Few have the courage to battle personal difficulties and odds and emerge successful at that. Still fewer have the courage to turn those very difficult experiences into sources of inspiration for the birth of a movement that can change the world. Sitting among that select few, is Elsie Ijorogu Reed, the Founder, Director and CEO of Delta Women, a non-governmental organization that works for women’s rights.
Born in London and brought up for the most part in Nigeria – since she was four, it was but natural for Elsie to take to something that related to her home country. But what she went on to do for Nigeria was a cumulative consequence of several experiences when she grew up. Having undergone suffering herself, and having witnessed the suffering of others, Elsie used all of her difficult experiences to catalyse progressive action for those people who lived in need, and for those who were deprived. As a wise person rightly said “Once you have stared Poverty in the face your life never remains the same”, Elsie’s tryst with life’s toughest experiences and pains, and with being witness to the suffering of many people, has been her motivation and passion.
When Elsie was very young, she was forcibly subjected to circumcision by her own grandmother. For years and years, later, Elsie carried the pain with her, still smarting under the emotional wounds she was delivered that day. She couldn’t help but feel violated and betrayed by her own kith and kin, and the magnitude of the harm that the practice had the proclivity to cause to girls world over made her fight the malpractice. Elsie realized that what her grandmother did to her, the deceit – was something many girls like her were facing all over the world. This opened her eyes to what was reality for many women: the gross deprivation and disrespect of their rights.
Having lived in and grown up in Nigeria, Elsie was no newcomer to understanding Nigeria’s culture. She realized that the cultural mindset had certain ideals that were considerably deep. She learned that practices of rape and FGM thrive in the community because nobody talks about it. Elsie came to understand, that people fight someone who says anything contrary to what they believe in.
From that moment on, Elsie made sure to work for the cause of women’s rights.
Despite surging forward unfazed, resistance to her work and threats to her person have always been around for Elsie. She faced challenges from the victims and their families, even, sometimes, as they believe it is best to remain silent than be laughed at by people. When dealing with rape victims, the families beg the organization to stop the case or keep quiet saying they do not want any trouble. Elsie understands where that comes from – the ease with which a society offers stigmatization to a victim instead of solace. The resistance also happens in the case of FGM victims, but differently. Women believe it makes them clean, and that an uncircumcised person was unclean and some women believe that if they were not circumcised they would have been wayward, and, based on that she had to circumcise her own daughter. Changing that mindset was really challenging, for Elsie, and remains a work in progress. The continued patriarchal domination in every household leads to the imposition of the male-head’s ideas on the rest of the family. If a father believes that circumcision or early child marriage is the way to go, the woman cannot oppose it, for fear of being thrown out of the house with no livelihood.
Starting Delta Women for the women of the Delta State at first, Elsie slowly expanded the spectrum of activity to addressing concerns challenging women globally. Through a blog and a monthly e-Zine, Elsie had a band of volunteers coming together from all over the world to speak about issues that women faced. From Rape to Sexual Harassment, from FGM to Obstetric Fistulae and from Domestic Violence to Unsafe and forced Abortions, Delta Women addressed the lack of awareness on plenty of issues through short informational blog posts, interviews and personal stories of women themselves.
On field, Delta Women held rallies and campaigns to spread awareness on Sexual Harassment, egging people to speak up and speak out against the crime. The organization held cervical cancer screening camps, eye-check camps and health drives to ensure that women were aware of the things that their health was vulnerable to. The free eye-health camps and check-ups conducted in Nigeria involves Delta Women bringing experts to the field, and checking people’s health needs to give them treatment for free.
In addition to this, Elsie also pursued a cause that was closest to her heart: Education of women.
Engaged in educating women through online teaching and skill inculcation, Elsie aims at reaching out to as many women as she can, world over. The inculcation of skills is done with the intention that women are made less vulnerable. Armed with in-house studies that have showed that some women allow the window of vulnerability to leave them exposed to harm because of poverty or lack of skills, Elsie realized that women consequently go into prostitution, allow and accept abuse or violence and even opt for monetary settlement after rape because they have no choice. Besides this, we would be offering on-ground vocational training at our centres, and micro-financing facilities.
Through Delta Women’s blog, Elsie told the world her own story: where she survived FGM. The story which she titled Edirin’s Story, woke a slumbering world into action, as emails and letters of solidarity and support poured in from everywhere. Elsie was then invited to speak in Ireland, where she addressed a gathering with her personal story, on the occasion that congratulated the Irish government for officially outlawing FGM.
