Passion for Girl-child Empowerment

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In a society governed by superstitious beliefs and adherence to age-long traditions which effectively condemn the future of the girl child to the kitchen and childbearing, a voice appears to have arisen in the wilderness to break the unwritten code of silence, reverse the trend and bequeath the girl child her rightful preeminent position in society. In this report, Ugo Aliogo mirrors the activities of Princess Genevieve Ikenchukwu, who narrates in unambiguous terms her own experience and the motivation behind the current efforts by the Queen Grace Foundation to empower the girl-child

“When I was being abused in my marriage, it was difficult for me to speak out until it became physical within a week of being married and this was because people saw the bruises. When I was being called names that nobody called me prior to marriage, it was difficult to tell anybody because I was only a few days married.”

When I heard these words from Princess Genevieve Ikenchukwu, they sent cold shivers right down my spine. The excerpt is also a stark reminder of the harrowing experience she went through in her marriage. Princess, as she is fondly called by her friends, is not alone in this ship. There are other women who are victims of abusive relationships and marriages but are not able to speak, solely because they do not have the right platform or they are holding on to the age-long African tradition that women are only allowed to be seen and not heard.

Despite the changing trends including various policies and treaties to protect and promote the rights of women, the cultural belief of women being relegated to the background is still holding sway. On the flip side, Princess or “Gene”, as she is fondly called by friends and family has been able to summon the courage to challenge the status quo and won a victory over her trials. It is her success in overcoming these old traditional beliefs and practices that have propelled her into establishing the Queen Grace Foundation (QGF) to create a veritable platform to help others who are victims of violence speak out and seek help.

In addition, she explained that her background in the legal profession has also helped to build the legal framework to walk the talk. According to her, “the core mandate of QGF is to promote the welfare of orphans and female victims of violence with a focus on the girl-child. The QGF is an offshoot of the Obi Ikenchukwu Foundation (OIF), established in 2013 and launched in 2015.”

Princess pointed out that, “the focus right now is to split the foundations into two, whereby one arm, the QGF, will focus on the humanitarian aim, the same being the welfare of the vulnerable in the society, i.e orphans and female victims of violence; while the OIF is to focus on the promotion of Arts and Culture. QGF is registered in both the United Kingdom and Nigeria.”

She said both foundations were established in honour of her parents, the late King and Queen of AgborKingdom – QGF in honour of her late mother, HRH Queen Grace Ikenchukwu and the OIF in honour of her late father, HRM. Obi Ikenchukwu I of Agbor Kingdom. She emphasised that the core mandates of both foundations, particularly QGF, go beyond the kingdom of Agbor.

According to her, “originally, my intention was to establish ONE Foundation to honour my late parents which incorporated the two limbs of our aims and objectives and it was called the OIF at the time. However, it became imperative for me to change the name or split the foundation in order for us to be able to function more effectively.

“A major concern for me under the OIF was the somewhat myopic view of our people who found it very difficult to accept that the OIF was a charity with general application. It was always seen as an Agbor thing, hence, it became difficult for me to secure sponsorship/support. Everywhere I went, I was faced with the question – “why is this person not involved? What is this person doing for the OIF? Is so, so and so a part of the OIF”? This went on for years and it became more and more difficult for me to explain why certain prominent Agbor names were not supporting our work just by virtue of its name, i.e being a charity in honour of a Monarch and a First Class Monarch at that.”

She further explained that “following the 2018 launch of ‘our voice… the change’ in Agbor, I knew it was time for a change, hence, the establishment of QGF in London. Another challenge I faced was often being told by my people that I was expecting too much from them. I did (and still) struggle with this notion because I genuinely believed I was doing something that my people would be proud of and willing to support not only financially but morally.

“It is important to note that I do get moral support from some of my friends and family members but key members of the society that are naturally expected to be onboard the charity are showing little or no interest despite its focus on community development. I used to be hurt but with the establishment of QGF, I feel fulfilled and no longer expect but always thankful to those who support and appreciate our work”, she stated.

