Q & A With Ini Adesiyan, Founder of the Young Girls Empowerment Project

Ini Adesiyan at a workshop with school girls in Enugu State, Nigeria.

Around the world, there are 62 million girls without access to education. In many countries, lack of access to adequate schools, generations of poverty, child marriage, or other societal and cultural factors have lead to this devastating face. In 2015, the United Nations announced its 17 Sustainable Development Goals for all countries to work toward achieving by 2030. Global Goal 4 is, ‘inclusive and equitable quality education’, a goal Ini Adesiyan (@iadesiyan) is passionately working toward as founder of the Young Girls’ Empowerment Project in Enugu State, Nigeria.

Adesiyan says her mission is about making them aware of their rights as individuals and encouraging them to maximize their potential. I recently met with Adesiyan to learn more about @YGEproject and her passion for bringing greater access to education and a positive message of empowerment to young girls in Nigeria.

(Laila Johnson-Salami) Ini, thank you so much for agreeing to have this interview with me.

(Ini Adesiyan) I’m both honoured and humbled that you requested to interview me. You’re doing a lot of great work. I’m such a big fan of yours!

(LJS) And vice versa! Your latest initiative is inspiring. What was your motivation behind it?

(IA) I’ve always had a God-given passion for women and children, so bringing these two passions together, I decided to create something young girls can benefit from. I didn’t think I was going to start until much later in my life but when I got to Enugu, there was a sense of urgency for me. I realized a lot of young girls had chosen alternate career paths to become what Nigerians call “runs babes”, which simply put, are girls that use their bodies for pay.

So I began to think of what I can do to solve, or sort of mitigate this problem. I realized from talking with older girls that their mindsets and views of life had already been formed and therefore much harder to reverse. So I decided to tackle the problem by focusing on girls in primary school and helping them create a mindset that says they can have equal opportunities, compete effectively in their classrooms, take up leadership positions, compete in sports, and science, and aim for high achievements without feeling inferior because they are girls. Also, I knew it was the right time because for the first time, the deputy governor in the current administration is a woman – the Honorable Mrs. Cecilia Ezeilo. These girls have a good role model to emulate

So I decided to tackle the problem by focusing on girls in primary school and helping them create a mindset that says they can have equal opportunities, compete effectively in their classrooms, take up leadership positions, compete in sports, and science, and aim for high achievements without feeling inferior because they are girls.– Ini Adesiyan

(LJS) Education is really the only way to transform generations and girls need to be empowered from a very young age. What problems do you feel the upcoming generation of Nigerian girls may face if people like yourself are not there to help them break through?

(IA) I think future generations of Nigerian girls are very privileged to have women like Minna Salami, Oby Ezekwesili, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and so many others out there trying to break this ceiling that has been consciously and subconsciously placed over us. When we go to the various schools we teach, I ask the girls what they want to be when they are older. A lot of them say they want to become teachers, lawyers, bankers, doctors, which are all great. Then I ask, “is there anyone who wants to be an engineer, or a scientist?” I’ve never gotten a positive response to that question. So I tell them, “oh, by the way, I am an engineer” and they look at me in awe. It lets them know they can be absolutely anything they want and there is no profession reserved for a particular gender. I tell them they need to take their relationships with God and their education seriously so they can be whatever they imagine they can be.

(LJS) How have the girls responded to your project so far?

(IA) The Young Girls’ Empowerment Project, although still in its early stages, has been so rewarding. We teach at each school for one week on the importance of education, leadership, physical and health education, and skills acquisition. Then on the final day, we teach on the Global Sustainable Development Goals. We then give them little sheets of paper to draw or write something they’ve learned during the week. So the girls are being more creative, they understand their minds better, they are more confident, able to speak up and address their classmates and know they are not limited. I’ve had girls come up to me and say, “Aunty, thank you! We didn’t know these things before you came”. Some have asked, “why hasn’t my teacher taught me what you’re teaching me?”

On the final day in one particular school, I was about to leave and the girls all embraced me saying, “Aunty, thank you! We love you!” It’s funny because they actually teach me patience and sensitivity as well. They’re like sponges, they soak everything in! I’m so blessed and happy with all the progress we have made. The results we have been able to achieve are amazing! Really, I wonder why I hadn’t started sooner!

(LJS) That’s honestly inspiring. Do you plan on growing this project and making it more widespread?

(IA) Oh yes! By the grace of God! My vision is much bigger than this. It scares and excites me simultaneously. This is my passion! The Enugu chapter of YGEP is just a launching pad. I never planned to start the Young Girls’ Empowerment Project here but once I got to Enugu, I felt an urgency to start. I haven’t seen anything like this here and I felt like the girls really needed this. My associate, Adaora Oji lives here in Enugu so she’ll be running the operations here because sustainability is very important. I’ll be going back to western Nigeria and God willing, extend this project to Oyo State and Ondo State where my parents are from. Then other states in Nigeria, particularly in the North! I look forward to expanding there and then breaking out across Africa. So this is definitely not a small scale project. There are girls everywhere that need to be empowered!

(LJS) I can’t wait to see what the future holds for YGEP! What are your future plans regarding female empowerment?

