Saudatu Mahdi came to the attention of western media in 2014, shortly after the terrorist group Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, in her native Nigeria. She was interviewed extensively on the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign that she had in part spearheaded. Three years after Boko Haram abducted the 276 girls of Chibok, an estimated 197 are still in captivity. Mahdi knows that not all the girls will be freed and sent home safely. But she believes government-led negotiations will result in most of them being freed. She remains positive, she told CNN.
But Mahdi had been a well-known activist on behalf of equality for women for years before the horrific incident. She has campaigned extensively for an end to violence against women and authored several books on women’s rights. “When domestic violence starts,” she explained in a 2016 speech, “it puts down a woman to the extent that she does not function as the family head. And the well being of a woman is the well being of a family.” The result of domestic violence against women is the breakdown of the family and reduced social cohesion. The consequences are far reaching, Mahdi explained: “The children start to perform poorly in school; this in turn affects their ability to advance to a well-paid job, which ultimately has a detrimental effect on the economy. And the women, of course, lose their self-esteem and sense of agency.”
As Secretary General of the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), a regional movement that works to combat all types of violence against women and girls, Mahdi and the organization take a systemic approach to women’s agency, bodily integrity, and opportunity. And with deep knowledge of Nigerian legal systems, WRAPA takes an advocacy approach geared to the three legal systems that affect their lives in Nigeria — customary, common, and Sharia — confronting discriminatory cultural practices and societal processes that have become embedded in Nigerian law, thereby working to shift systemic issues affecting women.
WRAPA, a recipient of the 2014 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, conducts human rights sensitization initiatives, and engages in advocacy and dialogue on local issues in States. For example, in the south of Nigeria, the issue of widow disinheritance is prevalent, while education, and early and forced marriages take priority in the north. Domestic violence, sexual harassment, employment issues, reproductive health violations, civil rights and responsibilities cut across regional divides. WRAPA’s holistic approach combines legal defense, education, shelter, and what the organization calls “empowerment” — a strategy aimed at capacity building for women individually and for the systems in which they live – changing the status of women and girls by empowering them with education, skills and enhanced self-esteem. They achieve this by addressing various interconnected challenges of HIV, poverty, and human rights and by mobilizing a member network of over 15,000 men and women to support efforts with government and local communities.
As the MacArthur Foundation said in awarding its 2014 prize, “WRAPA has shown effective leadership in advocating for women’s rights on some of the most controversial and critical issues affecting the lives of Nigerian women, including consent to marriage and a woman’s right to custody after divorce, which is not guaranteed to women in the country. It has successfully represented women in high-profile cases that involved invoking due process in appealing harsh punishments under Sharia law.”
And in its most internationally high profile intervention, Mahdi and WRAPA continue to seek the protection and care of the Chibok girls who have returned from captivity, and continue to spur efforts to look for those who remain behind.
Recognizing changing economic dynamics in Nigeria, particularly that women and girls are increasingly responsible to ensure economic support of their families, WRAPA is augmenting its holistic, capacity-building approach by investing time in programs and advocacy for women and girls’ education and opportunity.
Learn more: www.wrapanigeria.org