As Soroptimist International Nigeria, a global organisation working to transform the lives of women and girls, early this week joined the world to mark the International Day of the Girl Child, an international observance day declared by the United Nations, the National President of Soroptimist International Nigeria, Mrs. Bose Adesite Milan-Jack speaks on her achievements so far and how her organisation has been spearheading issues concerning the girl-child and women in general.
Mary Nnah brings excerpts
How has the journey been like spearheading the activities of this noble organisation in Nigeria?
It’s been a very interesting time in my life. It is a very demanding position but it is also very exciting and interesting because you have the opportunity to work with women of different age groups and you are focused on one thing, which is the education and empowerment of women.
I became the president of this noble organisation in 2018 and my tenure comes to an end very soon, perhaps in the next two months. Soroptimist International has been in Nigeria for the past 56 years. We are the oldest and largest NGO for women in the world. We will be 100 next year. The organisation was established in Oakland, California in 1921. Soroptimist International is our umbrella body and has five federations under it: SI of the Americas, SI of Europe, SI of Southwest Pacific, SI Great Britain and Ireland and newly born SI of Africa. SI Nigeria association is under SI Africa.
Soroptimist International is interested in what they called the “3E” – to Educate, Enable and Empower women and the girl-child and for the past two years, I have managed 20 clubs with the 21st club just chartered in Makurdi on October 10, 2020. And this new club is the first club that the Soroptimist International African Federation would be chartering. We had a new federation this year.
And of course, we want to revive our old clubs in Jos, Ibadan and Kaduna, so we are in the process of doing that.
Our oldest members are in their 90s and then of course we have women who are also in their 30s and a few in their 20s. But the interesting thing is that age doesn’t count in what we do. We are interested in health for women, water, human rights the environment, gender equality, food security, conflict resolution, sanitation, education and we also say in a very emphatic manner, no to violence against women.
So we are committed to the fight against rape and any form of gender – based violence, including domestic violence. We have zero tolerance for these kinds of things. Like I said earlier on, the journey has been exciting and interesting. We work closely with the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs. We thank the ministry for her support.
I’m particularly excited at this time because we are doing a compendium of women achievers and we discovered that most of the women who are first in their various professions are members of Soroptimist International Nigeria.
We are the first group who have asked, “Why not a woman?” And we started asking this question since 1964 when we put together our first club, Soroptimist International Lagos. After the Lagos club, we had Soroptimist International Eko and then the other clubs started coming up. So, it is just to make sure that we transform the lives of women. We are in over 133 countries – women coming together to assist the women.
For the past 68 years, we have been working closely together. Soroptimist International is Category A consultant with the United Nations. Soroptimist International and UN are like Siamese twins. What this means is that every UN Day, we mark it here with a project.
We own schools too like Soroptimist International School, Apapa and Soroptimist International, Surulere. We are also maintaining the braille we built at University of Lagos, Akoka. We are very focused on cancer and so we mark all the cancer awareness months and also do breasts screening for the women. We have a history of sponsoring surgery for market women who we detected early stage cancer. We donated a mammogram machine at LUTH and for us; to prevent cancer is something we are very focused on. Also, we have adopted two hospitals: Mercy Children’s Hospital and Island Maternity where we go from time to time to know the needs of the people; the management and we try as much as possible to contribute to the wellbeing of patients and staff of the hospitals. This year we inducted the Lagos State first lady as an honorary member of Soroptimist International Nigeria.
There have cases of rape and domestic violence in recent times. What is your organisation doing to curb these occurrences?
Over the years we have been involved in the Break the Silence campaign. We have been going to schools to teach girls about self-defence mechanisms. You should be able to know a few basic self- defence techniques can be used when you are at risk and that would give you enough time to escape from the aggressor. And we encourage women to speak out because we noticed that most of the victims of rape are unable to speak and if you do not speak, you cannot get help. Of course, when you are able to speak that is where the healing takes place.
And then of course, we work with the government. Right now, there is a national emergency of rape and when we hear the cases of rape, we ensure we bring it to the notice of government.
Again, every month we mark Orange Day. The Orange Day is on the 25th of every month and that day we set it aside to remember victims of domestic or any form of gender-based violence against women and girls. On this day, women are to wear orange globally or a touch of orange and stop at their tracks or wherever they are and remember about these victims of violence, think about ways to prevent it and to actually get involved in fighting it.
Also from November 25 to December 10, we dedicate this period to say no to violence against women. Last year, the Minister for Women Affairs switched on the orange lights at Louis Edet House Police Headquarters in Abuja and encouraged the police to fight violence against women and girls. We call this period, “16 Days of Activism”.
Last year it was so serious that all the clubs were involved, and the women had orange umbrellas and we had protests at various places with a very clear message, saying, “No to violence against women”.
The International Girl Child Day was marked early this week all over the world. As a female focused organisation, what are you doing to make this period remarkable for girls?
In Soroptimist International Nigeria, each club determines how we want to mark each day. Like I have said, we educate, enable and empower (3Es) women and the girl child. These 3Es, as we call them, are the ones that guide us. So, on this day of International Day for Girl Child, one club might decide to give a lecture at an all-girls school on domestic violence while another group may decide to donate books.
And in the past we have been involved in giving out reusable sanitary towels and also organising workshops on this because we discovered some girls don’t go to school when they have menstruation because they cannot afford to buy sanitary towels. So we give them out as gifts and also teach them how to maintain these reusable sanitary towels. We also teach them how to make these reusable sanitary towels on their own. So any project that is based on the 3Es is what we are going to do to make this period remarkable for the girl child.
