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Tuesday, 31 May 2016

I often move around in bullet proof cars and armoured tanks in Somalia — Nigerian-born UN Gender Expert Victoria Nwogu

Victoria Nwogu is a young, sassy female who has been able to conquer the academia. A lawyer who would have loved to be a judge if she was not working for a United Nations agency, Nwogu is always on the move. She has traveled across the globe working on issues of development and the advancement of mankind.


But in between, Victoria finds time to enjoy life, build a family and impact the lives of others. At present, living in volatile Somalia, Victoria shares her lifestyle with us, in this interview with Paul Ukpabio.


Would you say your early life influenced the person that you are today?

My early life was idyllic. My father was the center of our world. He did all he could to provide a good middle class life for me and my siblings. He had a brilliant –though a paternal- relationship with my mother; she had a job, but he was indulgent, the sole provider and he always made her laugh. They chattered away endlessly and he turned everything into a huge joke for her. They were
rather heavy-handed in raising us but tender towards each other. All that came crashing down when he died. I was 12 years old at the time. My father’s death took the wind out of all our sails, literally. Whenever I reflect on my life, I often divide it into two eras: life before and life after my father’s death.

Reflecting on how life subsequently changed overwhelms me a lot of times. However, I am thankful to God for who I am today. My mother gave her all and 100% more to keep our heads above water and focused on forging a solid professional path for our future adult selves. From that whole experience, I acquired faith and learnt contentment, self-sufficiency and tenacity.

Tell us about your work

I am a lawyer. I also have a Masters Degree in International Affairs and Diplomacy. I have over 15years experience in human rights, gender and migration work (especially human trafficking; return and reintegration) spanning legislative and policy advocacy, research, management, capacity strengthening and organisational development at local, regional and international levels.

I am currently the Gender Advisor and head of the Cross-cutting Unit (Gender and HIV-AIDS) at UNDP Somalia. In this role, I am responsible for advisory, overall mainstreaming and programme management functions for both portfolios. I am also a visiting professor at the Central European University (CEU, Budapest, Hungary) Legal Studies Department, since 2010. I lecture a course for Masters Degree students on ‘Human Rights in Africa with a special focus on gender issues’.

How's life in Somalia?

I hope I won’t disappoint you if I say I don’t see as much of life in Somalia as I would like to. The situation in many parts of Somalia is still extremely unsafe for ‘internationals’ (or ‘expatriates’ if you like) like myself to move around freely. I am mostly based in Mogadishu and there, I have to live in a makeshift accommodation within the perimeters of the international airport ‘protected area’. If I have to go to a meeting outside the protected area, then I have to travel in a bullet proof vehicle – sometimes an armoured tank – and wear a helmet and bulletproof vest.

Nonetheless, there are some parts of Somalia where one can safely move around within set criteria for safety and security. In those places, I take the chance to visit the markets or a restaurant and I can tell you, life out there is as vibrant as any other city in the world, within the limits of their contextual peculiarities, of course. Most Somali cities remind me of my life, growing up in Northern Nigeria.

The media tends to make a simplistic link between human trafficking and women’s migration. From your experience, how are those two issues actually intertwined?

There is a strong nexus between human trafficking and migration. Often the desire to migrate in search of improvement in one’s circumstances potentially creates or increases vulnerability to exploitation; and to fall within the technical definition of trafficking, a person must be moved from one location to another and exploited. However, both phenomena must be differentiated. Migration is simply the movement of a person from one location to another for any length of time. Human trafficking on the other hand is the facilitated movement of a person/people by another person/people for the purpose of exploitation. Usually, the person being moved (or trafficked) is in a weaker economic, social, legal, physical or psychological position to the person who exploits them and this weakness is manipulated to nefarious advantage.


When the media, policy/law makers, law enforcement and service providers lump the two phenomena together, they risk developing responses that increase the vulnerability of potential migrants to exploitation and deny trafficked persons the support and care they need. For example, interventions which ban young women from seeking employment opportunities abroad or visa profiling practices which deny a selected population opportunities to travel abroad because they are of one sex, are below a certain age or unmarried, provide motivation for such people to seek alternative migration opportunities and thereby could fall prey to the lure of traffickers. On the other hand, failing to properly identify trafficked persons from amongst other migrants, means that they could be prosecuted for immigration-related offences or deported without being offered opportunities for proper care, redress and recovery.

Human trafficking takes many forms and exploitation is for diverse purposes, yet the most propagated in the media is trafficking for sexual exploitation. This creates a perception in the viewing public that all trafficking is for sex work and all trafficked persons are prostitutes. The situation this evokes in Nigeria for instance is that female returnees from abroad are viewed as former sex workers and potential carriers of the HIV/AIDs virus and therefore they often face stigma.

