“This country belongs to you but it’s under the stranglehold of men and women of a generation that have overreached itself. The truth is that nothing will be ceded or conceded to your generation without a fight.” – Yakubu Dogara, Speaker of the Nigerian House
ABUJA, Nigeria – Touching down at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, I breathed a sigh of relief and said “Thank You, Jesus.”
It was about 1AM WAT on Thursday, July 28, and after an almost 24-hour trip (with a one-hour stop in Niger to refuel the plane), I had finally arrived in Abuja, Nigeria on a cool and crisp night. It was a good trip, despite my initial anxieties about flying via Turkey from the United States (in light of the early July attacks in Istanbul). It all worked out though, and I learned not to allow fear get the best of me. Anything can happen anywhere in the world, and being fearful prevents us from living our lives fully and richly. Here I am; in Nigeria, ready to begin my two-year exploration into the lives of marginalized girls and interventions that empower girls (and their communities) to delay marriage, stay in school, and be productive and engaged citizens. As I prepared for my trip down, one question that everyone asked was “Why would you choose to spend two years in Nigeria (and Niger)?!” I always smiled at the question, but I understood the anxieties behind the question. Although people agree that my fellowship topics are relevant and important, they find it striking that a 27-year-old single lady would choose to take on such a task. And, why for two years?!
As I think about the reason why I have embarked on this journey, I am reminded of my college education and how it nurtured me to “think deeply, live honorably and engage the intellectual and social challenges of [my time].” Girls’ rights, education, and their empowerment are the intellectual and social challenges of the 21st century. As a woman, the impulse to engage in these issues comes naturally. Likewise, my experiences as a Global Health student and professional have sensitized me to the dynamics that keep girls and women from living out their full potential. I seek to understand these obstacles and learn how we help women and girls worldwide overcome them.
Globally, women and girls have shorter life spans (reflected in maternal mortality rates) and experience stifled economic prosperity, the result of diminished productivity and lack of positive engagement. These challenges are magnified in developing countries where very often women and girls are not allowed to have and/or use their voices. In Nigeria, the plight of girls came to global attention in 2014 following the kidnapping of over 200 girls from their school in the Northern Nigeria city of Chibok in Borno state. As the world watched the horrifying news of how these girls were captured and driven far away into unknown forests, we could only wonder how such a thing can happen in the present age. I remember how heartbroken I was, and how I joined my church community in Seattle to pray and advocate for the return of the Chibok girls. We are still praying and advocating… In fact, during my ICWA (Institute of Current World Affairs) interviews earlier this year, I was asked, “Why are the girls still not back?” I did not (and still don’t) have a confirmed answer. I hope for greater clarity on this human rights crisis of our time over the next two years.
Prior to the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, however, so many girls’ lives were compromised daily and their rights violated as a result of harmful and discriminative cultural and social norms. These prejudices to girls’ wellbeing continue to impact the economic and social environment in Nigeria as girls and women are not given opportunities to be contributors in their society. This injustice was recently reflected in March 2016 when the Nigerian Senate voted down the controversial “Gender Parity and Prohibition of Violence against Women Bill” which sought “equal rights for women in marriage, education and job.” The Bill raised national awareness and dialogue about women’s rights in Nigeria and revealed the incompatibility and inconsistencies between religion and civic law in Nigeria. It is slated to be re-presented to the Senate in a revised format, with hopes of a positive outcome.
Other notable facts on the state of girls and women in Nigeria include:
- Sixty-six percent of Nigerian girls aged 15-24 years old are literate, compared to 78 percent of boys the same age.
- Over five million girls are out of school in Nigeria; the highest figure in the world.
- Only 23 percent of Nigerian girls are enrolled in secondary school.
- Only seven percent of Nigerian women are actively involved in politics and in the parliament.
- Of the 109 members of the Nigerian senate, there are only eight women.
In sum, my exploration comes at a critical time in Nigeria, politically, economically, and socially.
Encountering Nigerian Politics
Seventeen hours after landing in Abuja, I found myself sitting at a dinner table at a well-known restaurant in Abuja engaged in conversation with a Dimeji Bankole. A few hours earlier, I had received an e-mail from one of my professional listserves inviting me to an informal discussion with the former Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives. Prior to this dinner, I had no idea who Mr. Bankole was. Seated around the table were about 20 members of the Abuja Global Shapers and Naija DC, two professional networks of young and vibrant Nigerians who are committed to the development of Nigeria and Africa at large. I was in for a rare opportunity to connect with one of Nigeria’s most impressive leaders — a wonderful way to embark on my Fellowship.
