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Lagos, megacity of homeless women



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By Omolola AFOLABI


There are several homeless women in Lagos, and the number is rising. But government agencies charged with the duty of care for this vulnerable group are less concerned. 

RIGHT there in the flowing septic waters, near the Lagos State Government Abattoir Complex in Agege,  was Adijat, sprawled inside the filthy drainage water channel, lap wide-open, apparently wearing no underwear. She sat, looking down and tired. Her dress was in tatters, soaking dirty waters as it cascaded down her private parts. Adijat could care less. 

That wasn’t the first time this reporter encountered Adijat in such a dire situation. Earlier, she was found perching on the culverts along the Old Abeokuta expressway, still clear-headed and coherent, although with a worrisome countenance. Her hair was matted; skin, pale and on her lower limb was a festering sore.

She approached the reporter with pleading eyes, asking in Yoruba, “Auntie, Do you want to give me some money?”

The reporter asked her what she would do with it. “I will buy Jelu to treat my wounds,” she replied. Jelu is a  bluish local potion for treating wounds.

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Adijat and other homeless women with mental conditions roaming the streets of Lagos are often susceptible to sexual abuse and inclement weather, but the Lagos State Social Services, the agency responsible for the vulnerable group, is less concerned.

The reporter took her to a nearby pharmacy to have her treated. During her wound dressing, she cried inconsolably as the pain-inducing drugs were applied to the sore. Not even her mental state could prevent her from feeling the excruciating pain of the Hydrogen peroxide and methylated spirit.

Afterwards, the wound was bandaged, the pharmacist asked her to return the following day. She sustained the injury from a commercial tricycle accident in Festac Town, several kilometres away from Agege, where the reporter found her.

Caption: Adijat
Photo Credit: Omolola Afolabi/The ICIR

 Police officers say they had no room for her

Adijat’s condition worsened, however. Her situation was reported to the nearby Abattoir Police Station in Agege. But the police officers were dismissive and showed complete apathy despite the lady’s sad condition.

“Look Madam, where you wan make us put am, we no get room for here o”, a police officer said in pidgin without emotion.

Reluctantly, the officer later offered to dial the Lagos State Emergency Services Hotline after the journalist threatened to report her insouciance to her superior.

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After initiating the call, the official on the other end of the line got all the needed information to execute an action. She even went as far as asking the reporter if she could reach her on the line that was used to make the call so they could locate her quickly. The response was promising, and the reporter was eager to see Adijat in good care. But the hope soon dissipated because the social workers never showed up. There was no call from the social workers for four hours despite the initial promising statement: “I will get your request forwarded now and get back to you shortly”. Since then, there has been no communication from the state government until filing this report, seven months after.

My child was kidnapped while I was begging to keep her alive

For Jemilat Lawal, a 45-year-old mother of six, the kidnap of her daughter remains the lowest moment of her life after the loss of her husband. She says she is forced to remember her six-year-old every day, especially when she sees children of her age passing at her regular spot on the Berger Bridge. Seated next was her younger child, Rodia. She was jolted out of her nap by the reporter’s presence.

The child’s eyes are jaundiced, and her mouth is held by abrasion.

“The death of my husband in 2018 was the climax that led to my becoming a beggar,” she told The ICIR.

Jemilat Lawal on first encounter
Caption: Jemilat Lawal on the first encounter
Photo Credit Omolola Afolabi/The ICIR.

“Ibadan was my home and business place where I used to own a food canteen until I became bankrupt right after my husband’s death. I had no choice but to come to Lagos. I have been  here for over three years after the loss of my husband.”

Lawal said that she sleeps in a makeshift tent where she pays N100 per day at Mile 12. When it rains, she and her daughter take shelter under the bridge.

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The reporter saw her selling facemasks the third time after encountering Jemila, a surprising transformation from beggar to trader.

According to her, the little proceeds from her begging for alms made her start her small enterprise.

