Of the estimated 149 million Nigerians, 60 percent live in rural districts. Most of them cannot access fundamental infrastructural resources, social, and healthcare services. English is the official language of Nigeria, but most of the population is not fluent. Continued regional conflicts and the prevalence of patriarchal traditions force women to care for themselves and their children in an economically and politically unstable environment. Many women are widowed at an early age, live in remote regions of the country, and are mostly illiterate. All of these factors can contribute to an unstable and uncertain social and economic future. As Nigeria Country Director for Women for Women International, I am so proud to be making a difference for the women of my country. Here’s how it happened.
Following a visit to Nigeria by Women for Women International [WfWI] founder Zainab Salbi in 2000, WfWI initiated “sister-to-sister” relationships with 800 women from three rural communities. The initial six-month program consisted of a curriculum in leadership, rights awareness, business creation, health care and HIV/AIDS education.
In 2001, WfWI – Nigeria began to operate as a formally registered NGO with a country office in the southeastern state of Enugu. Two years later, a satellite office in Jos, the capital of the Plateau State, opened following the cessation of violence between Christian and Muslim communities. Since women can be instrumental in bridging lines of conflict, women from both religious communities participated in the program, including in communities where there had been clashes for over ten years. One of the participants wrote, “I gained a lot from this program because you treat each other the way you want others to treat you. Even if you see somebody on the road, he or she is your fellow brother or sister. No tribalism, no sectionalism towards others. We women have gained a lot from these teachings.”
Since inception in late 2000, Women for Women International has had a positive impact on more than 23,000 socially excluded women in more than 30 communities in Nigeria, helping women access rights awareness and leadership training, business and vocational skills training and opportunities to generate income. The program enables women to move from being victims to being active citizens. It’s our fundamental belief that stronger women build stronger nations. Another one of our graduates said, “I use what I learn from such a gathering to educate other women, especially on social and civic issues. For example, empowerment, rights awareness, peace in the family, health issues – all of them have attracted respect for me in the community.” It’s these kinds of reflections that make me want to get up and work every day, and that’s because the impact of what we’re doing is tremendous.
For example, more than 300 women’s groups have been able to buy or lease land for their businesses, ranging from poultry farming, to processing of grains and piggeries. Our groups have also been encouraged to open bank accounts in some of the most notable banks in Nigeria, such as Guaranty Trust Bank Plc, Intercontinental Bank Plc, Zenith Bank Plc and Nigerian Agricultural Cooperative and Rural Development Bank. We’ve also been able to collaborate with other stakeholders and institutions to provide services to participants and graduates of the program – such as Annunciation Hospital, Enugu who has been providing pre- and post-counseling services for women living with HIV/AIDs and encouraging others to know their status. In 2008, the office opened a daily clinic with laboratory services in Jos, through which, in partnership with local partners, we are able to offer prenatal/postpartum health services, as well as voluntary counseling and testing for HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
Although our main focus is on socially excluded women, Women for Women International-Nigeria was the first chapter among the other country programs in Africa to start what we call our Men’s Leadership Training. This innovative program helps educate male leaders on women’s rights and value to the economy and society, engaging them as advocates and allies throughout their communities. These trainings provide platforms for men and women to discuss and implement ideas for stronger communities where men and women are equally respected and valued. Topics in the training include community rebuilding and participation, HIV/ AIDs, violence against women, and education.
One woman at a time, we at Women for Women International are working toward sustainable human and economic development in Africa, and we started with our Nigeria office. 97 percent of our program participants in my country say their lives have improved economically, and with an increased sense of confidence and awareness too. We are helping women become stronger, taking leadership roles in defining the future of their families and societies, so that they may build better lives for generations to come.
About the author: Ngozi Uchenna Eze has more than 18 years of experience working in both private and public institutions advancing the status of women and children through international development. Before coming to Women for Women International (womenforwomen.org), she worked in Nigeria with a number of NGOs and private firms, including the Ohio African Trade office, based in Lagos.