Obiageli Ezekwesili captured international attention when she announced in October last year she was running for president in Nigeria’s 2019 elections. The co-founder and leader of #BringBackOurGirls – a campaign to help free the 276 girls kidnapped in Chibok in 2014 – has been the most prominent woman candidate so far. Her withdrawal from the presidential race a few weeks ago has pushed any chance of a woman to be the next president further away.
The elections, rescheduled for Saturday, seem once again dominated by men. Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, has 84 million voters. According to the electoral commission, 47 percent of them are women and yet, their political representation is limited. Only 6 out of 73 contestants are running to be president. And of the more than 1,800 senatorial candidates, only 12 percent are women.
Seeking public office in Nigeria comes at a high financial and human cost, which is a deterrent for many women, Carolyn Seaman, the founder of Girls Voices Initiative, the advocacy group aspiring to boost adolescent girls’ leadership, explains to NADJA.
“The financial costs of Party Nomination forms for Governorship and Presidential office are between $50,000 and $100,000,” she tells us. “Many male aspirants, including our President, had men that were fighting to pay for his forms. A woman doesn’t have that luxury in Nigeria”.
Traditional views on gender roles also mean women face security risks and hostile attitudes if they want to lead a political career.
“In Nigeria, women in politics are generally perceived as overly ambitious women who are not satisfied with their natural occupation on earth as wives and home keepers,” Carolyn says. “To the extreme side, they are considered loose women or prostitutes who just get into politics as an excuse to hang around men and be promiscuous.”
In this pernicious environment, women are reluctant to run and if they do, they may fail to attract sufficient support to win.
Many programmes in Nigeria seek to empower and support women who are vying for electoral positions. However, according to Carolyn, a few weeks or months of training is not enough to position women as strong political contenders, and more investment is needed for young girls.
“It is simply not feasible to undo decades of marginalisation, vulnerability, lack of confidence, lack of leadership or finance skills and the like in such a short time span,” she explains. “This is our rationale for targeting adolescent girls to start building female leaders at an early stage of their development”.
Launched in 2013, Girls Voices Initiative is a non-profit organisation that educates girls about their rights and provides them with a safe and mentoring place where they can share their stories. By strengthening and amplifying their voices, Carolyn aims to create a strong Girls’ Rights movement and raise leaders who will advocate for their rights and welfare, inspire others and have a positive impact on their communities.
“In Nigeria, whenever a girl is mentioned it is mostly in relation to a bad statistic, such as child or forced marriage, poor education, prevalent rates of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, trafficking of girls, abduction or kidnapping of girls – the list goes on and on,” she says. “But I seek to change the narrative.”
With a focus on digital media, the Girls Voices Initiative provides trainings on a wide range of topics, including coding, creative writing, citizen journalism and filmmaking.
“A girl who is educated about her rights and exposed to opportunities where she uses her voice to engage public conversations and champion advocacy will mature into a confident woman who can lead wherever she is established,” Carolyn tells us.
One of their most successful projects is the Girls Rights Instructional video. Breaking down the provisions of the Child Rights Act 2003 – a law passed in 2003 for the protection of children’s rights – the girls produced a film to advocate for their rights and facilitate informal conversations about the challenges they experience and the best ways to address them.
The Girls Voices Initiative also led the “Girls on the Air Waves” digital project, with girls discussing the elimination of gender-based violence on radio during the #16DaysofActivism campaign last year. They talked about the role of parents, community leaders, government and general public, and demanded to have structures in place to effectively implement the laws that protect the victims.
“We continue to explore opportunities to scale our Girls’ Rights education programme to reach more girls across Nigeria, and even share our approach with our partners in West Africa and around the world,” Carolyn tells us.
With more than 20 million adolescent girls in the country (which is, by comparison, the entire population of its slightly bigger neighbour Niger), finding the resources necessary is only one of the difficulties they face.
“We often need to provide technological and digital media equipment to improve the practical learning of the girls,” she says, “and this is a huge challenge”. Currently, the Girls Voices Initiative is working to establish an all-girls tech and digital media hub to provide girls with access to standard facilities.
Yet despite the challenges, the girls’ movement keeps growing.
“Our ‘Girl Leaders’ are not just championing the advocacy for girls’ rights, they function like ambassadors scaling the learning they have received from our programs to their peers in their communities, helping us to reach more girls,” Carolyn explains. Some girls, she says, have even started Girls Voices Clubs in their schools, and led community programmes in many places, including churches.
“We are raising disruptive girl leaders who will demand their seats at the table. And if they are not given a seat, they will create their own table because when we look at Nigeria’s 20 million adolescent girls, we see 20 million solution innovators.”