Driving Gender Equality, Women Empowerment in Ondo

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James Sowole reports that the wife of Ondo State Governor, Mrs Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, is driving gender equality and women empowerment through one of her pet projects, Forum for Wives of Ondo State Officials and Female Political Appointees

When Mrs Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, wife of Ondo State Governor, Mr Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, on December 7, 2017, launched the Forum for Wives Of Ondo State Officials and Female Political Appointees (FOWOSO), not many envisaged the impact the pet project would have on thousands of women in the state, and the multiplier effect on the development of the general population in the state.

The reason for their inability to conceive of the gains of the project might be due to the erroneous notion of the majority of people in the society that equates gains of any programme to the amount of direct financial and material benefits of such programme, which is due to ugly experiences on similar projects in the past.

However, two years down the line, FOWOSO has been able to reach out to no less than 1,800 women in the 18 local government areas of the state. To the initiator of FOWOSO, the benefits of the project are more than the immediate financial reward that many people are looking for because, acquiring knowledge in form of skill empowerment for women, enlightenment on how women can take good care of their health and that of their children, mobilising women towards increased political participation and their ability to stand against any oppressive and discriminatory behaviour, can be more beneficial in both long and short term, than temporal financial reward.

That being said, two years down the line, FOWOSO reached out to no less than 1,800 women in the 18 local government areas of the state, imparted life changing and empowerment skills such as shoemaking, fashion design, makeover, tying of headgear (gele), bead making, and catering craft, among other numerous skills acquisition programmes.

Having that in mind, Anyanwu-Akeredolu therefore stood tall at the International Culture and Event Centre (The Dome), Akure, when she read out to guests that witnessed the second FOWOSO SUMMIT 2019 some achievements of the organisation in just over two years, and backed by highly believable testimonies of an army of FOWOSO beneficiaries.

The summit with the theme “Prioritising Women’s Health & Well Being In Nigeria” attracted women from across the state, delegation from Lagos, Ogun, Osun and Ekiti states, with the Chairman of Nigeria Board of Technical Education and former Ekiti State Deputy Governor, Prof Modupe Adelabu, chairing the event, which also featured expert presentations.

In her keynote speech, Anyanwu-Akeredolu said she is passionate about issues affecting womenfolk and was encouraged to do more each time she sees the impact of the project – including her other girl-child projects – on beneficiaries in the last two years.

“It’s two years and we are proud! We are proud of the thousands of women that can now support their homes financially; proud of the thousands of women that can now boldly speak for social justice; and proud of the thousands of women that have been empowered by FOWOSO”, she said.

Referring to beneficiaries of her pet project as FOWOSO Army, Mrs Anyanwu-Akeredolu said the army won’t relent until it sees women everywhere being treated with as much respect as their male counterparts. “We are aware that the journey to gender inclusiveness in all aspects of the socio-economic spectrum is still miles ahead”, she noted.

Motivated by the desire for equal input in a society’s development, regardless of gender, she said no one benefits when the abilities of women are suppressed through denial of quality education, marrying them off against their will, and silencing them from speaking.

According to her, “the stats are clear, nations that have risen to become world economic giants today, are nations that invested significantly in their human resources, females and males alike, without bias.”

One of the underlying ideologies of FOWOSO is that everyone must be allowed to express themselves without preference to any particular gender. The pet project continues to fight the belief that development can happen when women are restricted to kitchen duties, child rearing, and a complete dependence on their husbands for their every need.

Anyanwu-Akeredolu thinks that a high dependency ratio automatically results in stalled development for any country, an issue she’s dedicated her life to fighting, not because she loves the female folk more, but because she seeks the growth and advancement of all of humanity as a whole.

According to her, the result has been astonishing for the group. “I am very delighted to know that I have infected every FOWOSO member with this positive virus that strives for gender equality in every aspect of our socio-economic spectrum.”

However, for the country, relegating the women folk to the lowest rung of the societal ladder has not brought about progress. Lamenting the disturbing results of discriminatory behavior against women, she decried the situation where every day, 102 women die as a result of childbirth, while about 2,123 children’s dream to celebrate their fifth birthday is crushed by death, saying, “our greatest error as a nation has been and continues to be denying the womenfolk equal right to socio-economic privileges by upholding cultural norms and traditions that discriminate against them”.

Anyanwu-Akeredolu said these challenges are a result of discriminatory cultural norms and practices against women, leading to their inability to make health promoting decisions in the household.

“Countless women have lost their lives to various kinds of diseases, including breast cancer, because they cannot seek healthcare if their husbands don’t give them the go ahead. This is totally unacceptable and has to change,” she said.

The FOWOSO Army has conducted local government outreaches across the 18 Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Ondo State, with implementation template divided into skill acquisition, empowerment and medical interventions.

