ABUJA, Nigeria — Fourteen-year-old Chioma just recently began menstruating. Her father sits in his village compound with five male friends who happen to be local chiefs to discuss her coming of age and make plans for a special ceremony. “Finally my daughter will be welcomed fully into womanhood and I can start entertaining suitors,” he says of expectations she will undergo the ritual cutting of her genitalia, a practice called female genital mutilation. His friends congratulate him on the milestone and one says, “so your tiny daughter of yesterday will soon become a fully grown woman, that’s good—oh, the gods be praised!”
ABUJA—Nigerian women have held the fabric of their society together for decades. From the likes of Fumilayo Ransome Kuti, who fought for women’s access to education and political representation, and against dictatorship—and was the country’s first woman to drive a car—to Dora Akunyili, who served as director of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control and ardently fought to eradicate the production and sale of counterfeit drugs and unsafe food, they have been at the front of societal transformation and progress. But women in Nigeria still lag hugely behind in quality of life, health and political leadership. How is it possible to achieve a developed and sustainable nation when half the population is left behind?
Celebrate. Innovate. Make Possible. was the theme for PATH’s 40th anniversary celebration, which took place on Friday, May 12, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. PATH is a global health innovation organization that works to improve the health of the most marginalized groups of people, notably women and girls. I had the privilege to speak as a panelist at the event and share about the work I do in Nigeria as an ICWA Fellow and girls’ rights advocate. The experience was surreal and I have been able to reflect on the importance of such a dynamic program and my personal growth.
“Trafficking in Persons (TIP) is the third most lucrative business in the world, after drugs and arms sales,” an official from the Nigerian National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) told students during a three-day training workshop held from May 22-24 in Abuja. The workshop aimed to increase the awareness of in-school students on migration and trafficking. For three days, students from five junior secondary schools (two girls and one boy per school) gathered for the workshop at the newly launched Abuja office of Girls’ Power Initiative, an organization dedicated to empowering girls in Nigeria. The workshop discussed topics including values, self-esteem, and assertiveness. The students were trained to understand the difference between migration and trafficking; and how to identify a trafficking situation.
Millions of children live in poverty in Nigeria;lacking access to clean water, food, health care services, and education. Two and a half million children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, “defined by a very low weight for height (below -3z scores of the median WHO growth standards), by visible severe wasting, or by the presence of nutritional oedema.” In Nigeria, 430,000 children live with HIV/AIDS.1 In April, I attended a wedding reception where I saw masses of children scramble for leftover food from the guests’ plates. It was an awful sight, to witness and a reminder of the plight of Nigeria’s children. Where are their parents? Why do they look so unkempt? When was their last meal? These were all questions that ran across through my mind as I reflected on their pitiful condition.
In developing countries, one in every three girls is married before reaching age 18. One in nine is married under age 15. – 
In Africa, Nigeria is expected to have the largest absolute number of child brides. The country has seen a decline in child marriage of about 1 percent per year over the past three decades. At this pace, the total number of child brides is expected to double by 2050. – UNICEF
“I was a slave in my husband’s house,” said 17-year-old Rahma. “My pregnancy had complications and my husband sent me back to my parents when I was diagnosed with fistula,” added 19-year-old Fatima. As I listened to these girls share their experiences as child brides, I struggled to keep the at bay as I wondered why on earth anyone would want to deprive these girls of their childhood and livelihoods. Yet, many men (often much older) in countries like Nigeria choose to marry teenage girls, some pre-teens. Forty-three (43) percent of Nigerian girls are given in marriage before the age of 18,;17% are married before their 15th birthday. As Africa’s largest growing population with over 180 million residents, it is anticipated that Nigeria will have the largest absolute number of child brides by 2050.1 In response to this alarming news, the Nigerian government in November 2016 launched a campaign with a pledge to end child marriage by the year 2030. In line with the African Union’s resolution to eliminate the practice in the African continent; Nigeria joins 15 other African countries that have made this a national commitment. Despite this, achieving an end to child marriage is a long way ahead.