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Okonjo-Iweala has brought visibility to African women -Ondo’s Fisrt Lady

She is variously described as Mama Fowoso, Digital Mama and Mama BEMORE, a lover of women and the girl-child’s advancement. And true to these descriptions, Mrs Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, wife of the Ondo State Governor works like there is no tomorrow, advancing the course of the women folk. And for her, a 24-hour work cycle would have been stretched a little further, if only it is possible. She spoke with SAHEED IBRAHIM in this interview. Excerpts:

We can see you joined the #BeLikeNgoziChallenge. What’s your take on her election as the Head of WTO?
I am celebrating her. She has this signature dress code that the whole world can see. We should be very proud of her. I am very proud of her. She has brought a lot of visibility to the African women; what an African woman can achieve if she has the opportunity, what a Nigerian woman can achieve. You know she is an Igbo woman. This is a part of this country where it is assumed that they sell their daughters when they are giving their daughters away in marriage.
I think that things are getting better. We are seriously kicking against it that it doesn’t have to be so. All these bother on enlightenment and change of time. These days, you will like to train your daughter to any level she aspires to and that is exactly what Ngozi Okonjo Iweala has exemplified: train your girl child, she can BE MORE, she can attain the peak of her profession.
This woman sits top of the World Trade Organization. Isn’t that wonderful? So our parents should pay attention when we advocate for girl child education. We know that a girl can BEMORE; she can be married, she can have children, she can also attain the zenith of her profession.
You have so many initiatives that bother on girls and women issues, how significant is Iweala’s emergence as WTO head to your initiatives in Ondo state?
That has been my mantra from day one. In 2017, when my husband became the Governor, that was the same year we launched BEMORE. It is a summer bootcamp for young girls in secondary schools from JSS1 to SS3, where we train them in ICT, solar technology.
We noticed there was gender gap in the system. Girls are too few in any organization or technology space. In some cases they are even missing or you can count them on your fingertips. We thought that we could bridge that gap. There isn’t anything extraordinary in science; it is just the societal misgivings that it is too tough or the brain of a girl child cannot comprehend it. It is believed that it is only the boys that can do science and technology and that is not true and that is exactly what BEMORE is all about – to change the narrative.
And we found out that we have proven those who thought that technology was meant for boys only wrong. Within those two weeks of intensive training, these girls were transformed. Today we have success stories of many of them doing so well and going in for computer science and engineering. We discovered that many of them have talents in other areas too. We saw that many of them have that entrepreneurial spirit apart from ICT and solar technology.
Those were the main focus, and we added some life changing skills that can assist them as they mature into womanhood. A girl that would eventually get married should know how to take care of her home. We teach them about hygiene – menstrual hygiene, hygiene at home and we teach them how to make all these home hygiene products that keep your home clean and diseases free such as disinfectants, soap and others.
We know that at that age, we don’t expect them to have breast cancer or even cervical cancer but already, they are empowered with the information and we now see them as gateways to their parents at home.
When the issue of rape became a national concern, we introduced Taekwondo. All my girls know how to deal with any man or boy that tries to mess around with them. These are some of the examples of what we have been able to accomplish and I keep in touch with them even after the two weeks program. We have other states that participated like Imo, Oyo, Osun, Akwa Ibom and Ekiti.
So it was the COVID that affected our plans, we were unable to do more in 2020 but then we have zoom meetings, we just keep the momentum. We don’t want them to slack. Recently we organized Jerusalem dance challenge and it was a lot of fun. It was an amazing reunion for all of them. So for my BEMORE girls, I think we have created the path way for them to realize that they can be more as women and whatever potential they have, they should go for it.
How far has your other Initiative, FOWOSO impacted on women in the state?
BEMORE is for young girls, FOWOSO is for the women. It also started in 2017. I want to say that I belong to the school of thought of women that we can be more; that women have potential which society had stepped on for far too long. The knee of the society have been on her neck for far too long and it became the duty of some of us that are educated to recognize the subjugation and the deliberate attempt of the society to continuously press women down, even when they have the potential to shine. From time to time, we keep emphasizing on education because education emboldens and empowers her. She steps into the room and lights up the place because she knows her worth and she wouldn’t allow anybody to define her. She defines herself.
