Betty Abah is passionate about this initiative that seeks to protect young, vulnerable children. You could tell from just listening to her and how her face lit up as she dissected each question that was thrown at her.
She is the Founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Children’s Health, Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE), a non-governmental organisation that focuses on the rights and welfare of vulnerable children. CEE-HOPE was involved in the campaign for the release of Ese Oruru, the 14 year old girl who was abducted from Bayelsa to Kano.
Yesterday, CEE-HOPE held a Girl Conference that brought together about 250 school girls from schools across Lagos and Ogun states to commemorate the International Day of the Girl Child. At the event, a documentary on child marriage titled “RUN” , written and directed by Betty Abah was premiered.
We’ve just seen this beautiful and enlightening documentary about child marriage in Nigeria. Can you tell us more about it?
One of the reasons I am passionate about fighting girl-child marriage and teenage pregnancy is that I have seen so many lives that are being ruined as a result of teenage pregnancy and child marriage; because when you make a girl to lose her childhood and you force her into adulthood she loses the opportunity to grow up and develop normally like other girls. Very importantly she loses the chance of acquiring education. I say all the time, apart from God, the next thing is education. When you are educated, you don’t need to know anyone or have any godfather, you can go places. I came from where I describe as a mini ghetto but at the end of the day I’ve worked as a journalist in some of the top news magazines in Nigeria. I’ve practised in the US, also I had the opportunity to interview a former US president and it didn’t have anything to do with my background. First and foremost I have God, the God factor and secondly, because I am educated. When you are educated, you are unstoppable. Girl marriage kills all that possibilities. Girl marriage kills a girl, it kills an entire community, one girl, one child, one household at a time. So I believe when we draw attention to some of these things that government should encourage girl education and force the hands of parents to send their girl child to school and also ensure there are opportunities for the girl child as they ensure gender equality in the long-run.
Also, as many girls that have had the misfortune of teenage pregnancy or girl marriage; government should also put in effort to sensitize them and encourage them to go to school even after the pregnancy or after being forced into child marriage. We are drawing the attention of the world to an important reality. In the documentary, if you notice we did not follow the normal stereotypical plot even though we mentioned it because it is the most prevalent. Most of the characters revolve around the South-South, South-East because the girl child marriage is a national disaster. It is prevalent in every part of the country. I have had to do a written documentary showing the prevalence of girl marriage in Lagos. In many of these poor neighbourhoods, girl marriage takes place but everybody’s attention is on the North-East and Far North.
What inspired you to start the CEE-HOPE movement?
God gave me a vision about Nigerian children who were traumatized in 2010 especially when the issue of Boko Haram became prevalent in Nigeria. So many Nigerian children were helpless, going through so much pain, some we can’t even understand and they can’t even open up about and it scares them and they live with it into adulthood. So many of the speakers that are at our event today have been super supporters. They have always been there at the shortest notice also Nigerians in Diaspora.
Is there anything exceptional that has happened in the journey so far that has caused you to keep on no matter what?
Oh yes! Some of our girls at our center in Makoko area of Lagos. There was a case of one of them (I think she took part in the documentary) she was living on the streets. Her uncle brought her from Kogi state and threw her into the streets. We held an event and someone brought her to our attention. I couldn’t believe it. When I heard her story I was traumatized for days. At the end of the day, we took care of her and put her in a school and she’s doing well. She took part in the documentary and I saw her name on the credit. She played a minor role in the classroom in the documentary. She stays with her aunt now.
We have been able to rehabilitate her. In the case of rehabilitation, we have had successes and failures. The case of that girl is the most outstanding for me.
How has the Nigerian government and Lagos government assisted in helping you meet your objectives?
No! Firstly, our work apart from mentorship and development of children in slums in poor neighborhoods, there are rape cases we are working on in Ikorodu. Of course, we are antagonizing the Lagos state government because their responses have not been satisfactory. There has been a lot of demolishing going on around Lagos and there are so much impact on children. More children have been thrown out of school. Lagos has the highest concentration of children and Nigeria has the highest concentration of out of school children. So majority are in Lagos. Even those that are in school the Lagos government is driving them out because of the demolition. The issue is there are no housing scheme and the little ones that manage to get a roof over their head, the government keep demolishing. Lagos state has a housing deficiency of 2.4million. After acknowledging this deficit they still go around demolishing without providing an alternative. Eventually the inhabitants end up moving to other states which means their children are been uprooted from schools. After such migration education becomes the least of their worries while what to eat becomes the major worry. The children turn into prostitute and criminals. So, indirectly the Lagos state government is dis-empowering the children of the poor through its demolishing policy. So you don’t expect us to go begging but we believe GOD will intervene. The federal government has never been child-friendly in my estimation looking at the way they handled the Chibok girls’ issue. It had to take the Red Cross and the Swiss government to ensure the release of some of the girls. So we don’t look so much to the government, we believe GOD will make other ways.
In carrying out your function and duty to eradicate the problem of girl child marriage. What challenges have you faced so far?
It has not been easy! I’m currently on no salary. I am driven by passion. I am driven by the vision GOD has given me to restore hope to his hurting children because it is very important for children to grow up in normal conditions. Majority of Nigerian children are not growing up under normal circumstances. There’s poverty and even in the richest of households there are internal abuse; fathers sleeping with their daughters and other kinds of physical abuse being dealt on the child, children also been witnesses to domestic violence. So there’s a lot we are doing, there are a lot more to be done. We can only do more if we have access to bigger resources. We work in Lagos, partly in Ogun state, partly in Plateau state. We are trying to start work in Benue state. Our biggest problem is resources. We believe that with your publicity we will be able to attract a lot of attention.
Actually most of our work in the last one year have been funded by Nigerians in Diaspora because I am very active on Facebook and they see what we are doing so I have had a lot of support.
Where do you see the reach of your work in 5 years?
We hope that in 5 years we have a centre in every state in Nigeria. We hope that we would be able to have impacted millions and millions of lives. I was in Taraba when a US based Media and PR organization saw our work via our social media platforms. They told us they wanted to showcase our work so they put us on a global platform showing our works as we try to educate children in slums across Nigeria trying to provide education. The media house went ahead to put it on their website that we have imparted the lives of millions, had to write them that we have not imparted the lives of millions but a few thousands directly and indirectly.
What are your thoughts on President Buhari reducing his wife to the kitchen and the other room in the house?
We are quite retrogressive in this part of this world and it is quite unfortunate that we have a president that is retrogressive in this very dynamic age. I sense that those that shouted us down during the campaigns will be regretting now. I see Buhari’s Presidency as an analog presidency and it includes his views on women and he has never hidden them, it is quite unfortunate.
Any last words to young people who look up to you out there?
Keep Running, Keep Believing in your dreams. There were times I almost gave up but I just held on to the vision God gave me. If God gives you a dream or vision, he will provide the means.