Wadi Ben-Hirki is a 23 year-old gender equality activist from Nigeria and the founder of Wadi Ben-Hirki Foundation.
Wadi Ben-Hirki Foundation works across Nigeria to impact the lives of the less-privileged, marginalized and disadvantaged through humanitarianism and advocacy.
Wadi was enlisted as one of the 100 Most Influential Young Africans in 2018. Some of her awards include the Ribena Good Values Awards Hero 2018, Her Network Woman of the Future Award 2017, The Ebony Life TV Sisterhood Advocate and People’s Choice of the Year Awards 2017, Top 10 young people in Africa working towards achieving Gender Justice and Reconciliation Award and Civil Society Award 2017.
Wadi is a 2019 Diana Award Holder and was one of the recipients of the World Youth Forum Award 2018 which was presented by H.E President AbdelFattah El-Sisi (President of Egypt). She currently sits on the African Leadership Institute Youth Advisory Board and serves as a Country Representative for the Chatham House Common Futures Conversations. She is a recipient of Your Best Life scholarship program.
She is also the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) Representative for the G(irls)20 Summit 2020.
Wadi, can you tell us about your journey of promoting girls and women empowerment in your community in Nigeria?
I am from Nigeria, a country with great potentials but also known to have a lot of challenges around peace, education and, gender discrimination. Growing up, I saw a lot of those challenges. Fortunately, I come from a family where my parents understood the importance of education. But, many girls my age did not have access to quality education. A lot of them were married off at a tender and prepubescent age.
By the time I was 18, the infamous insurgency and terrorist attack by Boko Haram became more rampant. A lot of my distant family members and relatives were impacted by the terrorist group. Some people were killed and many were forced to flee; their sources of livelihoods were lost, left them internally displaced and our family house in the village was destroyed.
I was really bothered about these incidents, and decided to start an organization to make changes. That is how my non-profit, Wadi Ben Hirki Foundation was born. I did not have the money, but I had the passion. Gradually, I started seeing the changes, got many young and passionate people on board, and started approaching different organizations that I wanted to volunteer for or partner with. It was really tough because most of the time, I got negative responses. But I always believed that in life, you need to keep trying, and not take ‘no’ as the final answer.
I believe there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. So I kept pushing, gradually started making my voice heard. I started looking for collaborations and funding opportunities online. Started going to communities for sensitization, doing peace building work, getting children access to education, advocating, both locally and at the state level. Gradually I started having more platforms to speak about the issues that bothered me a lot.
I’m now 23 years old. So it’s been five years. There’s been some successes and recognition, despite many challenges. My success gave me access to some more platforms and it got a lot of people to hear me and wanted to work with me. It gave me some form of credibility.
So this is my journey – it’s been a rough ride, but it’s been worth it. Because I’ve seen genuine changes happen. I’ve seen the lives of people change. People who didn’t have access to education, now do. People who didn’t have a source of livelihood are now employed. They’re making ends meet despite living in displaced people’s camps and some people who did not have anything now have access to relief supplies.
What motivated you to fight for justice and equity for girls in your community?
I believe our rights and dignity should be protected, irrespective of gender, race, religion and/ or color. But I saw that it wasn’t the case for many people around me.
There were many things that I was privileged to have, like freedom and education. I realized that because of the choices and opportunities I had, I was more likely to lead a fulfilling life and achieve my goals and dreams, unlike many of these people around me. This was what really propelled me to start and say, I need to do something. No matter how small or big, I just need to play my part. And that was what really pushed me to start what I’m doing today.
Can you talk a little bit about your organization, Wadi Ben Hirki Foundation and how it’s changing the lives of girls in Nigeria?
Since our establishment in June, 2015, we’ve been doing a few major projects that transform the lives of girls.
The first project I want to talk about is, ‘Girls Not Wives’.
Girls not Wives, as the name implies, is a project to promote awareness about and sensitize communities about the harm of child marriage and gender-based violence. We believe that girls should have equal opportunities and access to education and resources as boys. They should be allowed to live freely and unapologetically without any fear. We raise awareness about sharing real life stories of the challenges, and telling them about the great things that will happen if girls have access to education. We also lobby for policies and bills to be passed against child marriage, violence against girls and women, age of consent, etc. These are the primary scopes of ‘Girls Not Wives’.
Through another project, we teach basic Maths and English to children in communities so they don’t miss out on school. We also help connect people with resources, to people without resources. And depending on the funding we get, we provide scholarships to a few girls to go to school, and buy them books and other stationary.
The third project is, ‘SHEROES’. SHEROES are female heroes. We encourage young girls and women to be the best versions of themselves, and validate their dreams and ambitions. We teach them vocations and skills acquisition, so they can make some earnings for themselves. Then we educate them about their rights, because unless they know what their rights are, they would never be able to identify when the rights are being taken away from them. We also collaborate with other organizations to make more impact in different communities.
You have been selected as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) delegate at Girls20 Summit 2020. How do you feel about it?
G(irls)20 is an organization that for the past 10 years, has been coming up with policy recommendations for the G20 governments and showing that girls and young women should have voices at decision-making tables. In advance of the G20 meeting each year, G(irls)20 Global Summit is the only platform for young women to speak directly to G20 leaders about the urgent issues facing girls and women around the world.
This year, there are two of us representing the African continent. The summit comes up in a few weeks this month. So it’s really great having this opportunity and responsibility to be a delegate and knowing that I’m not just representing myself, but the millions of other girls across the 54 African countries and I need to speak for them, and the fact that there should be nothing about us without us. So when policies are made for us, we need to also have a seat at the table to tell them what we really need, what we really think about, the sustainable solutions of all the problems that we have.
It’s also shaping me and my work, because I apply all these ideas and strategies to the work I do. Also, I get to talk with young girls and women from different parts of the world. And it’s really interesting to see that the problems we face are really not too unique. They have really a like, just that on different levels, and depth.
What are the major challenges and barriers that you had to overcome to reach where you are today?
There have been many barriers. Sometimes it’s a real challenge to arrange funds for critical projects, and we have to stop important work because of lack of money.
And secondly, I speak about issues not everyone agrees with because of culture and other instilled and deeply rooted belief systems. Sometimes I face harassments here and there because of what I speak for or speak against
Another challenge is the pressure of doing this work might take a toll on me at times. There is always so much to do and accomplish, not wanting to fail, since there are people who depend on me and the decisions I make don’t just affect me. These are some of the challenges which we keep moving and keep pushing through.