She went from being a finance manager in a bank to becoming a Human Rights Observer with the African Union.
Yvonne Onyinye Ajudua is a Human Rights Observer with the African Union, specifically in response to the crisis in Burundi. As a former finance manager and part time farmer in Nigeria, Yvonne Onyinye continues to soar as she makes a difference in the world as a Human Rights observer in the Africa Union. In this interview she exhibits not just drive and ambition but an immense passion for the empowerment of women across the globe; I admired her feisty answer on the topic of women balancing career and familial responsibilities as she mentioned that she only sees such questions as being directed only to women suggesting fundamentally, women shouldn’t have formal careers and once they do their home must definitely suffer for it. I particularly loved a statement she made and highlighted it below.
“I see millions of women wake up everyday at 4am to go to markets or farm, some of them single parents without supportive partners. No one ever asks them how they balance. Put a woman in an office, even with a supportive co-parent or partner, and everyone wants to know how she balances career with family. So it’s not really that balance is needed if you work, it’s only needed if you have a formal career because most of the women in informal careers often have even tougher and more demanding jobs.”
Not oblivious to the several challenges that women face in careers world-wide, she is unperturbed by it as she lets her accomplishments speak volumes on her behalf. She gives a few tips for women with a flair for changing the world, whichever way they deem fit.
Please give a background to who you are and what you stand for?
I am from Delta State, Nigeria and born into a family of two. I gained a degree in Banking and Finance in Nigeria, My MBA from the United States and my MA from Italy. I started my career as a finance manager in Nigeria from there I moved to the African Union Commission. After two and a half years with the Commission, I began to crave new challenge so I moved to Japan to work for JOCA, later I joined OXFAM, then COSPE, Plan International and currently the African Union Commission.
During my undergraduate days, I joined Outreach International as a fund raiser to help people in need. The zeal to see that women are empowered made me join the Waziri-Sulu-Gambari Foundation as a fund raiser and a volunteer. Getting to Ethiopia, I joined the Yellow Movement because I was intrigued that young boys understood the need to empower and educate young girls in other to break the chain of poverty. I have an unwavering resolve and I consistently set firm goals for myself and once I have defined the benchmarks, I take necessary steps to achieve those milestones. I stand for equality not just for women but also for men, fairness and Justice for all.
What inspired your career choice and when did you know that you would follow in your current career path?
I have always known I was interested in working along these lines. I’ve always been interested in issues around the dignity of the human person. However, in your mid teens when you make career choices, a lot of us don’t have enough information on what’s available all there. I grew up in Nigeria where you either study one of 5 maybe 6 courses or you are a disgrace to the family. Even when I chose to study law, there were a lot of reservations from a misunderstanding of what lawyers really do.
“It wasn’t until almost a decade later – after degrees in Finance and an MBA – that I chose to go back to my old love. It was more difficult, obviously, but the joy from working on this and seeing the impact your work has on the lives and livelihoods of people often makes the journey all worth it.”
What advice do you have for young women who have no idea what they want to do with their lives?
In my personal experience, I think this often comes from a few reasons. Either there isn’t enough information about opportunities out there or there isn’t enough long term thinking. In some cases, sadly, a lot of women do not have the luxury of long term thinking as they often need to meet immediate responsibilities.
In the first case, I think the obvious advice is to seek out what options exist. Read. Play around with LinkedIn. Search for inspiration. Look for themes you connect with. And, use these to map out potential pathways. Secondly, it is important to recognise the journey and the long term goal driving that journey. I think it’s important to always focus on that goal. I’ve seen people move to jobs they don’t love because of a 20% increase in pay. One or two years down the line, they feel frustration. So it’s important to search for what you connect with and focus on that.
Take us on a history lesson, how did a Nigerian Graduate end up on such a global platform?
So I had a job in Nigeria and like every Nigerian, I had a side hustle. I had a farm at the time that was doing pretty well. I was 24 and things seemed to be going well. Only it wasn’t. I wasn’t finding the fulfillment from my daily life. So I started looking for opportunities that were more aligned with my interests. I was particularly interested in the African Union Commission because it is big enough to interest me but local enough that I connect with the experience as an African. I applied for all the early career options (internships, the AU Youth Volunteer program etc) and six months after I started the applications, I was on a flight to Addis Ababa.
