Northern Nigeria is known for being a scary place if you are a girl. You face daily threats, including abduction, rape, and forced marriage. Underlying this violence is a social system that does not value women and men equally and questions the logic of educating and empowering girls. The region is mainly governed by Shari’ah law, which seeks to control women’s sexuality and decision-making power.
IWHC has worked with feminist women’s groups in Nigeria since 1988 to change the conversation and to support Nigerian women and girls in advancing their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Recently we visited our partner, the International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights’ (INCRESE), in Niger State, and it turned out to be a trip like no other.
We took a long bus ride north of the city of Minna, to a rural community called Kabula. What makes Kabula different from other communities in Northern Nigeria is its Queen. Unlike other kingdoms around the world that might happen to have a Queen in power—like the United Kingdom—Kabula will only ever have a Queen. It is a matrilineal society, meaning that only women can rule. When the Queen of Kabula, Hajiya Khadidjat Ahmed, passes on, only her daughters can take over.
You would think that by having a woman leader, women and girls would flourish and their rights would be realized. However—as we quickly found out—having a woman leader doesn’t necessarily ensure there will be gender equality. We saw typical gender norms at play in Queen Ahmed’s village. She has an entirely male leadership council; it seemed that their role was to speak on her behalf. In addition, while many boys and girls sat together, we noticed that men and women were segregated, and the women rarely spoke publicly.
Still, we were heartened by some of the men we met and spoke to. Young people participating in INCRESE’s Girls’ Leadership Program performed a lively and compelling skit about the dangers of child marriage. The men in attendance spoke about their concerns for their daughters and seemed convinced about the importance of keeping them in school.
The Girls Leadership Program provides comprehensive sexuality education to adolescent girls who are at risk of being pulled out of school and forced into marriage by their parents. Though its main focus is girls, boys are included as well. INCRESE decided to include boys as they recognized that girls and women do not live in isolation, but interact with boys and need male allies. INCRESE also believes that interacting with boys provides girls with the opportunity to practice being bold and assertive with their male peers in the classroom, so they can continue to use those skills in real-life situations.
INCRESE knows that empowering girls is crucial, and believes more can be done. Creating enabling environments and changing the viewpoints of gatekeepers—those in power—is also important. What was so striking about this community, beyond its matrilineal chiefdom, was its openness to discussions about gender equality. The discussion about the rights of women and girls has begun and is taking root.
“As we inch further into the relationship with the community, we will discuss with the Queen the lack of female representation on her council. We want to support Her Royal Highness to improve the lives of women.” says Dorothy Aken’Ova, the founder and director of INCRESE.
Though they face serious challenges, the organization is making real gains. They are working to ensure women and girls are not just seen, but heard—and listened to!