The gender-based violence survivor making her voice count

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After being denied a university education by her family, enduring a forced and abusive marriage at the age of 17, and being forced from her home by Boko Haram insurgents, 24-year-old Aishatu’s experiences have fuelled her drive to fight for girls and women’s rights despite the COVID-19 crisis which has locked down large parts of Nigeria.

“The situation of women in North East Nigeria is bad, especially because they don’t have access to economic opportunities to make money for themselves. With COVID-19, this has worsened,” she says.

Photo credit: Plan International 

According to the UNFPA, up to 6 out of 10 women have reported experiencing one or more forms of gender-based violence in the North East, with a rise of 7.7% since the conflict with Boko Haram began. Stigma and fear of discrimination have led to a significant under-reporting of cases of gender-based violence, so the existing data may not be a true indicator of the number of cases.

Aishatu, who identifies herself first as a gender-based violence survivor, was displaced from her home in Borno state after it was attached by insurgents. Now living in another part of the region, she is a member of Plan International’s Girls Get Equal and founder of the Zenith support group, an organisation that advocates for the rights of girls and women in North East Nigeria.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown, Aishatu’s work as a gender equality activist has been hampered. Members of her organisation used to go into communities to meet with women and adolescent girls but that’s no longer possible. Instead they have found other ways to relay their messages.

“We use social media and radio to share helpline numbers for referral centres where women in Borno can access care and help if they are faced with violence,” she explains.

Aishatu first encountered Plan International through her gender-based violence voluntary work and in September 2018, she helped launch the #NoToTrafficking campaign. Since then, she has also become involved with the Girls Get Equal campaign and has taken part in various capacity building sessions.

“Because of the trainings, I am better able to identify the subtle ways I have contributed to trafficking in the past and stop it. I’m also able to reach out to younger girls with my new knowledge and skills and open up access for them to the things they are entitled to,” Aishatu explains.

“The young girls that I mentor identify better with me when I tell them that I’m a gender-based violence survivor and am internally displaced just like them. A lot of young girls reach out to me for mentorship because they are inspired by what I do, and they say that they want to be like me.”

Another benefit of her relationship with Plan International is the networking opportunities. “I have connected with fellow passionate advocates from the North East and we discuss issues and find ways to work together to further our cause which is enlightening and empowering adolescent girls and women against gender-based violence.”

“The results of my work have been greatly influenced by my relationship with Plan International. Before, there was a limit to the influence I had because I didn’t know what I know now. I am now being invited into conversations where decisions are made, and this means that I get to advocate for the rights of the women and girls that I represent.”

Aishatu’s work is not going unnoticed. She tells us about an incident where the women in her local government were not being invited to meetings or considered for job opportunities. She criticised the government for their lack of female representation through a post on social media.

“The post got no likes or comments from the politicians I tagged, but surprisingly I was contacted to recommend a female graduate to appointed for a job opportunity.”

Although she was unable to identify a qualified candidate in her immediate circle, she found someone through a fellow female activist. “A woman gained access to an opportunity that wouldn’t have been available if I hadn’t done anything,” says Aishatu with some pride.

Aishatu, who is a third-year student of Mass Communications at the University of Maiduguri, passionately believes that no one should ever feel oppressed because of their gender and has this message for girls and women. “You should always make your voice count. Never see injustice, violence or abuse and keep quiet.”