We asked lawyer Olaoluwa Abagun about the Nigerian girls' rights organisation she founded, Girl Pride Circle.
Tell us about Girl Pride Circle.
It is a nonprofit that work with girls between the ages of ten and 17 at weekly, term-time education clubs at secondary schools. We also use social media and documentaries to reach a wider audience online. We want to equip a generation of girls to lead and transform their communities – just like their male counterparts.
Why did you decide to create it?
In 2014 I was a final-year law undergraduate with $27 in my bank account, and no team, partners or funding. But I decided to devote my career to girls’ rights.
I joined the Nigerian Children’s Parliament when I was 13. I spent four of my impressionable teenage years advocating for children's rights, at grassroots and government levels, and contributing to policies for children's well-being.
I had been raised and treated the same way as my three brothers, but I saw the issues girl children confront in Nigeria's traditionally patriarchal society. Unequal access to education is one, and so are child marriage and sexualised violence.
How has Girl Pride Circle grown since then?
Today, Girl Pride Circle is a registered non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Nigeria and has reached over 1,700 girls. Schools help us choose girls to join the clubs, and our volunteers work with girls on the school premises.
At our clubs, we talk about leadership, advocacy and sexual/reproductive health and rights. We also have basic Taekwondo classes and workshops.
Taekwondo is a martial art that teaches leadership, self awareness, confidence, discipline and resilience. These are all skills that girls need to take full ownership of their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Before introducing Taekwondo classes last year, only five per cent of the 270 girls we surveyed claimed to be confident about advocating for their rights to be free from sexual violation. After six months, 84 per cent agreed that they now felt more confident to engage in advocacy in their communities.
You can hear the girls' voices in our advocacy documentaries. They have performed and shared theatre, poetry and visual art in schools, religious organisations and in their communities. Many girls are too scared to speak when they join our education clubs. After a few months, the change is dramatic. They express themselves and almost take over from our volunteers.
How does Girl Pride Circle influence leaders and policy-makers?
Last year, 270 girls who were members of our education clubs in Alimosho, Lagos State, drafted a community action plan, containing specific steps to take to protect girls from sexualised violence. The plan is intended for government, religious leaders, community leaders, parents, teachers and the entire community .
For example, the girls ask religious leaders to appoint supervisors of both sexes for children's religious centres. Currently, some religious centres have only male supervisors for both boys and girls. For younger girls, this may mean that the male supervisor takes them to the restroom unsupervised.
They also ask parents to introduce age-appropriate sex education for children. Many girls in the community do not feel comfortable discussing sex or sexuality because their parents have made the subject taboo. In our initial survey, only six per cent of the girls said they felt comfortable talking about sex or sexualised violence. This number increased to 22 per cent after six months, which indicates that there is still a lot of work to be done.
What happened to the girls' action plan?
Local government in Alimosho has adopted it. Schools have used it to design their internal protection policy, and we have given it to 1,500 community leaders.
What else has the organisation achieved?
We want to continuously educate and influence people in authority. So we have also talked to over 5,000 government officials, police officers, legislators, community and religious leaders in Lagos on policy development for preventing sexualised violence against girls. We shared insights, recommendations and education materials, and invited them to speak on the radio about issues affecting girls.
When we produced a documentary on sexualised violence a few months ago, we brought together about 100 police officers for a viewing. We also discussed the challenges that survivors had in reporting incidents to the police and getting them to prosecute perpetrators. As a result, the officer in charge of the gender desk of the Lagos State Police Command pledged a renewed commitment to prosecuting sexualised violence cases, and invited us to report incidents directly to her.
Have you encountered criticism?
A male high school teacher put up a strong resistance to our basic Taekwondo classes for girls in his school, because he felt that it would make them 'unladylike'. In his opinion, girls had no business learning self-defence techniques and the boys were the ones who needed the classes to be able to 'protect' the girls.
During a recent advocacy visit, a senior female police officer told my team that the way some adolescent girls dress is an indication that they are 'asking for rape' and men should not be blamed for being 'moved by what they see'. What most affected us was that this misogynistic belief was expressed by a woman police officer, who we expected to relate to the girls’ challenges. It was a relief to see that the male officers did not agree with her.
What are the practical challenges of maintaining Girl Pride Circle?
Finding and retaining skilled, committed volunteers is a challenge. As a growing nonprofit, we have to rely on volunteers to run our education clubs and advocacy projects. Nigeria’s non-profit and charity sector is still taking shape, and many people view advocacy work as a hobby.
We also struggle to get funding for our projects. We have received seed grants from Women Deliver and The Pollination Project, and my team works remotely to reduce overhead costs.
How does your work as a lawyer inform your work as an advocate for women?
I became a lawyer because of my passion for advocating for girls and women’s rights. Before designing an advocacy project, the lawyer in me voraciously seeks evidence and refuses to accept untested assumptions. This means that we only invest in evidence-driven interventions, which leads to less risk and more impact.
When we received a seed grant to work on sexualised violence prevention in Lagos State, we had the option of spreading our scarce resources thinly across the 20 local government areas. However, when we looked at data from the sexual assault referral centre, it was clear that Alimosho needed these efforts most. Also, the local government was more keen to support the project when they realised that the choice to focus on their community was based on verifiable data, not an assumption.
People also become more interested in listening to my views on socio-legal issues affecting girls and women when they learn that I am a qualified barrister and solicitor.
For me, being a lawyer is more than a profession. It is a higher calling to stand for what is just and equitable in my community.
Olaoluwa Abagun is a lawyer and founder of Girl Pride Circle Initiative, a non-governmental organisation in Nigeria which advocates for girls’ rights and helps girls transform their communities. She is also a member of the British Council’s Future Leaders Connect programme.
Applications for Future Leaders Connect, the global network for emerging policy leaders, are now closed and will re-open in 2020.