Q&A with Nigerian youth activist Zara Kareto
August 7, 2020
Zara Kareto lives in one of the most challenging places for women in West Africa. In the Nigerian city of Maiduguri, the epicenter of the violent extremists Boko Haram, women are often the victims of abuse and kidnappings, as well as bearers of a more pervasive norm of gender discrimination. Women like Zara face an uphill battle to exercise their rights.
But she has picked up the torch for gender rights and equality in her city. Through her advocacy, professional work with an international NGO and an unflinching determination to create safer spaces for girls, she’s organized and led various social media campaigns to combat issues like child trafficking and gender-based violence.
COVID-19 has added a layer of complexity to her work, she says, as extremists have discredited public health messaging and exploited the pandemic to both increase kidnappings and foment an already pervasive distrust of the government.
As a graduate of the USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives-sponsored “North East Intellectual Fellowship Program,” she honed her advocacy and social media skills that help her to continue her efforts on behalf of girls and women. She was profiled in a short video called “Nigeria: Social media street fighter overcomes hostility when promoting women’s rights,” which was produced in April 2018 by Creative for USAID/OTI.
Creative’s Senior Director of Communications, who produced and directed the video, followed up with Zara in July 2020 with the 28-year-old about her enduring commitment in the face of great personal risk and her ongoing work to address the roots of gender discrimination, whether as a mentor or social media activist.
One of your priorities has been elevating women and their voices. Are you continuing your social media advocacy for women since your fellowship ended? If so, tell us a little about it.
Zara: Absolutely! I never stopped my advocacy for women and girls because it was never about the fellowship, but rather something personal that I am passionate about. The fellowship showed me the right ways to do the advocacy through capacity building on content development, countering negative narratives, peaceful engagement and communication.
Globally, women are being oppressed. However, this can differ from one location to another. In places like where I live, women find it difficult to express their needs, participate in decision making and, even worse, are sometimes severely abused. So, my social media advocacy continues to focus on young girls’ education, on the empowerment of women and girls through giving them access to information to make their own choices, the fight against gender-based violence and the promotion of gender equality.
As a result of my advocacy on social media, I currently have a network of highly supportive feminists, including men and married women. They have served as a reference for anti-feminists on social media who accuse single women of being tyrants against societal norms and culture.
One area the fellowship focused on was developing counter-messaging against Boko Haram and ISWAP. Are you continuing that focus and how has it changed?
Zara: Yes, I am still promoting women and girl’s inclusion in peacebuilding and preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) processes. However, the complexity of the insurgency is something that keeps changing with time. Due to one-on-one discussions and the social media campaign I carry out, people in my network are more aware of the important roles of women in peace processes and the disadvantages if neglecting that reality.
I had also met a few PCVE advocates whom I am currently supporting to mainstream gender in their activities. Although, my thematic area even during the fellowship was ‘promoting support for gender and social inclusion in Northeast Nigeria.’ Initially, there was so much resistance and push back on the content I produced with regards to PCVE due to its sensitivity from the community and cautious warnings from family and friends (for my safety). But now, people are learning to live with our contents and sometimes even supporting the course.
What have you done to counter misinformation by violent extremists about COVID-19? Is it working?
Zara: As an advocate, both on social media and in the community that I live in, I’ve kept informing people on the impacts of COVID-19 and the preventative measures and guidelines outlined by the World Health Organization. We have a culture of not allowing young people to live independently before marriage, so I’ve spoken to directly to them about the importance of protecting their aged parents (especially those with underlying conditions) and other loved ones since we live in communal households in the NE. Also, I’ve talked about the the weight of trauma and regret they might end up carrying if they infect anyone who loses his or her life because of negligence.
What and who were your inspiration for your advocacy work? Where do you find strength and passion to continue doing your work daily despite the discouragement and the potential threats?
Zara: My underlying motivation and inspiration are a love for humanity and a passion for issues that affect women and girls! The utter act of being the voice of the voiceless is euphoric. Because I met women and girls who had appreciated me for being bold, I want to speak on their behalf. It’s not just about social media posts to me, it’s about being empowered, reaping the benefits of empowerment and wanting others to have the same or even more. When looking at the history of feminism, I know that someone fought for me in the same way, and so I have a strong desire not to let the labor of the heroes and heroines of feminism go in vain.
What are some of the tools and techniques that are needed in North Nigeria for advocates like yourself to ensure effective advocacy and advocates’ safety at the same time?
Zara: Young people are often victims of exclusion. Due to societal norms and our culture, their opinions do not matter even if issues belonging to their lives are being discussed. But young people need to understand that they are not just victims but actors and can play a vital role in forming the solution to the problems.
Advocates need skill sets and capacity building to materialize their ideas. Mentorship programs are also key to young people. For example, I have seen a group of passionate young people who aspire to be writers. But they lack proper mentorship, support and supervision. Additionally, the threats individuals are exposed to for standing up for a cause, such as countering violent extremism and gender equality, discourage people from contributing more. Young people’s safety has to be prioritized in order for more passionate and intelligent voices to be heard.
Do you think social media has had a positive role in improving Maiduguri?
Zara: Of course. For all its potential to mislead, social media also gives room to counter bad narratives and convince people of the truth. Social media, to a large extent, gives people a platform and freedom to express themselves and their ideas. It also serves as a source of news.
One major challenge is that only a small percentage of the population can afford smartphones and data. So we also need more in person-mentorship for girls and women. I have a group of young girls in my community that I am mentoring to understand the issues that surround us. I have also started an NGO with the mission of educating our communities on different thematic areas such as gender, communication, education and climate change.
Are you optimistic about the future for Maiduguri?
Zara: I am optimistic because, over time, people are becoming more resilient and united against the insurgents. Awareness of the insurgents’ harmful ideologies is gaining ground. However, to achieve and maintain lasting peace, I believe that there is the need to address the root causes of violent extremism, such as poverty, illiteracy, environmental degradation and injustice.