Hadeezah Haruna-Usie, Gender Team Lead at Girl Effect Nigeria, is attending the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women in New York, taking place at the United Nations between 12-23 March.

Under the umbrella priority theme of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)this year, ‘Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls’, it is very encouraging to see that women from rural and indigenous backgrounds will be able to shape dialogue and make their voices heard.

With a Girl Effect country office based in Nigeria, we understand the opportunities and challenges of working in such a vast country. With a multitude of ethnic groups and over 100 languages spoken, the country is diverse and the challenges that girls face can come in many forms.

Across Nigeria, girls are encouraged to be ‘good girls’. Many are encouraged to marry early, and if they don’t get married by a certain age, society thinks that there’s something wrong with them. The pressure on girls to conform and marry earlier to have babies can be intense. How do those pressures contribute to the empowerment of girls and women? Not very much.

Increasingly, girls can feel very alone when it comes to managing their own lives. They are not encouraged to get advice from their peers. What if it’s the wrong type of advice? What if it puts the girl in danger? Because of reasons like these, they are not encouraged to seek advice from anyone around topics such as sex or puberty. If they are younger, they are told they shouldn’t be asking those questions anyway. And of course, online content isn’t always age appropriate.

Uniting girls to answer questions about their own lives across both rural and urban habitats can be challenging, but Girl Effect has come up with a solution.

Girls Connect provides girls with a safe space to discuss any questions they might have with a trained mentor

Girls Connect is a first-of-its-kind mobile innovation in Nigeria. A partnership between Girl Effect and the iSON group, one of Africa’s largest IT companies, it’s a unique mobile platform that enables girls to explore and express their curiosities about growing up. Girls simply dial a number and listen to pre-recorded stories containing inspiring, entertaining and educational lessons about their lives. It provides girls with a safe space to discuss any questions they might have with a trained mentor at the end of the story if they would like.

And thanks to Nigeria having the strongest mobile penetration rate in Africa, mobile has presented an excellent opportunity to engage with girls, wherever they are. Girls in Nigeria don’t actually have a lot of free time. Due to expectations from family to do household chores, listening to a story on a mobile phone whilst they are doing tasks takes far less time than going to a club or watching a television programme.

Another issue being tackled at CSW is the issue of human trafficking, which is an issue in Nigeria, particularly in the Southern part of the country and in states such as Edo state. Trafficked Nigerian women and children are recruited from rural areas within the country’s borders – women and girls for involuntary domestic servitude and sexual exploitation.

Thanks to Nigeria having the strongest mobile penetration rate in Africa, mobile has presented an excellent opportunity to engage with girls, wherever they are.

To tackle this issue head on, a new Girls Connect character, Efe, will have a human trafficking storyline in the new season after the pilot of the programme, launching in the coming months. Girls will be able to listen to Efe’s predicament; being offered work abroad with the promise of a better life. Her story will unfold and she’ll be able to learn about the warning signs, and how to say no to human traffickers.

I’ll leave you with a success story about Girls Connect. Before listening to Girls Connect, Fatima, 15, from Kano, knew little about saving money and its benefits. She used to sew as a means of generating income, which was used to provide for the family. On accessing the Girls Connect platform, she developed an interest and was inspired by the story of Rashida’s under the topic Money.

After listening to Rashida’s story, Fatima spoke to a Girls Connect role model and expressed her interest in wanting to be as prudent as Rashida and so she was signposted to Aisha Halliru Youth Development Initiative (AYDI), a grassroots NGO in Kano which partners with Girl Effect. She informed the staff at AYDI that she wanted to open a bank account to save her proceeds from sewing and was very keen on opening the same account that Rashida had opened. Inspired by Rashida and the lessons she learnt from her, Fatima also listened to the story on the merits of social media, which inspired her to open a Facebook account as a way of advertising the clothes that she sews.

At CSW, I hope to hear more stories of empowerment of rural women and girls like Fatima, from across the world.

Learn more about the Commission on the Status of Women 2018 and follow the conversations on social media #CSW62.