LAGOS, Nigeria – During the largest demonstrations in Nigeria’s recent history, 13 women came together to support their fellow citizens who risked their lives to march against police brutality.
The women were all in their 20s and 30s. All at the top of their fields. Many had never met in person. They found each other months earlier on social media and called their group the Feminist Coalition. They jokingly called themselves “The Avengers”.
“We decided that if we don’t step in, the people who suffer the most will be women,” said Odunayo Eweniyi, a 27-year-old technology entrepreneur and founding member of the Feminist Coalition.
They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through crowdfunding websites last year to support protesters who took to the streets to denounce human rights abuses by a police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The Feminist Coalition provided the demonstrators with basic services: legal aid, emergency food, masks, raincoats. But when peaceful protesters were shot by the military and the demonstrations ended, the Feminist Coalition did not.
Now their goals are set higher. They want equality for Nigerian women and focus on issues such as sexual violence, women’s education, financial equality and political representation.
The struggle for equality will not be easy. A gender equality law first introduced in 2010 has been repeatedly rejected by the male-dominated Nigerian Senate.
And then it comes down to being proud feminists in a country where the word feminist is often used as an insult.
For years it has been difficult to identify as a feminist in Nigeria. The coalition’s decision to use the word on behalf of the organization and the female symbol in its yellow logo was highlighted. Many of the protesters who benefited from their support were men – and not all had supported women’s rights.
“We only used the word because we wanted to let them know where the money was coming from,” said Ms. Eweniyi.
We spoke to some women behind the Feminist Coalition about why they joined and what they want to change in Nigeria.
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi
Before Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi founded her non-profit Stand To End Rape in 2014, it was common practice to open the newspaper in Nigeria and find a picture of a rape victim in crime coverage without thinking about what that public identification might be affecting her life. Women were raped and killed without consequences. Many health care providers had no idea how to gather evidence of rape.
Ms. Osowobi, 30, seeks to change attitudes by changing public order and practices. Her nonprofit runs seminars to help people prevent sexual violence and a rape survivor network where survivors can share experiences, care for one another, and feel less alone. She has worked on laws that prohibit sexual harassment and violence.
But usually men decide whether or not to pass such laws.
“We need more women to get into these rooms and make important guidelines and decisions that reinforce other people’s voices,” said Ms. Osowobi.
It was Tito Ovia’s National Youth Service who made it clear to her that she wanted to work for public health. At the Nigerian AIDS Control Agency, she found that a lack of data made it difficult to tell whether the money spent on HIV / AIDS prevention made a difference.
Ms. Ovia, 27, co-founded a company with friends in 2016 to ensure that health care across Africa is driven by data and technology. Helium Health has helped hospitals and clinics build electronic health records and hospital management systems.
She said she did not expect the Feminist Coalition’s work to be serious enough to support protesters as they risked their lives to try to change a police system that brutalized young people.
“I thought it would be a lot more fun, don’t let me lie,” she said with a laugh. “I thought we would meet, we would drink, we would complain about men. We would work a little. I didn’t know life was going to be threatened. “
Before joining the Feminist Coalition, 30-year-old Damilola Odufuwa founded Wine and Whine, a self-help group for Nigerian women.
She wanted to create a safe and fun place where young women could get together, have a drink, and complain about sexual harassment in the workplace, marriage pressures, the patriarchal system and its gatekeepers, and other frustrations – and then start finding solutions.
Ms. Odufuwa, the Africa public relations director for a major cryptocurrency exchange, had recently returned to Lagos from the UK to start Wine and Whine. She was impressed with the way women were treated in Nigeria.
She and her co-founder Odunayo Eweniyi – the same duo behind the Feminist Coalition – ensured that Wine and Whine also wore his feminism as a badge of honor.
“We’re a feminist organization,” Ms. Odufuwa told a male talk show host in a 2019 interview about Wine and Whine.
“Oh!” replied the hostess, sounding surprised when she used the word.
“We are very feminist,” she replied with a laugh. “Your reaction tells me that feminism is perceived as that bad thing.”
Odunayo Eweniyi, a 27-year-old tech entrepreneur, wasn’t sure how big it would be to put “feminist” in the group’s name.
“It shouldn’t be a hunt for the entire movement,” she said. “Honestly, now that it is, I’m very proud that we used the word ‘feminist’ because people relate it in a way that the word ‘feminist’ does not relate to the word ‘terrorist’ ‘equates. “
Although Nigeria has a history of feminist movements, identifying as a feminist is seen as radical.
Ms. Eweniyi recently got tattoos of her favorite equations: Schroëdinger’s equation, the golden ratio and the uncertainty principle.
She works to reduce the insecurity in the lives of Nigerian women.
The savings app startup Piggyvest, launched by Ms. Eweniyi in 2016, addresses one of the main problems identified by the Feminist Coalition – financial equality for women. The idea is that people should be able to save and invest even small amounts of money. It has more than 2 million customers – men and women.
Laila Johnson salami
As the anchor of one of the biggest Nigerian television news shows, Laila Johnson-Salami vividly remembers her male co-host who told a producer to say his name first.
But she was fearless. Via Newsday, the program on the television channel Arise, she kept Nigerians informed of the protests, which adopted the hashtag #EndSARS.
At 24, she is the youngest member of the coalition. Their main goal is to attract a younger audience. And recently she started a podcast that can help with this.
She uses her platform to hold politicians accountable but said, “If there’s one thing I know for sure in this life, it’s that Laila will never get into politics.”
The interviews that Ms. Johnson-Salami conducts on the Broken Record Podcast are very different from her television interviews. They talk extensively about everything from the importance of vulnerability to adoption and investment.
“Time is up, it’s over,” tweeted Fakhrriyyah Hashim in February 2019. “You are done getting away with monstrosities against women.”
Her tweet started the #MeToo movement in northern Nigeria. In it, Ms. Hashim coined the hashtag #ArewaMeToo – Arewa means “north” in Hausa, a West African language spoken by most northern Nigerians.
In a very conservative region where Ms. Hashim, 28, called a “culture of silence,” #ArewaMeToo has sparked a flood of testimonies about sexual violence. The Sultan of Sokoto, the highest Islamic authority in Nigeria, banned it when it spilled into street protests from social media.
Another campaign launched by Ms. Hashim, #NorthNormal, urged Nigerian states to implement laws that criminalize violence and broaden the definition of sexual violence.
Her women’s rights activism has brought her death threats and abuse. Now she has put some distance between herself and the people behind these threats after accepting a scholarship at the African Leadership Center in London.
The Feminist Coalition members all worked from home because of the pandemic. She was also able to raise awareness and resources online during the #EndSARS protests in London.
“I knew we would achieve all of the goals and targets we set,” said Ms. Hashim.
An estimated two-thirds of Nigerian girls and women do not have access to sanitary towels. You can’t afford it.
Karo Omu, 29, has been fighting for four years to bring sanitary towels and other hygiene items to Nigerian girls. It focuses on girls in public schools who come from low-income families and girls who have had to flee their homes and live in camps.
There are 2.7 million internally displaced people in northeastern Nigeria as a result of the violent and uncontrolled uprising by the Islamist group Boko Haram and its offshoots. And for many women and girls who live in the camps, it is a struggle to get enough food and clothing, let alone expensive sanitary towels.
Her organization, Sanitation Aid for Nigerian Girls, is handing out reusable pads bought with money crowdfunded by Ms. Omu and her colleagues to help girls worry less. Some of the girls they helped had never had a block before.
“Women’s problems are fought by women,” she said.