A Presentation by Her Excellency, Architect Deaconess Yemisi Dooshima Suswam, Wife of the Executive Governor of Benue State, Nigeria

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BOUNCING BACK: LEADING AND GROWING IN DIFFICULT TIMES: THE BENUE EXAMPLE.  A PRESENTATION BY HER EXCELLENCY, ARCHITECT DEACONESS YEMISI DOOSHIMA SUSWAM, WIFE OF THE EXECUTIVE GOVERNOR OF BENUE STATE, NIGERIA AT THE AFRICAN WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP SUMMIT AND AWARDS, 2011 AT THE PALM ROYAL BEACH HOTEL, ACCRA, GHANA.

It is with great honour and pleasure that I bring to this august gathering the very warm regards of the Government and people of Benue State of Nigeria.  Benue State is one of the states in Nigeria and it is located at the middle belt of the country.  It is very rich in agriculture and the people are predominantly farmers hence, its appellation as the Food Basket of the Nation.

In Africa, like most Third World Countries, the poorest and most vulnerable groups are the peasant farmers.  Their mode of production is still undeveloped and their standard of living is basically subsistence.  Therefore coming from a state that is populated essentially by subsistence farmers where quite often too there are conflicts of various kinds I am in a position to appreciate the significance and impact of the theme for this submit which is on “The role of women leaders in reducing the burden of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in Africa.” 

A dissection of the theme presents two sides for consideration and analysis.  These are; a consideration of ways to mitigate the excruciating social and economic pains that these orphans and vulnerable children undergo or the effect of their condition on societal growth and development.  My position would be that whichever side of the argument we chose to lean, we would be dealing with the same problems, that is, we would be dealing with the causes of this problem and how to prevent its prevalence or mitigate its effect on society.

At this occasion, I have a specific charge of speaking on the topic, “Bouncing Back: Leading and Growing in Difficult Times” The Benue Example. My understanding of this topic is that it presents two challenges.  One of the challenges is on the Orphans and Vulnerable children (OVC).  What this means is that orphans and vulnerable children also have a burden to seek ways of overcoming their vulnerability and contribute positively to societal growth.  The second challenge is ours as women leaders who, as it were, share the same fate of deprivation by our societies.  It is incumbent on us to see how we can create platforms and windows of opportunities for these vulnerable groups to leverage out of social and economic deprivations.

My approach to this discussion will be as follows: First and foremost, I would like us to identify who these orphans and vulnerable children are. I would also  attempt to look at the conditions that are responsible for this social challenges and how as women leaders we can intervene.  There after, I would try to show how we are dealing with the problem in Benue State both at the governmental and non-governmental levels.

Now, the question is: Who is an Orphan? The definition of an orphan in terms of age varies from country to country.  An orphan broadly speaking is a child under the age of 15 or 18 years as the country case may be, who has lost one or both parents irrespective of the cause of death.  According to the report, “Children on the Brink 2004 (UNAIDS,  UNICEF and USAID, 2004), orphans are categorized as follows:

i.            Maternal orphans: Children under age 18 years whose mothers have died.

ii.           Paternal orphans:  Children under  age 18 years whose fathers have died.

iii.          Double orphans:    Children under age 18 years whose mothers and fathers have died.

I would add to these categories, circumstantial orphans, that is, those children under age 18 years who have been disconnected from their parents as a result of other social factors.  In other words, this category covers all children of the age aforementioned who are in need of care.

Who is a Vulnerable Child? International and national instruments define a child or children as boys and girls under the age of 18years.  In some cultures the age of maturity that allows a young person to take his or her decisions may be slightly lower than 18 years.

Vulnerable children in either of these national or local age prescriptions are among others, those children on the streets, child labourers, children who are sexually exploited, children who are neglected, children with handicaps, children in very poor households, children with disabilities, and children affected by armed conflicts.

International conventions have tried to protect the rights of children and those classified as orphans and vulnerable.  Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states among other provisions that “everyone has the right to education… Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms…” children are human beings and no matter their condition or social background they are entitled to education in order to fulfill the above stated  fundamental human rights and freedom.  At the World Conference on Education for all, held in Jomtien, China 1990 and the meeting in Dakar, Senegal held in 2000, 164 countries gave a commitment to the provision of education for all by 2015.

Apart from the few examples of agreements and declarations mentioned above, the convention on the Rights of the child (CRC) has raised four pillars that seek to protect the child.  These are;

i.            The right to survival, development, and protection form abuse and neglect;

ii.           The right to freedom from discrimination;

iii.          The right to have a voice and be listened to;

iv.          That the best interests of the child should be of primary consideration.

In very many of our countries, there are child-focused legislations.  There are also legislations that address specific child rights abuses.  In Africa today, many children are orphaned as a result of disease such as HIV/AIDS, armed conflict and communal strife.

Some indeed are born into extreme generational poverty. In  generational poverty situations, communities lack access to basic facilities such as schools, hospitals and shelter; Families are malnourished and epidemics are a common feature.  Members f the community marry from within such communities, engage in the same livelihood that their forefathers were engaged in thus continuously reinforcing the circle of poverty.  According to Machel (1996), in the past decades, 20 million children were slaughtered, 6 million were seriously injured or permanently disabled and 12 million rendered homeless.  It is estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of people who die or are injured in conflicts are civilians, mostly children.

This situation has placed an enormous burden on all of us who are in leadership position.  What then can we do to address this cankerworm?

Therefore, in looking at the challenges of orphans and vulnerable children one must be mindful of the peculiarities of the various countries and communities in terms of the causes, prevalence and local remedies.  In war-torn countries some orphans may not necessarily go by the well known definitions that we had earlier highlighted.  A child may be picked up on the street not necessarily because it lost either or both parents but simply because social forces have torn them apart and either does not know of the other’s existence any longer.

