Creating Possibilities for Girls’ Voices: My Speaking Appearance in Seattle

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.

When I received the invitation in April, I wondered what I would say. Over the past nine months plus in Nigeria, I have met with government officials, school teachers, adolescent girls, parents, and staff of non-governmental organizations on the subjects of girls’ access to education, empowerment, and child marriage in the country. I have listened to stories of sexual and domestic abuse, forced marriage, and unequal access to education and justice. These stories have provided background knowledge and also provoked my thinking on the social, cultural, and political norms that propagate inequality and how to address them. On the PATH panel, I spoke about my experience transitioning from Nigeria to the US as a teenager shaped the work I do today. I shared my previously held belief that everyone in the United States had equal access to everything they needed and wanted. However, I was shocked to see inequality and discrimination, particularly around race and socio-economic status. This experience awakened me to the realization of the shared challenges in developing and developed countries and prompted my decision to bridge the gaps in healthcare and education access.

My passion for girls and women is as a result of my observance of teenage pregnancy in Atlanta and awareness of the abuse that many women face throughout the world. Because of lack of access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) education and services (including access to contraceptives), many girls become involuntary mothers. So many women globally continue to be denied their right to decide how many children they want to have and when to have them. One of the young women I spoke with here in Nigeria told me about the humiliation girls face when they go into a health facility to access family planning services or get a condom. “What do you need it for?” “You are too young to have any business with a condom.” These are some of the responses girls get from health workers. On the contrary, boys are given condoms without any questions asked.

Because of the preference for male-child education, many families do not send their daughters to school. The silencing of girls’ voices particularly disheartens me. Girls continue to be told that they should be seen but not heard and this affects their sense of agency and ability to decide their futures. Through the ICWA fellowship, I am sharing the realities of girls’ lives and helping Nigerian girls believe in the power of their voices and in the possibilities that education affords.

The #PATH40 event, unlike previous anniversary celebrations, highlighted emerging global health advocates, social activists, and innovators as well as recounted PATH’s achievements thus far. The close to 1500 members of the audience were inspired to take action and support global innovation. It was an honor for me to share the stage with four other remarkably talented young and emerging global leaders: Yara Shahidi, activist for social justice and star of the comedy series “Black-ish;” Shiza Shahid, an entrepreneur and philanthropist/co-founder of the Malala Fund and NOW ventures; Brian Atuhaire, Vaccines and Immunizations program officer with PATH in Uganda; and Elaine Welteroth, Editor in Chief of Teen Vogue magazine who served as moderator for the discussion. Together, we are making possibilities for women, girls, global health, and an equitable society.

 

About the Author

A Nigerian-American who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States, Onyinye has returned to her native Nigeria to examine the urgent issue of girls health, education, early marriage and, most of all, girls empowerment. Onyinye holds a Masters of Public Health degree from University of Washington-Seattle, as well as graduate-level certificates in the Global Health of Women, Adolescents and Children, and in Sexual and Reproductive Health Research. Describing the impetus for her project, Onyinye points out that, “Niger is presently ranked as the country with the highest percentage of child brides in the world with 76% of girls married before age 18. Nigeria holds the number 14 position with 43% of girls married before age 18. As a trained global health practitioner and advocate for adolescent sexual and reproductive health, I understand the power in a girl’s voice and the dangers associated with silencing that voice. During my ICWA Fellowship I intend to work with young people and their communities to understand the factors that propel child marriage and hinder girls education. My aim is to identify culturally-sensitive ways to address these critical problems.” In addition to her academic credentials, she brings field experience in project design and implementation, monitoring and evaluation, maternal and child nutrition and adolescent sexual and reproductive health; Onyinye has worked in both urban and rural/remote locations in Africa and in the US. An emerging young leader, Onyinye has been recognized by the Clinton Global Foundation as a Commitment Maker, was awarded a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship as well as a Global Opportunities Health Fellowship. Onyinye’s ICWA Fellowship began in August 2016 and will continue until August 2018.