While working in the Delta State, Delta Women rescued rape victims, in the process discovering the inconvenient truth about how their families and police officials pressured the victims to settle for nothing. At the outset, it was hard getting support from anywhere on rehabilitating them, but Delta Women fought strong. Elsie explains that even today, Southern Nigeria has only one shelter home which is situated in Lagos. The resistance, though, has been mostly attitudinal. People in Nigeria tend to believe that a woman’s place is to be subservient, to be the kind that does the man’s bidding in entirety. There is an oft repeated claim from men that a woman is raped because she deserves it, or asked for it by her conduct. Delta Women goes ahead anyway, and works towards spreading awareness, to try and change this very attitude. Sometimes in response, people have insulted and threaten Elsie online and through emails. She was unfazed.
Elsie came to realize that much of the situation could be remedied by opening the eyes of the masses to what really is, rather than the way they believe it to be. To Elsie, the quintessence of empowerment lies in being aware, being educated, and being able to take things into one’s own hands. Since educating a woman is the equivalent of educating a family, it can revolutionize a society and alter warped ideologies. No matter what the nature of a society may be – matriarchal, patriarchal, equal – it is the woman’s effort that keeps a family together, and helps it run smoothly. Having seen instances of peacetime and wartime up close through her work, Elsie notes that this is the main reason why women are targeted in wartime, to break society’s backbone. By educating women, individuals who are strong and capable are created. Educated people will not be afraid to question what is wrong. Many women don’t question because they simply don’t know that they can. Brute force and might is one thing, but even the strongest proclivities towards violence can be defeated with an educated mindset.
Elsie realized that this logic is not something that will work only for Nigeria – but for the world at large. That helped her firm her resolve to pivoting work towards ensuring that every woman in need would get her due.
Understanding that much of the work needs sensitive handling, Delta Women has been very conscious of the work it puts up. Using Social Media tools, Delta Women built up a Fight to end Sexual Harassment Group with about 14000 members and counting. Using the group as a medium, Elsie ensured that Delta Women spread awareness, chatted with survivors and policy makers, other organizational heads and organized events in Nigeria. Using these forums, Elsie encouraged people to speak out, whether privately to her and publicly to the whole group, and through this, they educate themselves and their families and friends.
Tangible impacts accrued aplenty. People come back to Delta Women and tell Elsie how their lives have changed because of the information her organization offered them, because of the help that her organization gave them. People have told her how they averted greater danger in their lives with the good help of knowledge. Women in the Delta State have also contacted Elsie when they suffered harassment or rape. Being something like a go-to for those people in need Elsie used Social Networking during the Abia university rape, to bring the news to the forefront and force reaction from the authorities.
Elsie’s efforts have expanded beyond the realm of women’s rights sometimes, when Delta Women intervened to demand a school for the village of Okoijorogu. Up until then, the children of the village in Nigeria had to brave traffic filled roads, impossibly difficult geographical reliefs and their own fatigue, to travel all the way to the next village to study, walking kilometre on kilometre, sometimes braving bad roads. Elsie’s efforts paid off with the Ministry of Education having opened a school for the children, building it, and now, teaching students there.
Elsie then decided to add men to the empowerment program, believing that if they had good jobs, they wouldn’t be idle, and wouldn’t wind up taking to crime and impregnating tenagerss, or raping girls or abusing the women around them. She then began to work on empowering young men through skills acquisition programs. In between, Elsie also worked in a village called Orumudia, when their only source of water was polluted by an oil spillage.
With time, Elsie moved into Information Technology, since that was and continues to remain her key area of action. Elsie is now teaching men and women online ICT Professional Courses in order to empower them with skills and to pivot them towards building their community in Nigeria with technology because of a big gap prevailing there.
Elsie’s efforts have been unparalleled to say the least. She remains unfazed by the opposition she faces, sailing purely on one motivational factor: her own pain. The difficult ordeal that she went through, the harsh treatment she was meted out without compunction and the abject lack of care that her society offered for the situation that it put its women in, firmed her resolve. Today, Elsie works with a simple wish at heart: She just wants girls all over the world to know that there is life even after the trials and tribulations that challenger her; that they were doubtless made to go through a very difficult ordeal. She wants every girl to know that she is not alone in her suffering, and that she will be supported by Delta Women always.
This post was submitted in response to Share Your Story On Any Topic.