“Societies that empower women to participate fully in civic and economic life are more prosperous and peaceful -President Donald Trump, February 2019

Gender equality, social inclusion, and advancing the status of women and girls globally are foreign policy priorities for the United States Mission. Global prosperity, security, and stability cannot be achieved without the full participation of women and girls in economic, social, and political spheres. The United States government is proud to be Nigeria’s partner in this regard. Over the years, we have empowered Nigerian women to thrive and contribute to national development. On the When Women Lead Series, we focus on issues related to education, inclusion, health, and the economy, as it affects women, through the lens of YALI alumni working in these sectors and leading access for other women to thrive. Hopefully this will inspire you to work towards promoting equal access for women.

Ruqayya Sani taking blood pressure of a female patient and educating her on a heart healthy lifestyle
Ruqayya Sani taking blood pressure of a female patient and educating her on a heart healthy lifestyle

Meet Dr. Ruqayya Nasir Sani, a physician specializing in Cardiology and currently a senior resident at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital. She is a 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow and previously worked on the CAPIBD Research Project (Community Acquired Pneumonia and Invasive Bacterial Diseases in Nigerian Children) in Kano, Nigeria.

How are you promoting better health systems for women through your work?

Women’s health is not only reproductive health. We often forget that. It encompasses most of the health issues that affect men, in addition to reproductive health issues. As a physician specializing in Cardiology, I take my time to probe complaints from female patients. While working in a teaching hospital, I emphasize to medical students and fellow residents to do the same. This is because women’s symptoms are often overlooked, because they do not present like the typical male patient, or dismissed as hysteria. This is a problem globally. Women with cardiovascular diseases do not get linked to the specialist care they need as quickly as their male counterparts, partly due to the misconception that women are not at risk of the fatal cardiovascular diseases that affect men. Their risk may be lower, but it is still significant; coupled with late presentation to a hospital, delay in diagnosis and linkage to care, their outcome may just be worse. I also educate women on healthy lifestyle choices to prevent cardiovascular and other non-communicable diseases.

How does disease outbreak affect women’s health?

Because women often take care of others before themselves, they may be less inclined to go to a health facility to seek care when they have symptoms of an epidemic disease for fear of being isolated and being away from their families. This puts them and their families at an even greater risk. Women are also more likely to downplay their symptoms and not seek care until it is too late, or complications have developed. Mental health issues including anxiety and depression also arise during outbreaks and may disproportionately affect women more because they are normally more prone to these disorders. The diversion of resources to emergency response for disease outbreaks may also mean that women do not get the attention they need, when faced with other health challenges, during a disease outbreak.

Ruqayya Sani facilitating a conversation with young leaders

What is the unique role of women in curbing disease outbreaks like COVID-19?

It is unfortunate that it took this outbreak to make us take such a basic thing as handwashing seriously. Growing up in my house, it was always mandatory for everyone to wash our hands the minute we get home from school or anywhere else for that matter. My mother enforced this, and everyone had to comply, including our father. This is a standing rule to this day. In the face of a disease whose control is mostly hinged on preventing transmission, women demonstrate leadership by teaching their families and enforcing the preventive measures that curb the spread of diseases like COVID-19 such as handwashing, cough etiquette/hygiene, social distancing, and even self-isolation for suspected cases.

What must government do to prioritize healthcare for women?

Government must provide wholesome care that is accessible and affordable. This would of course include quality maternal and pregnancy related care. I emphasize quality because often the free maternal care offered at some government are not qualitative. I am not a Gynecologist but I have to advocate for increased screening programs for breast and cervical cancer because it is preventable with the HPV vaccine, and curable if diagnosed early. With all the opportunities for intervention it is inexcusable that women in Nigeria should still be dying of breast and cervical cancer. Governments also need to provide access to care for hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Non-communicable diseases like heart disease and stroke cause over two-thirds of deaths worldwide, women are not exempted. Mental health also needs to be addressed. We really need to stop restricting interventions for women’s health to reproductive health. Women are more than their uterus. Women’s health interventions needs to be wholesome.

“…If you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation” — popular African proverb.

Zainab Gurin facilitating an advocacy training for girl advocates
Zainab Gurin facilitating an advocacy training for girl advocates
Zainab Gurin facilitating an advocacy training for girl advocates

Meet Zainab Aminu Gurin, a 2018 YALI Program alumni and State Team Lead for the Centre for Girls’ Education (CGE).

How does your work promote access to education for girls in Northern Nigeria?

I have been working for about seven years to promote girls access to at least 12 years of free, safe, and quality education. Through my work, I re-enforce core academic competence for marginalized adolescent girls in rural areas and poor urban centers in girls-only mentored safe spaces, to strengthen their reading and writing skills, as well as other critical life skills such as communication and negotiation, goal setting, decision making, and advocacy skills. A critical part of my work is also promoting access to information on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights, nutrition, and gender-based violence, to enable women negotiate better choices that will enable them to reach their full potential in life and avoid early marriage. Research has shown that if girls are able to read and write they have better chances of spending more years in school. As a result of the work I am conducting as a staff of my organization, we have been able to enroll and retain about 50,000 girls in schools and safe spaces for at least two years in five states in Northern Nigeria.

