Girls’ Empowerment: As AHI Raises the Bar

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As part of efforts to empower girls in slum communities with vocational skills, Action Health Incorporated (AHI) recently embarked on a two-week intensive livelihood skills and sexual reproductive health training in Ilaje/Bariga communities, writes Ugo Aliogo

“When I was in primary five, my parents asked me to stop schooling because they could no longer afford the fees. I was asked to go and live with my grandmother. She was selling fish in order to make a living. She advised me not to continue school, but to join her in the fish business because according to her, I was not better than the other girls. I refused and told her that I want to start a small confectionery business. Today, I make as much as N4,000 in my confectionery business daily.”

These were the words of Jessy Glory Itonowaji, a teenage girl from Ilaje, a slum community in Lagos State. She was among the 120 girls Out of School Girls (OOSG) from Ilaje/Bariga communities who were recently empowered by Action Health Incorporated (AHI) and given start-up business kits at a ground breaking graduation ceremony in Lagos State.

Tough Conditions
The conditions of girls in slums and Lagos Lagoon communities are not very pleasant, THISDAY learnt. They don’t have access to qualitative education and an opportunity to contribute meaningful to the society. Instead, they are much more concerned with trying to meet the survival needs of their family members on a daily basis. Many sell fishes and other products in order to raise enough money to meet family needs.
In some cases, there could be an offer from an older male to buy off her entire tray of goods in exchange for sex. This offer can be enticing for a girl especially when she remembers that there is a family to feed back home. Also, hunger and tiredness which can arise from walking in the scorching sun can also play a big factor on why she would consent.

In many of these slum communities, girls are seen as breadwinners while their parents or husbands sit idle by waiting for them to provide for the family. This practice is not healthy in the true sense of it, but these girls are not properly empowered with information about their basic fundamental human rights and their standings in the society. Therefore they are constantly on the receiving end of things.

Providing Skills
Recently, AHI organised a two-week intensive livelihood skills and sexual reproductive health programme with the support of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Ilaje/Bariga communities. The project was aimed at improving the activities of OOSG adolescent girls whilst advocating for government and stakeholders’ support for these girls who account for 60 per cent of the 10.5 million children who are out of school in Nigeria.

After the training programme, the girls acquired skills in various areas such as catering, makeup/Gele (headgear) tying, and bead-making. They were also handed start-up business kits worth over N10,000 to begin their businesses. They were registered with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) and a bank account was opened for them in Access Bank Limited.

Change Agents
AHI, in a document, stated that beyond their business skills training, the girls have acquired better understanding of their sexual and reproductive health, adding that they have also become change agents within communities, reaching out to other girls.

AHI in the document noted: “They have reached out to other girls with accurate information on sexual and reproductive health as well as non-prescriptive family planning commodities towards reducing the spread of unwanted pregnancies and Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

“(STI) includes HIV among young people in Lagos state. It is important to note that lack of schooling has implication far beyond access to basic education, and being out of school substantially increases threats to these adolescent girls’ health, pressure to engage in risky sexual relations, pressure to marry early, as well as exposure to exploitative labour conditions.

“Policy makers and the larger society need to be innovative in reaching them, addressing their needs and leveraging the potential of this significant proportion of Nigeria girls because this is of fundamental importance to Nigeria’s development,” it added.

SDGs Linkage
Speaking at the ceremony, the Deputy Country Representative of UNFPA, Koffi Kouame, noted that countries are currently setting in place actions that would ensure that the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
He stated that the ability of the OOSG to fulfill her potential is a major contributor to the attainment of the SDGs and therefore it is critical to the development goal of Nigeria, adding that the ceremony is a call to action for legislators, development partners and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to strive towards ensuring that the OOSGs are empowered with formal or informal education.

Kouame further stated that in Nigeria, over 5 million girls are out of schools, noting that Lagos has been a pacesetter in the promotion of girls’ education and women empowerment, but a significant proportion of these girls are Out-of School.

He said: “The OOSG is one of the vulnerable individuals in our society as they are well accustomed to living in unsafe and insanitary conditions, exposed to gender based violence, coerced sexual encounters or forced marriages, early pregnancy/child bearing and exploitative labour conditions.

“Studies have shown that girls/women who are empowered with income-generating skills as well as knowledge about their Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) have greater awareness of their rights, and freedom to make decisions that affect their lives, improve their own and their children’s health. This in the long-term hastens the demographic transition to lower fertility and morality rates.

“In this regards, UNFP which is the UN lead agency for ensuring that every pregnancy is wanted, every children is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled is committed to ensuring that this vulnerable group of young girls reach their full potential. Therefore, we support the Nigeria government in the development and implementation of programmes that have been able to empower over 5,000 OOSGs across the country.
“These programmes have been successful in transforming the lives of these girls, their families and have gone a long way in improving their communities. I use this opportunity to call on all political office holders, their wives, legislatures and other advocates of social change for a change coordinated sensitisation and awareness across the nation on the social and health implications of empowering the OOSG.”

Lagos Input
The Lagos state Permanent Secretary Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Mrs. Folasade Adesoye, stated that the project by AHI has liberated beneficiaries to some extent, stressing that under-served youths living in communities of social marginalisation are often restricted from a range formal and informal educational experiences that could broaden their horizon.

She expressed the commitment of Governor Akinwumni Ambode to empower women/girls by expanding access to education, increasing economic opportunity and providing critical healthcare to the healthcare to the child, adding that “the goal of government is to lift millions of women, families and the entire communities.”

Adesoye added: “It is sad that despite abundant mineral and human resources, our nation is still rated as one of the poorest in the world. This is partially because women and girls that form significant part of the population have been neglected and ill-trained to contribute substantially to national productivity.

“The Lagos state government through the Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation recently organised a similar initiative. The state trained OOSG in Badia community on vocational skills such as bead stringing, make-up application/tying of head gear, basic sewing and fabric design, soap and pomade production/production.

“Over the years, the state government has established skills acquisition centres in all three senatorial districts of the state which is a policy strategy directed at women empowerment and steps towards creating an enduring legacy and institution on women dignity restoration through vocational training and skill acquisition as a panacea to unemployment in our depressed economy,” she added.