Hafsat Abiola

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 2003
Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND)
This description of Hafsat Abiola's work was prepared when Hafsat Abiola was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003 .


Determined to end gender discrimination in Nigeria and to cultivate a new generation of assertive, ethical changemakers, Hafsat Abiola is identifying young women and building their capacity to become competitive and respected decision-makers by providing them with resources and leadership training.

The New Idea

Nigerian culture is decidedly patriarchal, and opportunities for women to contribute to the work force or to shape the country's transformation to democracy remain limited. Moreover, young women grow up with few role models in the country or region to show them that they can succeed, that they can and should make a huge difference. Hafsat believes that the only way to significantly lessen–and someday end–gender discrimination in Nigeria is for women to emerge as competent, assured leaders. To serve the needs of young women who show promise as leaders, she has created the first intensive leadership selection process and program in Nigeria. She finds young women leaders–ages 18 to 30–and helps them succeed by providing validation, stimulation, and support from peers, management and leadership training, mentoring from mature leaders, and a deep appreciation for themselves as changemakers. The program refines and shapes participants' instincts to lead and helps the young women see effective avenues for contribution. Through their success and positive contribution in a variety of fields, Hafsat sees that "graduates" of her program will demonstrate that women are as central to the functioning of society as men, and that representation and rights ought to be allotted in equal portions.

The Problem

For three decades after gaining its independence, Nigeria has been governed by the military, which was 100 percent male. This, and the colonial practice of ignoring female rulers and working only with their male counterparts, created a culture where only men are encouraged to seek leadership positions and to participate in debates and decision-making processes within the public sphere. Not surprisingly, the representation of women in political leadership did not improve significantly with the return to democratic rule in 1999: in a 469-member National Assembly, there are a mere 16 women; and in Nigeria's 36 states, there are no female governors–one deputy governor was forced to resign.
The impact of this on Nigerian women is significant, particularly, their inability to contribute their full potential to the country. However, gender discrimination does not only affect women–it also affects everyone with whom women interact. For example, as mothers, women are put into the difficult position of raising children in a world that they have played no part in shaping, a world that often contradicts the values they teach their children at home. Adequately preparing children to function in the community also requires women's participation in protecting the legacies that will be bequeathed to the children. So, in this sense, the whole country of 127 million people loses when half of its members–its women–are not able to offer all that they can to the development of the collective.
Historically, the struggle to secure a space for women in Nigeria's public life began even before the independence of the colony when women leaders in all parts of the country organized protests against various colonial laws. This activism grew into the movement for women's right to vote, which was won in 1958 in the South and in 1976 in the North.
Unfortunately, women's gains were stalled during the period of military rule that spanned 30 years. As the military governed Nigeria, male soldiers developed a practice of selecting the leaders for the women's movement, thereby controlling women's participation. Usually, the military leaders appointed their own wives to head up federal and state ministries of women's affairs. These women, many of whom had never been involved in the women's rights movement before their appointments, knew little and cared less about women's concerns. Their performance was often lackluster, with their efforts directed mainly at using the ministry to protect the military leaders' interests or stealing government funds.
Currently, with the return of civilian democratic rule, women are becoming more involved and are making tremendous strides at the local community level. For example, in July 2002, in the Delta, where oil corporations site oil extraction operations that yield billions for the companies and the Nigerian government, the women there began a protest to awaken the companies to the crushing poverty in which villagers live. The multiethnic group of women demanded that the oil company fulfill its obligation to the communities to provide jobs and resources for education, water, electricity, a community center, and support for economic development. The women understood that as Nigeria is the world's sixth largest exporter of oil and the fifth largest oil supplier to the United States, the poverty in their communities resulted largely from a failure of leadership. And they decided to provide the missing leadership. The protest began with 600 unarmed women from affected oil communities occupying ChevronTexaco's Escravos export terminal in the Niger Delta. They succeeded. ChevronTexaco executives and women's representatives signed a seven-page memorandum that allowed the women to end their week-long occupation of ChevronTexaco oil pipeline stations in exchange for jobs, business loans, schools, and hospitals. ChevronTexaco even promised to throw a party for the women, their families, and neighbors to thank them for not damaging equipment at the facility.Yet while women can organize at the local level in that way, they face many obstacles in taking their activism to the next levels. They can organize to protest the problems of poor governance, but rarely do they have the opportunity to be in the position to make the public policies that affect their communities.
Gender discrimination and inequality slow Nigeria's economic development by underutilizing 50 percent of its available labor. Socially and politically, its citizen sector will not be as vibrant because women will not have the platform to bring their voices and perspectives to public debates. Furthermore, considering that women in Nigeria are uniquely positioned to challenge Nigeria's violent and patriarchal traditions of organization and politics, the continued subjugation of women could represent a missed opportunity to counter nondemocratic forces in the country.