What inspired your interest in your field of work?

I grew up in an extended family where some of my relatives still don’t think that a girl or woman’s education is a priority. I grew up knowing that my life was two sides of a coin: I was privileged to have my parent’s support in pursuing my dreams, but I was also aware that my extended family had a major say on whether I achieved them or not. Some of my close relatives were not as lucky. I lost a relative who was married off early due to pregnancy related complications, and it had a profound effect on my life. I grew up with the dream of becoming a gynecologist and helping girls and women like her have safe deliveries. In 2008 I came across an organization working to retain marginalized adolescent girls in school and empower them through safe spaces. I saw that as an opportunity to serve girls like me and my cousin, so my journey into volunteerism began. Even though I was not able to fulfill my dream of becoming a medical doctor, I saw it as a better chance of mentoring and serving girls like me to help them fulfill their dreams.

How does education contribute to a gender equal world?

Studies show that there are 130 million out-of-schoolgirls around the world who are often at risk of getting married or becoming mothers at a very young age. There has been insufficient investment in education around the world, especially girl child education. The failure to address the unmet needs of these girls will undermine the achievement of the sustainable development goals. This will in turn increase poverty and dependency ratio within our societies and the world at large. There is evidence of strong linkage between education and development. For any nation to have a meaningful development she must invest in the education of her young people, especially girls. Imagine a world where every girl is able to access free, safe, and quality education; where she is able to gain meaningful skills that enables her to contribute to income generation for her family; where she is informed on her sexual and reproductive health and rights, and can make informed choices on when she gets married, childbirth and the number of children she wants to have. That girl will live a more purposeful and abundant life, contribute to the family earnings which in turn boosts the nation’s economy. The ripple effect will contribute to a gender equal world.

“For me professionally, I’ve built an incredible business that I’m very proud of, that is my own brand, and is creating incredible content to empower and inspire the next generation of working women through a digital platform” — Ivanka Trump

Lois Ogola speaking at the Launch of Academy for Women Entrepreneurs Kaduna in August 2019
Lois Ogola speaking at the Launch of Academy for Women Entrepreneurs Kaduna in August 2019

It is a known fact that small businesses are the bedrock of a sustainable economy as they create meaningful jobs and keep money close to home and local communities. 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow and founder of Smiley’z Mobile Kitchen, Ogola Lois Kange is not just working to create employment but also helping others, especially women, create jobs.

What are you doing to promote opportunities for women in business?

My business has over 80% women staff and we organize projects in collaborations with other NGOs to administer programs including skills acquisition provision to women that could help improve their financial status. We have also collaborated with the Yieldwise program of Technoserve Nigeria to train farmers and cottage processors, most of who were women, on tomato processing by pasteurization. If we do our bit to reduce post-harvest loss in the tomato value chain, we would be providing food security, better job opportunities and employment for many women and youth. I also provide mentoring support to the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) program in Kaduna State.

How are women shaping Nigeria’s economy?

Women today are not taking a back seat when it comes to entrepreneurship. I have had the privilege of seeing many women owned businesses starting up or scaling within the last year. One thing is certain, many women have become aware of the potential they have and are taking Nigeria by storm. Women like Lola Alakija, and Tara Durotoye have become notable forces in their industries and are inspiring a new generation of women to pursue their dreams. There are other not-so-known women like Habiba Ali and Lucy Agunobi, who are making a big difference in their various communities in terms of economic empowerment and giving women a voice.

Lois Kange Leading a Skills Training for Rural Women in Commemoration of 2019 International Womens Day

How did your participation in the Mandela Washington Fellowship shape your entrepreneurship journey?

I was selected to participate in the entrepreneurship track of the Mandela Washington Fellowship. The six week fellowship offered me a fresh perspective on business. Prior to this time, my business, Smiley’z Mobile Kitchen, was registered as a business name and it was struggling. The fellowship emboldened me to make some very difficult but necessary decisions, including formalizing our organizational structure, which have resulted in the growth of my business. Today, Smiley’z Mobile Kitchen is more than just an eatery or a food delivery company. We are now an agribusiness reducing post-harvest loss and enabling food security. We have built and are still scaling up a complete value chain with a focus on tomato processing, although we plan to diversify to other crops and veggies in the future. Our goal is to process perishable farm produce in their season to reduce the post-harvest losses. We are creating a food security business model that allows us to make profit and empower rural farmers, especially women and youth. Thanks to the fellowship, I continue to benefit from a support network of dynamic young African leaders.

United States Diplomatic Mission in Nigeria. For official information visit http://ng.usembassy.gov

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