The work of 'The Iron Lady' could help save millions of lives in Nigeria.
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In Nigeria, there is a woman known as "The Iron Lady." And how she earned that nickname is a lesson in perseverance.

Her real name is Zainabu Abubakar and she lives in a society where women don’t work, let alone hold a leadership position. But you know what? She did both.

All images via Zainabu Abubakar, used with permission.


She started working as a nurse because she wanted to help improve the health of her community, especially the health of women and children. After that, she formed a small team to start educating people about sanitation, but they only had a small amount of money to do their work. Then, in 2009, after securing a bigger budget and more staff thanks to  the support of their state governor, Abubakar's passion for helping others led her to bigger things.

She was appointed to be the new director of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Department (WASH) in Bakori, a local government area in Katsina State, Nigeria.

"The Iron Lady" doing work.

She's the first woman to ever hold that position.

Of course, her appointment was met with opposition by people who were not comfortable with a female leader, but that didn't stop "The Iron Lady" one bit.

"The one thing I have learned is that people believe mostly what they know," says Abubakar. "They never believe that you can change attitudes."

But as director of WASH, Abubakar is proving that you can change people's attitudes by simply walking the walk.

She is tackling one of the biggest problems affecting the people of Nigeria: open defecation.

"Most of our people, they are not hygiene-conscious," she says. "They don't know that not having good environment or clean environment is very important."

Abubakar (left) always leads by example.

A 2016 WaterAid report for World Toilet Day states that a staggering 130 million people in Nigeria still don't have access to a safe and private toilet. This, in turn, contributes to the 46 million people that practice open defecation, spreading serious diseases such as typhoid and cholera and severely contaminating the water supply.

It's estimated that over 44,000 Nigerian children die every year because of diarrheal diseases and 1 in every 23 Nigerian women will lose a baby due to an infection.

But with "The Iron Lady" leading the way, more and more communities are learning proper health and sanitation practices.

"When you want people to do things, you have to do it so that people will learn from you," says Abubakar. "You are not dictating to them. What you are trying to make them understand is that this is good for them. And [if] they agree that it is, they practice it."

The students at a local school learning proper hygiene for Global Handwashing Day.

Through her innovative Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) project, for example, she educates and shows different communities what proper hygiene and sanitation really is — from washing your hands the right way to using the toilet to sourcing your water efficiently. This, in turn, inspires communities to build proper facilities on their own and, more importantly, change their way of doing things.

Abubakar's success rate is the stuff of legends: In less than six years, she has transformed close to 90% of the communities that she oversees to certified open defecation free (ODF).

When "The Iron Lady" speaks, everyone listens.

"I have 428 communities in my local government. In all these communities, people know me. One — I help women. Two — I help children," adds Abubakar. "I always strive for others to see that in the community I visit."

On top of that, she's empowering local women to confront inequality.

In fact, she started a loan program with the government to help aspiring working women gain access to the resources they need to succeed.

"Before now, women don't sit where men are. And men don’t agree for women to be together with them," says Abubakar. "But now, every community you go, there’s a mix of the men and women and they’re working [together]."

Changing people's attitudes is no easy task, but it's what drives Abubakar forward.

"You have to be tolerant. ... We sit with people, we discuss, we ask them their problems, and they’ll tell you," adds Abubakar. "Honestly speaking, changing people is the most happiest thing, I believe, in my life."

Photo courtesy of Claudia Romo Edelman
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