As a visiting professor at the Central European University Budapest, Hungary, what would you say are the challenges of African women fighting for their rights?
From my experience, the challenges women face in claiming their rights in Africa are as complex and varied as the continent itself. They range from the personal to the political; some challenges are structural others are circumstantial. These challenges are mostly woven into the character and identity of societies and will therefore require sustained and long term engagement at several levels to shift. Often the challenges and their consequences entwine to further limit women’s advancement and their effects can be seen in high illiteracy rates amongst women, low girl child school enrolment/completion, low representation of women in paid employment, high incidences of sexual and gender based violence (with an equally high level of impunity) high maternal and infant mortality, very little control by women over productive assets and low political representation of women.


For example, in the Nigerian context, the challenges to women’s rights range from the huge domestic burdens women have to bear to the systematic marginalization of women from the public sphere on the basis of social norms which question women’s capacity to participate in affairs of state or in significant political structures that bear a dominant male character. A number of legally sanctioned discriminations also exist, such as section 29(4) of the Constitution which supports under-aged marriages by deeming a woman to be of full age upon marriage or section 26(2) which limits the right of Nigerian women to transmit their nationality to foreign spouses and Constitutional provisions which relegate certain aspects of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody to customary law. Crimes like rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence continue to be under prosecuted due to a partriarchal attitude of law enforcement institutions and unduly high evidentiary requirements to prove crimes such as rape. In the past two weeks alone, the news has been replete with far too many cases of spousal abuse and even murder of women by their husbands in circumstances that point to long term domestic violence for which no tangible redress was available. This situation is not dissimilar to many other parts of Africa.

Has there been any remarkable gain over the years?

To be sure, some remarkable gains have been made on the advancement of women’s rights across the continent but there is yet much work to be done. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (also known as the Maputo Protocol; ratified by Nigeria in 2004) for instance, adds considerable value to the protection of women in Africa. However, it is still limited by a slow pace of ratifications and national domestication. In Nigeria, the National Assembly has declined to pass the ‘Abolition of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in Nigeria and other Related Matters Bill’ and a national bill prohibiting violence against women.

For a woman, which is better, being a career woman or being a house wife? Please support with a few of your experience.

No endeavour in life is greater than the other. Every effort, and every contribution a man or woman makes to community forms an essential part of the collective whole. For me, the important thing is that whatever anyone chooses to do as a profession, should be valued equally or equitably and resources made available to everyone to express their choices. The operative word for me here is choice. If many women had a real choice, would they be housewives or career women?

When we say housewife, what do we really mean? We often have visions of uneducated women who sit around pregnant or nursing a little child, caring for the sick or elderly, cooking, cleaning, dusting, watching TV endlessly, gossiping with other housewives, perhaps running a petty trade –nothing major; just enough to buy cheap trinkets and knick-knacks- and of course, subservient to a husband. Our vision of the housewife is a woman of inferior status to men and to her sister, the career woman. The reality is entirely different. The work of a so-called ‘house wife’ is often invisible, strenuous, undervalued and demeaned, yet its value in keeping the entire fabric of society functioning is unequalled.

Let me put this into the perspective of the work I do. The work that housewives do is called ‘unpaid care’ within the development sector. Because women are perceived by society to be naturally endowed nurturers and care givers, these kinds of work traditionally fall on them. If they do not do it, society judges them as ‘bad’ women or ‘bad’ wives. In my opinion, women do not have a higher ‘caring gene’ than men. Society has made it so. 

Countries like Japan, Mexico and many parts of Europe are beginning to count unpaid care as part of their GDP and the results are interesting; from 10 – 39% of GDP globally is contributed by unpaid care. So what do we as a society have to do about unpaid care? We need to recognise, reduce and redistribute it.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as a ‘career woman.’ It is a derogatory term used to diminish and vilify women’s inherent right to pursue a career or paid employment outside the home, just like men. When we use the term, ‘career women’, we are questioning women’s rights to have a career. We are telling women, ‘You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be a doctor, teacher, pilot or lawyer. That’s for the men; so when you come into it, you’re a ‘career woman.’ If we do not speak about ‘career men’, we should also not speak about ‘career women.’

To answer your question directly, having a career or staying at home are wonderful choices that men and women should be able to make of their own free will and with the resources to derive fulfillment in doing it.


As a woman, do you think a woman can combine a career with family life successfully? If yes, in what ways do you think she can do it?

I straddle both worlds effectively. I have the capacity and the resources to decide what takes priority over what;I am able to decide what I can do and what I will not do by myself; and I have a partner who does his bit too. Together, we manage to juggle our profession and our family obligations successfully.For most women, this is not the case. Society’s definition of a woman as beast of burden, maternal figure and sex object has led to a warped perception of what women are expected to do in a marriage and this is most unfortunate. For the most part, Nigerian women hold down a nine to five job (or longer), run fulltime businesses successfully and are still expected to be cook, clean the house and do general house chores after hours at work. Women are literally dying from the excessive expectations life in our society places on them.

