Born in Northern Nigeria, where few girls are educated beyond elementary school, Hauwa Ibrahim defied convention and went to law school. Now she is one of the few female lawyers in her home country, working to protect women’s civil and human rights.

YDNM: Most young women from your hometown end their educations around age twelve. What made you decide to continue yours?

HI: I saw a precedent because my older sister went to high school. The instruction was that she could go to school, and after that she had to marry. My older sister was very obedient, but I was not. When my sister got married, I followed her to the city to live with her. In the city, they fortunately had electricity and a television, and it was on this television that I saw a woman, who was an executive of our state. And she was saying that one of the things she wanted to do in our state, Bauchi, was to help girls to go to school. And so that is where I think my idea to go to college or university came from.

What was your first case?

Traffic. Somebody had an accident, so we had to go and take some measurements, and it was quite interesting because then everything was new, and we wanted to do everything right.

Did you win?

Um, no. But subsequently I had a lot of cases. I prosecuted two women, and got them convicted. Two different cases. And in both cases, they were sentenced to die. And it was those two cases that I sat back later and asked myself if I had the opportunity again to do them again, would I do it? You have a situation where you have the moral aspect where you have done your good case as you should do, and you have gotten this conviction, but should you have done that? But somehow I was so very lucky, that within the same time frame, the law provided for a commutative mercy.

What has been your favorite case?

I’ve had so many cases, that it’s not clear at all. But the cases with Sharia law, where you can see how the women have lost hope, and you see that somehow you have given these women hope back, and you see how you have given them back their life. Those are among my favorite.

If you could make one law or change one law, what would it be and why?

A woman should not die by stoning. She should not die because she has a child, and they should not amputate feet and limbs. More important is the literacy level of the judges. A lot of these cases could have been handled better with judges who were more educated. I’m trying to work out judiciary education by looking at other countries with constitutions and Sharia law, like Malaysia. We’re trying to get best practices to see what works.

What do you hope to experience or accomplish before leaving?

Three things: one, I have been thinking about how to get my money from the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought into an endowment to send children to school. Ten dollars can allow a woman to go back to school. The second thing I hope to achieve, which is something I have started, is to write a book. The book partly has to do with where I was coming from and where I am now — from hopelessness to hope, from nothing to something. I want to show the transition. The third thing I hope to do is apply to get a Ph.D. I have a deficiency. When I applied to Harvard, they asked for a GRE, and I don’t have it. But I always have big dreams, and I don’t know if I can achieve them.

It seems like you’ve achieved a lot.

You have to keep on dreaming. I wake up every morning, and say, I do not want to change anybody’s life, I do not want to change the world, but you know what? I’ll touch one person, just one person.