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Amy Oyekunle: Getting women involved

Nigerian executive director of KIND sees women's involvement in politics as the key to progress in Africa.

Amy Oyekunle in Geneva, Switzerland. (William Dowell/GlobalPost)

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.”