Growing up, did you love cooking? Do you still find time to do lady’s things like going into the kitchen to cook?

I wouldn’t describe cooking as ‘lady’s things’. Any rational adult who has a need for physical nutrition should take an interest in how what they eat is prepared and lend a hand to that preparation. If for nothing else, to ensure the nutritive value of what you are eating or to gain skills that will help them step up to the task in an ‘emergency’.

I can’t say I loved cooking growing up because I never gave it a thought, I just did it because I was expected to. Both my father and mother cooked. They didn’t particularly take turns at it but my mother was still attending university whilst we were children. When she was away, my father cooked. There were also some kinds of foods that my father took pride in making by himself. What I remember though, was that whoever was cooking always had me in the kitchen. I am the Ada in my family, I was being nurtured to cook (Laughs). From my mother, I learnt how to make a mean ora or onugbu soup and from my father, I learnt the virtues of cleaning up after yourself whilst you’re still cooking.

That said, I love cooking now. I find it entirely therapeutic. I take pleasure in creating a new pot of soup when I can because if you’re a good cook, you’ll know that no two pots of soup can ever taste the same.  I’m always trying out new recipes and baking up a tray of one thing or the other over the weekend. I love to cook for my family. I love the pleasure they derive from eating. I love the compliments they pay and I love how we all work together in the kitchen. Certain things, I find to be too much trouble now so I contract them out to professional caterers or anyone in my circle who is willing to help.

What is your view about fashion and how do you describe fashion?

I love fashion. I think fashion is an important medium of expression for anyone. I love vibrant colours. I love unique designs. I love subtle but discernible detailing. I love the whole ankara ‘movement’ happening right now and I love how Nigerian fashion is taking the world by storm. I love to express my ‘Nigerianness’ so, I have worn the Igbo double wrapper with blouse a couple of times to the office. I love to wear high heels too.

What is your style? What kind of clothes do you like wearing?

I can’t say I have a style. I’m not a trend chaser. I wear whatever looks good on me. I have sort of lost patience with formal Western clothing right now, so even though I have a closet full of them, I prefer to wear clothes made with ankara.

What determines the clothes you wear in a day?

Because I spend most of my time in Somalia, I have to dress in a culturally sensitive way, with head coverings, sleeves reaching below my elbow and floor length skirts or dresses. When I am in Nairobi, it’s a different story, I can go sleeveless or wear a short skirt and certainly let my hair out. The occasion would also determine what I wear. I do a lot of formal meetings, so I often wear a Nigerian interpretation of formal. On regular work days, I tend towards smart casual. When I attend international conferences, I wear formal African clothes because I want to be upfront about my Africanness. That said, deciding whether it’s this or that outfit or the other on any given day, can be a huge headache.

In what ways would you say that fashion is relevant to today’s woman?
Fashion is relevant to today’s woman because, like I said before, it’s a medium of expression. One could use fashion to express their individuality, their mood, their heritage or their personality. I am a vibrant person. I laugh out loud. I’m not afraid to be different. I tackle challenges head-on. I am confident.I take joy in my accomplishments. I believe all that comes across in the way I dress. When I look at Nigerian women today, I also see a lot of self-expression going on and I think that is just marvelous.

How do you describe success?
Success to me is not an end point. Life is made up of so many rewarding experiences that it’s difficult to quantify. It could be relationships built, repaired or discontinued. It may be a goal accomplished but that is not the full picture; it could also be staying on track towards that goal.We live in a world where the bars for success are being set higher and higher every day, so is success your current degree or the next one? Is success your current well-paying job or your next promotion? Is success an engagement ring; a beautiful wedding or an enduring marriage of two or more years? Is success a healthy baby or a child that constantly challenges you to be the best parent ever? Success could also be a growing and learning process, sticking at it no matter what, enjoying the momentary prizes but never letting go of the quest.

What do you value most?
I value most my faith in God. That faith propels me forward in all things and it has never failed me. I believe I am the expression of a divine work of art, my existence is no accident of nature and so bearing that in mind, I try at all times to ensure my words are measured, my thoughts are carefully sifted and my actions bring God glory. The fact that I live in a country where I can freely express my faith without fear is of importance to me.