“I still love to do business; my condition just incapacitates me,” she added.

The death of my husband forced my four children and me to the streets 

Seun Ade -Yusuf’s (40) journey into the streets of Lagos began the year she lost her husband after an illness that lasted 15  months

Ade-Yusuf, a former trader had five children for the deceased.

“My husband was also a trader like myself before his demise; after his death, I had to cater for our five children who were very young as at the time he passed.”

She said she has been on the streets for over three years. Her skin is infected with candidiasis because she cannot afford proper skincare due to her poor economic condition.

“The drug costs about N10,000 weekly, and I could not afford it; it is even difficult to eat,” she told The ICIR.

Narrating what finally pushed her to the streets, she said she got a loan from a microfinance bank after her husband passed, but she could not afford to pay it back.

“The officials of the microfinance began to harass me when I could not pay the loan; they even took legal actions against me. To avoid further embarrassment, I had to sell off some of my properties, a move which made me so bankrupt I was left with no choice than to come to the streets,” she said.

All four children and their mother out there, begging

Kehinde Arigbabuwo claims she is 24, but it is hard to believe. She looks like a 40-year-old.

Rain or shine, she sits in the open close to one of the numerous car parks in Oshodi.

When The ICIR approached her and asked what led her to the streets, she said,” There is no husband,” as one of her sleeping four children snuggled closer to her, and she tried to wipe away a thick, yellow mucus from her nose.

Kehinde Arigbabuwo
Caption: Kehinde Arigbabuwo.
Photo Credit: Omolola Afolabi/The ICIR

“I come from Ifo in Ogun State, where I sleep in a makeshift tent with my children. I come here (Oshodi) and return there every day; it is not always an easy ride, especially with my four children”.

According to Arigbabuwo, she wasn’t employed before her husband’s death, so she was left broke when it happened.

“My husband’s family members haven’t been of any help or support ever since he passed. The plea to even take in one or two of my children fell on deaf ears. So I’m left to bear all the responsibilities on my own,” she said.

With no formal education, she can hardly find a job, and with no form of savings and investment, she can’t start a business either.

“I can’t watch my children starve; they have to feed every day”.

Her children, two of whom are of school-age, are currently out of school.

“I clean for N4,000 every month”

Forty-nine-year-old Taiwo Raji has severe mobility challenges and goes around limping on a crutch. Her husband got separated from her when she was in her 20’s because of her condition and after losing her only child.

However, her spirit is undefeated as she has a very happy attitude to life and work. According to her, she does embroidery with needles and thread. Embroidery works are mostly done with machines as this is highly labour-intensive work.

“I workaround to find places where I can work and I do cleaning and general housekeeping for a family, and I get paid the sum of N4,000 every month. The native of Abeokuta, Ogun State and resident of Agbado said with a broad, satisfied grin.

“I live with my mother after my husband drove me out. I never allowed this to dissuade me as I have successfully learned another skill: soap making.

Taiwo Raji
Photo caption: Taiwo Raji.
Credit: Omolola Afolabi, The ICIR.

I like to work hard, and begging on the streets is not my thing,” she told The ICIR.

Data on the homeless

According to Amnesty International, more than 30,000 people in Lagos have been forcibly evicted from various settlements, and other 300,000 residents of Lagos are under threat of losing their homes.

The report stated that forced eviction exacerbates the homelessness problem in the city. This happens by the threat of violence in the hopes of making Lagos an international business centre.

“Around 1 million people had to leave their homes in the last 15 years alone,” according to data from the Global Movement.

“Government officials in Lagos typically give no warning before forcibly removing residents. This has resulted in making 30,000 Nigerians homeless instantly, which in International Law forced evictions to constitute a gross violation of human rights including the right to housing”.

“All viable alternatives to eviction must be explored, and only if life-threatening circumstances cannot be mitigated can an eviction take place. If eviction does occur, it must conform to all international human rights standards as contained in General Comment 7 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development Based Evictions and Displacement (A/HRC/4/18, Annex)”, it concluded.