In the absence of education or where a woman is unlucky not to attend a varsity education or have Masters, PhD and rest of them, there are also other ways that we can empower her and that was the reason for FOWOSO. The wives of political appointees – whether they like it or not – the positions of their husbands have placed them on higher pedestal. Many of them didn’t know they could use that position to make a change within their local government areas and that was how FOWOSO started. Initially, there was resistance.
When I got here, the preoccupation of most of these women, especially those politicians were rice, gele, Ankara, transport money that is not more than one thousand naira; they were happy and they would come to Government House, sing clap and go.
But I am happy today that I wasn’t wrong in the decision because I continued, despite all the criticisms. When I got here, I don’t know how many of the women knew how to operate computer. They didn’t even have smart phones not to talk of operating it. I don’t think there is any FOWOSO woman now that doesn’t have a smart phone because I told them that the reason women are subjugated is lack of self-awareness and not having their own money.
They lacked economy power. I am not saying they should be Dangote but a woman should be able to have a source of income. Why would you fold your arms every day, and expect money always from your husband? It is erroneous for anyone to think that if your wife has a source of income it will lead to disrespect – some men tend to feel that way, but it is not true. I think it even makes your marriage work because you as a husband will live longer because some of the financials headaches will be removed.
So that is what we try to do – economic empowerment. The point, I was trying to make is that it is not necessary that you go to university or have PhD for a woman to realize that she has potential. We train them in different skills, they began to realize their potential. It is amazing that today at least I know two women who we empowered during FOWOSO outreach that have cars because of the skills acquisition, – shoe making and bag making. Economic emancipation of women is very important.
We didn’t just train them, we also gave them the tools. Those of them responsible enough were able to put good use to those things. We gave out sewing machines, hair dryers, make-up kits, grinding machines for the aged and physically challenged. The younger women in the higher institutions equally benefitted as they were given laptops to aid their projects You will be amazed with what these women were able to accomplish.
What is your projection for Ondo women? Where do you want to see them?
When talking about women participation in politics, the issue is not about mounting the 35% pressure when most women are not even aware of what they are fighting for. Self-awareness is very critical for our women to rise and we are on the right path.
Even from the grassroots, from the local government, they are aspiring. I told them they need to sit at the table to make decisions. You cannot be outside, clapping, singing and you want to make headway in politics? Absolutely not! You must be at the table. Start with supervisor, councillor and increase the numbers from there.
At a time, Aketi gave a marching order that in every local government, you must have at least two female councillors. Some of them complied, others refused. Now that Okonjo Iweala is ruling the world, what will their excuses be again? Many of the women will want to contest to become House members, some will aspire to go for the Reps. Senate, become governor someday and that is the natural progression.
Like the war we are waging on rape. You think men will wage war on rape? It is women that will wage war on rape. Today, we are pushing to pass the VAPP bill at the assembly and deal with those beasts. Only a woman can fight for women. I am sorry men can’t fight for us. Having two elected Local Government Chairwomen is still small, we will take more.
There is a campaign on 50-50 gender representation for both men and women in relation to political offices, conventions and others. Do you think this is achievable?
I will definitely support that but the point now is that we have not even attained the 35% of Beijing. We are yet to get that 35, people should be realistic and pragmatic. I am not in any way against it. How many women are in Ondo State Assembly? Let us even get this 35%; that is my own opinion. We need to have a strategy. My own strategy is my BEMORE girls. With the discovery of their potentials and confidence we are building in those girls you will see transformation in five years’ time; that is strategy.
How has it been in the last four years – the success stories and the challenges?
