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
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?
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
this is in your community.
In my community, not everyone supports girls’ education. People prefer boys to
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
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.
what age do girls typically get married in your community?
how old are the boys when they get married?
man, sometimes, it’s at the age of 35.
when the girls get married, do they start having children?
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.
do you think your dad was in favour of education, given that there are
pressures to get girls married?
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
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.
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
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.
What needs to happen for change in Nigeria?
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.
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?
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
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?
people tend to look down on the female. They always think that the woman cannot
reach where she intends to.
What do you want people to know about Nigeria, the future of Nigeria, and the
importance of girls?
girls are educated and allowed to reach their maximum potential—to become a
president, governor, and women in strategic positions—things will change.