The past few months, women in Nigeria have been busy protesting for justice on multiple fronts. Earlier this year, women protested against gender-based violence. Today, young women are leaders in the #EndSARS protests.
I have over two decades experience working with marginalized and resilient women in conflict zones and helping them to find their voice and rebuild their lives.
As a Nigerian woman, I have seen how COVID-19 has deepened inequities and the economic, social and physical pain it has forced women to endure.
The pandemic has also made clear that any sustainable path towards progress for our country needs women at the forefront and in leadership positions.
Activist Aisha Yesufu is an excellent case for the impact of women leaders campaigning for justice. Since 2014, she has relentlessly convened the advocacy group Bring Back Our Girls, a movement to return the 200+ Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Yesufu’s leadership has proven valuable to the #EndSARS movement in a renewed call to end the police brutality of the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
The violence, harassment, and extortion perpetrated by SARS was followed by government forces opening fire on peaceful protestors, days after the unit was purportedly dissolved. How can there be trust when law enforcement answers calls for accountability and transparency with blood?
Among the youth calling for change are young women, who have shown that the accountability and transparency protestors want is possible.
Founded by 13 young women in Nigeria, the Feminist Coalition sustained and protected protestors with supplies, information, and legal aid. Through their website and social media, they updated supporters with how much they had collected and how funding was used.
Like Yesufu’s efforts years before and now, the Feminist Coalition has been critical to attracting global attention and resources to the protests so bad government actors cannot hide.
Witnessing women’s leadership in Nigeria is heartening for a country still deeply entrenched in patriarchy. The pandemic worsened women’s conditions, between losing income and rising prices, lack of healthcare, and rising rates of sexual violence in and out of the home.
COVID-19 also showed that women’s leadership is crucial. There are steps we must take to invest in women’s power:
Teach Women Their Rights
When women don’t know their rights, they can’t advocate for themselves. In my job, we see many women surprised to learn that they have the same rights as men. When they realize, they become emboldened and use that knowledge to protect other women and themselves.
Saratu, a Women for Women International participant, said, “I educated all my children about the equal status and rights they share… [my girls] would have been subjected to the same violations my mother and I went through.”
Many law enforcement officials also don’t know about women’s rights, which means women often go without justice, especially without support. The latest movements have raised awareness of women’s rights while working to advance them.
Connect Women with Networks
Numbers amplify women’s voices. Connecting women with networks both locally and globally allows them to build power to push change.
Where we work, women avoid the police when assaulted. Besides difficulty proving assault, police make it more difficult for women to come forward by ignoring them, blaming them, or even extorting from them. Women who know their rights and come together can use collective pressure to force action, protecting women’s rights while providing emotional support.
Globally, we saw the impact of worldwide attention during Bring Back Our Girls. Young women have done the same for the #EndSARS movement, bringing powerful voices like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Beyoncé, and Rihanna. They’ve tapped into parallel movements across the world like #BlackLivesMatter and harnessed the power of members of our diaspora such as Opal Tometi to secure resources.
When women have other women behind them, they are the backbone of social change.
Model the PossibilitiesWomen’s leadership has a ripple effect. They invest in their community and clear the path for every woman after. When women and girls see other women exercising their voice and rights, they realize that they have power, too.
Severe warnings from the government have dampened the #EndSARS movement and stalled the Feminist Coalition’s crowdfunding efforts. But It’s been a step forward for every woman and girl who has thought change impossible.
We can take more steps forward now. As citizens of Nigeria, we write the job descriptions that fill leadership positions when we elect future leaders at different levels of government. Through grassroots education and using this political moment to mobilize people, we can “hire” leaders committed to equity.
I encourage everyone — especially women — to get their permanent voter’s card so next election won’t be business as usual. A government that works for Nigeria needs women’s decision-making to be successful. – Thomson Reuters Foundation.
- Bukola Onyishi is Country Director Women for Women International in Nigeria