Brave woman – Melanie Ward from Helensburgh teaches women in Nigeria.

By Graeme Donohoe

Scottish aid worker Melanie Ward is helping Nigerian schoolgirls get an education despite the continuing threat of armed group Boko Haram.

Around 100 of the 276 female students kidnapped from the village of Chibok in 2014 are still held captive.

Of the 10.5 million Nigerian children who currently have no access to education – 60 per cent are female.

Helensburgh-born Melanie, 38, works for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which is helping 62,000 traumatised children get back to school in Nigeria’s war-torn north-east region, supported by the Department of International Development (DFID).

The dangers of the job were laid bare after Boko Haram killed two humanitarian aid workers last Autumn.

melanie-ward-4-idp-camp-in-maiduguriBut Melanie, pictured left, Deputy Country Director for the IRC in Nigeria, said: “We are using UK Aid to make a difference by helping 62,000 traumatised children affected by the fighting in the north-east recover and then get back to school.

“With DFID’s help, we also provide specialist support to the most vulnerable people hit by the conflict including women, children and disabled people.

“The environment we work in is quite insecure and pretty much every day at present there is an attack by an armed group in the north-east.

“The fighting affects our work a lot and determines where we can work at all. In some areas, we sometimes have to stop and start what we are doing and evacuate staff because of the insecurity.

“When it comes to children everyone remembers the Chibok girls being kidnapped. There have been fewer mass kidnappings, but teenage girls are still taken and forced to act as ‘suicide’ bombers.

“The armed groups have been known to kidnap aid workers, and they killed two female Red Cross aid workers in September and October last year. It was an awful tragedy – they were midwives.

“Millions of people in north-east Nigeria suffer terribly because of the conflict. Our work here is essential because it literally saves lives – and it changes lives for the better.”

Nigeria’s presidential election was dramatically postponed for a week before Muhammadu Buhari was re-elected for a second term at the end of last month(FEB).

The conflict has seen over 1.7million Nigerians forced to flee their homes in north-east Nigeria amid fierce fighting between Government soldiers and Boko Haram extremists.

Melanie – based in Abuja, but travelling frequently to the north east – is currently overseeing IRC’s UK Aid-funded projects on education and protection to help tackle the humanitarian crisis.

She explained: “The conflict has forced people to flee their homes to escape. Often, they leave with only the clothes on their back and initially have to sleep outside in the dirt. When aid reaches people they have shelter, food, clean water and medical care, including for the thousands of malnourished children who will die without this help.

“What many of these children have been exposed to is terrifying and our work helps them to recover from all the trauma that they’ve been through. We help them to heal and go back to school.

“Our education programme is for girls and boys. In Nigeria, 60 per cent of children who are out of school are girls but we make sure that just as many girls get access to education as boys.

“We also run a big DFID-supported protection programme, which is about protecting the most vulnerable people. We provide specific support for women who have been sexually abused in the conflict or have survived other kinds of violence.

“Nigeria accounts for 19 per cent of all maternal mortality globally – so of the mothers who die during childbirth in the world, almost 20 per cent of them die here in Nigeria. That’s the fourth worst in the world.

“We are providing medical care, including maternity care, and encourage women to come to our clinics to give birth, or at least ensure that one of our trained birth attendants is there when they have their baby.

“There are so many challenges. Malnutrition is a huge issue. Last year, we treated 30,000 children for malnutrition.  1 in 3 children in Nigeria are stunted from malnutrition. Their bodies can’t develop properly because they don’t have enough of the right kinds of food.”

She added: “As well as providing health care and education we work with the Nigerian Government to strengthen their health and education systems, so that at some point when we exit then we leave behind a stronger system.”

Melanie started doing aid work 10 years ago with Christian Aid and went on to work on projects in the West Bank and Lebanon before moving to Nigeria.

She said: “I was a teenager the first time I saw poverty in a developing country. I went to South Africa and never forgot seeing thousands of people living under plastic sheets.  I just always really wanted to help do something about it. In a conflict situation, things are much worse – I think it can be hard for people at home in Scotland to imagine what that is like.

“I don’t think I’m brave. My Nigerian colleagues are the ones who are really on the front line every day – they are the bravest people.

“I know that my family and friends back home worry about me and I try to reassure them.

“I’ve only had one or two scary moments during my career, and we take security really seriously. This is not a game. It is a serious situation.

“Obviously, it would be safer if I stayed in Helensburgh but the nature of our work means that it is important to be here.”

melanie_ward1And Melanie, right, added: “I love my job and I think I’m very lucky to get to do this because we are making a real difference. The other week I met a very sick baby with his Mum sitting on the ground in a camp.

“Because of UK Aid, we could send him straight to hospital for life-saving treatment. Any mother at home would want the same thing for her baby. If IRC was not working here, what would have happened? There are hundreds of these examples.

“I know that some people question the value of aid. But I know that if I could bring everyone at home in Scotland here to see how difficult peoples’ lives are, I think that they would have an entirely different view.

“I think they would understand and be really proud of what DFID is doing rather than questioning it. UK aid saves lives.”

International Development Secretary of State Penny Mordaunt said: “The bravery of people like Melanie Ward in educating girls in north-east Nigeria through UK aid cannot be underestimated. Her work is helping to unlock the even greater future potential of this country.

“Nigeria’s long-term success matters to the UK. With a young population, growing economy and a thirst for innovation, a strong, prosperous and peaceful Nigeria– driven by its own citizens and acting as a dynamic force in the international arena – is in all our interests.”


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