On what still keeps her going despite the lack of support from prominent people in Agbor, Princess said “The motivation for me is because I grew up as an orphan girl-child. My mother had girls and the kingdom wanted a boy. So, as a young newly married woman and playing such a huge role within a culture that is predominantly in support of primogeniture law, I can only imagine that it must have been a lot of pressure on her as well, trying to please her husband, his people and then his culture all at once. So, the focus for me will always be on the orphan child because I grew up as one and, the education of the girl-child, also because I grew up as one”.

Speaking more on her why her marriage failed and the lessons she learnt, Princess explained that “In relation to the protection of female victims of violence, this sprung from my abusive marriage. I got married into a family I always thought loved and cared for me because they knew me before I met my ex-husband. In fact, his sister introduced me to him and his parents were in full support.
“I particularly loved his father but when he constantly abused me within their home, I was told not to tell anyone but to keep it within the marriage. He called me names I had never been called. He told me things about my parents I never heard of before. He physically abused me and all the while, I had no one to talk to because his parents often told me marriage meant keeping everything within our home”.

She narrated that in a society with a predominant culture of silence, she “suffered in silence until one day, barely a week into the marriage, he beat me so badly, his father and siblings broke down the door and found him on top of me literally strangling me. It was then, they took it seriously and I ran out of the house. I moved in with my aunty who saw the bruises and arranged an initial meeting with his family at their home. A few days later, an emergency family meeting was called at my uncle’s residence in Surulere (Prince Adams Gbenoba).

“Present at this meeting were some of my Agbor uncles and his own family at which his conduct particularly the constant abuse within such a short marriage evident from the bruises on my body was discussed. To say my uncles were shocked would be an understatement. Guess what? He had the backing and support of his parents and siblings regardless and to date, not a single one of them including the one who used to be my best friend and who introduced us ever contacted me to even ask me what happened. They still believe I was wrong and that I deliberately left the marriage because that is what he told them.

“No one has considered it necessary to ask me my version of events. Do you think this would have happened if my parents were alive? Absolutely not. They probably would have precluded me from marrying him in the first instance because they would have been able to identify certain traits and behavioural issues that I failed to notice or understand at the time,” she lamented.

Asking rhetorically: “How do you explain that in less than a week of marriage you are being abused and running for your life? I think that there are so many women subjected to violence within their homes and marriages but choose to remain mute not because they do not have a VOICE but because they are not encouraged to use their voice or to express themselves. In retrospect, I can see that that is what my mother went through. She had a voice that was suppressed by culture. I call it Cultural Violence and it must be stopped”.

“It would probably have been worse in those days because if 20 years ago, I found it difficult to express myself properly except when they saw the bruises on my body, just imagine what it would have been like in my mother’s time in the 60s and 70s. She was happily married until the issue of male child/heir to the throne reared its ugly head (although I understand that the culture needed that for succession purposes). What I do not understand or accept is the need to abuse an innocent girl or indeed any girl/woman just to achieve that goal,” she queried.

According to her, the establishment of QGF, therefore, is “my way of adding a VOICE to that of the victims of violence, both domestic and general, and to honour my mother for her role in the development and growth of her Culture and Community despite her experience. She did all she did because she loved her husband the Monarch and supported his culture even to death. It is also my way of helping WOMEN seek redress, be it legal or moral.”

The Christmas Party

Since the establishment of the OIF in 2015, organising the Christmas party has formed one of its core activities at the close of every year. The party is being organised for participants who are students and pupils drawn from selected schools in Agbor, Delta State.

The Christmas party has become a platform for her to connect physically and emotionally with the school children. It also affords her an opportunity to continue in the traditions of her father (HRM, Obi Ikenchukwu) whom she said often organised parties for his community and people whilst he was alive. “He believed in community spirit and the need to keep everyone together and the way to achieve this was to throw impromptu parties within the Palace grounds to the delight of his subjects”.

