Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative is 10!

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On 10th December 1999, a team, under the auspices of the Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative, embarked on the ambitious journey to transform society by enabling women, youth and children escape the cycle of poverty and ignorance, through innovative, qualitative and sustainable empowerment programmes. From inception, the critical need for women to be empowered and supported (as the family fulcrum), was identified. Deliberately named after the ideals that late Mallam Isa Wali stood for, IWEI sought to continue the discourse he audaciously introduced into the Northern Nigeria public discourse, back in the 1950’s.


A quick search on the internet would reveal the following about Mallam Isa Wali:

Isa Wali (1929-1967) was a Nigerian diplomat from Kano who served as the Nigerian Ambassador to Ghana during the independence period. During the pre-independence period, he was known in the Northern region as a critic of religious and political suppression. He became more known among the intellectual circles in the North for his modernist views on women’s rights, for minorities in the region, towards reforming the court system, reducing the emir’s salary and bringing the native authority under civil service regulations. Isa Wali was, however, best known as an advocate of women’s rights in Islam, drawn from his in-depth knowledge of the Qur’an. He wrote a series of articles, ‘The True Position of Women in Islam,’ published in the Nigerian Citizen in 1956, which publications set the tone of debate on women’s place in the polity.’ A few of the quotes in articles published in the Nigerian Citizen (1956) appear below:

‘As for public life, there is nothing in Islam which prevents a woman from following any pursuit she desires. There is no distinct prohibition against her taking part in public leadership as Aisha, the Prophet’s widow demonstrated…Islam has secured equal rights for men and women in various fields of endeavour. They have been given complete freedom to claim and pursue those rights; the right of opinion, the right of action and the right of belief.’

The Nigerian Citizen, July 18th, 1956, on the rights of women in Islam;
‘Custom has been confused with religion. As a result, the former has been gaining an upper hand. For example, the majority of Muslims in the region believe quite fanatically that customs like ‘Kulle’ (purdah), polygamy and concubinage are some of the necessities of Islam, while in fact, the reverse seems to be the case. …These (misconceptions and widespread ignorance), however, need to be cleared away immediately and urgently and our womenfolk in Northern Nigeria must be assured of a reasonable future, if our country is to take its rightful place among civilized nations of the world.”
Referring to women, he further stated….’This country…cannot afford to leave half of our population unproductive. The religion of Islam itself does not condone such extravagance.’

The Nigerian Citizen, August 4th, 1956, on the disenfranchisement of women.
These brief extractions briefly sum up the discerning sagacity of our father, who was so much more to us, than the compelling debates he initiated, in the context of a 1956-9 Northern Nigeria. Caring, forthright, outspoken and visionary, Mallam Isa Wali stirred the hornet’s nest through this public conversation, basically because of his yearning for justice, predicated on his scholarly and comprehensive knowledge of Islam and deep understanding of classical Arabic. In wanting to immortalize him, our family decided to establish an initiative that spearheads the spread of knowledge, facilitating justice through the empowerment of women.

From inception, IWEI’s Advisory Board was Chaired by the late Dan Masanin Kano, Yusuf Maitama Sule (his close friend), Hajiya Fatima Waziri Ibrahim, late Mallam Hafiz Wali, Ambassador Isaac Sagay and Hon Justice M.L Uwais, with carefully selected Board Members that included Waziri Dutse, Alhaji Bashir Dalhatu, Asue Ighodalo, Yemi Candide-Johnson, Asma’u Joda, Rakiya Sarki Ibrahim, Zubaida Rasheed (nee Naibi Wali), Bukhari Bello, Hadiza Wali-Oniyangi, Fatima Wali-Abdurrahman, Yashua Alkali, Nafisa Wali-Omar (nee Naibi Wali) and myself. Driven by our indefatigable and committed Executive Secretary, Amina Mustapha Hanga, IWEI has grown in leaps and bounds, leading the way in supporting women with the requisite skills to take ownership of their lives, addressing injustices stemming from ignorance and illiteracy, combating malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality, curbing child marriage, providing access to justice and intervening in so many rights violations, thereby generally improving the standards of living for the more disadvantaged in our rural communities.

What a journey it has been!
IWEI began working in Ajingi LGA of Kano State in February 2000, with interventions to address illiteracy, health and nutrition for women and children (up to 5 years of age). Awareness and enlightenment programmes, as well as cookery demonstration classes were introduced, to address malnutrition. In the initial 3 years, over 25,000 women and children benefited from IWEI’s interventions on safe motherhood, through services aimed at improving the competencies of 102 TBAs. IWEI heavily invested in addressing malaria, hygiene and sanitation sensitization sessions for children. Water came next, on the list of priorities. Indeed, with the support of other kind philanthropists, IWEI built 9 wells and boreholes in rural communities. IWEI also ensured solar lighting was provided in a primary healthcare centre.