Honestly, it has been a mixed-grill, mix baggage of emotions. For me, my activism didn’t start today. I founded Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria in 1997 that was 21 years before anything like First Lady touched my body. I was among those that founded Bring Back Our Girls. I was in the trenches with people like Oby Ezekwesili, I headed that of Oyo state. It was a natural progression for me to just continue humanitarian service without waiting. First of all, I continued with the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria immediately. We established a chapter here because we knew that many women in Ondo state would be faced with breast cancer and I was very correct. It was a sorry sight when I met some breast cancer patients with rotten breasts but I am very proud or delighted that we have a strong and effective branch of BRECAN in Ondo state committed to giving hope and saving lives. Creating awareness is the entry point in the fight against breast cancer. There are too many dangerous misconceptions about the disease. The most alarming and prevalent – believing breast cancer is a spiritual attack. So people keep going to spiritualists, thinking they can pray away the disease while the cancer cells in their body keep multiplying.
So we need that enlightenment, that education, very strong one in the communities and schools. As a non-governmental organization, BRECAN observes two remarkable events that champion the cause of cancer – the World Cancer Day for all the cancers in February 4, then October 1 to 31st is for breast cancer. We provide screening. We also started crowdfunding to assist indigent patients in the treatment of the disease. Office of the wife of the governor doesn’t have a budget line which people didn’t understand. Nevertheless it is a very powerful office, if you know what to do, and that was exactly what I did. Regardless that this office has no budget, women with cancer felt I should help them because I am Governor’s wife but you will agree with me that for someone like me that comes from a civil society background and a survivor, saying no to those women was not an option. I needed to figure out what to do.
You will see a woman with breast cancer but doesn’t even know what to do. She doesn’t even have money to go to Federal Medical centre, Owo. She doesn’t have one naira. That’s the plight of breast cancer patients in Nigeria, not only in Ondo state.
So, we started crowd funding. Just N200; those who can afford did while many criticised me for asking for a donation of N200 whereas the money of Ondo state is in my bedroom and I should bring it out. (Chuckles.)
Is there any plan to have a cancer treatment centre in Ondo state?
Absolutely. It is one legacy I will like Arakunrin administration to leave behind because when you know what cancer patients go through, you will know it is something that is imperative. They have to go all the way to Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja. It’s terrible. Most times when they think about it, they say let me die in my house. But if we have a cancer treatment centre, all the protocols in cancer treatment will be there, closer and accessible to the people.
Apart from that, capacity building is a plus because once you set up the centre, you begin to train more professionals. The proposal is for it to be located in Owo because of the Federal Medical Center. FMC is already giving some cancer treatment but not fully because they do not have all the equipment. So, it is additional. It means we are upgrading FMC. It is the radiotherapy unit that is the main component to be added. Now we will have more people coming here to Ondo for medical tourism. It brings development to the state. It is a worthwhile project.
Last year, you began the Widow’s initiative. How far has the project gone and is there more to be done?
This initiative was borne when the government started to distribute palliatives to people of the state during the covid shutdown. The widows were not neglected and their complaints got to me. I said we have to do something because they need the palliatives more than any group. Being a public health professional, I understood the gaps in the system. In my space (professional space) you can’t do much without data so I needed to prove that it was possible to deploy technology in order to facilitate data collection of the widows in the state. And with my team, we did it effortlessly! Now, you know why they call me digital mama. I strongly felt that we could get the data of widows in Ondo state with application of technology. If you look at the socio economic status of the constituents, you will see that the widows are the most marginalised. If we want to solve the problems of widows, we need to know their needs, know how many are they, know where they live etc. Today we have over 25,000 registered widows on the site – www.ondowidows.com. The site is accessible for all to see. When we encouraged widows to register in order to give out palliatives, they did not believe until the process started. Some women said they had never benefitted directly from any government in their lives. Some who belong to other political parties thought it was for APC widows alone but I said no, a widow is a widow. The palliatives were meant for everyone irrespective of your political affiliation. And that was what we did, we gave the palliative to every registered widow across the 18 Lgas. Arakunrin is the Governor of everybody in Ondo state. He is the people’s Governor.
With all these initiatives and responsibilities, is there any time for relaxation and how do you do that?
I jog every morning. I play tennis but no time for it now. I read. I do Yoga. I like farming. Professionally, I am an aquaculturist or a practising fish farmer, if you like. I love nature. I love working in my farm all day enjoying the peace and tranquility nature provide. I can claim to be an environmental enthusiast.

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