In 2013, the Lagos State Ministry of Economic Planning and Budget estimated that over 70 per cent of Lagos’ population lived in informal settlements.

In many major cities within Nigeria, homeless people with mental illness suffer the most severe forms of poverty, often being without shelter, food, care and clothing.

Moreover, they are also exposed to various forms of humans rights abuses such as physical and sexual abuse, restraint and extortion by fake healers who use them for begging on the streets.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that 279,000 Nigerians have been displaced from 1 January to 31 December 2020.143,000 as a result of disasters and 169 000 from conflict and violence.

In Ilubirin community, a waterfront community, Lagos state authorities, officers of the Nigeria Police Force, and unidentified armed men forcibly evicted approximately 823 residents on four occasions: 19 March 2016; 26 September 2016; 15 October 2016; and on 21 and 22 April 2017, this is data according to Amnesty International.

State authorities forcibly evicted over 30,000 residents from the Otodo-Gbame community in three forced evictions: 9 to 11 November 2016; 17 and 21 March 2017; and 9 April 2017.

African countries with the most internally displaced persons
African countries with the most internally displaced persons

The failure of the government to provide adequate alternative housing to evictees has resulted in their homelessness. According to Amnesty  International, 97 evictees said that they were homeless.

In January, a Lagos High court issued an injunction to stop demolitions in such communities after an estimated 30,000 Otodo Gbame residents were evicted in November 2016 to make way for development projects.

Last year, rights groups warned that more than 300,000 people faced eviction from waterfront communities across Lagos State.

In 2014, WHO and UNICEF estimated that 69 per cent of the urban population of Nigeria is living in ‘slums’, many of which lack even the most basic of services such as potable water, sanitation services, electricity, garbage collection, and paved roads.

According to the 2013 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, 57 million Nigerians lack access to safe water, and over 130 million are without access to adequate sanitation.

No data to quantify homelessness in Lagos: UN Rapporteur

Following several attempts to reach the relevant ministries on data to support the population of homeless women in Lagos, the reporter consulted the United Nations Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Ms Leilani Farha.

She lamented her interactions with officials who indicated that the lack of current data impedes developing and implementing effective housing policy.

“The lack of valid, impartial and recent data relevant to Nigeria’s housing sector is a severe impediment to ensuring accountability, measuring progress and implementing effective housing policies in the country.

“The last census by the National Population Commission dates back to 2006 and is no longer relevant. While the National Bureau of Statistics collects data every 2-3 years in conjunction with the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Study, the data does not include housing specific statistics”.

“Forced evictions also reinforce a cycle of social and economic vulnerability: the urban poor subjected to evictions lose all of their belongings and often need to relocate to distant areas, losing access to their livelihood, family and other support networks. Even though the government often justifies evictions as “slum upgrading” or “development” projects, they consistently fail to benefit vulnerable Nigerians and seem to serve only the interests of private investors.”

According to the Rapporteur, homelessness was referenced by government officials and civil society alike as a known and growing problem, though no statistics have been collected to quantify its extent.

“I saw people living under bridges in Lagos and in informal settlements in conditions that are equivalent to homelessness. The conditions of homelessness are extreme, constituting a threat to personal security, health, and life itself. According to information received, there are few or no emergency shelters available for those living in homelessness in most cities.”

The report further suggested that homelessness is the failure of the state to implement the right to housing and is considered an egregious violation, especially in light of its deep connection with the right to life.

Inadequate capacity at destitute homes and mental hospitals in Lagos

With the daily influx of other destitute into the Okobaba Home in Ebutte-meta, the facilities meant to accommodate less than 500 people are being utilised by more than 2000 people struggling for space in the 118-room hostel.