More than 20 cases of violent conflicts occur around the world in any given week, month or years mostly in developing countries of Africa and Asia (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ISIPRI, 2000).  These usually lead to the destruction of basic infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals.  They also lead to the disruption and destruction of livelihoods.  Children’s education is also disrupted and for some permanently.

In Benue State of Nigeria where by God’s grace my husband is the Governor and has himself embarked upon an aggressive youth empowerment programme, I consider myself in a vintage position to critically look at the condition of orphans and vulnerable children.  I realize that to address the issues affecting this group requires a multi disciplinary and multi-sectoral approach and above all a strong political will.  It may sound rather bizarre but it is true that very many of our communities still drink water from muddy ponds and have no access to any form of health care and rely completely on herbs and concoctions prepared by native doctors.

Children who are born in these sorts of environments obviously have no access to education and as they grow up marry from the neighbouring communities.  The children are vulnerable form birth as they grow up into adulthood, that is, for those who escape early childhood death, marry and continue to perpetuate the poverty circle and vulnerability.

What we have done to complement the efforts of the state in ameliorating the problem of poverty in the various local communities is to set up a non-governmental organization to address some of the  issues that we think can bring a reduction to the prevalence of orphanhood and mitigate its attendant consequences.  We have realized that apart from armed conflicts and communal strife, the greatest factor responsible for the prevalence of orphans is the HIV/AIDS scourge.  A careful study of this problem revealed that those most affected are the vulnerable in society.

Consequently, I set up a foundation known as the Sev-Av Foundation  with a mission to improve the income capacity of the less privileged in society, fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS and uplift the lives of orphans and vulnerable children.  We are doing this through education and advocacy and the improvement of facilities at orphanages in addition to encouraging the care givers to pay particular attention to the psychological needs of these children.

We do realize though that far more fundamental to the resolution of this challenge is to improve our communities so that women and children have access to those things that can enhance their future wellbeing.  We are promoting access to credit and encouraging the acquisition of skills through the establishment of skills acquisition centres.  Graduates of these centres are supplied with equipment and materials that will enable them set up small businesses and generate income.

For the children, we are emphasizing education as a basic and uncompromising need irrespective of their background and social status.  We believe that education is important to the child as it enhances  his or her mental development and prepares him or her for the task of controlling the environment.  It also enables man to live a useful life.  According to Fawole (2010) education has to equip individuals with skills and attitudes necessary for them to adopt to changing conditions, and for constructive participation in the task of social change.

We are encouraging and seeking partnership with organizations and community development associations in order to create a network that will be encompassing to address issues that militate against the healthy development of children and impede social and economic growth of orphans.  In doing so, we are mindful of the need to promote community initiatives rather than undermine it.

However, it must be realized that in each of these efforts, the political environment must be right.  It is to this end that as leaders, we have the responsibility to press and pursue legislations that guarantee the right of all citizens to basic human needs.  Quite often government policies tend to undermine the rights of individuals and communities to grow.  For example, government development programmes in cities sometimes lead to the forceful eviction of families and the fragmentation of local communities.

The unintended consequences of these policies can sometimes be quite far reaching.  It is therefore imperative that as Governments plan developments in communities and most especially those inhabited by slum dwellers with low incomes and sometimes inadequate education, a proper impact assessment should be undertaken so as to incorporate a programme for the treatment of their psychological needs and physical resettlement.  Insensitivity to the needs of these poor inhabitants is also a major cause of abandoned babies and street children.

While it may not be practicable to completely eliminate the incidence of orphans and vulnerable children it is possible to make them less vulnerable children it is possible to make them less vulnerable and support them to live normal lives and integrate them fully into the society.

Let me therefore join others who have done studies and made presentations on these issues to suggest even if for purposes of emphasis that;

  • We need to strengthen our capacity and efforts to eliminate the conditions that provide fertile ground for orphanhood such as avoidable armed conflicts and communal strife.
  • Impress on government to avail every child the opportunity to education as an inalienable right and uncompromising policy.
  • Enhance the capacity of families and communities to respond to the psychological needs of orphans, vulnerable children and their care givers.  The African spirit of communalism and extended family system should be encouraged to strengthen the desire to look after these vulnerable children.
  • Link HIV/AIDS prevention activities, care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS, and efforts to support orphans and other vulnerable children.
  • Promote partnership at all levels and build coalitions among key stakeholders.
  • Develop programmes that help to discover talents among orphans and vulnerable children so as to help develop them into assets to themselves and the society.
  • Assess the impact of government policies on children before they become operational.

It is my view that sustained attention to the above issues will in the long run create a generation that will look back and conclude that they were once on the verge of being deprived but society rescued them and breathed fresh life into them and have indeed bounced back.

I believe that several of us here will have various perspectives on this issue which the submit presents.  This is my own perspective and humble contribution to your discussion here today.  As a recipient of the award of theDefender of the African Child Award 2011, at this submit, all I can say is that I am humbled and challenged.  I assure you that this honour is a drive for me to do what I can do in my position to put a smile on the African child and give him a hope for the future.

I thank you for your attention.

REFERENCES

  1. J.O. Fawole, 2010, “Human security in the African context: The place of Education and intellectual Awareness” contribute to Human security in Africa: perspectives on Education, Health and Agriculture, A publication of the centre for Human security, Olusegun Obasanjo presidential library, Abeokuta, Nigeria.
  2. Benue Journal of Gender studies vol 1, June, 2009.
  3. Rose Smart, 2003, “Policies for Orphans and Vulnerable Children”
  4. Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development P.O. Box 7136, Kampala Uganda, 2004, “National Orphans and other Vulnerable Children Policy: Hope Never Runs Dry”
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