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NGO aimed at improving health & education in Niger established by NU professor

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Mon, Feb 29th 2016 12:55 pm

By Niagara University

A nongovernmental organization founded by a Niagara University professor to assist women and children in Africa with health and education concerns celebrated its first anniversary Feb. 17.

The Global Network for Niger was conceived and developed by Haoua M. Hamza, Ph.D., a native of Diffa, a small city in southeastern Niger, West Africa. The nonprofit's mission is "to empower girls and women of Niger for a sustainable future."

According to Hamza, an associate professor of education at NU, Niger's government, with the support of multilateral organizations, has done much to advance girls' schooling. Yet, much more remains to be done in a nation where the literacy rate for young adult women is half that of young men, and the overall illiteracy rate is still high.

Understanding that GNN is addressing a need in Diffa, the city's mayor donated 500 square meters of land for the organization to build offices. There are ongoing talks to expand and better serve the community as GNN develops its programs.

GNN's principal members are primarily Niagara University faculty and staff, with Hamza serving as president. Dr. Shannon Hodges, a professor of counseling at Niagara University, serves as vice president of GNN, while Dr. Jeanne Laurel, associate professor of English, is secretary, and Dr. Barbara Iannarelli, assistant professor of education, acts as treasurer. Other university representatives include Dr. Chandra Foote, interim dean of NU's College of Education; Dr. Donna Kester-Phillips, assistant professor of education; and Myriam Witkowski, assistant dean in the College of Business Administration.

Hamza was born and grew up in Diffa in the early 1960s and 1970s. Her parents wrestled with traditional and cultural pressures that said girls should marry in their early teen years, rather than studying.

At age 12, Hamza caught a fortuitous break when her uncle returned to Niger from Ottawa, Canada, after earning a degree in public administration. She went to live with his family in Zinder, over 250 miles west of Diffa, to pursue her education.

Hamza eventually earned a master's degree in English from the National University of Niamey, Niger, then master's and doctoral degrees from Kent State University. As a doctoral student at Kent State University, she focused on girls' schooling and gender gap in educational outcomes in Niger for her dissertation.

"I could have picked any topic, but this one was dear to me. It felt good to do something and give back," Hamza said. "I am very privileged and grateful for the opportunities I have had to pursue my education due to Niger's policy of universal primary education, as well as Great Britain and U.S.'s support for my post-secondary study. But in examining some hard realities, I am led to say scholarship is not enough."

Hamza's mother was chair of the regional chapter of Women's Association of Diffa for at least two decades. Before she passed in 2011, Hamza told her mother about her intention to found an NGO to aid the women's group she led. Although her mother did not live to see the effect of her decision to support Hamza's education by sending her to live with her uncle, the Global Network for Niger Inc. was granted formal not-for-profit standing Feb. 17, 2015, after four years of collaborative efforts with Niagara University faculty and staff.

Coincidentally, 10 days prior to GNN's formal incorporation, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram attacked Hamza's hometown. Her family and friends scattered. Some fled to Niamey, Niger's capital city, almost 1,000 miles west. They have been told they can return, but continued attacks made doing so unwise.

Boko Haram has used suicide bombing attacks across northern Nigeria. People from these areas have fled to the region of Diffa, especially to its state capital. Since November 2014, the city's population of nearly 50,000 has more than doubled, creating an urgency to institute refugee camps across the state. Many families, including Hamza's, have taken relatives and strangers as refugees into their homes.

Boko Haram, now allied with ISIS, is said to exploit an extremist perspective of Islam, bolstered by traditional and rural perspectives that girls are to be married as children. The belief is a reaction against the post-colonial legacy of Western education in Africa. The word "Boko" in the Hausa language means "Western education"; and "Haram" in Arabic means illegal, prohibited. The phrase means Western education is unlawful, illegal, prohibited.

Hamza has termed her counter-narrative to this ongoing threat "Boko Halal." "Halal" in Arabic means legal, lawful and permissible, just the opposite of "Haram." The objectives of Hamza's counter-narrative include identifying and supporting programs and actions that advance girls' education and female literacy, protect the dignity of refugees, and contribute to an interfaith dialogue.

"There are so many reasons I am impelled to establish this counter-narrative," Hamza said. "Human dignity must be preserved; the constitution of Niger proclaims that my country is a secular, democratic and social republic. I am an educator. It is a right for all children to be educated, girls as well as boys. I can remember that many of my peers were not able to pursue their education as I was. As their hatred extends to other faiths, my immediate family is Muslim, Jewish and Christian. I care for and respect them all."

Membership opportunities are available with the Global Network for Niger Inc. Annual membership dues are $25, while any additional contributions are denoted as gifts to the nonprofit. Donations are accepted on the organization's website at http://globalnetworkniger.net or via mail to The Global Network for Niger, 2549 Nicole Drive, Wheatfield, NY 14304.

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