Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation
In Nigeria, some women struggle for their right to go to school. It is a tricky place for them; women certainly exist in positions of responsibility; are noted to be hard workers, firm in decision-making, and contributing in no small measure to the development of the country. However, even with that, they remain relegated, marginalized, and viewed, after everything, as second-class citizens, where decisions can be made without their consent, and education is a privilege, not a right.
This creates an internal struggle, an inability to reconcile with their enforced lack of participation in governance and leadership. It doesn’t seem fair; they contribute enormously to the economic and social spheres, and yet they are viewed mainly as property, to be bartered in marriage. Decisions are often made on their behalf, without their consult. A culture of patriarchy has eaten deep into the country, and women are reared and trained as homemakers/care-givers, married off at tender ages instead of being awarded the same opportunities as their male counterparts. School stops for them in their early to mid- teens, and is replaced, in one night, by a husband sometimes over twice their age. Motherhood enters their life far earlier than it should, and indeed, is even healthy; what’s worse, the health complications that inevitably follow then lead them ostracised, alienated, and left with nowehere to turn.
This plague of child marriage, which has been widely practised for decades, is what the organization BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights sought to tackle. BAOBAB, a project partner for WELDD, undertook a project titled Ending Child Marriage in Nigeria, fulfilling the goals of Outcome 3--Culturally-Justified Violence Against Women. They did so by rallying women in rural areas, grassroots women who had previously been ignored in such efforts, women who were not necessarily educated, but were willing to and receptive to change. They built on the collective strength of the Nigerian woman—a force to be reckoned with—and fostered their capacity, enhanced their leadership potentials, educated them on the dangers of child marriage, sensitized them on issues of leadership, politics, gender, culture, women’s human rights and advocacy strategies. Not only that, they also involved men in the campaign against child marriage.
What made this campaign unique was that, unlike previous campaigns, it sought the ignored majority: the grassroots. The project responded to the gap, the exclusion of the grassroots, training them to take ownership of the issue, to identify champions for change who can catalyse social change, and participate in politics and local governance, increasing women’s participation and advocacy. This transformative and alternative leadership position ensured that women acquired and dispensed power, organising society, harnessing and distributing resources, as well as influencing key decision-making. This ensured that women’s needs, concerns and interested were addressed in such a manner that violations of women’s human rights were reduced. Women, in this situation, were the primary beneficiaries of the project, as they are the ones who have suffered historical marginalization in leadership and decision-making, as well as had most human rights violated. Religious leaders are one of the culprits, as they misinterpret and reinterpret religious in the most conveniently patriarchal ways. BAOBAB sought to address these interpretations, and spread some enlightenment and awareness.
The project was held in the Zamfara state, a state ruled by Sharia law which indirectly allows for and even encourages child marriage. BABOBAB’s strategy involved five stages: mobilization, advocacy visits and campaigning, stakeholders’ consultation, capacity building, and women’s movements. The observations they saw were surprising, and the results, encouraging. Participants were all too eager to get involved, with several stepping up to voice their woes on personal experiences with the matter. All in all, the project boasted success.
Imagine a childhood one day, and marriage the next, with no consent, no transition time, and no agency in the matter.
Child marriage is not only a violation of rights, but also a physically, mentally and psychologically harmful experience. It affects the socioeconomic and political rights of the girl, denying her education, health, economic empowerment and political participation. It denies those of school age the right to their own personal development, preparation for adulthood, and ability to effectively contribute to the future of the well-being of not only her family but of society in general. It forces her into predefined roles—as a submissive wife and mother, and a vessel for reproduction. In addition, at this early age, children lack the knowledge about sex that would otherwise give them the tools to make rational and informed decisions about sexual relations, family planning, and most importantly, their health.
In Nigeria, girls are likely to be less educated than boys, particularly in households with lower incomes. This lack of education is compounded by child marriage; studies show that a large number of girls that drop out of school do so because of early marriage, leaving many married girls illiterate. These studies also show a strong correlation between a woman’s age and the the level of education she receives; according to UNICEF, women between 20 to 24 who attended primary school are less likely to be married by age 18; in Senegal, 20% of women who had attended primary school had been married by age 18, compared to the 36% who had not attended school; and in Tanzania, women who had attended secondary school were 92% less likely to be married by age 18. These correlations show a strong link between level of education and age of marriage.
The sad news is that parents tend to find more value in marriage than in education, thus discouraging their daughters from studying. Which then means that a large proportion of women, if they are lucky enough to even get a primary school education, do not get the opportunity to move past it.
Then there are the health complications. A child bride, due to her inevitable innocence and lack of preparation, is like to be forced into sexual activity with her husband, at an age where she is not physically and sexually mature enough for it. This can lead to severe consequences. She is, for one, likely to become pregnant, and there is a strong correlation between the age of a mother and maternal mortality—the younger the mother, the fewer her chances of surviving childbirth. The pregnancy itself may prove complicated for girls; they may face heavy bleeding, fistula, infections, anaemia, and eclampsia, Vesico-Vagina Fistula (VVF) and Rectum Vagina Fistula (RVF), all of which contribute to higher mortality rates of both the mother and the child. Mothers whose bodies are physically incapable of childbirth may face higher chances of premature labor, increased risk of death, low birth rate and higher chances that they newborn baby will not live.
A lot of girl children marry men who have been involved in previous sexual relationships, and may carry HIV/AIDS. It’s an acute risk for girls with older husbands; their increased vulnerability to venereal diseaseses is another thing they are entirely prepared for, and entirely uninformed about.
