My Value…More Than A Day
I stared in confusion as I watched girls in their teens throng into that large WAPI (West African People’s Institute) College hall situated in the center of Calabar, Cross River State. They came in and sat down even though nothing seemed to be happening, at least not yet but for a few colorful drop-down banners of various non-governmental organizations standing on the elevated stage. Boys were there too. From 7 secondary schools in Calabar, they came. Women and men from various non-governmental organizations and communities were also there and all appeared quite excited. Students adorned in the best version of their uniforms, and others in attire that gave impression of a grand ceremony. Within a twinkling of an eye, the hall, which seemed a little too roomy at first, was chock-full. I could see some of the late arrivers jostling for the few seats left so I rushed in and grabbed a seat but not before making enquiries to be certain what the occasion was. It was not the end of the school term so definitely couldn’t have been a student valedictory party. So what was it about the tinsel? The thrill? The rush?
Oh Oh! It was the International Day of the Girl Child- they said. Really? Why does it have to attract so much attention? Why is it being treated exclusively? Why would anyone abandon his business and other issues that matter in the name of celebrating the girl child? Well, while these questions raced through my mind, I saw ‘UK’, short for Eucharia, the popular lady of Hit FM Calabar as she marched gracefully towards the front of the hall to pick the mic. ‘This must really be a special event’…I thought to myself. For UK to have left her desk to compere this occasion, it sure must be. More so when I realized that pressmen and women from Radio Nigeria, ‘The Nation’ newspaper, and ‘The Chronicles’ newspaper had all arrived to cover the event.
One after the other, a few men and women, whom I instantly concluded were the Very Very Important Personalities (VVIP), were called up to take their places at the exalted table. I hear they were from FHI 360, UNFPA, Cross River State Ministry of Education, Ministry of Women Affairs, Office of the Wife of the Executive Governor of Cross River State, and the Girls Power Initiative- GPI. Whether they were really the VVIP at this occasion, the next few hours would tell.
I took a quick glance at the big event banner hung on the stage and saw the theme for the day’s celebration: “Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress: A global girl data movement”. Wow! Global? Would there be participants from across the world? Well, I later got to understand that the event was being celebrated in every country on planet earth, and that every girl present would leave the event feeling well celebrated as a future world ambassador. The various speeches and goodwill messages that followed did justice to the call to ‘begin to count girls and all that matters to girls’. Wherever they are across the globe, what they do, what they wished they did, what affects them, positively or otherwise, what needs to be done to change negative trends, what impacts girls have made and are making.
One of the highpoints for me was the role-modelling forum when 5 accomplished women shared their life stories, stories that touched the heart, if I may say. An in-depth review of their lives and career development processes, the early days, the glitches, the determination to succeed in spite of all, the eventual victories and their ongoing journeys. Esther Essiet mentioned she is a social worker and I pondered: ‘what does that even mean?’ Like she read my mind, maybe social workers do??? She followed the brief silence with an elaborate explanation of who social workers are, and what they do. Basically, they help in several ways including providing humanitarian support, counseling and technical assistance to improve systems and procedures and to improve lives, etc. An accomplished social worker at a young age of 28!!! I was thrilled, and so were the young girls and boys present, to learn that Esther already established and is currently leading an organization called “Afterschool Development Center”, where she and her team provide mentoring services to young women with regards to career development. She credited her achievement to her strong desire to succeed, in spite of the deafening gender norms, and to her early exposure as an adolescent, to mentoring programs led by older women in her community. Next was Dr. Nchiewe Elemi Ani, clad in her professional white coat to the admiration of the young girls. She took time to share how she was able to break the ranks and become a medical doctor, defying the societal norms that tend to confine girls and women to some traditional and stereotypical roles. She also mentioned that in spite of being a medical professional, she has been able to strike a great balance between work and family thus reiterating the fact that being a professional does not lessen a woman’s ability to take care of her home and her family. She did this with such luminous lucidity that I felt like becoming a medical doctor there and then.
