Growing up as a young child in Nigeria, my mother would often have us trace our growing feet on pieces of paper just before she was traveling to the United States or to England. Once she arrived, she would awkwardly take the drawings of our feet to a shoe store and use them to estimate our sizes to buy us shoes. Upon her return with our new shoes, we were always overjoyed, regardless of whether the shoes were too big, just the right fit or even a little too small. In my case, they were almost always too small. But that didn’t matter; I always proudly wore mine, often opting for pain over the prospect of not showing off new shoes from London.
There were times when my younger sister’s shoes wouldn’t fit because they were too small. Because my feet were bigger than hers, I would wear her shoes for a day or two, stretching them out, so that they created more space for her feet. I did this for many years until we finally began accompanying our Mum overseas. But by that point it was too late. I still have one pinky toe that never fully recovered.
Creating space for others became a consistent theme in my life. It is why a part of me still has a strong visceral reaction when I see people taking up two seats when they really only need one. It is the impetus for why I do what I do and for how I move through the world. As I reflect back, it was precisely why I hurriedly made friends with the new girl in grade school. Some of our classmates made fun of her because she had a gap in her teeth, squeezing her into a smaller, uncomfortable space in her new surroundings. We quickly became best friends. In fact, I even tried (unsuccessfully) to learn how to breakdance, just so she wouldn't have to dance alone.
Creating space for others, particularly marginalized women and girls whose voices have been muted by sex trafficking, exploitation and assault, became a consistent theme in my life. It is the impetus for why I do what I do and for how I move through the world. In fact, it is what compelled me to leave a lucrative partnership at a well regarded New York law firm to found Pathfinders Justice Initiative, an international nonprofit/non-governmental organization. Our mission is to aggressively and unapologetically eradicate sex trafficking and exploitation in the developing world, particularly in my home country of Nigeria and my home state of Edo, an internationally recognized hub of sex trafficking.
One of the ways we stretch tight shoes is through our advocacy; it is by effecting policy and amplifying the voices of women and girls who are not in a position to do so on their own. It is precisely why I am a #BringBackOurGirls activist. More than three years after their violent abduction, 113 Nigerian schoolgirls still remain in the hands of Boko Haram, the deadly terror group whose members mercilessly force grown men to swallow bullets for breakfast and believe that women should be consumed as commodities, not educated. No girl, simply because she is poor and without access to support, should ever have to choose between her life and her education. No woman should ever be raped into motherhood, as some of the Chibok Girls have been, or be forced to nurse an innocent child whose loving eyes remind her of hate.
Another way that we make room for women and girls is through rehabilitation via our PATH (individually curated Personalized Action to Healing) PLANS for young women like Faith. Faith was 31 years old when she died in 2016. She grew up in Benin City, my home town in Nigeria, where 1 in every 3 young women has been recruited into sex trafficking and from where over 90% of the women who are trafficked into Europe hail. Because she was poor, uneducated and therefore had little to no economic opportunities, she volunteered, like over 95% of the women we partner with, to be trafficked overseas. It was in Libya that she was initially raped on multiple occasions and sold for the first time. The rapes resulted in a pregnancy and because she was unable to feed her young daughter, she was trafficked to Moscow. In Moscow, she was forced to have sex with anywhere between 10-15 men a day; every day, until she developed kidney infections. Because her traffickers were unwilling to afford her the dignity to obtain basic antibiotics, the repeated infections progressed to kidney disease. Close to death, she was discarded on the streets of Moscow. It was there that a good Samaritan found her and contacted one of our Russian partners. Alone and afraid, Faith's one wish was to return to Nigeria to be able to see her daughter again.
We worked with several of our partners in Moscow and Faith was reunited with her daughter in Nigeria in November 2015. It was our intention to provide her with six weeks of dialysis treatments while we desperately endeavored to fundraise the $35,000 that she needed to secure a kidney transplant. Those six weeks churned into six months and notwithstanding our best, yet unsuccessful efforts, Faith passed away in September 2016. She died a victim of sex trafficking.
The final way we stretch tight shoes is via our #Not4Sale and #TakeMeOffMute campaigns which focus on community transformation, raising awareness and on providing vocational skills training, shelter, education scholarships and start-up business funding and training to susceptible women and girls. With a partner, we are currently providing vocational skills training to about 100 women every year in Nigeria.
And so yes, I believe in stretching tight shoes. In fact, I am compelled to do so ever since the first time I used my big feet to stretch those shoes for my little sister. Every broken pair I get to wear is an honor and certainly my life’s greatest privilege. However, stretching tight shoes also forges a path towards my own healing and liberation because when I was 17, I was physically assaulted. And so, I too know what it feels like to be squeezed into a tight space and to have my dignity and power stripped from me. Her healing is my healing. Her liberation is my liberation.
Frederick Douglas once said that power concedes nothing without demand. The world is the way it is and women and girls are treated the way they are because not enough of us have committed to taking a stand against injustice and violence against women. As you read this today, I invite you to join us in stretching tight shoes. No one should be squeezed into a space that is too small to allow for respect and flourishing. Because you see, we have a shared humanity that dictates that we create space for all women and girls to have a seat at the table and to live a life that is dignified and affirmed. The reality is that what happens in Africa does not stay in Africa. What happens to Yazidi women in Iraq will not stay in Iraq. In fact, the rape of a woman in Nigeria, in the Sudan, in India, is the rape of a world citizen to whom we are all obligated. We all have a collective responsibility to act and demand the world that we want because we are each our own.
In the time it has taken you to read this, 28 child brides were forcefully married, 4 women were battered, 2 children were sold into slavery and at least one woman was raped.
Now that you know, what are you going to do about it?