There is still the social matter. The fact is, girls with such medical conditions are considered “unclean”, and are ostracised by their very own families. This condition affects over 150,000 women, out of this number; 80-90% of affected wives are divorced by their husbands. Most are at a loss for where to go.
Under the WELDD programme, BAOBAB has strived to decrease the advent of child marriage as it appears under the umbrella of culturally-justified violence against women. To do this, the team mobilized the community, organized stakeholder meetings and consulted with religious and traditional leaders to carry out effective and efficient advocacy campaigns.
There were five steps involved: mobilization, advocacy visits and campaigning, stakeholder consultation and women’s capacity building.
Seven outreach team members, in collaboration with women leaders, carried out a mobilization process in Zamfara to ensure that the participants in focus are given equal opportunity to engage in the project and on the women’s movement.
The capacity building/sensitization training would, apart from building skills and awareness, ultimately result in a women’s movement. These women, together with men, would campaign to put an end to child marriage. One of the strategies used to set the tone and platform was to invite Islamic scholar Malam Nasir Bello Bungudu , who delivered a lecture on marriage and the rights on women in Islam. This scholar elaborated on Islamic dictates which guarantee the rights of women, and cited instances of how such rights are trampled upon by men in every social strata. He described women as the backbone of the society whose dignity must be upheld in high esteem, and quoted several verses from the glorious Qur’an and Hadith to validate this.
Next, there were two advocacy meetings in the life of the project. The first was a pre-project implementation advocacy visit to meet and consult with key stakeholders and sow the seed for change in community, state, and local governments.
The second was as a follow-up, to monitor and evaluate, as well as participate in the activities surrounding women’s movements. This was an advocacy campaign that commenced after the training and mobilization exercises, and the publication of an advocacy booklet and other materials for the campaign.
Then followed the stakeholder consultation—again, two in total. These stakeholders comprised religious and traditional leaders, each considered to be gatekeepers of the communities. These meetings served as an avenue to identify where the entry point for the movement would be, how the plan would be maneuvered; to make the stakeholders understand the purpose of the project, the strategies to implement it, as well as the issues involved. Through the meeting, an analysis was conducted to weed out who seemed like the wouldn’t support the project, and draw in the people who seemed like they would.
Next followed the capacity-building training. A back-to-back two-day training consisting of 25 men and 25 women, picked from the communities in Zamfara, were thoroughly trained on the dangers of child marriage, the importance of women’s rights, and the proper advocacy strategies to ensure change. These participants were expected to replicate and multiply the message, spreading it to other men and women in their own communities; the end goal was to create a movement of women aiming to end child marriage.
To help achieve this, an advocacy booklet (below) was produced and distributed, educating participants on the issue at hand.
As the BAOBAB team proceeded with their plan, they noticed some interesting, encouraging observations that came as a surprise to most: the community seemed all too ready to engage in this project.
During the trainings, not only did participants express their dismay at the rising phenomenon of child marriage, but also display a reasonable level of understanding at the dangers of the social problem. In fact, some even cited personal experiences where they witnessed a child marriage, and found it unpleasant, but were helpless about the situation.
The project team was highly elated at this response. All participants, regardless of their level of exposure, were quick to understand the dangers of child marriage; the team did not face any opposition to the ideas as they were prepared to. After the workshops, in fact, this was glaringly obvious: once the initial seed on the dangers of the phenomenon were sown, the communities were vehemently against the idea. Later, they opened up to relate some of their own bitter, heartbreaking experiences that have personally affected not just themselves, but their relatives and close associates. This visible impact was very reassuring to the team as they went along in their endeavours.
The team saw that the tone that participants used to condemn child marriage was strong and unequivocal; they called it a menace, and even put forward their own initiatives to resolve the issue. A synergy of common platforms came into place, aimed at carrying out further public enlightenment on the dangerous, devastating consequences of child marriage. The team found this motivating, and reassured them of their continuous support, praising their noble initiatives and encouraging their desire for further advocacy.
A follow-up some months later revealed that one of the participants had now opened up an evening school for married girls and women! This school has been a place to discuss ways of supporting women by encouraging them to attend anti-natal appointments, learn basic reading and writing skills, and familiarizing them with other issues that affect women. Others have also attended this school, and benefited from the trainings offered.
What’s more, many members of the community, now having internalized the dangers of child marriage, have shared personal cases where they tried to dissuade parents from marrying their daughters off at the ages of ten to twelve years. Over ten women reported doing so; some have been palpably successful!
The advocacy booklet used during the training sessions (available below), was shared with the media personnel for further push for social change.
BAOBAB is now also a member of the Girls Not Brides campaign, through which they have able to draw strategies for their campaign and apply it to this project.
BAOBAB aims to continue working with politicians and other stakeholders to encourage them to use their positions for legal changes that would benefit girls’ education.
We have on the WELDD portal some personal stories of change.
There is Anah*, has taken up the fight against child marriage and campaign for empowerment with greater gusto since her training.
Zainab*, who used her new training in advocacy to successfully convince a man to stop selling girls of his tribe into marriage.
Aisha*, who chased up a girls family personally, got local authorities involved, and put a stop to one of her pupil’s early marriage.
There is still a long way to go, but the seed has not only been sown but has firmly taken root.
The publication "Ending Girl-Child Marriage in Zamfara State", compiled by BAOBAB and used in the advocacy trainings, is available upon request. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.