Other inspiring remarks from the role models deeply resonated with the young audience: “You can achieve anything you want to achieve despite your gender. No one can stop you except yourself’; “Most successful people made it with the help of mentors (trusted adults) who helped to model them”; “Reading and hard work pays greatly, and if you want to be successful, you will need to be focused”
After this came the most remarkable moment- when girls from the various secondary schools shared experiences on how some of the youth and girl-focused interventions and the day’s celebration have impacted their lives. Esther Eteng-Ubi, 15-year-old in Senior Secondary 1, and a beneficiary of the Four Pillars PLUS project in Government Secondary School, Federal Housing Estate Calabar, shared her story:
“When I was 12 years old, I was nearly raped by a hoodlum in my neighborhood. I had been sent on an errand and on the way, I saw him. He called me that he wanted to talk to me. I felt uncomfortable and stopped but then he grabbed my hand and was about to molest me when some passersby saw us and made him release me. That experience got me very scared. I never talked about it but it affected me so much. I became distrustful of everyone including adults. I couldn’t relate freely. I just felt depressed. Then FHI 360 Four Pillars PLUS came to our school and started the mentoring program. I joined and started attending. The more I stayed in the sessions, the more I began to let down my guard, to feel safe and want to speak out. My mentor, Eni Kommomo made us have fun and it is easy to talk with her. Then I began to gain my confidence back. Today, I can stand in public and speak and it all started at the mentoring session. I no longer feel so alone or insecure. I want to thank Four Pillars PLUS project and my mentor because the mentoring program is really helping us girls. Today, I am hearing the successful women also talk about how they had a mentor. So I think mentoring is very important for every girl in our community”
Esther was not the only one who acknowledged the importance of mentoring for young people. Eme Archibong, a 16-year-old in Senior Secondary 1 and a beneficiary of the Four Pillars PLUS project in Government Secondary School Adiabo also acknowledged that:
“I have come to realize that these women here are successful because they had mentors who helped them. I now understand better the role of mentors in my life. I am now beginning to look at my mentor in a different light and will be more committed to the mentoring program”.
“I was inspired to learn about social worker and have decided that is what I want to become in future. This is because I learnt the importance of leaving footprints in other people’s lives. Coming here today has just determined my career path.’’ – Daniel Asuquo-Okon, a 17 year old SS3 student of GSS Adiabo
Though it was girls’ time, some parents insisted they needed to express their joy at the Four Pillars PLUS program and the impact of the day’s event. Here are comments from a parent and a guardian of Four Pillars PLUS mentees:
“I was very impressed with today’s celebration of the girl child. I am beginning to believe that the girl child is indispensable today in the society and so needs the same support and opportunities as boys. We are seeing so much potential in our girls. In fact, I think it is also time that girls should also be included as beneficiaries of their father’s will”. Pastor Icha Samuel, PTA Chairman, Government Secondary School, Federal Housing Estate, Calabar; and father to 2 4PP GSS FHE mentees (Hannah and Simbala Samuel).
“This event was very educative even for us as parents and other people in the community apart from the students. It has opened our eyes to the rights of girls and how they have a right to participate in everything in the society. This is a message I want to share with others, especially because I have seen that at this event, even the Government and community leaders are talking about the importance of girls excelling and being successful. I hope this sort of program continues’’ – Mrs Stella Oyama, guardian to Joy Agbor Odok (4PP mentee at GSS Adiabo)
After the Girls’ Share moment, it dawned on me that girls were actually the VVIP at the event of the day, seeing over 160 people gathered and all discussions centering on girls’ development. I then began to ponder- if girls are this important and if they can actually achieve all that these women have achieved, why then set aside only one day to celebrate the girl-child? With all of the potentials and resilience, a girl is worth a 365-days a year celebration. Celebration in terms of increasing investments in collecting and analyzing girl –focused, girl-relevant and sex disaggregated data that could bring about greater impact in the actualization of the Sustainable Development Goals. Celebration in terms of ensuring that data collated inform decision making to the extent that policies, programs and services effectively respond to the specific needs of the girls and ultimately help to improve school learning outcomes, eradicate teenage pregnancies and child marriage, as well as transactional and intergenerational sex, whilst eliminating school-related gender-based violence and other types of sexual assaults that pose as hurdles to the education and overall development of the girl-child. Celebration in terms of strategic collaborations that help curb waste, as seen in FHI 360 working with various organizations like UNFPA, Planned Parenthood Federation of Nigeria (PPFN), CUSO International, After School Career Development Centre, Development Options, Girls Power Initiative, I-Kapture, Medical Women Association of Cross River State, Plan International, and Society for Peace Study and Practice to make this event a successful example of collaboration. This way, we would indeed look forward to celebrating the girl-child every day of her life.
**The author intends to reflect the viewpoint of a girl child mentee who, through the Four Pillars PLUS program, has realized how important she is, how she has a right to want to be something spectacular in future, and has been empowered to go for what she wants.
**Four Pillars PLUS Project is funded by the GE Foundation