“A pregnant woman can come to our hospital at any time, but who will attend to her if everybody has gone? That is why we stay voluntarily, but we should be paid.”
Orji Theresa is an unpaid nurse and midwife in a local hospital in Abuja, Nigeria, with no water source, no electricity, and no government funding.
Orji’s salary was previously paid for by the government, but funding was cut when the country changed governments and faced the reality of their dwindling public funds.
Free trade agreements can play a big role in reducing government revenue – as they typically require a reduction of tariffs on imports as part of the deal. This loss of public revenue can have particularly significant impacts in low-income countries like Nigeria. With less revenue, governments struggle to fund public services like hospitals, schools and public transport.
Orji is now witnessing first-hand what happens when healthcare services lose critical funding.
“When we first started we are supplied with a lot of medicines, but now there are no drugs at all. Even Paracetamol, nothing,” Orji explains.
“That time we had mosquito nets and so many things. We gave them to women and those that had children under six months or one year to protect themselves from malaria attacks and so many other things. But now there is nothing.”
Nurses like Orji have courageously taken it upon themselves to make sure the community has access to the care that they need, but it is not a sustainable solution.
Orji teaches women how to care for themselves during pregnancy, but being so under-resourced and having no other hospital with medicine nearby means many women deliver their babies in dangerous circumstances. Often women die in the process.
“Some women have delivered their babies on the side of the road because there are so few facilities for them.”
“At the same time it’s a great agony to work without being paid. We don’t get paid a single penny. It’s becoming unbearable,”says Orji.
Public services are key to gender equality because women rely on them to ensure their basic needs are met. Having access to well-funded public services also reduces women’s unpaid labour and frees up their time to access other work opportunities.
But when basic services like healthcare are underfunded, research shows that the burden of unpaid care on women increases. Now nurses like Orji are working long hours for free because they feel they don’t have a choice.
“If anybody has a cut now – say you’ve got a farm, you have an injury, you rush here, who will attend to you? Nobody. That is why we decided to stay, but our staying is not taken care of, so it’s a problem.”
“If the government had the money to come in and stabilise the place by paying the staff, getting a clean water supply, getting electricity and medicines, it would make a huge difference,” says Orji.
Free trade agreements like RCEP – a large deal currently being negotiated between Australia and 15 other countries – tip the scale in favour of corporations at the expense of women’s rights. Not even governments win from these deals.
By lowering tariffs and reducing important government revenue, it can leave public services like healthcare critically underfunded. Women like Orji are left to pick up the pieces.
We need to stand together and advocate for governments to take gender into account when signing future trade deals, to support policies that promote women’s rights, not undermine them.