Empowering Sexual Minority Women in Nigeria Published in 2017 AKUDO OGUAGHAMBA – Nigeria This story is part of the series We are human rights changemakers to celebrate Equitas’ 50th anniversary. All through 2017, we invite you to discover stories of 50 inspiring human rights changemakers. These are but a few of the hundreds who have changed lives around the world through human rights education with Equitas’ support. Audacious. The description fits a plan to educate sexual minority women about their human rights in a country where women’s rights appear in the constitution but are seldom supported by legislation, and where same-sex relationships and organizing in support of LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) rights are criminal offences. But Akudo Oguaghamba has seen the difference it makes to women when they are empowered by coming together to support and learn from one another, and when they realize what they can accomplish by claiming their rights. “ That’s just the fuel that drives me, ” she says. Akudo is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Health and Equal Rights (WHER) Initiative in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. The non-profit organization uses advocacy, education and empowerment to promote the well-being and protect the rights of sexual minority women. The work is not easy. Traditional Nigerian culture places little value on women, and laws prohibiting violence and discrimination against women have failed to pass. Ignorance about human rights is widespread. Many believe that LGBTQI people should have no rights at all. Akudo has been tempted to quit, but hearing now and then from community members whose lives have changed for the better as a result of finding WHER motivates her to persevere. It wasn’t until Akudo moved to Abuja in 2007 that, for the first time in her life, she had conversation with other women who identified as sexual minorities. She met them through a men’s group involved in HIV/AIDS education and advocacy; at the time, LGBTQI women had little connection with one another. Akudo and her new friends realized that they had common challenges and reasoned that others must, too. That prompted them to explore whether there was interest among LGBTQI women in getting together, even just to meet their social needs by sharing stories about their experiences as members of a persecuted minority. They organized an informal picnic and put out the word, expecting perhaps a couple of dozen women to show up. Instead, countless people arrived, including many who had travelled hours from other cities. It showed Akudo that there was a huge desire for connection. With support from international women’s fund Mama Cash, WHER was registered as a non-profit in 2011 and secured office space where workshops on women’s health, sexual orientation, religious perspectives on sexual minorities and, increasingly, human rights could be offered. A confidential virtual platform was established to provide a channel for outreach and the sharing of personal stories and experiences. Akudo and her friends took on their cause without any background in organizing a social movement. “ We didn’t know what we were doing, we just did it. ” That changed in 2015, when Akudo became a participant in Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP), in Montreal, Canada. The experience had a huge impact on how she views her work and the future of her organization. As for many IHRTP graduates, her most profound insights came from the program’s participatory approach to education. The principles of learning from one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect and of empowering a community to take action to bring about change are informing and shaping the human rights training project WHER is currently developing. In WHER’s earlier work, it became apparent that few Nigerian women report human rights violations, even though they occur on a daily basis. The project will not only educate women about their rights, but help them identify violations, encourage them to report them and provide psychosocial support in the process. Although WHER serves primarily sexual minority women, empowering participants to claim their rights will benefit all women in Nigeria. Recent funding from international NGOs will make it possible to hire some staff, but most of WHER’s work is and will continue to be done by volunteers. Akudo herself is a full-time volunteer who also holds down a job and is working on a master’s degree in project management. The contribution made by people who want to help make change happen inspires and motivates her. “ The most beautiful part of this is people wanting to give back to the community. Like I have to do this not for me, but for the community. I have to do it somehow. ” Akudo Oguaghamba is driven by a passion for her work and a determination to make change happen. This exuberant, intelligent, compassionate woman in her early thirties has made extraordinary progress in just a few years. And she has only begun. Audacious indeed. AKUDO OGUAGHAMBA – Nigeria Executive Director, Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative, Nigeria Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program Alumnus, 2015 – Story prepared by Pattie Whitehouse, Personal History Service, www.pattiewhitehouse.ca Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program is undertaken in part with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada. Did you like this story? Give us your support! 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