“The segment of our annual event known as ‘our voice…the change’ where we organise Christmas party is therapeutic for me. When I mingle with the children and see the delight on their little innocent faces, I feel more connected to my parents, particularly my father, and that makes me very happy. What I get from this is the fulfilment and for it, I am grateful to GOD”.

“So, it no longer matters to me whether or not I am being supported by others. I do not mind putting in my own resources just to make the children happy, expecting nothing from them but the smiles on their faces. That is bliss to me. We have been doing this since the inception of the OIF and I am grateful to God for bringing good friends my way who believe in what we do and support us. I have learned over the years not to expect anything anymore from obvious sources and make do with whatever I have and get from my friends”.

“This has been our story to date. It is my hope that the younger generation will see our action as worthy of emulation and carry on the tradition even when we are no longer around especially girls and women. I am also thankful to God for giving me this opportunity and a platform to be a blessing to others particularly my girls of Agbor Kingdom and beyond,” she enthused.

She said ‘Our voice…the change’ 2019 Christmas party was organised in three selected schools namely, Hedson Primary School, Baptist Girls High School, and Obika Primary School, all in Agbor.

The Proprietress of Hedson Primary School, Mrs. Helen Agholor, who spoke at one of the events, expressed appreciation to Princess for organising the party and providing the funding.

“She has really shown me that she is a good daughter of mine. I have trained many persons who have walked through my hands, but she is wonderful. She is also giving support to other children. She is showing love to the less privileged as an orphan, she is grateful and not sorrowful for being an orphan and I think that is something inspiring. This is not the first time she is doing it. Last year she was here and she organised a party for the children,” Mrs. Agholor noted.

The proprietress affirmed that Princess also awarded scholarships to four pupils from nursery to primary school, adding that her spirit of giving is amazing, “and I think if other people will emulate her kind gesture, many will know that to be an orphan, God is preparing you for something.”

At Hedson Primary School, Ms. Ikenchukwu gave out branded school bags to the pupils and teachers as part of the gifts. She also gave special gifts to the teachers for their hard work in the school and contribution to society at large.

The next stop was Baptist Girls High School where the Princess joined the students for their party. The Principal of Baptist Girls High School, Mrs. Stella SamKennedy, said a student is on scholarship through the efforts of Princess Genevieve’s Foundation, adding that this is the first time she is experiencing anything like this where a Princess will come to present gifts and celebrate the annual cantata with the students and teachers.

She also noted that the foundation focuses on taking care of orphans and in that light, Princess has requested another orphan to be selected to benefit from the foundation’s scholarship scheme for girls. She pointed out that the student that is already on scholarship started from SS1 and is improving by the day.

Mrs. SamKennedy added that: “but for the new student she said she wants a student from JSS1 and the student must be from Aliahme, Agbor being her late mother’s village. I have sent out a search in the village square to look for an orphan that there is a scholarship awaiting such a child. What she is doing today is wonderful. This shows that she knows and loves Jesus Christ and that she is humane. It is really wonderful. The gesture she has displayed today is an indication of excellence. It will also challenge the students to work harder to be like her.”

Empowering the Girl-Child

Speaking on her focus on empowerment, Princess Genevieve explained that empowering the girl-child educationally is one aspect of the aims of the QGF whilst the promotion of Art and Culture is now solely under the premise of the OIF which makes it easier to manage each Foundation.

According to her, it would be misleading to assert that only the girl child can be empowered. “I think all children irrespective of gender can and should be empowered especially, orphans. The orphan child must be made to feel the same as any other child. They must not be discriminated against in any way or form. This is what we stand for at QGF”.

According to her, “there is also the empowerment of females particularly victims of domestic violence. Everything I have said is directly related to what I have been through as an orphan child and a survivor of domestic violence. The irony however is that as the child of a First Class Monarch in Nigeria, one would not expect me to face such challenges”, she said with a smile.

“This is why I am passionate about what I do. To me, if someone of my background can go through what I went through, how much more other kids, orphans, and girls of no significant background? To me, such children should be a priority in the scheme of things in our public life but are they really? Does the government care and do the so-called prominent members of our society truly care for these children and girls? In the scheme of things also, the orphan girl-child should always be given priority for obvious reasons one being that she is more susceptible to abuse and more vulnerable.

