‘Feminism taught me that my voice is power, freedom and empowerment’
Mariam Oyiza Aliyu is the founder and Executive Director Of Learning Through Skills Acquisition Initiative (LETSAI), an organisation focused on empowering the internally displaced, with activities in the North East and North Central part of the country. The gender activist, who is passionate about peace building, livelihood empowerment, and ending violence against women and girls, is a Medical Radiographer graduate from the University of Maiduguri.
Currently undergoing her masters in International Public health at Liverpool John-Moore University, Aliyu’s experiences while volunteering with Christian Aid, Plan International, International Medical Corps and United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugee, has further aided her activities. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her passion for providing healing from trauma for survivor of Sexual and Gender-based Violence among women and girls, through skills acquisition.
What informed your decision to set up LETSAI?
It started in the university in 2012 when the crisis in Borno State was at its peak. We had influx of displaced people, mainly women and kids, sleeping by our university gates and some find their way to the hostel to seek for chores to pay, while most are begging on the street, which predisposes them to sexual and gender based violence especially rape.
However, growing up, I was exposed to multiple skills, like bag making, cream and soap production, tailoring, knitting amongst others. After assessing the situation of these women and speaking with them, I decided to provide 10 of them with skills on soap production, which was lucrative in the school premises. The pioneer class brought their friends and it was a continuous process till I discovered my hostel room was too small to accommodate them anymore.
I got a shop and employed my pioneer student as trainers without payment. I had some money from my business, which I utilised in buying training materials, and from sales we recycled money and after a while, I was able to graduate and empower some staffs with startup kits and small funds. A year after, I was interviewed by NTA about my activity and I told them it’s just a charity skills center where I train women on weekends. I met more experienced people who advised I put a name to my work for professionalism and that was how LETSAI was formed. Currently, we work in the Northeast and North central states.
Share with us some of your childhood experiences that shaped you?
A particular childhood experience that has shaped me was the loss of my mum, the only parent I ever had; my dad died long before I think I was three. Her loss opened me to a new world of hurt, pain and just life. I was 17years, as at then; I had no one at all. But somehow, I received strength, picked myself up and my younger one; took the death gratuity we were paid and started a business with it. I was buying, producing and selling, while sponsoring myself and my younger one in school. It made me more mature, gave me the ability to stand and make things happen for myself.
As a radiographer, how has this further influenced your passion of empowering people through skill?
It has been very hectic, battling with my passion and profession at the same time; it’s been a lot of struggle. While I divide my time unequally between the two fields, I find out that more time is given towards my passion of women empowerment.
I have been able to start my masters in International Public Health, to enable me manage both with ease. I am also working on exploring other fields of study, to have a strong foothold to support my humanitarian activities.
Share with us some of your activities at LETSAI?
Our activities include training vulnerable youths on vocational skills; providing startup fund or in-kind support to enable beneficiaries’ kick start their project; we usually prioritise women. Provision of mental health and psychosocial support for survivors of sexual and gender based violence. Case management of sexual and gender based violence cases, including identification of a survivor, alerting the law enforcement agency and taking care of the medical needs at that point.
We also educate on child spacing and other maternal health issues, provision of safe space through linkages and referrals, as well as justice for survivors, peace building through community activities and conflict resolution at community level to prevent escalation.
You are passionate about peace building, livelihood empowerment and ending violence against women and girls, how are you driving this?
We have a team of highly trained staff at LETSAI that goes deep in the field to provide services, we have a criteria according to our mandate as a guidance to the beneficiaries we select to work with.
What are some of your concerns and expectations from the government?
My concerns are that the Government needs to do more, especially in Kogi state. The water facilities are dilapidated and most are non-functional, most households are forced to scoop muddy waters from beneath rocky mountains, which is life threatening. Young girls are also prone to sexual and gender based violence while going to the streams at early or late hours of the night.
Secondly, the 35 per cent salary pay by Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State is an injustice to hard working Kogi State citizens. Teachers who are the most affected are mainly mothers struggling to cater for their children. I believe people working hard should be compensated according to Nigeria’s labour law and the constitution. These are default that needs to be corrected with immediate effect.
I also believe there is need for more women inclusion in governance; women should be supported when they dare to govern not slut shamed, which was an obvious experience I witnessed in Kogi and Borno State during Natasha Apoti’s and Inna Galaldima’s campaign.
What is your advice for the Nigeria girl child on living up to her dreams?
According to me, I see impossibility as a possibility; I never believe people when they tell me I can’t do some things because I am a woman.
I believe I can do it because I am a woman. People never really believed I had it in me till they started seeing me do amazing things and consistently breaching gender norms. My advice for the girl child is this, never stop dreaming and never give up. Take your time and plan well, make your dreams a reality and pay no heed to naysayers, they are a distraction, be focused and hardworking and the sky will definitely be your starting point.
What does feminism mean to you and how are you living up to that cause?
Feminism to me means the ability to make my dreams a reality, the strength to uphold that realty and the resilience to keep pushing on. Feminism taught me that my voice is power, freedom and empowerment. I am a gender activist and I go into deep fields to liberate women who are victims of forced marriages, women in domestic violence as well as young girls who are survivors of rape. Feminism taught me that the rights of women and girl child must be upheld irrespective of time, place and traditions. I believe in the power of joint women networks working together to protect each other and other vulnerable women in the community.
What should young people be doing differently at a time like this to add their quota to the development of the nation?
Young people tend to forget that they are the future of the nation; we tend to engage in unproductive vices, tribal wars and most times religious war either on social media or otherwise. We need to engage with change makers as young people and be a part of the process, politically, economically or otherwise.
If we truly want to see changes in Nigeria, join the electoral process and get elected into power. Young people are not fighting enough for Nigeria, we need to do better and we can do better if we are focused and steadfast.
What is your life mantra?
My life mantra is, if I can dream, then I can definitely achieve it; I don’t believe in impossibility.