The Vanguard reports that apart from the three blocks of buildings erected over 20 years ago in the camp – one section for the lepers, another for the blind and the third for crippled — as well as a mosque, there is neither a hospital nor the presence of health workers in the crowded Okobaba destitute home.

It was also observed that three blocks of buildings were erected over 15 years ago in the camp. There is neither a hospital nor the presence of health workers in the crowded Okobaba destitute home.

Last month, Commissioner for Health in Lagos State, Akin Abayomi, revealed that the state government is building a 500-bed seater mental health facility.

A group of researchers on psychiatry, namely Taiwo, O Ladapo, OF Aina, RA Lawal1, OP Adebiyi, SO Olomu, undertook a study on the capacity of the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital for its long-stay patients

They came up with the following findings:36 (70.6%) males and 15 (29.4%) females. In terms of religion, 38 (74.5%) were Christians, and the remainder, 13 (25.5%), were Muslims.

The mean age of the subjects was 47.3 (+16.5) years with an age range of 18 to 92 years; the mean age of females (51.6 years) was higher than that of the males (45.4 years).

45(88.2%); with only 3(5.9%) having been married, 2(3.9%) were widowed, and 1(2.0%) was separated. The majority 41(80.4%), were unemployed, 4(7.8%) had a paid job outside the hospital, 3(5.9%) had a “rehabilitation job” within the hospital, and 3(5.9%) were retirees.

The hospital saw a 22 per cent increase in the number of new patients with different types of mental illnesses in 2018 – along with a 50 per cent increase in the number of patients struggling with substance abuse, the research concluded.

There are cultural practices that reduce the humanity of women – NGO

According to the United Nations, 285 million widows have been estimated to be living worldwide, with more than 115 million, which is over 40 per cent, living in poverty.

Sally Othivia is the founder of the Tender Hearts Foundation, an organisation that does advocacy and humanitarian services for women and children.

She submitted that this reality is because, in most homes, the men are the breadwinners, and women are primarily full-time housewives or are into micro or small businesses and are financially dependent on the husband before the demise of their spouses.

“There are barbaric cultural practices in Nigeria that demean the humanity of women. Widows go through a lot from their husbands’ family members, from shaving heads, locking them up etc.

Othivia, a litigation lawyer and UN Ambassador for Peace, Justice, and Human Rights, admonished that women should be encouraged to work and do business with their spouses while they are still alive.

She recommended that government parastatals be encouraged to have an employment policy that caters for the wife and children of the man in case of sudden death so that the family can be adequately planned for.

The outcome of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic and social fields, particularly the agreed conclusions, endorsed the eradication of poverty through the empowerment of women throughout their life cycle adopted by the Commission on the Status of Women at its forty-sixth session.

“The truth is there are laws enshrined in our constitution that make provision for all citizens fundamental human rights, however for the widows, it thus appears as if this fundamental human right is being constantly abused without any care given the treatment that is meted out on them based on the cultural practices earlier mentioned”.

Othivia recalled the  Supreme Court decision concerning female inheritance in Igbo land, eastern Nigeria, as a step in the right direction. She is, however, not convinced about the extent of its enforcement.

“Experience has shown us that when equipped with the proper resources, women and young girls have the power to transform their own lives and help their families, thereby redressing the root cause of poverty in their lives”, she told The ICIR.

Mrs Betty Abah is the Executive Director of Centre for Children’s Health, Orientation and Protection, a Lagos-based NGO. She told The ICIR that the menace of widows begging on the streets spreads across Nigeria, and not just in Lagos.

“Most times in Nigeria, when a woman loses her husband, the cultures, norms and traditions and their enforcers ensure that she is stripped of all dignity and all possessions. Sometimes, this includes her husband’s properties. Some are so economically disempowered and deprived that they end up on the streets.

“If she has no job and no support structures from her own family and friends, her fate and those of her children become very bleak. And this is because there are no forms of social protection or welfare programs by the government for such economically emasculated women except for, sometimes, widows empowerment by NGOs, many of whose resources are extremely limited.”

