‘Great battles are won by the wisdom of women’: Wumi Asubiaro Dada works with Nigerian women to protect their communities with smartphones

August 2, 2023 by Cynthia Macdonald - A&S News

Growing up in Nigeria, Omowumi (Wumi) Asubiaro Dada was frequently outspoken, argumentative, and animated by injustice. To her family, it was obvious what path her life would take: “They always said, we know you’re going to be a lawyer,” she recalls.

Over 20 years later, Dada can look back on an impressive career in human rights law and feminist advocacy. And today, with the assistance of a Connaught PhDs for Public Impact Fellowship, she is working with local organizations and women in Nigeria to help them achieve justice by protecting their home communities through the use of modern technology.

Beginning her studies straight after high school, Dada was practicing law by 21. “At first, I worked in public interest litigation and human rights education, mostly representing incarcerated prisoners awaiting trial,” she says. In Nigeria this is a critical problem: the system is badly underfunded, and some prisoners are held in congested facilities without bail for decades.

Battles are won by the weapons of men, but great battles are won by the wisdom of women. — Nigerian proverb.

It was just one of the many problems with the legal system Dada has confronted over the course of her career — and early on she saw that women, in particular, were badly in need of advocacy. Since completing a master’s of law degree with a human rights concentration, she has made significant contributions to the women’s movement in Nigeria, designing and managing a wide range of projects for non-governmental organizations, government and international development agencies.

In an effort to further her research and knowledge, Dada decided to pursue her PhD at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science, where she is now a candidate. “If you have your sights set on changing structural inequality,” she says, “this qualification can help you do that. I’m engaging with ways to amplify the voices of people who would not ordinarily have the opportunity to make an impact on the structures that control their lives.”

Helping women become a major force in conflict prevention and resolution is key both to her doctoral work, and to the unique project she’s working on in Kaduna — one of Nigeria’s 36 states.

Dada believes that women can play a prominent role in diffusing violence, which is a massive problem in Nigeria’s northern region. The violence includes kidnapping, sexual assault, village burnings and murder.

The sources of violence are complex and varied. “Kaduna in particular is very unsafe,” she says. “The violence there started as religious and ethno-communal clashes, with many reprisals and counterattacks and has now changed in dynamics to kidnapping, village burning with various violations such as murder and sexual assault.” And as she explains, climate change has also begotten violence.

“A lot of land has been affected by desertification,” Dada says. In the Lake Chad Basin across the border, “people who make their living by herding cows have lost their livelihood and become desperate, which has also led to crime.”

There’s a lot happening in the domestic sphere that is actually political. Women often hear things being planned before anyone else hears about it. And women can influence the actions of others.

In all these cases, she notes, the voices of women are regularly ignored. “This is because they’re not considered part of the problem. And because they bear the brunt of much violence, they’re simply considered victims. I’m pushing the argument that we need to recognize the agency of women: it’s important that they be part of the solution.”

Dada says that in Nigeria, communities are often left to fend for themselves with no assistance. Established in the days of colonial rule, the male-dominated police force is, like other units of the justice system, located far away and lacks the resources to properly assist rural communities. This has resulted in widespread vigilantism — which can mean defensive violence, but also the prevention of crime before it happens. This is where women come in.

“There’s a lot happening in the domestic sphere that is actually political,” she says. “Women often hear things being planned before anyone else hears about it. And women can influence the actions of others.” Dada points out that in pre-colonial society, women’s roles as keepers of knowledge, leaders of ritual and even warriors were far more respected than they are today. In her own Yoruba tradition, for example, many deities were female — which had a general effect on how human women were perceived.

To capitalize on women’s capacities, Dada has co-created a project with a local organization known as the CLEEN Foundation, and her PhD supervisor, Distinguished Professor Kamari Maxine Clarke. Known as Early Warning Early Response (EWER), the system trains villagers, including women, to use publicly available geospatial imagery to identify planned attacks before they happen. Push alerts communicated through a mobile app are then used to warn others to be prepared.

So far 120 women have been trained on EWER, which was launched in 2021. “They’ve been able to get information across which is some cases has led to a de-escalation of violence,” says Dada. “And when there is a trigger, meetings are called. One of the conditions of these meetings is that women must form part of the quorum, which has increased their participation in decision-making in conflict prevention. Another effect is that women have brought other women into the fold.”

As part of her work, Dada also seeks to advance Nigerian women’s participation at all levels of community justice administration. In addition to crime prevention, she is exploring restorative justice: examining the root causes of crime, and how best to reintegrate those who have offended back into society.

One of her Connaught Fellowship aims will be to present her findings at the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March. There, she hopes to show how women’s work in domestic life should not be dismissed — but appreciated for its value in political and public life.

According to a Nigerian proverb, “battles are won by the weapons of men, but great battles are won by the wisdom of women.” Thanks to Dada’s work, the fight against crime in her home country is that much closer to being won.