“The girl-child in Baptist Girls High School which our foundation is sponsoring is benefitting from one of our schemes called #Off the Street into the Classroom#. The scheme focuses on a girl-child who is hawking in the street as opposed to being in the classroom. The motivation for that is the death of a girl known as Sarah Ibikunle in March of 2015 in the Lekki region of Lagos State.

“Sarah Ibikunle was killed whilst hawking smoked fish to assist her mother in saving up money for her school fees. She wanted to be a lawyer. She was only 13 years old and guess what? She was in primary two going on to three when she died – at the age of 13. This is because she was determined to study for a better future for herself and her family. Little did she know this dream was going to end up on the street of one of Lagos’ prestigious environments where she had been hit by a stray bullet fired by armed robbers.

“This is why I encouraged the heads of both schools to look out for girls who should be in school but hawking. We cannot pretend that this menace does not exist because it does and stares us in the face on a daily basis. Whilst I accept that we cannot help everybody mainly because we have very limited support, we can at least help one girl child at a time and that way, clean our street of child street hawking. When we operated solely as the OIF, there was a misconception that we were getting support from everywhere and certain individuals from Agbor including the Delta State Government. For the record, this is not true. Consequently, we now limit ourselves to our resources”, she clarified.

According to her, “We know that there are many children that need to be helped, but we cannot go beyond the limit of our resources. So, little by little, we pick a girl child one at a time and focus on ensuring that she gets the best for her welfare and education. If we can get a girl off the street yearly, that would be fantastic because that way, our community, and state benefit from our actions. Priority will always be given to Agbor for obvious reasons.”

The final stop was at the Obika Primary School in Agbor a public school now adopted by the Foundations. She explained that “We are working with the school for purposes of community development. It is necessary to point out that our focus at the OIF and QGF is Rural Community Development beginning with Agbor, Delta State, and the children of the region.”

CO-GIVE20 Response to COVID-19

Speaking on the foundation’s COVID-19 intervention, Princess said “Following our visit to Agbor in 2019, we adopted two of the schools we visited – Baptist Girls High School and the Obika Primary School. Both are public schools in rural communities in Agbor. Due to funding and minimal support, we have decided to prioritise our task and chosen to focus on the Obika Primary School for this year because the school lacks basic facilities and clearly looks abandoned. which is a shame.

“Let me brief you on this once great school. The Obika Primary School is one of the oldest primary schools in that region and is over 50 years old. It is a public school that caters strictly to the educational needs of indigents parents and their children. This is because it is affordable as most indigents parents cannot afford private schools. Attending the school at our last annual seminar drew our attention to the sad reality that the school has existed for so long without the use of toilets.

“When asked where the children use as toilets, we were taken to a dilapidated building and the surrounding bush. This heartbreaking reality is the purpose of this project, which is, to construct a block of toilets and drill a borehole for the school, to better the learning experience of our children in this school and most importantly, to provide a safe, sanitary and conducive learning environment for the children who attend this school.

“Having recently re-visited the school premises, I can confirm that the building of the toilets and drilling of a borehole is only the first phase of works required to put this school into an acceptable standard for learning. The current state of the school is an abuse of the basic civil rights of children in general and particularly those of rural community heritage. No child should be exposed to such treatment. Based on our work plan, we intend to commence the construction on-site by end of September and complete the same before or by October ahead of our annual event ‘Our Voice… The Change’ in December, 2020.

“I am sadly often reminded of the fact that we have never received support from obvious sources which I have now come to accept but what I hope would happen on this occasion is that the Delta State Governor, His Excellency, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, will honour our invitation to attend the commissioning of the structures later this year for the sole reason that what we are doing is addressing a fundamental issue in the state which is really a responsibility and function of the State Government. It would also be nice for the First Lady, Dame Edith Okowa, to do the same being a woman and a mother, after all these are the number one citizens of our state”, she implored.