Cesnabmihilo Dorothy Nuhu-Aken’Ova (58) is a Nigerian linguist and feminist who began working for women’s, youth and LGBTI rights in her homeland in the mid-1990s. She is the executive director of the International Centre for Sexual Reproductive Rights (INCRESE), which she founded in 2000. Her motivation: “I do not like injustice, and I have zero tolerance for all violations of human rights!”
Cesnabmihilo Dorothy Nuhu-Aken’Ova grew up with four brothers and one sister in the village of Dikko (Kawun) in the Nigerian state of Niger. “I was born on 23 April 1963 on a hot Tuesday afternoon,” she says. Life in her family was marked by Christian principles and Gbagyi traditional ethics of respect, integrity and hard work. She herself is “non-religious, but spiritual”. She loves her family, her deceased husband who was a pastor, and her sons Samson (33), Samuel (24) and Adel (14), all three of whom are artists. Her work at INCRESE, the International Centre for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (www.increse.org), also affords her much enjoyment. As its executive director she supervises educational and empowerment projects, holds counselling sessions, does fieldwork, and sees to fundraising and networking. She is happy “with every grant we get for the organization and every time the work we do is recognized.”
She feels the same excitement with every successful UN lobbying campaign for sexual health and rights – and when she was able to mobilize a broad coalition that initially prevented passage of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) in Nigeria. As Nuhu-Aken’Ova recalls, “In May 2005 we had a meeting with foreign missions that were seeking ways to support local human rights activists to fight the SSMPA. At the end, five human rights defenders, including myself, had a meeting that led to the birth of the Coalition for the Defence of Sexual Rights (CDSR) – the first of its kind in Nigeria.” This enabled leaders of the nascent LGBTI movement be identified and their work to be institutionalized. She herself could already contribute the experience gained from a decade of LGBTI advocacy.
Over the years Nuhu-Aken’Ova has counselled many young people on sexual and reproductive health and rights and on their responsibility as citizens to take part in social and political change. In 2021, some of them decided to found a political movement called the Social Change Initiative and to nominate a candidate for the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria. “I am to run for the office,” she says and beams. “That was a phenomenal vote of confidence and the most rewarding moment ever in my life journey as an activist!”
From feminist to LGBTI+ activist
The roots of Nuhu-Aken’Ova’s activism stretch back into her childhood. While her brothers had to help with housework before she was born, afterward those tasks were assigned to her. She had to carry water from the well, clean the house and cook. When she noticed that the educational and professional paths of boys and girls diverged, she decided to take the same road as her brothers so as not to end up a housewife. Right after secondary school she began studying French at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria in 1983, and worked as a teacher after earning a degree. “I had to openly challenge the status quo and work well on my chosen alternative in order to obtain support from my parents, who thank God were understanding,” she says. Activism for her at the time meant making decisions based on gender equality. When she became a national coordinator for the Women’s Health Organization of Nigeria (WHON), she could scale up to an institutionalized context to protect the rights of marginalized people.
Nuhu-Aken’Ova began working for LGBTI rights in 1994–95. When growing up she knew a number of girls in same-sex loving relationships, and also knew that “they struggled with their desires, their relationships, and their religious and cultural values.” After comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) hosted by the Action Health Incorporated Nigeria NGO, she realized that homosexual relationships, which were considered tabooed preferences and practices, were actually a human rights issue and that “those in same-sex loving relationships did not deserve to be criminalized.” Her training equipped her to hold conversations with women in same-sex relationships and raise their awareness of their right to decide what is done with or to their bodies. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development and the 1995 World Conference on Women, which also addressed sexual orientation and gender identities, “strengthened my resolve to commence a project on the defence of human rights of same-sex loving people.”
But her “feminist sisters” in Nigeria and other African countries reacted with cynicism and scepticism. Nigerians working on adolescent sexuality and women’s rights were no longer comfortable with involving her in their projects on account of the LGBTI focus. Nuhu-Aken’Ova felt pushed out of a space she considered safe and familiar. “Some of them categorized my work as murky and some thought it was a huge waste of energy and resources that could have been channelled to interventions like maternal child health. Some development partners did not want to be identified with me or my work because they thought it would reflect poorly on their profile.” Her family, however, was understanding of her work for marginalized parts of the population.
From human rights defender to president?
The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), which was fiercely contested as of 2007, was in fact passed in 2014. It was followed by a growing number of human rights violations directed at individuals’ or groups’ actual or perceived sexual orientations. Both state and non-state actors began to “clean up” their neighbourhoods. Vigilante groups stormed HIV self-help spaces for men who had sexual contacts with men (MSM). Not much has changed, she says. “Many LGBTI people are still being persecuted and there continue to be extrajudicial killings. Cyber-bullying, blackmail and extortion, indiscriminate arrest, unlawful detention and physical assault occur regularly across the country. Even though HIV programming for MSM continues to attract international funding, Nigeria continues to deny the existence of LGBTI people and their human rights. Strategic litigation is still underway with the hope of defeating the SSMPA, while conversion therapy and ‘corrective rape’ go on in communities.”
The International Centre for Sexual Reproductive Rights (INCRESE), which Nuhu-Aken’Ova directs in the central Nigerian city of Minna, lobbies for the sexual health and rights of disenfranchised groups. There are a number of challenges in working for LGBTI rights: inadequate financial resources, insufficient community education and awareness, and internalized homophobia even among members of the LGBTI community.
The greatest success of LGBTI activism in Nigeria, according to Nuhu-Aken’Ova, is the emergence of leaders and the institutionalization of groups into non-governmental organizations that are raising levels of awareness and education. Some LGBTI people have taken the lead in trying to abolish the SSMPA. They have recognized the intersectionality of their own rights and those of other marginalized groups. Combining capacity-building with an intersectional approach, they are networking with mainstream human rights and women’s NGOs and building bridges between movements. They have also gained experience in establishing one-stop shops for HIV prevention and providing psychosocial support services. The INCRESE scale-up project “Connecting the Dots” has empowered LGBTI community members to take political action for social change. INCRESE works closely together with trade unions, environmental groups and women’s organizations such as the above-mentioned Coalition for the Defence of Sexual Rights, the Social Change Initiative and the African Women’s Development Fund (awdf.org).
“Our work is guided by principles of anti-racism, non-discrimination and intersectionality,” says Nuhu-Aken’Ova. This is crucial for creating an environment that enables marginalized groups to acquire sexual and reproductive health and rights, she adds. And these main aims are the foundation and legitimation of her work. The Nigerian government can thereby be held accountable when it violates the international treaties, resolutions and consensus documents it has signed. “We prepare shadow reports to call out the government on its complicity in the abuse of human rights of LGBTI people,” she says. “We’re there in the corridors of the European Union and the African Union.”
For the future of her country, Nuhu-Aken’Ova wants to see the SSMPA repealed and all necessary changes made “to protect people in the community and uphold the human rights of every individual in the country.” She then adds in a self-assured tone of voice, “My dream is that through the Social Change Initiative and the call to serve, I will be elected president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2023.”
Dr. Bärbel Röben
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