Through skill acquisition, FOWOSO has trained at least 1800 women (an average of 100 women per LGA) on ready-to-use skills with high economic value such as shoe-making, fashion design, make-up, soap making, bags and bead making, catering and confectionery and many more.

All the graduates from the FOWOSO skills acquisition class received start-up kits which enabled them to immediately begin to earn money from their newly acquired skills. One of such testimonials is a graduate from a shoe making class, Olori Lizzy Akinlosotu, fondly called Mama Gucci, who has been exceptional with her designs and has gone ahead to organise her own step-down training in her community. On this, Anyanwu-Akeredolu said she’s positive there are many more Mama Gucci’s spread across the state waiting to be discovered.

Besides the skill acquisition, FOWOSO has also impacted the lives of women through the provision of empowerment items to improve the productivity of local businesses. Not less than 1000 items were distributed to women and youth across the state between January and December 2018 courtesy of FOWOSO. Some of the empowerment items include sewing machines, grinding machines, hair dryers and laptops, and more.

As expected, preliminary results from the FOWOSO Army monitoring and evaluation exercise have revealed that some of these beneficiaries have been able to make enough money to purchase more items and further expand their businesses.

The FOWOSO outreach template also includes a medical intervention to cater for the health needs of women and children in hard-to-reach areas of the state. FOWOSO also teaches the women to become breast aware and train them on how to conduct breast self-examination in a bid to reduce maternal mortality linked to breast cancer in Ondo State.

Another advocacy being championed by FOWOSO is the fight against rape in Ondo. In July 2019, FOWOSO successfully made a strong stand against rape by organising a “walk against rape” to address the increased incidence of rape in the state, some of which were even perpetuated by men in uniform.

“We could not fold our hands and watch our young girls being raped by unscrupulous elements; hence we came out simultaneously across the 18 LGAs of Ondo State with one voice to demand an end to rape in Ondo State.”

Mrs Anyanwu-Akeredolu said the FOWOSO Army’s efforts have not been in vain, as more people are now aware that Arabinrin has zero tolerance to violence against women.

As an all encompassing project that covers many aspects of family lives, organisers of the 2019 FOWOSO Summit introduced a family game to reveal the level of participation of the male folks in raising a child in the early stage of their life. The final of the game known as ‘Crawler Game’ involving a husband, his wife and a crawling child, took place at the Ondo State Cultural Centre, Adegbemile, Akure. The finalists from the local governments’ competition competed, with three winners going home with cash gifts.

Mrs Anyanwu-Akeredolu said the game revealed a disturbing issue she’s always suspected but never had the facts to prove – the idea that men show less concern in the upbringing of their kids. As one of the activities for the 2019 summit, FOWOSO included the Crawler Game, requiring the participation of the father, mother and their toddler. The family game is aimed at strengthening the bond between both parents and their kids.

In preparation for the event, the FOWOSO team went to all the local governments in the state to select families that will participate in the crawlers’ game during the FOWOSO summit. Mrs Anyanwu-Akeredolu said their visit to the local governments uncovered a sad truth, “that most men are unconcerned in the care and development of their children”,

According to her, “from the reports, I learned that there was a lack of bonding between parents, especially in situations where both parents showed up for the competition. In most cases there were no fathers and in cases where the fathers made themselves available, they cared very little. You will begin to realise that the problem of this country is fundamental. Little did I know that this crawlers’ competition would open up the dysfunctional state of families and lack of love and affection within the fabrics of the Nigerian society.”

The solution? Mrs Anyanwu-Akeredolu believes it takes two to tango. “Men must respect and love their wives, and show their children that everyone has a role to play in the development of the home and the society. The pursuit of gender equality is definitely daunting, many rocks of stereotypes are particularly exerting, but when more men join us, we are further strengthened to prevail quickly. But whatever the case, we shall prevail”.

In his remark, Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, while commending his wife’s vision, described as phenomenal the achievements of the FOWOSO pet project in just two years. “The way Betty has been doing her programme is quite different from the usual.” Akeredolu said his administration appreciates the importance of the role of women, which has informed its initiation of many women and children friendly policies. He cited the Abiyamo Maternal and Child Health Insurance Scheme, in which pregnant women and children under five years of age will no longer pay for services at the point of service once they have been covered under Contributory Health Insurance Scheme.

The grand finale of the summit, which was held at the House of Assembly Arcade, was more colourful and entertaining as women gathered in their hundreds from all local governments across the state, including other women interest groups. The grand finale featured a parade by women from all councils; cooking competition; couple dressing competition; old people’s dance competition; and a raffle draw, where people went home with gifts such as sewing machines, gas cylinders, grinding machine, big waste baskets, among other prizes.

In his remark, Royal Father of the day and Chairman of Ondo State Council of Obas, Oba Fredrick Akinruntan, the Olugbo of Ugbo, Ilaje Local Government, said the FOWOSO pet project was an indication of Mrs Anyanwu-Akeredolu’s love for the people.