On the sidelines of a family planning programme held in Abuja, Nigeria recently, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative in Ghana, Mr. Niyi Ojuolape shared some insights with Abimbola Akosile on gender equity, among other vital development issues; as the world marks the International Women Day today. Excerpts:
Can you tell us briefly about yourself? Who is Mr. Niyi Ojuolape?
Mr. Niyi Ojuolape is a development worker; he used to work in Nigeria with the AIDS control agency, National Agency for Control of AIDS (NACA) and thereafter the Federal Ministry of Health in different capacities, and now working with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) also in a different capacity between 2011 and a couple of months ago. He is the UNFPA Representative in Ghana.
What brought you to Nigeria particularly this time around?
I came to Nigeria as part of a mission of what we call Family Planning 2020 Reference Group meeting. The meeting takes place once in a year. Last time it was held in Tanzania under the joint leadership of the UNFPA and Bill Gates Foundation, and this time around the meeting was held in Nigeria. It looks at the FP 2020 as we call it; it looks after the issue of family planning in the entire globe and what we do basically is to ensure that everything about family planning, the services the commodities reach more people than it presently does.
There was an initiative concerning family planning in Nigeria that was recently launched in Abuja, called the Green Dot initiative. Can you tell us a little about it?
Well, it is basically against the background of the fact that in country we have quite a number of challenges with family planning. In order to ensure that family planning gets to everybody that needs it, there are a number of things that needs to be done. Number one, we need to advocate with those who need it, with the gatekeepers of those who need it so that they can be allowed to access it. Number two, there are commodities and services that are required need to be bought with resources; so resources are the second part. Then the third major one is the one that we call, getting it to the last man. It has to do with the supply chains management of getting family planning services or commodities, for example, either from wherever it is manufactured to the ports of the country and all the way to the place where it is required so that the user gets it. The new initiative that you have just talked about is a situation whereby we have it in this particular place so all the problems associated with getting family planning services to the place where it has to be accessed would have been eliminated or would have been overcome so we have that in that place. So whatever you need in terms of family planning services we want everybody to know that we are going to be providing family planning services in particular places and it’s to make it as open as possible, to make it as accessible as possible, and if you may call it, to make it as anonymous as possible because there are some people who have issues with accessing family planning services openly.
Apart from the new initiative, what of the cultural and religious challenges associated with family planning…how do you intend to find your way around it?
All it requires is actually education because there are people who are very well-intentioned people and the challenges that we have with religious leaders and traditional rulers for example is borne out of the genuine interest of the leaders for the people and it is borne out of the good culture that we have and it is borne out of the good religions that we have. But then there are certain misconceptions about family planning which we need to bring to their attention. It has to do at times with messaging and also it has to do with putting it in the appropriate context so that they understand what it is. So it is a question of communication, getting across to those gatekeepers that you have mentioned so that they understand what it is all about. And it will correct the earlier misconception about birth control or population control. We don’t seek to control the population of any country; what we seek is for anybody that will be born to planet earth for us to have enough resources to take that individual, to take that child all the way to the point of maturity without the problem of poverty, without the problem of malnutrition or every problem that is associated with poverty in the lifespan of an individual.
UNFPA places a lot of emphasis on women, on children and on youths, why so, like as if men are being left out of the equation or what?
Well, within the UN system; the UN system is a development community that tries to look after the entire essence of a being. And we have found out that over time, this is that we have scientific data and credible evidence which indicate that women experience some injustices. For example, there are scientific evidence that shows that if a woman does a quantum of a particular work vis-a-vis a man, the man gets paid more. A woman that goes to school has the same level of education or is even more brilliant than an individual in class. We have found out that even in developed countries, or in so-called developed countries we have found out that the attrition rate of women in the business world, in leadership, in the corporate world, the attrition rate is more than that of men, while there are certain systemic issues that we have in the society which puts down women, which prevent women from enjoying what they should have, which brings us to the issue of gender equality. For UNFPA as an organisation, one of the major goals that we have, the major mandate that UNFPA has is to try as much as possible to ensure gender equity to get real development, so that a man is putting x amount into a particular place, a woman is putting x amount they get the same or to ensure that a woman is not collectively discriminated against just because she is a woman. So, our goal is to make sure that women get their own fair share and very importantly, there is a part of the show that even if you want to help a man that the man is not involved in, which is the issue of maternal health. A man does not get pregnant; it is only women that are uniquely put together by God to be able to get pregnant. So, from the moment of conception all the way to the moment of delivery and birth, it is only a woman that can experience it and we need to look at all that continuum, to make sure that the pregnancy is safe and that the child is delivered safely without any complication. So we felt there is no way to look after men in this scenario, except to get the men to look after the women.
In 2015, I remember Professor Osotimehin (now late) told me something in New York; he said inequality is a global challenge and is very key among the sustainable development goals (SDGs). From that time till now from your own perspective, do you think there has been an improvement in the inequality gap, income, social inequality around the globe and wherever you have worked as a development worker?
