Our woman of substance this week is a journalist and activist whose passion is amplifying the voices of the voiceless and oppressed majority in Nigeria, especially women and children.
Meet Betty Abah, the founder of the Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE), author of five published books, a social media influencer and a firm believer in a progressive and indivisible Nigeria
I was born and bred in Otukpo in Benue State (into a large polygamous home), so a large chunk of my early education revolves around Otukpo. I had my primary school at Army Children, Otukpo and for my secondary school education, I went to Wesley High School, Otukpo, then the University of Calabar for my first degree (graduating in 1999) and the University of Lagos for my Master’s Degree (both in English Literature). I have had various other training both within and outside Nigeria.
Early career days
Due to my flair for writing (I started writing at age 10 while in primary school), much of my career life has been in journalism. I worked at Newswatch Magazine, then TELLMagazine. I also had a brief stint in the USA as a reporter with the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado as a fellow of the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship (2006). I then veered into activism 10 years ago, working with the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), a foremost environmental rights campaign organisation where I cut my activism teeth, so to say (though I had always been more of a ‘leftist’ even as a child and young adult).
Advocacy became the perfect turf for me to right wrongs, speak truth to power and generally make a difference in other people’s life. It is quite fulfilling.
On NGO CEE-HOPE?
We started CEE-HOPE officially in 2013 (with a gathering of about 700 children from impoverished communities across Lagos) though the seeds were sown earlier. I had always worked with children and young people, right from age 14 when I ran a children’s Bible club at home in Benue and also started Sisters Aflame, a teenage girls’ prayer and motivational group at age 17 in secondary school. In the university, l headed a campus women journalist group. During my NYSC, my activities with students and fellow youth corps members (media and HIV/AIDS awareness etc) won me the 2001 ‘State honours award’ of Ogun state NYSC.
Also, as head of the women’s group in ERA/FoEN, I was very much drawn to children in virtually every community we toured in the Niger Delta and the African sub-region. But the trigger for CEE-HOPE was the violent and absolutely inhuman demolition of a part of Makoko community in Lagos under the then administration of Babatunde Fashola in July 2012.
That was my first time of closely interacting with the famous fishing community (the largest slum settlement in West Africa with more than 100,000 residents). Besides the general panicky atmosphere, squalor and indeed, desperate poverty, I discovered that children were the most affected. There were legions of out-of-school children, teenage mothers and pregnant teenagers.
It was a very bleak and unforgettable encounter for me, and I decided to do something about it. Besides speaking out about the marginalization, unacceptable levels of poverty in metropolitan and rich Lagos, recurrent forced eviction exercises that threaten them and other slum communities in the city, most times carried out in direct violations of court processes and involving gross human rights abuses it dawned on me that I needed to do something about improving as many lives as possible among the young persons.
So I jumped into the ‘fray’, and then proceeded to other marginalised and at-risk communities within Lagos and on to other states, engaging young people, empowering them, being their voice. A society will always be measured by their treatment of children and the elderly.
In the last five years, CEE-HOPE’s work of engaging and empowering the most at-risk children has impacted the lives of more than 5,000 children in more than 10 slum communities across Lagos and four other states namely Benue, Plateau, Ogun and Bayelsa.
CEE-HOPE’s signature program, the Girls-Go-for-Greatness (aka Triple G), a girl leadership and empowerment work has improved the lives of thousands of girls across Nigeria via education, skills, and mentors/leadership training, peer education, advocacy and multifaceted empowerment programs.
We have numerous awards in recognition of our work, some of which include our selection as a Wikipedia partner in Nigeria in 2016 (as part of the maiden ‘Wiki Loves Women’ initiative among others). Later this month, we will be partnering with Facebook for the ‘Facebook for Business’ initiative, to train young business people on how to maximise their business presence online. It will hold in Makoko.
Just in July, we inaugurated a new office in Makoko, our first field office and also donated a 30-seater boat to the community to help ferry children to school as part of our efforts to increase access to school. We are quite elated at these.
Also, as part of our effort towards maximising our advocacy for a more inclusive society and empowerment of the girl child, we have produced several short documentary videos. A number of documentaries and reports have also been done about our work by both local and international organisations.
My greatest achievement, I would say, have not really been in the few awards or recognitions, rather, it’s in the knowledge that our little efforts make a difference in the lives of some persons, particularly the vulnerable young.
I think we have done well within the space of less than five years in light of the socio-economic challenges. I believe we are running the vision as originally given to me by God, to reach out and inspire hope in children that are abandoned, traumatised and hopeless, one child at a time. He has helped us thus far and will continue to lead the way, send us helpers of destiny from the far regions of the earth.
Ways government can assist the girl child
Incidentally, we are around the International Day of the Girl so the subject is much more topical. No society truly progresses when it overlooks the need to empower the girl child. Anything less leads to stunted development. Education is the bedrock of progress for any society and when girls are empowered, certainly everyone is empowered. Girl marriage is the greatest enemy of a family’s progress. In my view, ‘Girl Marriage is one of the quickest ways to dwarf a society, one child at a time, one household at a time.’
Challenges of foundation
Naturally, finance. We would need more funds to expand the scope of our work. One of our areas of intervention is education. Besides the sad fact that Nigeria currently has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world (predominantly girls), our own national agency, UBEC recently published a report that shows that from a previous record of 10. 5 million out of school children, we have regressed to 13. 2 million. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much in the body language or actions of our policy makers and leaders to show a sense of urgency or political will towards arresting these sad trends. It is heart-breaking, the future looks bleak and this is the more reason why we need more NGOs, corporate entities and good-spirited individuals to help fill this gnawing gap.
Advice to the unemployed youths
Our youths should not let their dreams die. They should explore every opportunity around them, no matter how small, and stay active and hopeful. There are several NGO’s for instance offering free ICT trainings, and it’s a vast world of opportunities that they can take advantage of rather than staying idle and lamenting the situation of the country or our politicians’ ineptitude. We are the generation wired to breathe true change into our country. Besides speaking truth to power, we have the responsibility to improve our selves in order to help others optimally and shine in a highly competitive world.
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