By Cathy Russell
The first time Amina Yusuf left the borders of her native Nigeria, it was on the trip of a lifetime. She joined five other girls who were selected to see Malala Yousafzai accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo at the end of 2014. In that moment, she realized that the world was paying attention to adolescent girls.
This meant a great deal to Amina, who has experienced difficult challenges growing up in northern Nigeria. She’s managed to overcome them with support from her family and non-profit organizations, and today, Amina gives back to other girls in her community through mentorship and advocacy.
When I travelled to Aubja, Nigeria last month, I met with Amina to hear about her work. We talked about why the United States cares about girls around the world and how we support adolescent girls in different countries. I asked her about the challenges—and opportunities—she sees for women and girls in northern Nigeria.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation. We spoke in English and through a translator.
Ambassador Russell: How did you get into the work you’re doing?
Amina Yusuf: After my primary education, I had slim chances of proceeding to secondary school but with the help of Centre for Girls’ Education, I was enrolled in secondary school and also became a cascading mentor. My role is to assist in mentoring young girls in literacy and numeracy, life skills, and adolescent reproductive information.
Russell: And this is in your community.
Amina: Yes. In my community, not everyone supports girls’ education. People prefer boys to become educated.
Russell: Is that because of cost—of books, uniforms—that they don’t have enough money to do both, so they choose the boys? Or do they just not see the value in getting a girl educated?
Amina: Mostly, it’s because of the cost. And another reason is they don’t see the importance. After a certain age, a girl will move to her husband’s house. She’ll have to get married.
Russell: At what age do girls typically get married in your community?
Russell: And how old are the boys when they get married?
Amina: The man, sometimes, it’s at the age of 35.
Russell: And when the girls get married, do they start having children?
Amina: Sometimes immediately. Within nine months, she’ll have a baby. My mother encouraged me to attend school regularly. Of course, my father supports my education. He allowed me to be in school instead of marrying.
Russell: Why do you think your dad was in favour of education, given that there are pressures to get girls married?
Amina: After he married my mom, she dropped out of secondary school. He was educated, so he wanted my mother to continue. So even after they got married, he allowed her to continue.
Now she is the most educated person in our community. She is still doing a distance learning program. She’s somebody to look up to. And she’s one of the reasons why members of the community allow their girls to continue their education.
Russell: One of the things I hear a lot from girls is that, in addition to going to school, they have to do so much other work around the house. They have to care for other siblings. They have to get the water. They have to make the meal, clean up the meal. Is that typical here in Nigeria, where the girls do most of the work?
Amina: In northern Nigeria, even if a girl is in school, she must come home, do the cleaning and take care of things at home. Parents groom their daughters to become wives and mothers.
Russell: What needs to happen for change in Nigeria?
Amina: The change needs to start with the government. The government needs to put policies in place that ensure girls are in school, and that when girls are at home, there should be shared responsibilities. If a girl cooks dinner today, the boy should cook tomorrow. If there is equity, things will work out better.
Russell: In the United States, we’ve heard a lot about the Chibok girls who were taken in 2014. Is safety at school an issue that girls think about in the northern part of the country?
Amina: This issue of insecurity, we cannot say it is gone. It is still there and the girls are afraid. Most of the routes to school are not safe. And sometimes girls get raped on their way to school, and nobody is really sure whether school is safe or not.
Russell: Someone told me that attitudes here about women are not great, generally, that men are in control of the family and the political sphere. Is that your impression—that women don’t have a lot to say about what goes on?
Amina: Most people tend to look down on the female. They always think that the woman cannot reach where she intends to.
Russell: What do you want people to know about Nigeria, the future of Nigeria, and the importance of girls?
Amina: If girls are educated and allowed to reach their maximum potential—to become a president, governor, and women in strategic positions—things will change.