The Young Women Fighting for Change in Nigeria

From gender equality to climate change, the country is experiencing its largest social movements in generations.
September 4, 2020, 2:18pm
Jennifer Uchendu and Uche Umolu.
Photos courtesy of the contributors.

On the 4th of May, 2019, thousands of Nigerian women took to the streets to protest gendered police brutality. A week earlier, police officers in the capital, Abuja, had raided a series of nightclubs and bars, randomly arresting women. These women were later forced to plead guilty to charges of prostitution, and many later reported that they were raped and assaulted by the officers.

Soon after word got out about the arrests, large groups of women-led organisations came together to organise demonstrations across six states – Lagos, Abuja, Oyo, Enugu, Port Harcourt and Benin – with solidarity protests held in London and Accra.

The #SayHerNameNigeria protests turned into one of the country’s most successful social movements in generations, eventually birthing even more protests, including the #JusticeForUwa demonstrations earlier this year against the rise in domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdown.

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PHOTO: KOLA SULAIMON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

According to activist Ebele Molua, social media has played a huge role in driving this new wave of activism across Nigeria. "It has helped build a community of women who are fighting for the same things, and can learn from each other and lean on each other for support," she said.

Together, Nigerian women are organising, advocating and educating, in a country where feminists are often threatened and doxxed. I spoke to some of the women at the heart of these new movements, fighting everything from gender and sexual equality to climate change.

Damilola Odufuwa, 28, Lagos, and Odunayo Eweniyi, 27, Lagos

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Damilola (left) and Odun (right).

In 2018, Odunayo Eweniyi and Damilola Odufuwa saw an urgent need for safe spaces for Nigerian women, so they created Wine and Whine – a series of quarterly, women-only parties where they encourage guests to relax in a safe space that doubles up as an opportunity to tackle issues specific to them. “I got the idea after seeing a Beyoncé concert,” Damilola told me. "It was so beautiful watching this women-only show, and I immediately began to think about how to create a space like that for Nigerian women."

Before launching Wine and Whine, Damilola noticed that while a lot of vital work being done, much of it struggled to introduce an element of joy. “We wanted women to have fun together while fighting the patriarchy," she explained.

“We’d also love to have a [permanent] physical safe space for women – a co-working space with a daycare, but also a space we could use for our events and offer educational classes, mental health services, sexual health services, etc. That’s honestly the dream. To be able to offer a safe space to women in every way possible."

OluTimehin Adegbeye, 28, Ibadan

OluTimehin Adegbeye

In Nigeria, where homophobia is effectively enshrined in law, queer activists like OluTimehin Adegbeye have had to create communities for themselves. “Everyone shows up for [other causes], but when it comes to our movements, we don't get that support," OluTimehin said.

The award winning writer and photographer recently created Quietly Queer, a blog that encourages queer people of all sexual orientations, genders and identities to share their stories privately with members of the queer community.

"In the mainstream media, there is this obsession with coming out, and sometimes it feels like if you're not out as a queer person then you are not valid,” OluTimehin said. “And that is not true. I think that whether queer people choose to be out or not, they are still very much valid. Especially considering the fact that we live in Nigeria."

Adenike Oladosu, 25, Abuja

Adenike Oladosu

Adenike Oladosu was a student at the University of Agriculture, Markurdi, when she saw firsthand the impact of the climate crisis in her community. "I became an activist by necessity," she explained. "When I was in school, there were always clashes with farmers, because the land is gradually getting dry.”

Adenike's latest project draws attention to the depletion of Lake Chad. The lake, which is bordered by Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, is drying up and leaving the communities it serves without access to clean water.

"Lake Chad sustains the livelihood of thousands of people, and it has already shrunk by 90 percent,” said Adenike. “2.7 million people have already been displaced, and some families are forced to sell their daughters in exchange for water and money – and it feels like nobody is doing anything about it."

Adenike was able to draw the world's attention to this crisis in 2019 when, alongside Greta Thunberg, she spoke about the disappearance of Lake Chad to world leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid.

Jennifer Uchendu, 28, Lagos

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Since its inception, Jennifer Uchendu’s company, SustyVibes, has trained over 2,000 Nigerian students in ways they can contribute to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. "It literally began with me just writing on my blog about sustainability," Uchendu said. "At the time, I was looking for an organisation focused on sustainability in Nigeria to work with, and there just wasn't any."

Gender equality is also a major part of SustyVibes' work: "We recognise that women are most likely going to bear the brunt of this crisis, so we make sure they are included in all our operations. All of our volunteers know that everything we do is going to be with women at the centre, and they understand why."

Uche Umolu, 25, Toronto

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For most women in Nigeria who have been raped or assaulted, it is almost impossible to get justice – so one woman decided to help survivors find closure the only way they could, by calling out their assaulters on social media.

In 2015, Uche Umolu founded youareneveraloneng.tumblr.com, a blog that encouraged survivors to share their stories anonymously. It gave more and more women the confidence to come forward and speak about their abuse. "That's getting justice for me," she said.

Umolu encourages women to name their abusers as a possible path towards some kind of closure, especially when the Nigerian criminal justice system has failed them. “You can't take your perpetrators to court, but you can shame them in public,” she told me. “It is a form of justice. Victims get to reclaim their power this way."

Uche is now the executive director of The Consent Workshop, an organisation dedicated to educating children and university students about rape culture and consent in Canada, Nigeria and St Vincent and The Grenadines.

@TifeSanusi