What would your advice be for someone looking to get into an international organisation like the African Union?
I think more than anything else it is the amount of sacrifice involved in the early days. If you find any young person within these structures, you’d see they probably committed as much as one year to learn the ropes through an internship program. I recognize that not many people can afford an unpaid internship and I’m actually very much against the way internship programs are set up to shut out a certain demographic who can’t afford to be unpaid for an entire year. However, a lot of us often save for a few years to take the leap.
Has being a woman in any way been of a disadvantage to you in your career?
Being a woman in a male dominated field sure comes with its specific challenges. I think the one I find most interesting is how people see a young woman who, sometimes, dresses somewhat fashionably and immediately start talking about how you slept with someone for your job- sometimes making sure you hear them. You often need to work twice as hard to prove your ability as a young-ish person. As a young woman, probably thrice as hard.
I do not consider these as disadvantages though, I see them more as challenges the next generation of women shouldn’t deal with because we’ve done all the ‘proving’ necessary.
In Nigeria, female bosses are really still an adjustment and the average subordinate man still has reservations about dealing with a female boss. Why do you think this is so?
I think every Nigerian woman has heard the ‘I have your type at home’ statement. When I hear it, I feel more pity for the man’s poor wife at home than any other emotion. I think there’s still a general idea that the man is just by the fact that he is a man superior to every woman in the world.
What can be done to alleviate this?
To be fair, I think a lot of this is changing as the number of women in the workplace increase. Much more can be done about this though. I hear a lot of people talking about ‘raising your daughters to…’ and I think that’s great. But this topic is also quite essential. So while we raise our daughters to understand they are not inferior because of their gender, we should also raise our sons to understand they are not superior.
I was greatly enthused to find that you are a feminist and in support of female empowerment and that you are actively involved in a skills development campaign which promotes poverty alleviation for women. Please explain at length.
My mum always emphasized the need for a woman to be empowered and till date she still does. So I would say I have always been consciously aware of the need to empower women. I believe that everyone is entitled to the same civil rights and liberties and can be intellectual equals regardless of gender. This motivated me to become a fund raiser for Outreach International and “Waziri-Sulu-Gambari Foundation (WSGF)” in Nigeria which is a Non-Governmental/Charity organization involved in alleviating poverty and human rights protection through advocacy, youth capacity development and empowerment, education and health support in Nigeria. I am actively involved in the skills development campaign, particularly poverty alleviation for women. Also in my office, I work on the “Because I am a Girl” campaign which focuses more on the girl child and making education for the girl child a priority. The long term goal for this campaign is to end poverty for women by making sure every girl is properly educated.
Finally, here in Ethiopia, I support the “Yellow Movement”. I am particularly attached with this movement because it is led by young boys and girls from the faculty of law in Addis Ababa University. We campaign for equal opportunities for girls and women focusing mainly on education. This movement taught me that just because human beings are designed to perform certain procreative functions, biological elements need not dictate intellectual and social functions, capabilities and rights.
It is my desire that in the near future the social, political, legal and economic rights of women will be equal to those of men.
Do you have a role model or mentor?
I think it’s very important to have mentors who guide you. I do not have a specific role model or mentor. I used to have one until I realised I was deifying this person and that made it difficult to understand and cope with the person’s flaws. These days I go to people with specificities. I approach people thinking: How could this person help me with my career move? Or how could this person help me understand my relationship with my partner? And I think this has really helped me see my mentors as humans with their own struggles and challenges.
Do you ever get weary or worn out? In those moments, where do you derive strength to keep going?
I think almost every one gets down days. What I do is have happiness points. It could be religion, marriage, children, career, friends, future etc. Something you are happy about and grateful for. I often try to find my way to these points when those days happen. Obviously, it doesn’t work in a ‘snap out of it’ way. But it helps to focus on the positives.
Where would you like to be in 10 years?
I would rather not say, I love to surprise people!
What is your advice for young women who want to walk in your shoes and leave a legacy behind?
“Consistently grow yourself, take the time to learn continuously, think long term and have a clear cut vision for yourself.”