Foremost on my mind was the essential Nigerian enigma. When you think about politics in Nigeria, the word that often comes to mind is corruption. And the question often on everyone’s tongue in discussions about Africa’s largest economy (now possibly second largest due to the devaluation of the Naira) is, “where is all the money?” With a population of 170 million, the tenth largest oil reserves in the world and yet with over 60 percent of its population living below the poverty line, it’s hard to explain how Nigeria continues to fail its citizens. I was determined to hear what this singular politician and the others at the dinner had to say about this.
Nigerian politicians are not typically accessible. The opportunity to sit down for a candid conversation with Mr. Bankole, the 9th and youngest Speaker elected to the Nigerian House of Representatives, was truly exceptional. A businessman turned politician (and a passionate polo player), Bankole is both a distinguished and controversial public figure. A native of Ogun state in Southwestern Nigeria, he got his university and graduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard respectively. He was elected to serve as the Speaker at the age of 37; his tenure lasted from 2007 through 2011. Despite Bankole’s efforts to curb government corruption by demanding the return of unspent funds from government agencies and ministries to the national treasury, the end of his term as Speaker was clouded with allegations of personal fraud and corruption. Still, Bankole is revered, especially amongst Nigerian youth.
Bankole sensed some reservation among the youth assembled at the table. To break the ice he asked if anyone had Googled his name prior to coming to the dinner. A few people raised their hands, and then he said, “so, ask me what you want to know.” The questions soon began pouring out: Why had he avoided the press during the allegations? What was his experience like as Speaker: How could young people get into the political system and build/find allies as a young politician in an environment that is controlled by much older men? His responses were candid. Bankole emphasized the importance of young people needing to know how to take initiative and not expecting power to be handed to them. He stated that there is “no success without succession,” emphasizing the role of mentorship in nurturing strong leaders for Nigeria’s future.
I quickly gained respect for Bankole, if for the mere fact that he took hours out of his busy schedule to have dinner with young leaders. The dinner participants included journalists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and budding politicians. It was important for the audience to hear Mr. Bankole’s personal narrative of the challenges and allegations he faced as an elected official. He shared even things that are “off the record.”
This timely meeting came on the heels of the #NotTooYoungToRun Bill which was introduced in the House of Representatives in May 2016 (and has passed the second reading; awaiting final reading in the House). The Bill seeks to reduce the constitutional age requirement for running for a political office in Nigeria. The Bill aims “to reduce the age qualification for the office of the President from 40 years to 30 years; Governor 35 to 30, Senate 35 to 30, House of Representatives 30 to 25 and State House of Assembly 30 to 25, and mainstream independent candidacy into Nigeria’s electoral process.” This Bill is an opportunity for the country to begin harnessing the potential of its youths in a time when strong and progressive change is needed.
After a couple of hours together, our dinner wrapped up with a photography session with the former Speaker. I followed up with a “Thank You” email, to which he responded, noting that “It falls to your generation to make Nigeria a nation and reverse the cycle of dependency entrenched by years of inadequate leadership. But if our time together is any indication, my hope for Nigeria’s future is shared in you, and with the right character and integrity, it can be safe in your hands.” A champion of young people as change agents, Bankole is also a staunch advocate of character in leadership. As a result of his experience and interest in nurturing the next generation of leaders, he was asked to consider being an advisor and mentor to the Abuja Global Shapers community. He remarked on his experience at the dinner on his website: http://www.dimejibankole.org/dimeji-bankole-inspires-young-professionals-from-abuja-global-shapers-and-naija-dc/
Advancing STEM Education for Nigerian Girls: Introducing WAAW (Working to Advance African Women) Foundation
Margaret Mead said, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” Her words reflect the premise behind the current global advocacy for educating girls, with an emphasis on promoting girls in science and technology fields. In Nigeria, as in many developing countries, girls are not encouraged to think for themselves, question things, and be innovative. From August 8-13, I participated in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) camp for Nigerian secondary school girls hosted by the WAAW (Working to Advance Science and Technology Education for African Women) Foundation. (I had learned of WAAW from a family friend who knew of my work and interest in girls’ education and empowerment.) There were 38 girls between the ages of 13 and17 years, enrolled in SS1-SS3 in attendance spanning every geographic region of Nigeria, from Lagos state to Adamawa to Abia and Abuja. This was a diverse group of girls, with different cultural, social, and religious backgrounds. I had a chance to meet the Founder of the organization, Dr. Unoma Ndili Okorafor and was inspired to hear the story of how WAAW was conceived.