Standing firm on the belief that poverty and early marriage contribute to sexual & gender-based violence, IWEI threw itself into addressing the deprivations that pervade many poor and vulnerable homes. Cultural norms are perceived as religious tenets, which erroneous beliefs only compound poverty. Majority of the women and youth in rural communities that have no income, depend solely on their husbands, while those who own businesses hardly have financial literacy or business management skills. IWEI has since trained over 15,300 women in Kano and Jigawa States on financial literacy skills, vocational skills, as well as financial inclusion, all of whom have been able to open bank accounts and registered cooperatives. In 2014, IWEI was selected as one of the 5 McNulty Prize Laureates at the Aspen Institute, Colorado, USA.

At IWEI, education for girls is priority. To curb early marriage, IWEI has provided 3,780 girls, with basic literacy, business and vocational skills. Under the girls’ empowerment thematic area, IWEI continues to create and support safe spaces in rural communities for ‘at risk of early marriage’ girls. IWEI’s strident efforts at confronting early marriage manifests in the engagement of community members to have a better appreciation of the importance of girl child education, which focus attracted a Literacy Award by the Agency for Mass Literacy in 2018.

Working with 3 other NGOs in a consortium supported by Ford Foundation, IWEI selected 200 impoverished ‘out of school’ girls in the rural communities of Kano to mentor them in safe spaces, coaching them in literacy, numeracy, hygiene and vocational skills, encouraging them to bond, as a critical support factor. After only one year on the project, 76% of the 200 girls on the programme have been successfully enrolled into schools. Indeed, girls being mentored by IWEI are the first from their communities to be enrolled into junior secondary schools. Today, IWEI supports 164 girls in public and private schools, as well as providing learning materials and uniforms. The annual cost of supporting one child ranges from N80,000 to N160,000 depending on if they are in private or public schools, and if it is boarding or day school. IWEI remains hopeful that after this first year, resources would become available for continued learning, through advocacy and the support of kind philanthropists. For girls not interested in going back to school, IWEI has encouraged them to participate in vocational learning spaces. Indeed, In November 2014, the Canadian Government presented the 2014 John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award to Girls not Brides, IWEI and another member of the Girls not Brides network, in recognition of their work to end Early, Child and Forced marriage.

The hunger to learn in the community manifests, with the growing appreciation of the benefits of education. Our mentees have grown to be mentors; leaders of other children in their communities. They engage with one another to decide what their needs are; from sanitation, to health and even to menstrual hygiene. Sessions also include making reusable pads. Given the emerging interests, IWEI now finds itself in the unique position of providing technical support, such as training, monitoring and mentoring to the new safe spaces that the communities set up.

Supported by Global Rights Nigeria and MacArthur Foundation on paralegal training, IWEI has become better equipped to respond to cases of rights violations. IWEI has carved a niche in training community-based paralegals on human rights, knowledge of laws and avenues for accessing the justice system. These trained paralegals continue to be trusted and have made justice accessible to the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized living in urban and rural areas, as well as in correctional centres and police stations. IWEI has trained over 150 lay persons to become mediators in the communities. Together with these paralegals, IWEI has handled over 2000 cases and engaged many more people on how to access their rights, majority of whom are women in rural communities. Countless thousands have been impacted through radio programme on existing rights and laws. Indeed, IWEI recently collaborated with Legal Aid Council of Nigeria to host the 1st ever National Paralegal Summit in Nigeria, during which draft ethical guidelines and curriculum for paralegals were reviewed for adoption. To this end, IWEI received a Certificate of Recognition for service & contribution to the NSRP Observatory Initiative on reducing Violence Against Women & girls 2017.

10 years have flown so fast. In this period, IWEI has garnered a solid reputation for promoting women and children’s rights. Indeed, today, Amina, IWEI’s Executive Secretary, has been selected as the Nigerian laureate to be awarded the Franco-German prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, along with 14 others from around the world.

We remain indebted to the numerous stakeholders that have supported us on this awesome journey, as we look forward to the work ahead. There is still so much to be done. We are truly thankful to the Almighty that our father’s name and vision lives on, through IWEI. We pray that the blessings from this initiative continues to accrue to the late Mallam Isa Wali, until the very end of time. Amen.

•Maryam Uwais, is the Special Adviser, Social Investments in the Presidency, Office of the Vice President, Abuja