Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I’m delighted to be here with you on such an important occasion, the International Day of the Girl Child.
Let me tell you a story. Two weeks ago I visited Maiduguri. While there I visited two camps for internally displaced persons and went to a hospital with an emergency feeding center for children affected by severe malnutrition. I met many people that day, but I think of three in particular.
- One – a little baby girl Hadiza – 1 year old – emaciated – to be honest, I am not sure if she is alive today – she was at great risk and had pencil thin arms and legs
- Another person is her mother – also named Hadiza – a young woman who has eight children – she was with her daughter at the local hospital in the feeding center that was helping keep her alive
- A third person is a young woman who was visiting one of the IDP camps – she was impressive – studied and succeeded – two years at university hoping to go into law – she wants to make a difference for girls and other young women in Borno – on a day when I experienced real sadness, she gave me great hope.
This baby girl and these two women make me think: We all need to do what we can to help little girls like Hadiza. We need to help girls across this country, from all walks of life, not only in crisis. They need the opportunity to grow up safe and healthy, free from violence and abuse. They need the chance to be educated, to make decisions for themselves about their destinies, what they want to do in life, who they want to love, how they will live, and what they will believe.
When we think of the future of Nigeria, this is especially important. Think for a moment. Nigeria’s population is growing rapidly. Currently there are roughly 180 million people in the country. By 2050 the number of people is expected to grow to roughly double, to some 350 million people. Half of these are female. What are we doing to make a better future for the girls who we want to grow up to be the women of Nigeria tomorrow?
As we ponder these questions, I want to thank you to everyone seated here for the good work you do investing in the women and girls of Nigeria. Encouraging women to start businesses, encouraging girls to stay in school, and ending practices such as female genital mutilation, are hugely important. Women and girls are also disproportionately victims of crime and terrorism both here in Nigeria and around the world.
Like Nigeria, the United States also has gender issues and I wish I could say that we have overcome all of them, but the reality is that establishing social justice is a constant work in progress. We recognize that, and recognizing such problems demonstrates strength. The desire to continually improve, to strengthen democracy, and to ensure that we strive to live up to our national ideals, in America, in Nigeria, and everywhere. So on days such as this we celebrate the progress we have made, we pledge to continue to strive to uphold our ideals, and we hope this commitment to continuous improvement inspires others to action.
Michelle Obama, at the 2014 Mandela Washington Fellowship’s Presidential summit said, “if you send out half your team, you will not do as well.” Women make up roughly half of the population of Nigeria, and in a time of economic turmoil, Nigeria cannot afford to have half the team sitting on the bench. With that in mind the Embassy sponsors more than one hundred women and girls annually to travel to the United States to hone their skills in business, advocacy, education, and many other fields through our various educational and cultural exchange programs.
Ijeoma Okorie – the co-convener of today’s event is one of these shining examples. She participated in the Mandela Washington fellowship in 2014 as a result the work she is doing here to inspire teenagers and she has continued to work on those projects since her return to Nigeria. She has earned herself a national award on youth civic participation which was presented to her by President Buhari in 2015. Well done Ijeoma. Thank you for demonstrating in practical terms, when you educate a woman, you teach a whole community!
The Embassy also sponsored two promising teenagers Iyinoluwa Toluhi and Sarah Eme, to participate in a ten-day Women2Women (W2W) leadership program in Boston. Women2Wome aim to empower young girls with the tools, relationships, and opportunities required to lead in today’s world. Upon their return, with the laudable goal of supporting less privileged girls in their community, these young women worked with their peers on a fundraising initiative, and have so far, been able to raise more than three hundred thousand naira to support education and training.
The month of March is designated Women’s History Month in the United States, to celebrate the women’s achievements. As part of our Women’s History Month this year, the Embassy invited Melanie Elturk – the CEO of Haute Hijab, to share her experiences with budding female entrepreneurs in northern Nigeria. Haute Hijab is a thriving online business striving to balance fashion with faith.
Here at the U.S. Embassy, we support the campaign to end violence against women and girls. We work with Nigerians to assure the rights of every Nigerian woman and girl to live free – Free from physical and emotional abuse at school, at home, and in the work place. We work to see she is respected and protected.
USAID is working with the Government of Nigeria to narrow its gender gaps in many areas such as education, health, political participation, and economic empowerment.
USAID has educational programs in the northern part of Nigeria focused on ensuring girls not only enter and stay in school, but receive a quality education. In addition, USAID has developed safe spaces for women and girls affected by the ongoing conflict in the Northeast. USAID health programs encourage girls to delay pregnancy until an appropriate age, and focus on family planning and disease prevention to improve health outcomes for girls and young women throughout Nigeria.
I must note that recently, the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill, which seeks to, among other things, ensure equal employment opportunities for women, and freedom from all forms of violence, passed its 2nd reading in the Nigerian Senate. This is progress worth celebrating and I commend the senators on this bold step.
Finally I want to thank and welcome the amazing guest speakers joining us today: Josephine Anenih, Dr. Ibironke Sodeinde, Ibukun Awosika, Tara Fela-Durotoye, you have blazed a trail in the fields of politics, public service, banking, business and fashion, not just for women but for all young Nigerians. Thank you for all of the good work you are doing. Thanks also to Mr. Linus Okorie for coming out to give the “He for She” support to this program, I encourage more Nigerian men to follow your example. I am confident that the audience is keen to hear from all of you, so let me turn over the microphone so we can proceed with the program. Thank you very much.