Empower Our Girls, Empower the World: An International Women's Day Message from Nigeria

Empower Our Girls, Empower the World: An International Women's Day Message from Nigeria

{Photo credit: Andrew Esiebo/MSH Nigeria}Photo credit: Andrew Esiebo/MSH Nigeria

I am a woman. I am a Nigerian. I am a mother. I am a leader. And, I am a daughter. As the Nigerian country representative, I guide Management Sciences for Health (MSH)’s efforts to ensure the people of my country have access to quality health services. Indeed, I am many things. Before all else:

I am a woman of Nigeria.

The Girl Child in Nigeria

From the beginning, our girl children are at a disadvantage.

Our culture (like many are) is strongly patriarchal. The boy child is given higher status than the girl child. If a family has to choose, the boy child is the first to go to school. The girl child is the first to be dropped from school.

No matter how young she is, the girl child feels that it is her responsibility to care for her siblings. She is expected to take on added responsibilities and earn money to keep the other children. This pressure frequently leads to early sexual activity, transactional sex, and sex with older men-- increasing her risk of getting HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections.

Then Boko Haram came to the North East Zone of Nigeria. They take our girls away. They abuse them. They rape them. They marry them off to older men.

At MSH Nigeria, we have a particular focus on empowering girls and women to realize their full potential, including accessing health and promoting well-being. For five years, MSH’s work in Nigeria through the US Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Community-Based Support for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (CUBS) in Nigeria Project focused on supporting orphans and vulnerable children -- and their caregivers -- in 11 states in 5 geo-political zones. Now our work with adolescent girls focuses on Gombe State in the North East Zone.

Gombe is one of those states that has been consistently attacked by Boko Haram. Just two weeks ago we were about to travel to do some monitoring, when we learned that a bomb went off. We had to postpone our trip. Our local partners continue to monitor and assure safety.

Boko Haram has really, really terrorized Nigerians, especially those in the North East Zone. Many Nigerians have “left” their homes -- that is, those who have not been killed. Those who have “left” have either run away or been kidnapped.

Many of the schools that these children attend have been destroyed by Boko Haram. The teachers have been killed, or have run away. There is no one to teach the children. Many parents are too scared to even think of sending their children to school. Girl child education, health, and well-being is made even worse.

There are over two hundred girls that we are still waiting for to come home.

Empowering Adolescent Girls in Gombe State: Change Agents for Health

In my work with the five-year CUBS project, we found that improving the health of girls and women means addressing the gender-based violence and inequities throughout the infrastructure, culture, and social norms at all levels of the systems.

Now, that I’m a mother, I know that what my children think influences me, too: how I treat them, what I buy for them, and so on. What my children think counts. Is this true for your family, too?

We’ve known that what a parent thinks, influences the child. But, what about the other way around? We wondered: If we can provide opportunities for the girl child to see health differently, could the girls thinking on health and health-seeking behaviors influence what their mothers, parents, and their communities do?

So, in Gombe State, amid the context of fear and terror, we’re working to empower adolescent girls to become change agents for health-seeking behavior in their communities. The project, called “Improving maternal health through creative processes by Adolescent Girls,” is supported by an MSH Innovation Challenge (INCH) Fund and designed to last six months.

In partnership with a local civil society organization, Community Oriented Health Providers Association, who will continue the project after May, we trained school teachers in reproductive health, family planning, and life skills; and they are now facilitating health clubs that are established in schools to give these girls life skills and all aspects of adolescent health.

The adolescent girls are also volunteering one hour a week at a health facility to learn about health. By volunteering, they see another way of seeking health, not through traditional medicine, but by using evidence-based interventions: treating diarrhea with oral rehydration salts, using medications as prescribed, going to a health facility for antenatal care, and other methods to improve maternal and child health.

International Women’s Day: "Empower Women, Empower Humanity" 

On March 8, as the world commemorates International Women’s Day (IWD2015) with a theme of “Empower Women, Empower Humanity, Picture It!”, as well as the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, women in Nigeria continue to struggle against gender-based violence and inequities. The 1995 Beijing road map, considered one of the most comprehensive blueprints on advancing women’s rights, was adopted by 189 governments.

Twenty years later, the world has made progress -- but not nearly enough. 

In her IWD2015 message, UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, urges countries to “step it up” for gender equality, announcing a global gender equity target of reaching “‘Planet 50:50’ before 2030”. She also reminds us of the reality for women and girls in our world: 

Violence against women continues to blight lives in all countries of the world. And no country has achieved gender equality.

Can we reach Planet 50:50 in 15 years? What does Planet 50:50 mean for my country? Is Nigeria 50:50 attainable? What does gender equity mean in places like the North East Zone, where Boko Horam spreads fear and terror?

Empower Our Girls: Empower Our World

Today, even in these regions, we have reason to hope. In some schools, like the ones we are working with in Gombe State, some parents have refused to give in to the fear. They refuse to run away. For as many parents who are courageous enough to send their children to school, we will support them. We will help empower the girl children to reach their full potential: to empower themselves, their families, their communities, and, ultimately, our world.

These parents and girl children give us hope. Girl children can realize their full potential for health and well-being. Progress on gender equity can be achieved by educating and empowering the nations, states, communities, households, and especially: our girl children.

Learn more

The MSH-led, USAID-funded CUBS project supported efforts to empower girls to reach their full potential: empowering girls to empower humanity through interventions at the national, state, community, household, and child levels.