Yes, because if we say nothing has happened, then it means all the efforts that have been put into this is not achieving anything at all. Because the issues of gender equality and the empowerment of women have been on the front burner of the global development agenda for a while, and work, a lot of work has been put into this, a lot of resources have been put into this. Even from that standpoint alone, I can say that things are getting better, or even if it is to look at it from the standpoint of things are not getting worse, that is something. Particularly, between 2015 and now, I cannot really say I have some credible or scientific data or evidence to prove it but I know there are studies that are already going on. We need to prove it in the course of time. But from what I can see for example in the UNFPA which I work, I can see from the work that we do, I can tell you that things are getting better. In some countries for example, part of the gender agenda is to ensure that women are more involved in politics and that they hold more political power. We have seen it plain in Rwanda for example where about two-thirds of their legislators are women compared to the men. In the same manner across the globe, we can see increase in the participation of women in politics and we can take that back to other issues of poverty, other issues of development and we see that the lots of women are getting better. But we see that we can still look forward to having better results from what is being done now.
The issue of cross-country migration and the issue of the youths of Africa migrating to Europe has always been an issue and UNFPA has tried to beam its searchlight on this especially in the West African region, what do you think can be done to really discourage the youths from heading for so-called greener pastures?
If you look at it in a simplistic manner you want to look at it and say that it is an issue of employment and if you look at it further down, if you drill down a bit more, it is an issue that is resultant from poverty. Because if you have employment, the fact that you don’t have employment does not mean that you should migrate. It’s not every country where people are unemployed that they migrate. We know that it is the issue of poverty when people are not assured of what to eat, or shelter or what to put on their backs in terms of clothes. When people are not assured of what they can get, they try to get it in another way and if you watch TV, you see all sorts of things and the way things are in Europe. That is why people want to migrate, so there is an underlying issue of poverty that has caused it; not just poverty in normal times, not just poverty in calm times, also poverty in harmful places, for example in humanitarian situations naturally you see poverty in the effects of war and the denial that comes to people as a result of lack of this and that. But when this happens in humanitarian circumstances, it would make people want to depart from the theatre of war to the place where you are sure of basic needs and where they can pursue life to the fullest.
What lessons are you taking from your development work and experience in Nigeria and in New York to your new assignment in Accra, Ghana?
Well, if you look at it with every sense of modesty, I have had a lot of experience working on the ground, on the field in Nigeria and also at the international sector, on the international level, at the global level, I have been fortunate; it has actually been a privilege because I worked on the field. In the course of my work, I have been to visit all the 36 states of this federation of Nigeria, and Abuja. I’ve been to everywhere working doing one thing or the other. So I can see what is happening here in Nigeria and also I can see replication of it at the global level and as a matter of fact, I can tell you with every sense of responsibility that the complexity that you see in Nigeria, the diversity that is available in Nigeria here in terms of education, in terms of health, in terms of basic issues such as infrastructure and what have you, that diversity is also the same diversity that exists in the whole wide world. So in my work in the headquarters of UNFPA at the global level I have been able to see the picture of what things are in different parts of the world and I can also draw a parallel in terms of what I can see in various parts of Nigeria. Now, the experience that we have national here in Nigeria and also at the global level, I’m going to bring it to bear in my work in Ghana and I can tell you that I have only spent some time in Ghana and with every sense of modesty we have been having rave reviews because of the fortune that we have and the fact that people in Ghana are welcoming and I know the culture because we have close culture between Nigeria and Ghana. I understand the system in a way so I can actually say that I am the type that has hit the ground running. So there is not really much to start learning because of where I am coming from.
You were fortunate enough to work closely with late Prof. Osotimehin, what lessons did you garner from him to help you in the course of your own development work?
In fact it is a difficult thing for me to describe him as late because more or less I see him every day in all that I do. In trying to answer your question, in terms of speaking to anybody, or to speak with my staff or to plan anything, I see Prof. and I see myself trying to imitate him because I worked with him for 15 years, so for me he is actually immortal. I can always take things from me all the time. He has an antidote for everything; there is no situation that I have faced since he passed that I don’t have an example of this was what happened and this was what Prof. did. So, I am not bereft of any solution because it’s like he is always there by me, to say ‘you remember how we did it in this particular place; that is what we are doing at this particular time now’. So I get that from Prof; Prof has always been in me and I enjoyed working with him. I gained a lot of expertise, experience and the hands-on experience for me. And let me tell you in specifics, I can tell you the virtues I learnt from him; the virtues of patience, not just patience but what I would call long-suffering. I noticed it very much in Prof. and I have learnt a lot from him. There is also the issue of hard work; Prof. worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week; every day he was doing the work. And it is also as a result of the passion he had for the agenda of looking after the young people, looking after women, looking after the adolescent girls as we used to say. He had the real passion for the work and that was what drove him all the time. There is also the virtue of integrity.