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Story and Perspective

Empowered Choices

Bayo Ewuola

Bayo Ewuola

At an Internally Displaced Persons Settlement in Northern Nigeria, these Adolescents Plan for Bright Futures

The ongoing conflict in northeastern Nigeria caused by the Boko Haram insurgency has led to one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises, resulting in mass displacement and disruption of basic services.

According to the UNHCR, there are over 2.1 million internally displaced persons in Nigeria.

Hadiza Umaru is 15 and was displaced by Boko Haram militants, alongside her mother.

Meet Hadiza.  At just 15 years-old, she has spent the majority of her life in this settlement, displaced when Boko Haram attacked her village, Gwoza, located in the Southern part of Borno state. “I was seven years old when I came to this camp,” says Hadiza. “We have now been here for eight years.”

She isn’t alone. Many children were born, and raised, in this settlement.

Fatima Nuhu. Photo: Bayo Ewuola

For the last year, Pathfinder’s Empowered Choices program has been working here to improve adolescent health and well-being and advance gender equality by giving adolescent girls and boys the skills they need to make healthy transitions into adulthood. Peer mentorship is at the heart of the program, and peer educators work to increase knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, and host skills-acquisition classes so adolescents have options for their futures.

Community members, particularly adolescents, face numerous challenges in the settlement. “Community members in the camp face many barriers,” says peer mentor, Temitope Obatoyinbo. “Poor infrastructure, including roads, lack of health care, security, and education are all challenges.”

Suleiman Abass, a peer mentor with Empowered Choices. Photo: Bayo Ewuola

Suleiman Abass, another peer mentor working with Empowered Choices, elaborates. “Access to health facilities is a major challenge for people living in this camp. They cannot afford to pay for quality education. There is no modern toilet in the camp.” For women and girls, he says, the challenges are more significant. “There was a deficit of information on sexual and reproductive health for them, and they cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. To be able to meet the most basic needs at home, some of the girls hawk sweets, biscuits, and food during school, where they are exposed to sexual harassment.”

Pathfinder has worked step by step to help stem the tide of these barriers. The intervention has included:

  • Hosting skills-acquisition sessions to enhance the economic empowerment of adolescents.
  • Engaging community gatekeepers and caregivers to address norms and attitudes that propagate gender inequities.
  • Working with households and communities to address barriers that prevent adolescents from accessing sexual and reproductive health services and exercising their rights.
  • Setting up protection mechanisms and safe spaces for adolescents.
  • Improving the capacity of facility-based providers to offer adolescent-friendly services at select health facilities.
  • Facilitating the referral of adolescents to health facilities for care.

The result? Adolescents that are more confident in who they are, what they want to be, and how to achieve the futures they want.

I want to become a soldier one day,” says Hadiza. “I know I must study hard and perform better in school, and the program moves me closer to my goal. I also participate in sporting activities to keep fit and be able to prepare for the task ahead. The sessions are reassuring me that if I don’t give up, I can actualize my dream.”

Fatima Ali (right). Photo: Bayo Ewuola

Fatima Ali, also 15, agrees. “I have learned a lot from the project. For me, the goal-setting component has been of great value. Before the project started, I was not doing anything. But when we commenced, our mentors taught us the importance of having a goal in life to become a better person. Then, I decided I wanted to become a fashion designer. I have enrolled in a fashion school where I am currently learning how to design clothes for women.”

I am proud of the peers. They are always eager for the sessions. Their communication skill has improved greatly because they now interact with us more than when we started.

Nancy Felix, Peer Educator

Over the last year, Pathfinder has held 20 “empowerment sessions,” each one consisting of 16 weeks of education sessions, two weeks of ‘empowerment’ sessions, and a week for graduations. (Pathfinder has planned 24 sessions total, each held for 18 weeks of education, five weeks of empowerment, and a week for graduation!)

Peer mentor Suleiman Abass has seen the change. “When the project started,” he says, “we noticed signs of violence and aggression among the peers. This behavior has now reduced because of the different sessions we have had to change their lived experience. Their self-confidence has improved, and they want to learn more”.

Constance Ogah, peer mentor (at right). Photo: Bayo Ewuola

Constance Ogah, another peer mentor, agrees. “Today, the kids are well-behaved, and they always get to the class waiting for us.”

Ummi Umar, aged 14, is determined. “I learned about goal-setting in such a way that I now desire to become a doctor. I have been studying hard to read all my science courses. In my last exams, I passed my mathematics course with excellence! I have also learned about gender-based violence, and the fact that my body is my body, and I should not allow anyone to take advantage of me.”

Ummi Umar. Photo: Bayo Ewuola

Says Mary Nuhu, a 14-year old from Goza, “I now want to be a pilot. I see planes flying in the sky every day. I have not been to the airport before, and I’ve never entered a plane, but I like them and want to drive it one day! I am in school, and I want to keep studying hard to excel in all I do.”

Mary Nuhu wants to be a pilot some day.

With Empowered Choices, hope is growing. “I’m proud that I’ve had the opportunity to reach out to these kids and make a change in their lives,” says peer mentor Abass. “We are affecting their lives.” And, alongside support from camp officials, and parents, the program has been a success.

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