Rachel’s Rhapsody

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Emmanuel Addeh who witnessed the inspiring meeting between thousands of girls from schools in Bayelsa and the wife of the state governor, reports that it was an opportunity for the students to learn directly from a woman who it seems bears their burden

Since giving birth to a set of quadruplets over a year ago, wife of the Bayelsa State governor, Dr. Rachel Dickson, seemed to have slowed down to take care of the home front.

But last week, the university lecturer took time out to have what seemed like a ‘girl-to-girl’ talk with an all-female gathering of students selected from secondary schools in the state.

The hall at the Saint Jude’s was filled to the brim, as the students of St. Jude’s Secondary School, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, waited for their guest, who had at the time gone to speak with thousands of women gathered at the Peace Park in celebration of Women’s Day.

But with her arrival, the hall exploded in tumultuous euphoria, literally bustling back to life. She wasn’t alone. She had in her entourage senior government officials as well as a team from the Commonwealth Women in Parliament in Africa, an association of women lawmakers in the continent.

Aside Lindiwe Maseko, Chairperson, Executive Committee of the CWP (Africa Region) and Angela Didisa, who led their own teams to the event, the Secretary to the State Government, Kemela Okara; Commissioner for Education, Jonathan Obuebite and his Information and Orientation counterpart, Daniel Iworiso-Markson, lawmakers and other top government functionaries were also on hand to inspire the youngsters.

Then it was time to settle down for the business of the day which essentially bordered on issues that affect the girl-child in Nigeria and in Bayelsa in particular, having earlier savoured the special drama and assorted dances by the obviously elated students.

Obuebite, the Education Commissioner, who gave the welcome address recalled the decrepit state of schools in the state before the Governor Seriake Dickson administration came on board.

“This unique citadel of learning is one of the model schools here. Before the governor came in 2012, there was nothing like boarding schools. On the day he was inaugurated, the governor declared a state of emergency in the sector.

“That kick-started the silent revolution. Before now, Bayelsa was 27, 28 in all national examinations, talk of WAEC and NECO. Today, Bayelsa is 5th in WAEC and 3rd in NECO. Because someone had a vision which snowballed into a mission statement and is now driving the process,” he said.

He added that the likes of St. Jude’s Secondary School, were now scattered all over the local governments.

“We have these kind of schools everywhere. We have 25 constituencies boarding schools that have been built and more than 7,000 boarding students in our schools. Books are provided free for them. Uniforms are provided for them, even school bags, food is free and you can only find this in Bayelsa State.

“That is why the governor is Mr. Education. Last week, he got the award for Best Education Friendly Governor in Nigeria. Her Excellency (Mrs. Dickson) is the chief advocate of girl-child education. Today, our women have the best opportunities and they have the pride of place,” he noted.

Describing the event as historical, Obuebite said that the children would never forget it, stressing that it will remain indelible in their memories forever.

Continuing in the same line, Principal of the school, Celia Ayinaitari, said the school had become a farmland before Governor Dickson’s intervention.

“We know how this school was. I came back as a classroom teacher after attending this school. My principal in my days is here and she can testify to that. Whatever you see here is done by the governor. The school has been expanded, whereas this school was just a farmland.

“He is not thinking of himself, he is thinking of the poor. The students here were drawn from the villages. The children you see here take three square meals. I cannot mention many of the things. What the students just come with is a bucket, the one you can afford. You can see that this school looks like a university,” she noted.

She eulogised the school for its exploits in academics and basketball, having been national champions several times, revealing that “we plant the seeds from when they come in.”

Governor Dickson’s wife subsequently presided over a panel, where issues affecting the girl-child were discussed, with Miss Mabel Obiriki, a Bayelsa scholarship beneficiary and female first-class graduate of the Lincoln University, United States of America as moderator.

Many of the students also had an opportunity to ask various questions on the topic themed, ‘Girl-Child Education: A Panacea for a Stable Society’, bordering on early child marriage, rape, women in politics and combining the job of a mother and coordinator of the house as against being a professional in any given field.

“There’s much difference between then and now. Before now, many women did not have a voice. The cultural practices did not also help. When your family says it’s time to marry, you must go.

“Now, there are organisations fighting for the rights of women and you have a government that cares for the girl-child. Here in Bayelsa, we give girls a pride of place, so there is no reason for any parent to say they won’t send their children to school.

