Amy Oyekunle: Getting women involved

GENEVA, Switzerland — Amy Oyekunle has a modest goal: saving Africa by getting more women involved in government.

The political representation of women in her native Nigeria now stands at about 6 percent. Oyekunle wants to raise that to 30 percent. To do that, she literally wants to change the way African men see women.

“I don't know when that will happen,” she says, “but it's our goal.”

As the executive director of KIND, an NGO based in Lagos, Nigeria, and Washington, D.C., Oyekunle recently attended a women's conference in Geneva entitled, “The Courage to Lead.” The conference was backed by George Washington University's Eleanor Roosevelt Project and by the Vital Voices Global Partnership.

KIND got its start in 1999, when Nigeria returned to democracy, following the death of its previous strong man, Gen. Sani Abacha. The organization was launched by Hafsat Abiola-Costello, the daughter of a dynamic tribal chief, nicknamed MKO, who was elected president of Nigeria on June 12, 1993, and was immediately thrown into prison by Abacha, who seized power in a military coup d'etat.

Hafsat's mother, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, was murdered by Abacha's henchmen when she tried to lead a demonstration to get her husband out of prison. MKO, whose full name was Chief Moshood Kashimwao Olalwale Abiola, died in prison two years after his arrest. Abacha had accused him of treason for winning the election and daring to declare that he should be president.

As soon as Abacha was out of the picture, Hafsat launched KIND. The initials stand for the Kudirat Institute for Nigerian Democracy, but Hafsat explains in a note on her website that the name sounded too academic, so the second word was changed to initiative. Then she thought, why stop at introducing democracy to Nigeria? The name was shortened to Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, Kudirat being a reference to Hafsat's mother.

Amy Oyekunle soon became a driving force in the organization and quickly realized that to obtain genuine democracy in Nigeria the attitude toward women had to change.

“In Nigeria, women are expected to stand behind their man and not step forward,” she says. So KIND began training young women between the ages of 18 and 35 to develop leadership skills and the tools to make their voices heard.

“It seemed simple in the beginning,” Oyekunle says. “But we found that women are culturally subdued. We found that violence against women was rising. It's always an issue, but in Nigeria, it is not spoken. If I am a victim of domestic violence, if my husband beats me, I don't talk about it. If I do, will shame my family. So KIND began pushing for laws that stop the violence and that break the silence.”

Rape is a major target. KIND notes that 10 rapes a day are reported in one hospital alone out of Lagos' 57 municipal districts, by women and children of many ages. Lagos police don't bother to keep records because it is not really considered a major crime. Another issue is securing the right for women to inherit property when their husband dies.

In 2006, to commemorate Women's Day, KIND brought Eve Ensler's “Vagina Monologues” to Lagos, and the country's federal capital, Abuja. Abuja was important because KIND wanted Nigerian lawmakers to hear what women really thought. For KIND, it was a gutsy move.

“What we were most worried about,” says Oyekunle, “is that our throats would be slit while we were sleeping at night.” There was a bit of backlash, but on the whole the message found a receptive audience.

“For many women it was an 'Ahaaa!' moment,” Oyekunle says. The performances raised enough money to support a women's shelter in Lagos, and KIND began organizing other performances based on Nigerian stories. This time, they mobilized talent from “Nollywood,” Nigeria's budding film industry.

“We do most of the performances in the universities that are producing our next generation of leaders,” she says. “If women don't develop an awareness at that stage, they never will.”

In the meantime, Oyekunle, who is 33 and married with two small children, finds that her activist approach is having an impact on her own family.

“My husband tells me that I am the philanthropist and that he is a businessman. I am the social worker and he is not,” she says. “He told me that I would spend my time better working in a bank or for the U.N., where I would make more money with less stress.” But she adds that over the years, he has come to accept what she does and that there has now been a turning point in the relationship.

“He went through denial, acceptance and now he is actually helping,” she says. “In a way, I have changed the way he thinks. Before, it was me, myself and I and it doesn't affect me. This is my house, my family and it is not my problem whatever is going on out there. But in the last few months, he has actually become involved in our community. He has started to become involved in where we live, and he worries that there are no roads or lights. He is taking a lead, and I am pretty proud of him.”

The message seems to have gotten through to Oyekunle as well.

“In the future,” she says, “I want to run for political office in Nigeria."