While studying for her undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Lagos, Dr. Okorafor faced many challenges as the only woman in her class. Once, she was told by a friend that the men in her class were plotting to rape her because she spoke up in class. As a result, she decided not to speak up in class, and went from being a straight A student to getting decent grades just to avoid harm from her classmates. She said “I resolved that I will not make First Class,” and she stuck to this pact and graduated with second-class honors 2:1 (the level after First Class). This was a shocking reminder to me of the many threats that girls and women face in their pursuit of education.
Staffed and facilitated by young women, the STEM camp is designed to expose girls to the world of technology and get them to think creatively and apply their talents as innovators. Throughout the week, the girls were taught by technology professionals to write codes, build a website, design an app, and use programs such as Scratch (to design video games) and Arduino (which is used to control LED Boards and traffic lights). They learned to see technology as a tool for empowerment and solving problems. The girls also listened to inspirational talks from women professionals about having a career in a STEM field. One of the speakers shared about her journey from Harvard law school to now working in the technology and energy sector as the Country Director for a renewable energy company in Nigeria.
In one camp activity, the girls were asked to create a windmill using natural and recycled resources; resources from their environment. When the facilitator described the activity to the girls, the girls looked stunned and asked “but how are we supposed to build a windmill?” Many of them had never seen a windmill in-person before, but they had an idea of what it looks like (thanks to sample drawings on the Board). As I watched the girls, in their small groups, ponder amongst themselves for a few minutes and then begin using their hands to create the structure of a windmill, I was struck by a thought: what if there were boys in the room? What would happen?
As the girls began to design the windmill, I realized the power/confidence that girls have when they are not in the midst of boys. I asked one of the girls what she thinks would have happened if there were boys in the classroom. Her response: “I think boys have a higher IQ than girls.” She continued to share that there is a perception that boys can do more than girls. Boys will often take the lead on an assignment, and girls will lose their confidence. “The boys will spend thirty minutes arguing as they try to find the best design.” She also shared that in school, if a girl does impressive work, somehow a boy is always acknowledged/recognized more. In fact, if a girl and boy were to do a task equally well, the teacher would assign something harder to determine a winner. Very often, the girl gets discouraged by this and feels incapable.
Not only did the girls have to design a windmill, they also had to make sure it would rotate when propelled by a wind and generate enough power to light up a bulb. And they did! To sum up her experience at the camp, one 13-year-old participant noted “I have learnt how to make games, do animation, build bulbs, how the windmill generates electricity, mobile application, web designing and lots more. With what I have learnt, I can make money from it even at my young age. So, I am really happy. After having my degree in medicine, I will venture into other things like technology, because this camp has given me that opportunity.” Another student said, “This camp has made me see that there are a lot of opportunities out there. It has encouraged me to know I can chase my dream of becoming an engineer.”
The camp helped me realize the importance of providing practical (hands-on) opportunities for girls to learn. As one parent noted during the camp closing ceremony, “Africa entered into the 21st century without its schools,” highlighting the need for trained STEM teachers and well-equipped STEM facilities in schools. STEM education empowers girls to find new ideas and solutions to the problems they face. This year, the WAAW foundation also provided training for some teachers in order to equip them to continue working with students in school. This is a key aspect of nurturing students’ talents and ensuring sustainability. The camp also included field trips to two telecommunications facilities where the students experienced technologies that control e-mail and Internet connections for private and government institutions in Nigeria. As the STEM camp wrapped up, I reflected on the power of girl-friendly learning spaces and their ability to enhance girls’ education and empowerment — helping girls feel confident to make mistakes and discover their talents.
 http://en.unesco.org/gem-report/sites/gem-report/files/girls-factsheet-en.pdf. Accessed 08/24/2016
 United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. (2009). State of the World’s Children, p. 136.
 http://qz.com/642396/how-we-make-sure-nigerias-gender-equality-bill-passes-next-time/. Accessed 08/29/2016
 http://www.herald.ng/ngo-wants-youths-involvement-in-technology/. Accessed 08/28/2016