Helicopters, Sisterhood and Hope: A Journey of Learning and Inspiration

Earlier this year, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Nigeria on a temporary deployment. The purpose of the visit was to learn about the Economic and Social Empowerment (EA$E) approach, which is integrated with the Nigeria mission’s gender-based violence (GBV) program and women’s and girls’ safe spaces (WGSS).

It took me three days to reach the town of Maiduguri in northern Nigeria, traveling from Mogadishu, Somalia. As a first-time visitor to West Africa, I had many expectations and preconceptions about the humanitarian situation in Nigeria.

I visited the Damboa and Pulka field sites, where International Medical Corps is running integrated health, nutrition, GBV, and water, sanitation and hygiene projects. Despite the short distance from Maiduguri, the only way to get to Damboa and Pulka is by UN Humanitarian Air Service helicopter, as the security situation does not allow for road trips. In these locations, International Medical Corps is supporting nine WGSS locations, providing much-needed psychosocial support and skill building for women and adolescent girls. These WGSS are the only places in Damboa and Pulka where women can freely access this kind of information and support, and learn basic literacy and numeracy skills.

I spent only five hours in Damboa and Pulka, but even during my short visit, I could see the impact that the conflict in northeast Nigeria has had on these communities. I noticed a lot of similarities between Pulka and many of the locations where International Medical Corps provides humanitarian assistance in Somalia. In both Nigeria and Somalia, there is a lack of opportunity for girls to receive formal education, and I see a number of adolescent mothers with toddlers.

In Maiduguri, I met with four village savings-and-loans association (VSLA) groups that International Medical Corps established between 2018 and 2021. The groups consist of 25 women who meet on a weekly basis and save small amounts of money on a cycle that runs for 10 to 12 months. One of the groups told me that they had saved 300,000 naira (approximately $3,000) in 2023. Most of the women in these groups were widows and divorcees, and this savings has enabled them to sustain their small businesses and support their families.

The enduring spirit of sisterhood within the VSLA groups astounded me. Six years on, they remain united, demonstrating their unwavering support for one another. In my conversations with these inspiring women, their sense of economic empowerment gained through their VSLA was evident. Many women wished to save more and to further elevate their economic status, but they described this as being extremely difficult, due to Nigeria’s current unstable economy and inflation.

This trip was an eye-opener for me. Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve engaged in many discussions with Somalia and HQ GBV staff on how we can support women and girls in Somalia with sustainable economic empowerment initiatives within our existing GBV program. Meeting with VSLA groups in Maiduguri and participating in numerous sessions with the GBV team in Nigeria provided me with solid practical insights that will help us establish similar interventions in my country.

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