Empowerment for Young Girls

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Ayodeji Rotinwa reports that young girls in the North are getting empowered by picking up their phones

Binta Abdullahi had gone through labour a few days before we met but she decided to forfeit some hours of rest to tell me about a lecherous neighbour.

The neighbour had been making advances to her teenage daughter, Salamatu when the girl was enroute evening lessons at her Islamic school.

Abdullahi and I met in one of such schools, alternatively used as a safe space for young adolescent girls, trained by community NGOs on wide ranging topics from gender violence to physical cleanliness.

Abdullahi’s days old baby was wrapped in white cotton, in her arms. Both baby and mother were marked with red paint: in small circular dots on the baby’s forehead and in streaks on Abdullahi’s long fingers. We sat on two of the only three chairs in the room brought in for the conversation. The only other furniture in the room were rolled out mats that were once colourful.

As we talked, an unseasonable drizzle quietly beat the school’s tin roofs, invisible through the windowless class, falling soundlessly into the school compound’s sand floor. Typically it shouldn’t rain in Kano in late August but it was. Yet, it was still muggy. Shirts licked skin. Hand fans were stationed within the reach of a stretched hand.

Abdullahi told me her neighbour had been harassing Salamatu for a long time but she did not know about it because her daughter did not volunteer the information. The neighbour was an elderly, respected family man in their Badawa community. Salamatu did not know who to tell or how to say it.

She was well aware the scale of believability did not tip in her favour.

Eventually, she summed up the courage.

She had drawn it from a story she heard over a toll-free phone call. The story – though fictional – was similar to hers about a girl called Lantana.

Lantana was forced to drop out of school to add to the pool of family income so they could afford her brother’s school fees. She became a street hawker, selling peanuts and other snacks at bus parks. She found customers in mostly men: drivers, conductors, touts who were permanent fixtures at these parks. One soon became more than a customer, a friend who regularly bought her goods and ‘protected’ her from harassment from other men. One day, he lured her into an alley.

After listening to Lantana’s story, Abdullahi’s daughter was connected to a customer care representative, a mobile agony aunt of sorts, who helped her make sense of Lantana’s story. Salamatu asked the representative how she could best deal with these advances.

Salamatu then decided to tell her mum what was going on.

The programme by which Salamatu was able to get this service is called Girl Connect. It is a marriage of gender expertise and technology; human centered design matched with data and interactive voice response expertise; storytelling merged with infrastructure.

It was created to serve vulnerable girls in Northern Nigeria – focusing on Kano in its first stages – where religion and culture fuel the cycle of poverty and set the odds against them. Young daughters are not educated because tradition allows for them to be married off early, as teenagers. Parents see little point in investing in soon-to-be-wives. A lack of education assures a disparity in employment and perhaps economic opportunities. Girls and eventually, women in all of these are encouraged to be only seen, not heard.

Girls Connect, literally, allows them to give voice to their concerns. It uses compelling stories on safety, relationships, money and social media, it is giving them advice and tools necessary to navigate growing up female in Northern Nigeria.

Girls Connect was conceived by Girl Effect, an international non-governmental organisation that seeks to create a “new normal” with and for vulnerable girls worldwide. According to its website, when girls are “empowered with skills, ideas and knowledge; they have access to services, roles and other girls; when she is visible and vocal, she can demand to stay in school, get healthcare, reach her full potential. The programme is run in partnership with ISON BPO, a business processing outsourcing firm and an international call centre headquartered in Ibadan, South-west Nigeria. ISON BPO typically services major telecommunications companies, banks. It provides the human resources and interactive response technology where customers call in to solve connection queries or place a spending limit on their Debit Card.

In the case of Girls Connect, young teenage girls are calling to receive counsel, advice, feedback that may inspire them to set up a small business or start a conversation about a sensitive topic they otherwise wouldn’t have previously dared.

The woman on the other end of the line who Salamatu spoke to is what Girls Connect calls a Role Model. She has also once been in Salamatu’s shoes. If not exactly have experienced sexual harassment, she spoke Hausa – Salamatu’s language and that of thousands of girls who call in. The Role Model was raised in ultra-patriarchal North, and understands what it meant for a young girl to be defenseless, helpless in such situations, sometimes without recourse to even family. These qualities were how and why she was recruited to provide help to girls like Salamatu. She had also been vetted on her soft skills, being able to put strangers at ease and immediately invite trust on such matters. For its last phase, Girls Connect had 13 Role Models working on the project.

“This is serious business,” says Patience Otukpene, a Role Model in an interview in ISON BPO’s Ibadan office.

We chatted in a semi-circle, surrounded by other Role Models and the desks, computers and headsets via which the Role Models do their work every day. They appeared to be very proud of the work they do.

“Before I wear my headset, I relax, put yourself in a certain mood and encourage myself knowing fully well that someone you don’t know is believing in you and is going to trust in you,” she continued.

“Whatever you say may either make or mar them.”

Salamatu had dropped out of secondary school prior to her harassment incident. Understanding that her education was sometimes treated as inferior to that of boys, and realising it could be stopped at any time, she didn’t see the point of continuing. After speaking to a Role Model, who stressed the importance of education, she asked her parents to re-enroll her. Inspired by her decision, they are keen to let her finish.

The Role Models had their hands full in the most recent phase of Girls Connect which concluded in July 2017.

They have received over 44,000 calls in two months with 7,700 unique callers with the phone lines open seven days a week. In the first phase, when the phone lines were only opened on weekends, for one month, they received over 4,076 calls.

Of all the calls that came in, 32 per cent were on safety.

According to a 2012 British Council report on Gender in Nigeria, a third of women in Nigeria report they have been subjected to some form of violence including sexual exploitation, battering.

In the North-east of Nigeria, where Girls Connect currently operates, 10.2 per cent of 15-24 year-old women have experienced violence.

In the next phase, in a bid to fight the stated odds against girls, Girl Effect and ISON BPO have cast a wider, ambitious net.

The programme will expand to two states – Kano and Edo – and in two languages, Hausa and Pidgin. It would also connect 1,000,000 calls to content and conversations up from the previous 44, 000. The next phase has kicked off in March 2018.

The team of both organisations are optimistic that they will meet this lofty target and say “the impact is there.”

After my conversation with Ms. Abdullahi about her daughter, I met a number of young girls who have also used Girls Connect, listened to the stories and gotten advice from a Role Model.

Louis, 17, is learning to be self-dependent after hearing the Girls Connect story on money.

Previously, she had relied solely on allowances from her parents who worked low-income jobs.

After listening to the story and speaking to a Role Model, she decided to get a job as a junior tutor at a primary school.

She now contributes to the family income. She is saving towards an application and admission into the university to study Business Administration.

She has decided she will be self-employed.