The Strategy

Hafsat aims to develop the leadership potential and promote the political and social participation of young women in Nigeria. As such, her target group is women between 18 and 30 who work innovatively on or are interested in working on issues relevant to their communities. The Young Women's Leadership Development program is changing the way society views the abilities of women and aims to construct new identities for women to see themselves as powerful change agents. Her program is expanding their participatory roles as citizens. Since its inception in 1999, Hafsat's community training workshops and mentoring programs have reached over 30 women a year across Nigeria; they provide participants with the skills and networking opportunities necessary to become successful leaders.
Through a rigorous nomination and application process, Hafsat's selection method ensures that motivated, capable women are provided the skills and networking connections necessary to realize their goals of leadership. After a careful selection, motivated participants undergo a series of innovative training workshops that impart participatory, leadership, and management skills, which empower women with the tools to work on community issues in a way that engages communities, achieves results, and promotes a democratic culture. They also receive support for leadership practice to facilitate the young women's practical application of the tools they have learned to address community concerns. The women graduates become a part of the Young Women Leadership Network that serves as a forum where they can meet and build alliances for individual and professional support. They also have the opportunity to develop mentoring relationships with older women in order to benefit from their skills, knowledge, and expertise.
Some of the training offered includes skills-building in organizational management and development, leadership development, and educational seminars. The training consisted of a series of week-long workshops, where the young women have a chance to deepen their understanding of the concepts, apply the information and skills being taught to their work, raise questions about areas that are not translating as easily and focus on areas that are particularly useful to them. In addition to these rather traditional "courses," a more innovative skill is also offered. Termed building internal competencies, it aims to help young women "become the difference that they want to see" actualized in their communities.
Her approach is unique because it builds into the young women competencies that empower them to deal with problems, so that they move from being victims to being powerful agents of change. Also, by anchoring the learning experience in practice and action, it transforms the different challenges in the communities into opportunities for leadership, growth, and development. This approach is also different from others because it focuses on young women, provides training of significant breadth and depth, introduces content that is unique, and emphasizes action. Most existing leadership programs and networks serve adult women who, having gotten married and had children, form associations and leadership programs in order to accomplish their professional goals. Young women are underrepresented in these networks and find that the existing programs are ill suited to address their unique needs and challenges. Hafsat also enlists the participation of key members of society in her training program.
The program links women with influential citizen sector organizations, government institutions, private sector agencies, and media outlets that provide guidance and support to these young women as they assume their positions of power. Additionally, women regularly consult with a group of volunteer advisors that have expertise in various fields including health, Islamic law and customary law, the African Union, and other political, economic, and social arenas to help the women develop levels of competency necessary to advocate for and affect policy change. Increased female participation in key decision-making positions will bring much needed attention to often neglected issues in Nigerian society, including female illiteracy, female genital mutilation, early childbirth, reproductive health concerns, women with HIV/AIDS, employment discrimination, and women's rights generally.
As popularity and program participation grow, Hafsat will use the media to showcase the achievements of the program's graduates and their contributions to the country's development. Her media campaigns will build visibility for this female community of champions equipped to serve in senior levels of politics, the economy, and other facets of society. This public awareness will generate support for an increased level of female participation in key sectors of society, a wider involvement of mentors and program trainees, and it will foster the creation of additional programs throughout Nigeria and beyond.
In addition to media attention, program graduates themselves will replicate and spread the programming initiatives. Upon completion of the program, graduates will attend a five-day training workshop on how to conduct their own trainings. These didactic sessions will be held several times a year at sites located in all parts of the country. These graduates-turned-facilitators will then offer training programs to other promising young women in their communities. Hafsat has a goal to reach over 300 women a year through the community training workshops.
Hafsat envisions her training program to be replicable in communities beyond Nigeria–anywhere where women have a desire to direct the course of their community's future. Her model for empowering women to assume positions of influence is one that is being well received throughout the African continent. From 2001-2002, Hafsat trained 190 trainees in Nigeria and 40 in Gambia through the Friends of Africa Foundation's Social Entrepreneur training in 2001. She also offered a one-day training for 30 African participants in the Cairo Youth Employment Summit in September 2002. Her model is especially pertinent to regions with demographic, religious, and cultural diversity, as she is bringing women of varying ethnic groups, social classes, and religious backgrounds to work collectively toward the ultimate goal of female empowerment.

The Person

Hafsat's interest in her initiative developed as a result of her experiences growing up in the patriarchal society of Nigeria, where men are generally understood to have the right to lead and women are raised to follow. It was a notion that she learned early in a household where her father's word was law and everyone turned to him for direction and leadership.
It was also a notion that was reinforced for her in the stories of amazing leaders in Africa–stories of men like Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, and Kwame Nkrumah, who had fought for the independence of their countries and freedom from exploitation for their people. Now and again, however, she would hear about women leaders like Queen Amina or Moremi, but usually these women's leadership had occurred before written records could be kept and they seemed more mythical than real. It seemed to her that leadership and public service were the domain of men.
And yet, she saw that the women in her life were far from weak. Hafsat experienced her mother, for example, as principled, fair, insightful, and successful at whatever she set her mind to. Her friends and colleagues and the resourceful, dynamic women she saw in markets were capable of much more than they were allowed to do by the society.
In her late teens, a series of events caused her to question the assumption that leadership was meant for men. When she was 19, her mother became active in the prodemocracy movement in Nigeria. Working with a few political groups and NGOs, she spoke out and organized demonstrations and strikes to protest continued military rule. At a time when many political leaders were imprisoned, forced into exile, or were too intimidated to provide any leadership to the movement, Hafsat's mother did. She provided funds and direction and inspired people to mobilize for change. She made significant contributions to Nigeria's movement for democracy. She paid for it with her life.
Also during this time, the participation of other women had a great impact on the movement. Market women, many of whom were illiterate, demonstrated against soldiers, closed markets on designated days, and committed other acts of civil disobedience to advance Nigeria's movement toward democracy. In other areas, as the economy collapsed and Nigeria's professionals left to seek better job opportunities in other countries, it was mainly the women who built up the informal sector that is now responsible for providing the majority of urban and semiurban employment in Nigeria. And yet, after the return of democracy, there remains an absence of women in leadership positions in politics, and in other areas of the society.
These experiences forced Hafsat to wonder why women were not equally represented in leadership positions and what opportunities were being lost because women's leadership was not being harnessed in the service of Nigeria's development and transformation. The array of obstacles hindering women's participation and leadership fueled a dialogue with different people and institutions about developing an initiative that would focus on addressing the challenge of preparing young women for leadership in the millennium.