As I write this, I am in Jos, in the Plateau State in Northern Nigeria, some four and a half hours car drive from Abuja. Women for Women International has been operating in Jos and the Plateau State since 2003 when violence escalated between Muslim and Christian communities. It has been our mission here to foster development and peace through our training programme. From the beginning, it was important to us to bring Muslim and Christian women together in our training to encourage communication and peaceful co-existence.
Nigeria is also a country where women face many levels of discrimination and are mainly excluded from decision-making - out of 109 members of the Senate, only five are women and out of the 305 members of the House of Representatives less than 20 are women. Domestic violence is common and harmful traditional practices and sexual violence rarely prosecuted.
Having the opportunity to spend time in the classroom enabled me to experience how we teach women the different modules of our Life-Skills Training. The manuals we use are entirely picture based, very accessible and clear. I attended a sexual and reproductive health class where the group was learning about reproductive anatomy - with many giggles of course, but I was certain that none of the women had ever seen a picture of the female or male genital tract and that the knowledge they were gaining was going to be incredibly important to their lives and well-being. Seeing with my own eyes the transformation that occurs across the board is inspiring and testimony to the fact that the Women for Women International's approach of providing a holistic programme is having a significant impact. The level of confidence is visible.
We also got the opportunity to attend a VSLA - Village Savings and Loan Association - meeting and witness how they are effective tools for savings and loans led by the women themselves. In addition to the VSLAs which are optional for women, we help all women to open savings accounts and their stipend gets paid straight into their accounts.
It was inspiring to hear from the women about the aspects of our programme that they value - it spanned across all the different areas of our programme and by no means did it just focus on the fact that they are now able to save money, get a job, earn and sustain an income. The skills that we offer to the women in Nigeria, are animal husbandry (piggery, goat rearing), poultry, crop farming, small business training and knitting. Many spoke about the fact they now have a goat, or they showed us the beautiful knit wear they were now making after having been trained in machine knitting.
Many also spoke about what it means to them to know about their rights, to know that they have the right to inherit their husband's property upon his death and that they do not belong to the husband's family. They spoke about how they now know that their rights cannot be taken away from them, they spoke about the power of coming together in networks and having support and friendship from other women. They told me that they were now demanding changes in their community and how they have passed what they have learned on to their children.
I was moved to tears when one woman stood up and simply said: 'Thank you Women for Women International for having brought light to our community.'
One community we visited has no sanitation whatsoever, not even latrines. This is quite a large community and it is causing serious problems for everyone, but is particularly challenging for women and has serious health implications. The Women for Women International team have now decided that they will work with the women in the community to put pressure on the district to address this issue. I know that when I come back next time, there will be latrines in place.
I kept thinking over the past few days about the strength of bringing women together, witnessing the unity of the group of women particularly once they had been together for some time - there was so much strength, so much energy. At the graduation ceremony, that was so visible and it was impressive to see the husbands of the women and the community leaders there, witnessing the powerful transformation of the women. I don't think things change overnight - but I did feel that I was witnessing a transformation that was fundamental and powerful.