In vulnerable communities, young women dream big


June 3, 2015

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  • Abasiya learned to dream for a better future thanks to vocational training she received from Mercy Corps. Photo: Mercy Corps

Like many teenagers around the world, Abasiya Sani was used to asking her mother for a small allowance. “My mother sometimes gives me 30 naira [$0.15 USD] to buy snacks,” she explained.

Unlike other more fortunate teenagers, however, Abasiya didn’t think she could look forward to a self-sufficient future. She wasn’t able to finish high school after her father died two years ago, and at the age of 17, she began spending her days helping her mother care for a full household with four younger siblings and 15 extended family members.

Abasiya is, unfortunately, like many young women in Nigeria, where more than half of the population is under the age of 30 (the median age is 18). School enrollment is low and high unemployment leaves a huge swath of the country in poverty. The situation is compounded for women, who have fewer opportunities while men are prioritized for hiring.

That’s why we're working to bolster the education and economic opportunities for more than 18,000 marginalized girls and young women in Nigeria. The program is focused on three areas in Northern Nigeria, and in Lagos, where high urban migration and unemployment have placed young women at a huge disadvantage.

In fact, studies show that women in Nigeria comprise the largest share of the poor, unemployed and marginalized — and even more so in the North, where they face traditional, patriarchal cultural barriers that limit women’s involvement in educational and economic activities.

Just consider some statistics:

• The poverty rate in the north is the highest at 77 percent (compared to the already-high national rate of 69 percent)

• Nigeria has the largest number of children out of school in the world (10.5 million)

• Enrollment rates are worse in the North – only 21-22 percent of girls in areas where we work have completed primary school

• 67 percent of girls in the North cannot read a sentence

• Over half of young women in the North are married by age 16

Our goal is to ensure girls’ lives are not limited by cultural restrictions, inadequate educational institutions and appropriate curriculum – while working with local leaders and gatekeepers (parents, husbands) to shift their thinking and support an equal role for women in their communities.

The latter is especially critical in a highly volatile environment near Boko Haram. We make every effort to mitigate risks and protect girls in the program by ensuring only our local Nigerian partners have visibility, staying connected with teachers and school leadership to identify if there are any signs of extremist influence, and having communities and girls themselves decide the venue of the safe learning spaces so they are not at risk coming to and from meetings. That way the the entire community is committed to keeping the young women safe.

Abasiya joined the program last September and began attending one of our more than 600 safe learning spaces, where she’s learned how to save money, maintain a clean environment, and has made new friends with whom she can discuss future dreams.

At these meetings, girls who are still in school receive after-school tutoring and training to advance their leadership and entrepreneurship skills. Meanwhile, young women like Abasiya who are out school receive vocational training focused on business skills and employment readiness.

They can then choose from employment opportunities and setting up their own businesses, including becoming micro-retailers for popular products from partners like Coca-Cola and d.light solar.

“After attending the learning sessions, I started saving 20 naira out of the money my mother gives me,” Abasiya proudly explained. She saved 1,000 naira ($5 USD) and joined a savings group in her community. Earlier this year, she used the money as startup capital to start a cosmetic business in her neighborhood, and has continued saving part of her profit in the group so she can borrow funds to expand her business in the future.

Only two months into her venture, Abasiya had made a profit of 2,000 naira ($10 USD), showing her savvy in selecting an item in demand and not readily available nearby. After saving, she’s now able to contribute to the household income, buy clothes and food for siblings.

But she’s not stopping there. Abasiya is dreaming big: “Five years from now, I pray to have a very big shop in the city, where I will sell bags, shoes, clothes, children’s wear,” she said.

And her growth is expanding out through her whole family. Her mother says she’s learned much from Abasiya in terms of savings and cleanliness, and that she will continue supporting her daughters to improve their lives.

“I never knew my daughter was saving from the little money I give her to her. I was shocked when I heard her talk about starting a business. Before, I used to be the one who gave to my daughter, but today she gives back to me and that makes me proud.”