For all of Giftie Umo’s milestones and accomplishments, her father was always there—until he wasn’t.
“My dad was my greatest cheerleader,” she says. “When he died 10 years ago, it changed everything for me.”
Going through early adulthood without her father was crushing for Umo, now 31. Her father was a preacher and saw greatness in his daughter. She strived to live up to his expectations, fearlessly making her family proud.
“Growing up has [involved] speaking up not just for myself but for my mom and my brother, and trying to fill the big shoes my dad left behind,” she says.
So, she got to work—first with her chemistry studies, then in the nonprofit sector working and studying in both Nigeria and the U.S. Girls Leading Africa, which Umo founded in 2018, is an affiliate organization of UrbanPromise International, a U.S. nonprofit organization. Girls Leading Africa, located in Odukpani Local Government Area, Nigeria, aims to accelerate the development of communities by providing girls and young mothers access to quality education, equipping them with vocational and interpersonal skills to take responsibility for their lives and community. So far, the organization has raised $28,000.
It’s meant to empower girls and young mothers who face gender inequity. While boys receive a multitude of opportunities after graduating from high school, girls in Africa fear abuse and must choose marriage or leave their homes to become “domestic maids,” Umo explains.
“I was tired of the invisible scars women and girls carry with them,” she says. “I believe there is no better time to amplify their voices.”
Girls Leading Africa began as a social media account in 2017, after Umo saw the disparities women faced, especially in the rural communities of her native Nigeria, where she was working as a teacher in a remote community in the western part of the country. Teaching chemistry at the community high school, she saw firsthand how teenage girls dropped out of school after becoming pregnant.
She also witnessed teenage girls being cast out of their communities for having a child out of wedlock.
“If you grow up in a very remote community or a very traditional society like Nigeria, as a woman you know you have to work 10 times as hard as a man to prove a point,” she says.
In 2018, Umo came to the United States to study in a master’s program at Pennsylvania’s Eastern University. She saw women standing up for their communities, especially Black women fighting racial and gender inequity. Inspired, Umo was compelled to help women in Nigeria. This, however, wasn’t the conservative role her family (or late father, a pastor) expected of her. But Umo persevered, using social media to voice the inequalities she saw. It was springboard for her now full-fledged nonprofit.
Last September, Umo was honored as the Great Dames Remarkable Ideas Pitch Event winner at the Reimagining Your Remarkable Life global virtual conference. The title came with a $1,000 prize, which she used to purchase computers and sewing machines for the vocational training center her nonprofit established in Akpap Okoyong Community, Odukpani Local Government Area, Nigeria, at the end of 2020.
COVID-19 prevents Umo from visiting Nigeria until a vaccine is widely available, but she speaks with her team daily, virtually partaking in the joy that stems from the progress they continue to make.
Her hope is to see Girls Leading Africa expand, perhaps moving into an academy or larger vocational center where girls can learn new skills. Umo’s also open to partnerships, mentorships and pen pals to allow the girls to speak with women all over the world or to inspire other Nigerian women to return and help with her efforts.
“There’s a ripple effect of people returning to the community,” she says, “who want to improve the community.”
For more information on Girls Leading Africa, visit urbanpromiseinternational.org/our-ministries-nigeria/girls-leading-africa.