I also value humanity and human relationships. I genuinely believe that we are nothing without each other and when all is said and done; when we close our eyes for the very last time here on earth, the only thing that will matter are the lives we touched, one way or another. One great lesson my father taught me was that in all my dealings with people, I should always ensure ‘they’ come out on top. For the longest time, I never understood this. Now I know it doesn’t mean being the underdog in any situation, but ensuring that when I relate to people, they walk away knowing that whatever transpired between us was a just and fair interaction. Bearing that in mind, I treat every relationship with care. I make friends very quickly but I also try not to abuse friendship. I try to keep my words and to say the truth in all situations, give as much as I can and try to take away less. The great weakness of my life is that I also expect people to treat me in like manner but that is not always the case. It means a whole lot to me when people reciprocate or show me that they care

What has the experience been abroad for you?

Living abroad has been a pattern of constant comparisons between Nigeria and wherever I find myself. I have only ever lived in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Somalia and a few months in New York but wherever I am, the comparison is on. I know Nigeria is sufficiently resourced to do better, so it irks me when infrastructure can be taken for granted in Kenya, for instance, whilst Nigeria, with all her oil wealth has debilitating issues with providing electric power to the citizenry. It annoys me that historical artefacts are better preserved elsewhere than back home. It worries me that the educational standard in Nigeria has fallen to an atrocious degree. 
Meanwhile, in Nairobi I can rely on my housemaid who only completed high school to write a better notation in my son’s school report than my so-called university graduate relative. When I first visited London, my consternation at the fluid transportation system that Nigeria was in dire need of was evident in the way I chattered on and on about it for days. My life abroad is constantly dogged by these comparisons.

How about family?

My family is doing very well, thank you. It’s essentially me, the husband and three boys aged 9, 13 and 16.

If you were not what you are now, what else would you have loved to be?
If I were not a development worker now, I would be a judge. It was all I ever went to law school for, but now I see the Potter had other plans in store for me.

Are you fulfilled?
I think fulfillment is a myth. Until we’re six feet under, we’re always chasing something; the next big deal, the next accolade, the next big break. I have yet to hear of a billionaire who has stopped seeking the next buck. Even when people retire there’s always a quest for ‘something’. When we stop seeking, we cease to live. Just like success, we’re certainly allowed to celebrate all those milestones along the way. On the professional level, I am thankful for many accomplishments and yet I feel, I have underachieved in other respects so I find myself yearning for so much more. On a personal level, I am happy with my life and the family I’ve been given to share it with.

Do you have time for leisure?

Would you call running 20 miles a week leisure? No? Ok. I sometimes do a whirlwind of work at the close of the week so that I can save time to enjoy a few good books at the weekend.

How do you spend your holiday?

Holiday for me and my family means travel. We usually go up north (Europe or America) one year and south (Nigeria or Kenya) the next.

Do you have memories of a particular holiday you enjoyed most?

My family and I, have been privileged to enjoy a number of beautiful holidays so it’s difficult to choose between the energy of London or New York, the serenity of a wildlife safari in Kenya or the wonder of a well-preserved European city. The best holidays for me, are the ones where I manage to get all my work done, shut down my laptop and leave it at home. I also enjoy time spent in the village with no internet.

What does make-up mean to you?

Make-up, like fashion is a tool of expression to me. In addition, it can brighten up a gloomy morning or cover sleep deprived eyes. I arrived to make up very late in life; at the ripe old age of 23 to be precise, but I enjoy the process as well as the outcome very much. However, I once attended an etiquette seminar and learnt that, in a professional setting, make up is important for women because it draws the eyes of people you interact with to your face rather than other parts of your anatomy. To make up or not to make up should be a judgment-free choice for any woman.

What inspires you?
I’m inspired by women who overcome any kind of adversity to assert themselves. I don’t need to go very far to find such examples. I’m inspired by my mother, my aunties, friends, work supervisors, women academics who have mentored me. Young women inspire me too. I love that a lot of young women in Nigeria and Africa are rising up to seek advanced education, building businesses from scratch, exploring music and the arts, and defining their relationship goals on their own terms.

How do you take stress off?


It helps that when I am stressed, I actually feel physical symptoms such as a stiff neck or pain in my back. Usually, a good massage helps. My job requires me to spend 28 days in Mogadishu and five days somewhere else; resting and recovering – as we call it. That also helps a lot.

15 comments:

  1. Great interview. It was informative as well as entertaining. It really showed that we all are multi-layered and no other person would know unless they asked. Don't know why the font was inconsistent throughout the article though.

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  2. One of my favourite sHeros!
    Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Inspiring, great interview.

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  4. If I wasn't striving to be the 'best version of myself', I'd definately like to be just like Victoria Nwogu someday. It's interesting how the five people that inspire my work most are women and "V" is certainly one of them.

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  5. If I wasn't striving to be the 'best version of myself', I'd definately like to be just like Victoria Nwogu someday. It's interesting how the five people that inspire my work most are women and "V" is certainly one of them.

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  6. I don't know what to mention first - whether the beautiful pictures or the content of the interview. Love both. Well done sister!

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  7. Thanks for sharing, nice post!

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