Growing up in a close-knit family with five sisters in Nigeria, Josephine Effah-Chukwuma was not exposed to gender issues. Over time, she became more socially aware and questioned gender roles. It was not until she reached university though, that she realized the serious issue of gender violence.
“I had a roommate who had a boyfriend who was so abusive but then she said that he loved her. I just couldn’t understand why a teenager would accept that,” Effah-Chukwuma said. “We were 18, life was fun. At that point, I started to ask ‘what’s the offense of being a girl?’ ”
Effah-Chukwuma graduated university and then earned her master’s degree in women’s rights. After attending the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing, China, she realized fully that women’s rights were her passion.
“During that conference, I discovered that violence against women was a common theme around the world,” she said. “So in 1999, I started Project Alert on Violence Against Women (Project ALERT), the first nongovernmental organization to focus on women’s issues in Nigeria. It was long overdue.”
She started with a strategy of providing research and documentation about violence against women in order to establish the need for the organization.
“I realized that in Nigeria, there is a dearth of information and statistics about violence against women,” Effah-Chukwuma said.
Once the report illustrated that such an organization was necessary, Effah-Chukwuma added a legal aid clinic and other support services, such as a women’s shelter for women suffering from abuse. An advocacy branch was also built onto the organization.
While women suffering abuse in Nigeria have often depended on families (on both sides) to offer support and shelter, Project ALERT established the first institutional framework and structure for women looking for help. And every day, Effah-Chukwuma can see the difference.
“The support services side is what’s dearest to my heart because you are touching individual lives,” she said. “When a woman enters, you can see her shoulders drooped, but when she is leaving, there is a little smile on her face and some hope. Something can happen and something should happen to help that situation.”
Originally, Effah-Chukwuma did not anticipate going into this career.
“I thought this was a problem and that women shouldn’t be treated this way,” she said. “When the opportunity came for me to do something productive, I said yes. I just wanted to solve a problem and here I am, 19 years later. Now, I’m at the point of asking, ‘what’s next?’ ”
That question brought her to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the ARNOVA-AROCSA Leadership Transition Fellowship Program (this program was generously funded by the Ford Foundation).
Now, she is studying and looking at her experiences and leadership from a theoretical learning perspective.
“I’m able to see a lot of things that I wasn’t able to see working on the ground every day as an activist,” she explained. “I wasn’t clear on a succession plan for Project ALERT, and being here has helped me plan that out. It’s also made me realize that I want to go for my Ph.D. I’m in the early stages of planning that and looking for places to study that match my interests.”
For now, Effah-Chukwuma is enjoying being in Indianapolis (“It’s quiet and calm, unlike New York or Lagos!”) and learning from the other eight Fellows and their experiences.
“We’re all thinking about what is next, sharing experiences, thinking about how we go about establishing a transition plan,” she said. “You realize that you’re not the only one with these thoughts. It’s been a nice support system.”
Effah-Chukwuma is also learning a great deal from working with her mentor, Dr. Kathi Badertscher.
“She’s awesome and very engaging. We have the same passion; women,” Effah-Chukwuma said. “She introduced me to Coburn Place, one of the domestic violence shelters here in Indianapolis.”
Learning about Coburn Place and Julian Center has given Effah-Chukwuma a view of domestic shelters in the U.S., while comparing it to Project ALERT and its mission and strategies, and emphasizing the importance of an exchange in knowledge and information.
“There are things I can learn from being here and there are things you can learn from me as well. That transfer of information is incredibly vital,” she said.
Taking that new knowledge with her back to Nigeria will help Effah-Chukwuma strengthen Project ALERT and prepare it for her successor.
“I want to plan resources for it to survive beyond me. Then, after earning a Ph.D., I’d like to teach in schools or communities and talk about these issues,” she said. “I want the young people to take on this activism and move it to the next level.”
Effah-Chukwuma can be confident that her activism and focus on the problem of violence against women has made a large difference in Nigeria.
“Things have changed dramatically over the last 20 or so years,” she said. “There’s an openness to talking about these issues that wasn’t there before. We’re not there yet, but it’s much better.”
This is one in a series of posts on the ARNOVA-AROCSA NGO Leadership Transition Fellows. Check back for more posts about others soon.
Abby Rolland is the blog content coordinator for the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.