Nigeria experiences the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. One in eighteen women face a lifetime risk of maternal death. In rural northern Nigeria, this condition is even worse. Northern Nigeria is characterized by a predominantly Muslim population and a large Hausa population who practice Islamic Shar’ia law. The strong religious and cultural influence has inhibited the healthcare system and especially services for women. In some parts of Nigeria Women are rarely allowed to continue their studies, in which case they cannot become doctors. This is particularly troubling because women, according to some cultural and religious beliefs, are not permitted to see male doctors, so they are left with little or no healthcare. LDM Fellow, Aminu Gamawa, is focusing his efforts primarily in three northern Nigerian states, partnering with progressive Islamic leaders to help save the lives of women and give future generations a healthy start.
In 2005, Aminu’s mother died giving birth to her 10th child. Her death was preventable had adequate maternal healthcare been available. Aminu believes, “She did not have the knowledge and services women should be given as their right. It could have saved her life.” His mother’s death was a turning point for Aminu. This tragedy gave Aminu the motivation to improve the reproductive health situation in northern Nigeria and the world.
Aminu joined the LDM program in 2009 and began working with the development Research and Projects Centre (dRPC), focusing on changing the attitudes of Islamic leaders in the northern Muslim states. LDM gave Aminu the opportunity to see himself as a leader, become active in trainings and networking, and later he was even able to facilitate trainings for other LDM Fellows and religious and community leaders.
Aminu was recently awarded $250,000 from Grand Challenges Canada for his project to transform traditional perceptions in northern Nigeria and increase advocacy for maternal health. “The project will leverage the persuasive powers of progressive Islamic leaders to change opinions of more traditional leaders.”* He has chosen to focus on the progressive religious leaders because he believes, “Religious Leaders are the stakeholders, so it is important to target these leaders and remove barriers. The potential partners are the Islamic leaders”. Aminu will work with dRPC and continue to use LDM’s vast network of leaders in the arena of Reproductive Health to carry out his project. Aminu points out:
“Previous interventions avoided resistant Islamic opinion leaders (ISOLs), engaging only liberal scholars in one-off events such as workshops. This has failed to bring down the barriers and the death rates persist. This project targets 180 of the most conservative ISOLs in 3 states in zones with the highest rates. Using an innovative multi-stage leadership development model, we will train ISOLs, support them to attend a study tour in Egypt, facilitate a process by which they use internet and GSM technologies to host community dialogues with Egyptian scholars participating via video link to reinforce correct messages, and convene step-down trainings for lower level ISOLs.”
Aminu and DRPC’s strategy is to transform leadership using integrated innovation, a collaborative approach to social innovation, and use technology to enhance communication. His strategy for effective change involves:
“The comprehensive methodology commences with: (1) a secular training to increase awareness of the causes of maternal and neonatal death in their communities; (2) this will be followed by a study tour to demonstrate, in practice, the power of Islamic leadership for improved maternal and neonatal health in Egypt; (3) at the end of the study tour, Islamic opinion leaders will be supported to conduct 10 community dialogues on good practices and correct information on Maternal & Neo Natal Health (M&NNH) to men and women of the community separately; (4) the traditional and religious leaders will also be supported to develop 3 state level functional and sustainable networks for M&NNH; and (5) the three networks of traditional and religious leaders will organize and conduct step down training programs for other ROLs in their communities”.
This type of work does not come without many challenges, and Aminu has not been excluded of these. He often finds he is often misunderstood in his intentions.
“For me it is not about any motive or recognition. I come from a small village, the same area where I am working, and practice the same religion; however I am able to see things through a different perspective and want to spread this to the rest of my community and the world. We need to work across ethnic and religious divides to promote healthy motherhood and childhood for women and children. When you have the religious and community leaders on your side in promoting maternal and reproductive health, it will help in ensuring accountability in governance and it will increase demand for quality healthcare from the government by the people.“
Aminu is currently travelling back and forth between Nigeria and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a doctoral candidate (SJD) with a focus on social justice issues and human rights at Harvard Law School. He has always done well in school, allowing him to gain scholarships and awards to study the issues he is interested in. His education opened many doors and he credits his educational opportunities to the reasons for his success.
Aminu hopes to someday get more involved in politics and gain more power to continue his advocacy. He wants to continue to use his position and skills as a lawyer as a medium to advocate for social justice. Aminu has made it his life project to fight for these efforts, “It is my moral obligation and I hold a life commitment to this.”
* News From Africa: http://www.newsfromafrica.org/newsfromafrica/articles/art_ 13053.html