Connecting the Dots for Women and Girls in Nigeria

A new feminist institute led by IWHC’s grantee partner the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (INCRESE) seeks to empower young people to advocate for gender equality and human rights. In a recent interview, Dorothy Aken’Ova, INCRESE’s founder, sheds light on the institute—Connecting the Dots—which is designed to build a movement that is capable of connecting, protecting, and defending human rights, advocating for sexual and reproductive health and rights, and driving social change in Nigeria.

What drove you to create Connecting the Dots, and what do you hope to achieve?

There were four driving factors that pushed me to create Connecting the Dots.

The first was mentoring of emerging activists. Lots of resources have been put into women’s sexual and reproductive health; however, progress in Nigeria remains abysmally slow. Nigeria set development targets based on international conferences and instruments, notably the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Cairo, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing ,the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). These frameworks were meant to increase the number of women in public office and decision making positions, but [Nigeria’s] performance is way below the set targets. As the older generation passes the torch to emerging leaders in the sexual and reproductive health and rights movement, we must transfer this knowledge [of Nigeria’s commitments] to the next generation.

The second driving factor was building alliances across movements and sectors. I’ve realized that many other sectors of development are not receiving the kind of input that sexual and reproductive health and rights activists are making to the health sector. Because all these sectors are mutually and equally complimentary, the poor performance of these other sectors continues to erode efforts on sexual and reproductive health and gender equality. Feminists in Nigeria have not exerted enough effort in building and sustaining cross movement and multi-sectoral collaborations. We need allies and we need to build capacities across movements to achieve change.

The third driving factor was increasing intersectionality in program design and implementation. I have, over the years, seen the need to raise awareness on intersections that exist between our movement—the feminist movement—and other movements.

The intersections are clear. For example, women need economic independence and financial power to decide on matters that affect them, like choosing a partner, negotiating limits in a relationship, and exerting influence within and outside the home. Women who are economically strong can end an abusive relationship while those who are not have greater tendency to stay trapped in it. We must connect these rights to fight for full gender equality.

Lastly, we must combine new digital advocacy tactics with traditional strategies. Activism as I knew it growing up in the women’s movement has transformed under modern communication technologies. Social media and other technologies have redefined the way we engage with power and among ourselves, but face to face advocacy, campaigns, and rallies cannot be jettisoned. Right under our eyes, hard fought gains by the women’s movement are being halted by backlash after backlash. We must develop both competencies to drive the change we seek.

What are your advocacy priorities?

Through Connecting the Dots we seek to prepare emerging leaders to advance policies that improve family planning; prenatal, maternity, and postnatal care; and reduce child, early, and forced marriage and gender-based violence. Specifically, this includes the passage and implementation of the affirmative action bill, an increased  budget for women’s issues, comprehensive sexuality education in all schools, the decriminalization of abortion, and a repeal of discriminatory laws such as wife chastisement [physical punishment].

We also aim to increase youth and women’s participation in politics and the economy and male engagement in reproductive health issues. Through this work we look to increase government accountability and transparency.

How many people are you training and are you seeing a demand for this training among youth?

There is huge demand for enrollment in the institute. We held the inaugural training with 15 activists from various sectors, and will train another 25 individuals in the summer of 2019. We’ve seen a big demand both within Nigeria and from neighboring countries. We are excited to have received requests from outside Nigeria and hope to expand our scope to international participants in the near future.

We aim to train a diverse group of future advocates over a decade. While the majority will be females, we will also target males, LGBTQI individuals, and people with disabilities. The institute can help equip youth, women, and other historically marginalized populations to participate in bringing about the change they desire.

Nigeria has passed a “Not too Young to Run” bill, lowering the required age to hold political office. However, youth are asking themselves, “are we ready?” Through Connecting the Dots, we seek to prepare youths to hold public office and become advocates and leaders.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photos: INCRESE

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