by Kim Croucher, WAM UK Steering Committee
“I never believed that I had rights, but I learned through the programme that I was born with all my rights. The next time he hit me, I did not apologize to him.”
Statements like the above had shocked me. However after visiting one of Women for Women International’s programmes three years ago in Rwanda, meeting some of the women attending the programme in-person, and through reading more about women’s experiences around the world– I came to the slow realization that statements like the above revealed a level of violence-endured and discrimination that was not unusual for many women around the world. The same statement also shows me how Women for Women International, a leading global charity, is changing the lives of the women they work with in conflict-torn countries through knowledge and growing their self-belief.
On a cold evening in late February this year, WAM was proud to host Women for Women International’s Country Director for Nigeria, Ngozi Eze, at one of our signature dinner discussions with our network members. It was certainly a thought-provoking evening.
Ngozi spoke specifically about the programme Women for Women International run in Nigeria, where the organization has been present since 2000. Since then, it has put 52,000 of some of the most marginalized women through a yearlong programme to educate them on health, family planning, financial literacy, legal rights and empowerment. The women participants are also offered vocational skills training relevant to their local market, so that, upon graduation, they can start earning an independent income and begin to build their self-sufficiency.
To contextualize this achievement, what are some of the challenges that women in Nigeria face? Approximately 54% of Nigerian women are illiterate and 28% would not have completed primary education. In Northern Nigeria, women have increasingly experienced forced early marriage and there is much skepticism about family planning – overall 20% of Nigerian women are married by the age of 15 and 39% by the age of 18, only 18% of women in a union between the ages of 15-49 practice contraception, the average woman will give birth to 6 children during her lifetime, and a woman will die in childbirth for every 178 live births. According to a 2014 UN report on the State of the World’s Children, 46% of Nigerian women believe that a husband beating his wife is justifiable. The report also confirms relatively widespread practices of female genital mutilation.
Ngozi spoke about the holistic nature of their programme. It is not enough to give the women vocational skills. The women needed help to understand how to look after themselves and their children in terms of sanitation and nutrition, they needed skills in saving and financial planning, but more importantly they needed to understand their rights and the channels through which they can speak out for themselves and their needs. Only if all these elements fall together could the vocational skills translate into long-term economic stability for the women.
A key to the success of Women for Women’s programmes, both in Nigeria and other countries where they work, is the emphasis on the networks women build during the programme, something they come to rely on time and time again.
Ngozi gave an example of how a woman, who was being beaten by her husband, experienced the power of her network when her classmates came to her house one morning, stood outside and began publicly berating her husband for his behaviour. The women report many instances when such a network has been critical, from when one of them experience poor health and needs help with childcare, or requires assistance with her business. Women are encouraged after the programme to form co-operatives since many of them would have learnt similar vocational skills and would benefit from pooling their labour and skills together, providing each other support and assistance beyond the initial year long programme.
What about the role of men? Ngozi’s office was one of the first in Women for Women International’s network of offices to start a men’s engagement programme. This involved speaking to and engaging with men from diverse backgrounds across the country, but mainly men who had an influence on communities, such as traditional rulers in local communities, religious leaders to men in the military. Religious and community leaders have tremendous sway over group behaviour and cultural views. Ngozi told us that in their experience, many men they’ve engaged with understand the benefits of economically stronger women and the related positive impacts on children’s welfare, education and the wider community.
During our dinner, we asked about the threat from Boko Haram and how this might be affecting women on the programmes. My sense from the discussion was that while organisations like Boko Haram are definitely a threat to the safety of many women in the regions where Women for Women International operates and was certainly making the international headlines – the challenges faced by women in Nigeria are so much wider. As alluded to through statistics quoted at the start of this blog many women will be trapped in a quagmire of chronic poverty, lack of education, discriminatory customs and norms, and gender-based violence is more pervasive than headline grabbing terrorism.
Leading on from the discussion, we heard about the peace-building capacity of the programme. Christian and Muslim women are often brought together during the training and while there can often be mutual suspicion at the outset, fueled by societal divisions, many of the women quickly come to realize how similar their experiences were and that they faced the same issues. One of the charity’s beliefs is that when they empower women in post-conflict societies, they are much more likely to work to build bridges between previously opposing groups – and this has been borne out in some situations.
A member of the Women for Women’s International UK team was also present to discuss the organizations global operations. Development work like this and its effects on societies may take years to make itself visible to the outside world, but there are now clear signs of impact that they can point to. In terms of enhancing income generation capabilities amongst women – in the case of Nigeria, upon entering the programme the average earnings of attendees was £0.19 per day and two years after graduating this has risen to £1.90. In terms of their health and well-being, 10% of women report practicing family planning upon enrollment compared with 60% two years after graduating. The ripple effects of the programme are also evident as 87% of women report educating other women about her rights two years after graduating compared with 7% on enrollment. The impact results that can be measured in other countries where the organization work have proven similar, places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo.
The support networks that Women for Women International emphasizes for their graduates aren’t limited to the networks that form between women who’ve graduated together or women in the same local communities (although these groups clearly have a unique ability to help each other). The charity encourages women and men from all over the world to sign up to be a sister (or sponsor) to the women in the programme – and this doesn’t mean just donating the money for them to take part in the course, but also writing to the women to show moral support and understanding.
Learning about this initiative, I have personally sponsored women on the programme in various countries. I always find it interesting to make a connection with a woman in another country. A woman who is probably going through very different experiences to myself and yet, many of her concerns and challenges will be similar to those of many women around the world – to look after her family, to do the best for her children, to stand up for her rights and in sadly too many cases, to stand-up to violence. My current sister has eight children and lives in Afghanistan; she has told me how the programme has helped her to help her children and it has been a real pleasure to correspond with her and hear about her life and to tell her about mine, as part of the wider Women for Women International network.
Sponsoring a woman on the programme costs £22 a month. To sponsor a sister and support the programme please click here.
Click here for a video on Women for Women International’s Work
 “The Demographic and Health Surveys Program: Nigeria.” USAID.
 “Table 9: Child Protection.” The State of the World’s Children 2014 in Numbers. UNICEF. Page 81. http://www.unicef.org/sowc2014/numbers/documents/english/SOWC2014_In%20Numbers_28%20Jan.pdf
 “Contraceptive Prevalence (percent of women ages 15-49).” The World Bank Data. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.CONU.ZS
 “The State of the World’s Children 2014.” United Nations Children’s Fund. http://www.unicef.org/sowc2014/numbers/documents/english/SOWC2014_In%20Numbers_28%20Jan.pdf