“In the past six years we have gone round the state enlightening them that the girl-child has as much rights as their boy counterparts,” she assured.

The First Lady told the young girls that as coordinators of the home front, they must be virtuous women who have the fear of God and put family first.

“The woman is the gateman. It is you that influence what comes into your family or what goes out,” she said.

She argued that though women now have a voice, they still need to “build confidence and say we can do it.”

“We are not there yet, but we are trying. In any case, the men are our fathers, brothers, uncles. We are their mothers, sisters, aunties. And the benefit is for all of us. But we dream of a country where a woman will be President one day,” she said.

According to her, “there is no rule that says only the boy child can fly the flag of the family.”

To the girls, she advised: “Have the best of education. Do all you can do. Every girl should have confidence in what they do, whatever profession. Make sure you excel. You will be celebrated like your brothers.

“We stand together shoulder to shoulder to tackle issues that militate against the girl-child and to ensure that at the end of the day, our daughters are celebrated,” she added.

She told the girls to be bold to approach the authorities when issues of rape and other assaults happen to them, saying that the office of public prosecutions in Bayelsa was capable of taking care of rape victims.

The governor’s wife spoke vehemently against negotiating assault on children and girls out-of-court, maintaining that it will only embolden rapists to continue to harm the girl-child.

“Let me tell fathers and mothers, once your child is violated, it is no longer cultural. Somebody has broken the law, let him or her face the consequences. Don’t allow yourself to be settled. Once you are settled, you are given a token, that culprit will violate another girl. Let him face the law,” she warned.

On street hawking, she explained that there are already legislations. “Every parent that makes their son or daughter to be working while their mates are in school will not go scot-free,” she said.

Maseko, chairperson of the CWP, in her submission on prostitution, argued that though it was not ideal, safer sex must be encouraged among them.

“It is also important to legislate on prostitution or encourage safer sex. Let us put safety measures to ensure they don’t contract diseases based on the what they do,” she advised.

Stressing that parents are now more enlightened than during her days, she narrated how she was beaten up by her parents when she had her menstrual period for the first time, because they said she had started mingling with boys.

Also, Didisa, a former Agriculture Minister in South Africa, advised women to take more responsibility for their lives, advising the students to shelve temporary enjoyment for long-lasting values.

“Women should take responsibility for their lives, doing right and learning from those born before them. Make sacrifices because easy come easy go. Sacrifice fun, going to club, having a boyfriend for the good of your future. Those things can wait,” she said.

She added: “As Deputy Minister of Agriculture, I was 29 years old, the youngest in cabinet. I could go to clubs. But I told myself, whatever I do will mirror what the young people of South Africa can do.

“If I failed as a minister and member of parliament, I would have failed the women of South Africa. Society will say, can women ever be trusted with such positions? People will judge Bayelsa and Nigeria by what they see in you,” she told the gathering.

She urged boys to stand up and fight for the girls. “They must say this must not be done in our name. Mothers and fathers must teach the boy-child to protect their sisters, even if they are not biologically related. Don’t stand and look when a child is violated,” she said.

In her remarks, Mrs. Ebiowou Koku-Obiyai, a former lawmaker and former Chairman, Nigeria Labour Congress, Bayelsa State, said the government had domesticated the child rights law in the state.

“We have domesticated the child rights law in the state. It was domesticated last year, and in that law, there are a lot of things it has captured. Hawking and rape are part of it. Rape has become a problem in the society because most times when our children are raped, people do not want to talk about it because of stigmatisation.

“People will hide, family members will hide. We have a law that can protect them and that is the Child Right Law. We have various organisations to assist them.

“The duties of these organisations, are to track some of these vices against our children being the girl-child or boy-child. I also know that boys are being raped. All of them should be protected.

“Parents should be bold to report; we have not been making formal report and that is bad. This is so because once a girl is raped, you have destroyed the future of that child because the child will be withdrawn in life, some of them may even be afraid of getting married.

“I want to use this opportunity to tell our parents, our brothers and sisters that whenever they hear anybody that is raped, they should speak out and the law is there to protect them,” Koku-Obiyai said.

She added: “Don’t be intimidated. Be bold. Do whatever you are given and do it well. Girls are not weak, do what you are supposed to do. Don’t allow anyone tell you girls are weak.”