On March 28, millions of Nigerians will vote in what many are calling one of the most critical elections in the country’s history. As the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, faces his leading challenger, Muhammadu Buhari—who briefly ruled Nigeria in the 1980s as part of the military regime—the country, the most populous in Africa, grapples with Boko Haram, rampant corruption, and a growing economic crisis.
Women and girls have been at the heart of the campaigns and recent crises, but more often than not, depicted as helpless victims or collateral damage. From the 270 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok a year ago to the rise of female suicide bombers, the plight of Nigeria’s women and girls is regularly highlighted in the news. Yet these headlines fail to capture two critical realities.
First, Nigerian women and girls not only face violent conflict, but also systemic, pervasive oppression and discrimination that is often more mundane, but no less critical. Nigeria ranks abysmally low on the Gender Equality Index (118 out of 134 countries). Despite legislation that prohibits marriage before the age of 18, 43 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthday, 17 percent before they turn 15. Nigerian girls and women also face other forms of gender-based violence and the country lacks the legal framework to prosecute such crimes.
The government’s lackluster response to incidents like the Chibok kidnapping outraged Nigerians. Unfortunately, their inaction when it comes to women and girls seems to be all too common. Manre Chirtau, who manages several programs for Education as a Vaccine (EVA), an IWHC partner, recently noted, “In terms of policies, Nigeria isn’t that bad. We actually have really good policies that even talk about the importance of individuals being able to realize and practice their sexual and reproductive health and rights, but it’s the implementation of those policies that becomes the challenge.” Hopefully the upcoming elections will change this.
Secondly, women and girls in Nigeria are not only victims, but also survivors and active agents in achieving progress in their country. A number of local groups are working tirelessly and successfully to level the playing field for women and girls—illustrating that civil society continues to make strides. IWHC’s partners in Nigeria are tackling deeply ingrained gender norms and harmful traditional practices, while also working to empower and strengthen the next generation of women’s and girls’ advocates.
Young people are at the heart of EVA, an organization dedicated to improving the reproductive and sexual health of young people. EVA’s Youth Advocates Group trains youth on media outreach, advocacy, and lobbying—so they are able to engage with policy makers on critical legislation like the National Health Bill, which was signed into law this past December. To date, EVA has educated nearly 7,000 young people on national policies that directly impact their health and rights.
Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) began in 1993 as a life skills education course for 16 girls, including the daughters of the organization’s founders. Now over twenty years later, GPI is active in four Nigerian states, reaching approximately 20,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 18. It is an international model for educating adolescent girls and young women about human rights and gender equality. The long-time IWHC partner builds sustained support for girls’ empowerment among government officials, media, educators, and others through sensitization and awareness workshops.
Another initiative, run by the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (INCRESE) , provides at-risk girls with leadership skills, educates them about their bodies and rights, and helps them develop their ability to respond to inequalities and injustice. Rather than targeting girls who are already excelling in school as many programs do, INCRESE engages with girls who are most likely to drop out, as well as with their parents and community leaders. INCRESE provides them with information on the benefits of keeping girls in school and of not forcing them into early marriage.
No country has yet achieved total gender equality and we have seen again and again that there is no quick fix. But GPI, INCRESE, and EVA are successful examples of grassroots organizations making communities safer and more just for girls and women.
Our partners’ work is proof that a new generation is ready to lead the charge. They envision a world where regardless of election outcomes, politicians will have to follow through on their promises. And this may be sooner than previously thought, with a shift seemingly occurring. As Chirtau said of the election, “Whoever wins, the people are going to hold that person more accountable than they have in the past. And I think that’s a good thing.”