Strong, assertive, articulate, informed.

These are some of the words that have been used to describe graduates of Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) in Nigeria. GPI fills the gaps left by standard school curricula by giving girls vital information about their bodies, their rights, and their responsibilities. These lessons help empower girls to take control of their reproductive and sexual lives and realize their full potential as individuals.

In Nigeria, adolescent girls are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV, unwanted pregnancies, and trafficking. Girls in GPI’s training are armed with the strategies, skills, and self-esteem they need to negotiate their adolescent years in good health. Today, these young women represent the country’s next generation of leaders, committed to realizing their vision of social justice and gender equality.

The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) helped launch GPI in 1993 and continues to provide the organization with financial and technical support. GPI began as a life-skills education course for 16 girls, including the daughters of founders Grace Osakue and Bene Madunagu. Twenty years later, GPI is active in four Nigerian states, reaches approximately 20,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 18, and has become an international model for educating young women about human rights and gender equality. GPI also runs a Gender Development Institute and hosts TV and radio programs.

At the policy level, GPI played a critical role in the passage of Nigeria’s national sexuality education curriculum, adopted by the federal government in 2000. GPI is currently updating the curriculum textbook and training teachers to implement it. 

To build sustained support for girls’ empowerment, GPI convenes a biannual gender sensitivity and awareness training for government officials, media professionals, educators, and health care workers. The five-day workshop covers issues such as sexual and reproductive health and rights, women and HIV, gender-based violence, contraception, and gender equality.

Although its programs have grown significantly, the girl remains at the heart of GPI’s work. Osakue says: “Our mission is to empower girls to become catalysts for change and bring about gender equality in Nigeria. So our priorities always are training the girls to think, make decisions, and take actions for themselves and on behalf of others.”

In addition to the sexuality education and life-skills curriculum, GPI reaches out to girls’ parents and siblings, friends, teachers, and health care providers to foster an environment of support.

“Beyond affecting the communities the girls come from, we also take action to create an enabling environment in terms of laws and policies that support the nature of change that we desire,” Osakue says. “So it’s not enough to tell a girl that female genital mutilation is unnecessary and harmful, we also worked with the legislative arm of the government to develop a law prohibiting female genital mutilation. That’s an example of the changes we make in that direction.”

But Osakue notes that changing the law isn’t enough: communities must be informed for actual change to happen. “When the law is enacted, the work doesn’t stop there. You have to raise awareness that such a law now exists.”

After the law against female genital mutilation (FGM) was passed, IWHC helped GPI launch an awareness campaign to put an end to the practice.

“We produced information materials to raise awareness on it, we created television programs to focus on it, we did community awareness-raising with rallies in the communities, and we had to show people why FGM was not right and do whistle-blowing on people who were still doing it,” says Osakue. “We also had to mobilize the circumcisers, the people who carry it out. We had to tell them why we were advocating against it, and we linked them with empowerment programs so that they could be trained on alternative income-generating strategies.”

GPI’s advocacy on the FGM law has been very successful in the communities where the organization is active. Now, GPI is working with groups in other areas of the country to scale up efforts to prevent FGM throughout Nigeria.