and Inemesit Udodiong. "The Nigerian Women: Marriage, Motherhood and Societyal Conformity (Part I)." [Accessed 5 Nov. 2021]

Researcher, James Cook University, Australia. 19 October 2021. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Stears Business. 1 February 2019. "Single Women Cannot Rent Property in Nigeria." [Accessed 5 Nov. 2021]

This Day. 20 July 2021. Bennett Oghifo. "No Data to Support 17M, 22 M Housing Deficit Claim, Says Fashola." [Accessed 2 Nov. 2021]

United Nations (UN). April 2020. UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (UN Women). Gender and the COVID-19 National Response in Nigeria. [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]

United Nations (UN). 3 January 2020. Human Rights Council. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing as a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living, and on the Right to Non-Discrimination in this Context. (A/HRC/43/43/Add.1) [Accessed 2 Nov. 2021]

United States (US). 30 March 2021. Department of State. "Nigeria." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020. [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]

World Bank. 2019. Jonathan Lain, et al. Gender-Based Violence: An Analysis of the Implications for the Nigeria for Women Project. [Accessed 28 Oct. 2021]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: The African Research Academies for Women.

Internet sites, including: African Women's Organization; Amnesty International; Bertelsmann Stiftung; BFA Global; Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) International;; Factiva; Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology; Norway – Landinfo; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; Premium Times; UK – Home Office; UN – Human Rights Council, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Refworld; The Washington Post.