The Co-Founder and Director, Action Health Incorporated, Dr. Uwemedimo Esiet, in this interview speaks about the contributions of the organisation towards tackling sexual reproductive health and its plans for 2021. Excerpts.
Action Health Incorporated (AHI) has been involved in several Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) activities and also launched different initiatives in SRH to support teenage girls in disadvantaged communities in Lagos. What were the progress made in 2020?
2020 was a watershed year because of COVID-19. Therefore, we had limited onsite interventions across everywhere we are working, specifically in Lagos. In Lagos, we focused our attention on two critical areas: One was raising public awareness using new media; COVID-19 and Gender Based Violence (GBV) because there was an upsurge in gender based violence generally across the world. Due to the violence in GBV, the Secretary General of United Nations, António Guterres issued a global warning on this social problem. With support from the United Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) regional office in Abuja, we mounted a major campaign, against gender based violence, besides that we had an ongoing project to strengthen the leadership of young people to meaningful advocate to get duty bearers to respond to their basic needs which is known as the Girls’ Voices Initiative (GVI). Those were the major activities we did in Lagos area; all other activities were mainly outside Lagos area where we are working with the humanitarian agencies in the North-east and North-west.
What has been the progress of AHI in the area of female circumcision?
We are working on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and the state where we are working in is Osun State. Regarding the issue of FGM, data show that it is more common in the South-south, South-east and South-west. You can only intervene to the existent that you have resources, and if your resources are tired to specific States. So the funding we got to work on FGM tired us to work in Osun State. So we worked in partnership with Osun State Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, and the State Ministry of Health. We are working at multiple layers. The lowest point where FGM occurs is in the communities. So we work with communities and as at the last time, we have worked with 50 communities in Osun state. We come as a community partner; we work with all the community instructors. We begin by doing public education, work with critical stakeholders, gatekeepers in those communities. Once they understand that this is not bringing any benefits, rather it poses risks and dangers to their girls, and their generations after, we have received cooperation. We have engaged with all the persons who practice FGM, and what happens thereafter is that we facilitate them in abandoning the practice. We have had communities coming out to eradicate the practice at their level. So persons within those communities then become anti-female genital mutilation champions. Those champions monitor the implementations of committed actions in their respective communities. So you galvanise people and once they realise it, they come onboard because they are not doing you any good, instead they are only doing themselves good. We try to generate dialogue about the dangers of FGM and how it is destroying the future of teenage girls. We have intra-dialogue and inter-dialogue. Once you get people to start talking about the issue, on a personal level, they will abandon the issue. Once one community abandons the issue, we celebrate them. If one community has abandoned and the other hasn’t abandoned, the one that has not abandoned will not feel proud. So far it has been going great.
Regarding FGM, what is the solution to this societal challenge?
The first solution is that culture can be changed because that is the theory that is driving our effort and the change comes not by one activity, but by continuous engagement. If you at the FGM spectrum, there are many stakeholders such as the circumcisers. In some communities, there are some families that circumcision has been their age long assignments in the community. Therefore, those families feel sometimes that what their ancestors gave them as their role in the community wants to be taken away. But with continuous engagement, they realise that we are not taking it away. The objective of the FGM is to mark the rite of passage to adulthood. We are not saying that we are against celebrating the rite of passage to adulthood. But we are saying that you don’t need to do this particular rite of passage to adulthood because of the health risk it poses to the women and the violation of their human right that is glaring. So take away this aspect, you will still have the rite of passage which means whatever you are doing, maybe you are using age, when a girl crosses age 18, the community recognises the girl no longer as a child, but an adult. Therefore, it is not important to cut off any part of her body to determine if she is an adult or not.
In the celebration of the rite of passage, she can still participate like other girls and the celebration will be maintained in that order without cutting the body of the girl-child. While the circumcisers who are at the epicenter of the celebration will still be the coordinators of the celebration without the circumcision and they will still have their relevance. So the traditional rulership, coordinator of the event, the girls and their family are all happy. So for us, the major takeaway is that things can change.
These things are human creations and now that knowledge and science have come to tell us that this is not the best, let’s examine it critically. Our other colleagues who are working in other parts of the country are also getting results, it is just that it can be slow due to paucity of funds. Though people tend to go back, remember it is a behaviour change, so it is easy for people to sleep back, then for people to continue moving forward. So what we now do is that we try to have champions in each community. So those champions become reminders to remind the people not to go back what they have abandoned. You will find some traditional die hard parents insisting that they want to have their way, but the community will sanction them to serve as a deterrent.
I will like you to shed lights on the current situation of gender based violence in Nigeria?
You are aware we have the issue of deep seated patriarchy in Nigeria where the male is the head and a lot of things have been attached to being male. In every civil society, there is the equality of persons.
The fundamental objectives of the Nigeria constitutions, the Universal declaration of human right, and the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ rights, all agreed that everybody is born free and equal, therefore, anything that is a violation of the human right of the other person should be encouraged.
The way our presumed traditional society been designed, we tend to place more value on the male child than the female child. In 2020 and 2021, the female body has become objectified and sexualised, as if the female body is only meant for the sexual pleasure of men. So bringing our patriarchy and the current trend together, it speaks to the fact that we undervalued girls. It is unfortunate because we are like someone trying to clap with one hand which will not sound well. So we are robbing ourselves of the great contributions which women can bring to the society. We need to take gender based violence a lot bit more serious. There is the Violence Against Person Prohibition (VAPP) Act that Mr. President has signed. States are supposed to domesticate. Though some States have domesticated, but implementation is very poor. The commitments in terms of resources, human, material and financial have not being enough. I’m sure you are aware that Lagos State is an exception; they have the Domestic Violence and Sexual Response Team. They also have the half way home. The half ways home are safe spaces where women that have been violated are kept. You could remember that there was a man during the lockdown that posted on his facebook page how he violated his wife and the woman was pregnant. Within 72hours he did that, the Domestic Violence and Sexual Response Team of Lagos State, tracked him down, got the wife and took her to a safe space, and the man was charged to court.
We need to be more drastic to violators in terms of sanctions, but we also need more public education. We want to change behaviours, if a man was raised in a home where any mistake the mother or mistresses or wife made was a slap or physical assault, he has grown up to believe that the only way to express displeasure to his partner is through physical assault. So we need to correct that. Everybody has their way of communicating their displeasure. But it doesn’t mean that you become violent, psychologically abusive, deprive the other person of food or money.
For States that have not domesticated the gender based violence Act. What do you think is responsible?
The leadership of those States have not appropriated their minds, and the citizens have not demanded because it is a demand and supply thing. The easier way to mobilise is for them to submit a draft bill to the State Houses of Assembly, it doesn’t have to be an executive bill. We have female professionals in every field of human endeavours in Nigeria. The female professional bodies in these States where gender based Violence Act has not been implemented needs to come together to push their course. The political class is not willing to allow the governed enjoy their full rights and privileges. Therefore, they will ignore a lot of things meant for the governed. The great Zik said: “Show the light and people will find the way.”