Without these projects, then we are a dead organisation. And since the International Girl Child Day is for October 11, we have till the end of October to do the projects. For those who were unable to do their projects on that particular day, they can do it later but this month of October would not pass without us doing very serious projects that would add value to the life of the girl child because that’s all that we do. All that we do is for women and the girl child but human rights for all. Wherever there
is an infringement of human rights, we are involved whether you are a man or woman. But any other thing revolves around women and girls.
So, in regard to the International Day of Girl Child celebration, what advice would you give to the Nigerian girl?
For the Nigerian girl, the first thing I would say is to be focused; learn a skill or get a good education. Have a life plan; do not allow your life to float. Be morally upright and carry yourself with dignity. And wherever you are in the world, give a thought for women and girls because the slogan sisterhood is about us watching out for each other.
And of course, we are looking forward to when a woman would become the president of Nigeria. We are even talking about it with the UN women in politics; we are interested in working with them because come 2023, God willing, if a woman can be in Aso Rock, we would have taken our agitation to see women at the highest level of governance to the very peak. We are partners with UN women in Nigeria, and we are interested in working with women in politics and all other strategic partners of the UN women. We thank the UN women country ambassador for extending a hand of partnership to SI Nigeria.
When you got the mantle of leadership for this great organisation, you must have had some aspirations. Would you say they have been fulfilled?
I must return all glory to God for a very eventful tenure. During my time, we had our own celebrations. We had an increase in the numbers of clubs. I have chartered four clubs in addition to the 16 I met on ground. And just recently, we chartered one in the North and the Lekki Club is coming up too, which I hope to charter before I leave office. And of course, we are reviving our old clubs in Jos, Kaduna, and Ibadan. We also adopted Massey children’s hospital.
The club is growing and there is vibrancy in SI Nigeria. Women are even more excited about serving because SI Nigeria is not where you join in order to take; a lot of people have that mentality that sometimes when you join a group it is to gain. This particular group you join to give all you have – your time, talent and treasure to the advancement of women and the girl child.
I am very much interested in the environment. I can call myself an environmentalist as you can see from all the plants in my domain. I plant and maintain all these plants myself because I do active gardening every day.
I have created awareness about a clean and green nation. Our survival is dependent on these plants. It is a very important part of our ecosystem and anywhere we go, we must be very protective of the environment. When we see trees, we must be conscious of these trees, if they are sick, we should do something about it.
So, from the very beginning I declared a green and clean Nigeria. So far SI Nigeria has planted over 2000 trees and we hope to do more because we want to see a green country and of course a green country is a healthy country. And of course, when people are involved in nature, they learn a lot. I see human beings in nature; I am able to tell the times and season of life in nature.
Even though we have been planting trees at so many places, we long to have a green park soon and by God’s grace, it is going to be a park of Horticulture wonders where people can come to see all the different kinds of plants. So, SI Nigeria has been able to rekindle that love for the environment and green revolution.
So far, we have plated over 2000 trees, but we can do more. And I am particularly inspired by the words of Wangari Maathai of Kenya because she spearheaded the green revolution in her country just like I am interested in the green revolution in Rwanda as well. So in SI Nigeria, the women have been involved in a lot of planting and I have been able to increase the awareness on these things in the two years I have been the National President of SI Nigeria.
And then of course plastic pollution; we don’t like plastic pollution. So, recycling of plastic is a very sustainable way of cleaning the environment. And I remember the Sustainability Week which Ecobank had last year was declared opened together with SI Nigeria along with other stakeholders. So, we encourage people to recycle plastic and I also remember encouraging children because I run a free horticulture club for children where I teach them gardening and about nature. I remember also SI Nigeria encouraging children to gather plastics and polythene bags and it would be weighed and they would score points for the quantity of plastics and the polythene bags that each has and at the end of the day, each child gets a gift over a period of time.
It takes courage and passion for someone to do what you are doing right now. Does your growing up have anything to do with what you are doing today?
I am a civil servant but from age 18, I discovered that I’m a service oriented public-spirited person. I just want to help. There was a time in my life that I thought that even if it meant I had to starve, for people to eat and be happy, I will do it. And I hate to see human distress. When I see such, I want to bring relief to the suffering of
people. And that started when I was very young. But at the age of 18, I said I have to join government because it was not enough not be critical from the outside but you have to help your county men and women and I was ready to lay down my life if that was what it will take to see that my country men and women have a better existence.
My father Dr Adetunji Adesite, Baasegun of Fiditi was a Rotarian of knight of St Mulumba, he was a doctor and very public spirited. He was a very good Nigerian, and we have a 52-year old hospital in my family, which is still offering very good healthcare to the general public. So, you can see the background – a medical doctor father who set up a hospital in 1968 that was even before I was born.
And it was president of Rotary in 1976. So, I grew up seeing him work. And he would say to me, no matter how tired I am, when I see someone who is dying; I get fresh energy to work. My mother Mrs Abiodun Adesite, was a Soroptimist too. The first time I heard about Soroptimist, I was a little girl. My mother came and said there is a new club now, I just joined, and it’s called Soroptimist.
My mother was a banker, but they are both late now. They were very much involved in church and charity. Every Sunday, my mother must go to where the poor people live and give them food and she would say to you, you must not throw anything at them, she would say go close to them and give it to them with a lot of respect. Because when you are giving things to people, you have to give them and make sure that their dignity is intact. Don’t throw things at people. My mother was a very tough woman, but I noticed that any time she sees somebody suffering, that toughness in her melts. And every time there were people around her. I could remember that her funeral was graced by the very lowly, physically challenged people… All the people she spent her lifetime taking care of. That’s how it has been.
So, apart from my work with Soroptimist International, generally, everywhere I go, I challenge anything that is wrong. I want to see that people are happy. Sometimes if you can’t even help people, just ask what their problems are. And sometimes just a smile from you is enough to assure someone that everything will be okay.