(IA) I’m so excited that more girls and women globally are raising their voices to let the world know this is not something we are going to overlook anymore. Whether we like it or not, the world is divided into two genders, male and female. This means females are approximately half of the world’s population. Teaming up with people like you, Adaora, and all other inspired women and men who are driven and passionate about empowering women and making sure there are equal opportunities for women, the world has to listen. Adaora and I are about to launch a new foundation under which this project will be sustained. We are having the launch event here in Enugu State and we have so many influential people supporting us.

It’s also important to us that we are good role models for these girls. Empowering them also means empowering ourselves by reaching the pinnacle of our chosen fields and professions as well as being able to make and influence policies in Nigeria. This is our time really. We are concocting other projects geared towards promoting gender equality, social and financial inclusion and education. It’s important women consciously support and lift each other up. I support organisations like Malala Fund, Project Unveil Academy, We Rise Initiative, Afro Tech Girls, Funmi Adewole Foundation and He For She which are all founded by women.

(LJS) Your support for the We Rise Initiative has been so motivating. How effective do you think the Global Goals can be? What has the response been toward them so far from the girls you work with?

(IA) I feel the Global Goals are fantastic. I believe the most important is Goal 17 – partnerships. With everything we are facing in the world right now from gender inequality to climate change, mass migration, economic meltdown, one way or another, these goals affect everyone. The work to be done is enormous! I feel with everyone working hand in hand, conscious of these goals, there is a lot we can achieve. It’s about time girls and boys have access to quality education and young people have jobs and all the other goals. I think the goals serve as an effective compass to guide us through to 2030. They make us accountable because it will be very apparent if we drift away from them.

When I teach the goals to the girls, because I do that personally, they’re so excited they can actually help make a better world by doing simple things, like switching off lights during the day to save energy and not wasting water. Also by being compassionate, giving food to people in need, learning to tolerate each other’s differences and so on. They’re so excited to know they have a part to play in the success of these goals. Then I give them handouts and tell them how important it is to tell everyone at home so the information keeps getting passed across.

(LJS) How do you think we can we tackle Global Goal 5, gender equality, in Nigeria before 2030?

(IA) There is a lot of work to be done with regards to achieving gender equality in Nigeria. The first step involves breaking the medieval social and cultural constructs. People’s promulgation of gender inequality stems from social beliefs and norms which have been taught for centuries. I remember telling my male colleagues in my engineering program that I was going to run for President of the faculty and win. They told me it had never been done and will never be done. These guys were supposed to be educated young men who would become our future leaders. So I think there must be campaigns, seminars and workshops about gender equality in much the same way there are seminars for sanitation and disease awareness.

I also think it’s important for women to realize the fight is not against men but rather what we are seeking is to break a social, cultural construct which sadly, a few women possess too. Men are our partners in this. The feminist movement isn’t gender exclusive. It conscripts both men and women alike. We need their support to ultimately create a Nigeria where all children have equal chances to succeed and where a woman is not discredited because she hasn’t given birth to a male child. All children are a gift from God. We must realize the work to be done is great and we must all partner to eradicate gender inequality nationally and globally.

(LJS) How do we also educate our boys to understand the importance of female empowerment?

(IA) It’s very important the male child also has a paradigm shift and comes to realize everyone is created equal and has equal rights. I feel like an effective way to do this would be to bring this into the educational system. Social media can also play a major role. As someone who, by the grace of God, is well grounded in the principles of science, I know it would be inaccurate to compare two things that haven’t been put in the exact same conditions. In a similar way, if women are not given equal opportunities, equal rights, and equal pay for doing the same jobs, then there is no basis to say that a man is better than a woman. More importantly, that’s not a fair system. Yes, we agree each gender has certain attributes that are unique to it. We aren’t substituting men with women because that would be inaccurate. Rather, what we seek are equal opportunities and a level playing field. Boys and men need to realize this. I don’t think it is impossible because growing up as an only girl with three brothers, I never felt less because I was a girl. My brothers and I all did the same chores and we all had to clean our individual rooms. In fact, they all re-tweet my empowerment tweets and are so proud their sister is impacting lives. So in my advocacy for the recreation of social and cultural constructs, I believe an effective starting point is through our educational system as well as social media.

My closest influence however is my mother. My brothers and I jokingly call her “superwoman” because she can do it all and is seldom weary! My dad strongly supports her too. My mother is an amazing career woman but if you entered our home, you’d think she is an interior designer and stay-at-home mum.– Ini Adesiyan

(LJS) Who would you say is your greatest influencer in terms of empowerment?

(IA) I’d say my greatest influence has been Oprah Winfrey. At first, I thought I wanted to be a talk show host because she was but I later came to realize it was really not about that. It is about being able to soar above the boundaries society creates and lift people up too. Malala Yousafzai rekindled that passion and made me realize I didn’t have to wait until I was older to make my impact. It’s about starting where you are with whatever resources you have. A much closer influence is Pastor Sarah Johnson. She is a full time pastor, full time mother and grandmother, full time CEO and equally gracious at all of these things. I look at her and I am in awe! My closest influence however is my mother. My brothers and I jokingly call her “superwoman” because she can do it all and is seldom weary! My dad strongly supports her too. My mother is an amazing career woman but if you entered our home, you’d think she is an interior designer and stay-at-home mum. She’s very good with her hands, I got that from her. So ultimately, I’ve had solid role models to follow.

It is about being able to soar above the boundaries society creates and lift people up too. It’s about starting where you are with whatever resources you have.– Ini Adesiyan

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