She explained that her organisation works mainly with children and young people. Some of the most impoverished are those whose parents are dead and whose mothers are the only breadwinners, especially with several children to care for.

“It is tough for these women, and they are vulnerable to sexual predators and all sorts of harm. We have been able to assist several of them through our Empowered Mothers for Development Action (EM-MODAS) program, which works on the empowerment of the mothers of the young people we work with, to place them in better positions to support them, especially educationally as education is one of our focal areas”.

“There is a need for vibrant and sustainable economic empowerment plans for widows being the caregivers in homes and the ones most vulnerable to impoverishment courtesy of our harmful norms and traditions. If women don’t get the economic empowerment they need to bring up fatherless young people; the results are usually catastrophic as some of the children are bound to drift and even pose menaces to the larger society.

“It is not just poor and struggling widows but the urban poor in general. Lagos State Government administrations in the recent past have not been pro-poor in reality, no matter their electoral manifestos and rhetoric.

“For instance, widows are among the hawkers that are being criminalised and arrested in the name of the ban on street trading and hawking by a government that provides no alternative trading places and whose shops are priced far beyond the reach of the average trader in Lagos not to mention petty street traders hawkers, and which provides no social protection or welfare services whatsoever for the poor and desperately struggling urban poor.

Lagos needs to improve on its image concerning its crude treatment of the urban poor on whose behalf they get a federal allocation and who form the bulk of their votes every four years.”

According to Mojeed Ajadi, Founder of Feed the Vulnerable Families, an humanitarian relief organisation, the social services in Lagos can’t be rated so high because their work isn’t evident yet.

“I wouldn’t want to rate this institution or parastatal because I have not seen much of their work. Maybe if I see a copy of their periodic report or a copy of their newsletter, I would be able to talk about those amazing things they have done, where they could have done something better and maybe give professional advice as well.”

According to Ajaadi, his organisation set up a programme tagged WEI- Widows Empowerment Initiative after seeing the precarious conditions of widows at the grassroots.

He lamented that some government empowerment programmes initiated to respond to such social conditions in Nigeria have been abandoned or stopped.

“Examples are the Family Economic Advancement Programme (FEAP), Better Life for Rural Women, Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies (NEEDS), National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP) and the Poverty Alleviation Programme (PAP).

Recently, the Ministry of Youth and Social Development made a move to stop street begging in Lagos. The Commissioner, Segun Dawodu, stated that investigations revealed that beggars are transported from other parts of the country to Lagos.

The Commissioner for Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty alleviation, Cecilia Dada, during the commemoration of the State Governor’s second year in office, claimed the ministry has trained over 48,000 persons in two years.

“Begging may be lucrative, but women must stay empowered”

A government official at the Lagos State Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation said the ministry is not oblivious to the plight of women in Lagos. She, however, added that the ministry works to keep women empowered and should stay hungry for opportunities.

“The Ministry receives up to 400 calls on domestic violence each day on the toll-free, that is the social service we provide apart from the regular training and empowerment programs”.

For up to six weeks, the reporter tried endlessly to reach officials of the Youth and Social Development of Lagos; the officials did not respond to calls nor acknowledge the reporter’s visits.

After a month-long attempt to reach her, the Commissioner for Women Affairs and Poverty in Lagos State, Bolaji Dada, eventually responded to the ICIR. She, however, evaded all the pertinent questions.

She only listed the activities of the ministry at ensuring  a more efficient social service which, according to her, include:

  • The engagement of rural women in agric-preneurial training to assist in improvement in their source of livelihood.
  • Distribution of household equipment to empower the impoverished and vulnerable residents of Lagos state as social protection.

“So far, in the last two years, over 6000 women have benefitted from our various equipment like sewing machines, among others.”

“The poverty alleviation department of the ministry continues to improve on all efforts to deliver an efficient, effective and robust social service,” she concluded.

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