By By Johnbosco Agbakwuru, Calabar
Mrs. Obioma Liyel Imoke, wife of Governor Liyel Imoke of Cross River State, is regarded as mother Theresa of the state. She floated many non-governmental organisations that touch the lives of women and young girls. In this interview, she speaks on her mandate and saddest moment as First Lady. Excerpts:
For about five years now, you have floated many non-governmental organisations. Can we know some of them and how far you have touched lives through them?
When I came to Cross River State with my husband, I ensured that everything I did complemented his efforts. If you know my husband very well, he is very passionate about the downtrodden and the people he believes need government more. He is very passionate about seventy per cent of the people that voted for him who are actually not in the urban areas.
So he has that in my psyche and so my main focus when I came here was to look at the best way to get back to the grassroots, these are the people that are targeted that should really experience government. And in a bid to do that, we decided to do a baseline data of what was happening in Cross River State, what the women do and so on.
In the process, we realized that it is very important that if you empower a woman, you are not just touching the woman herself, you are going to be touching her family, her husband and children, and, of course, the children are the future of any nation, so you are invariably touching the nation and so I decided that I was going to focus on women in a holistic way. We have a slogan that says ‘put more money in the hands of a woman’. I believe that the passion comes from buying into what my husband is doing and the desire to see things better for people who need to be attended to.
We initiated a programme called Partnership Opportunities for Women Empowerment Realization (POWER). It is a holistic way of empowering women. I believe in partnerships. What I set out to do was not to teach women new things but to help them to take what they are doing to another level basically and so we initiated POWER and our baseline survey shows that more than 72 per cent of the women in Cross River State are farmers; we needed to start our interventions through farming. But, in the process of this holistic approach, we have had to look into several other incidents and issues that had come up from this programme.
For instance, when we started talking to women about farming and what they were supposed to do, we realized that they were taking their children to farming, and, for us in Cross River State, government has initiated a free and compulsory education programme, so I did not understand why they were not taking advantage of it; and so we had to go out there and advocate for these children to be put in school.
There was a huge job to be done and so, we initiated a programme called A State Fit for A Child (ASFAC). And this again is a holistic approach to ensuring that the child, even from in the womb, to coming out, to being in the school years, to adolescence, gets a total package as the government is able to give to him to ensure that our state remains fit for a child and is child-friendly
In the process of looking at Cross River State being a society for a child, we realized again that a lot of children were being abandoned on the streets. When I say children, I mean babies, infants. My first experience was that one of my staff called me and said they just found a baby in a trash can. I was a bit confused. I had never experienced that before. And I said: ‘Bring the baby to my house’. She called me back and said the baby was dead and I didn’t understand it.
I made some investigations and I found out that it was something that was common. Some of the girls that get pregnant, they hide it from their parents or get kicked out of their homes and so they want to have those babies and throw them away so that nobody knows. And we are talking about MDGs, we are talking about a state that is fit for a child, I don’t think a child is a mistake. My belief and understanding is, perhaps, there may be parents that are illegitimate, but I don’t believe any child is illegitimate. I don’t believe that God made a mistake by bringing a child into the world.
So, I began to think how to stop people from killing children because if you don’t get to the children in time, they die. I looked at a situation where I could reach out to young girls, teenagers and young adults and talk to them about how to take pride in themselves and not engage in casual sex or what we call premarital sex. It was really difficult for me. But there and then, they were the ones that had engaged in premarital sex and had gotten pregnant. So, we said what do we do with them? Do we kick them out?
So we found a way of rehabilitating them. So we started another programme called Mothers Against Child Abandonment (MACA). In this programme, we have two homes which are the Refuge Baby and the Refuge Girls. At the Refuge Girls, we keep young girls who are pregnant and we teach them life skills, we teach them vocational skills to enable them live independently forever when they leave.
One of the important things we tell them as they come in and go through our counseling is that we hope they would take their babies with them when they are leaving, and we are going to help them if they need help looking after their babies. And I believe that the programme has been able to save quite a number of lives and I believe we have also been able to rehabilitate a good number of our children, young girls and some of them have gone back to school.
In a bid to do this, we thought it would be good if they have someone like a role model. So we initiated the Calabar Carnival Queen (CCQ). It is not beauty pageant. It is a pageant where we choose someone to be a role model for young ones in Cross River State, and so, after the pageant and we choose our Carnival Queen, her project that whole year is to go to schools and talk to young girls about the ills of casual and premarital sex.
We preach abstinence because we know it is the only way to avoid unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and one of the best way of avoiding HIV/AIDS and all sorts of other ills that come from casual sex. And so that programme, CCQ, is under MACA.
It never stopped because there is always need and so, one day, I was sitting in my house and my child was sick. I kept looking at this child and she was getting worse. So I called my doctor and said I didn’t know what was wrong with my daughter that she was deteriorating and he said I should bring her.
I took her to the emergency room of the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, and he took one look at her and said the baby had pneumonia. I was surprised. I thought pneumonia was for people who had exposed themselves to cold for a very long time. I went round to see the other kids in the hospital and every one of them had pneumonia. They were at least 18 babies.
I was there for two hours and in the two hours, two children died. The doctor then started telling me about pneumonia. What I found fascinating about it was one, that it is preventable and two, it is curable and yet children were dying. So, by the time he gave me the statistics, it was scary, because he was telling me 20 children die every hour from pneumonia.
Now that is ridiculous for a disease that is preventable and treatable. So I decided that why don’t we take this up and again get women to understand that their children do not have to have pneumonia, so we started a statewide advocacy to enlighten women on what pneumonia is all about, how you can prevent it, how to identify and treat it and so on. We tagged that programme, Breath of Life, because we want the child to breath and live. And that again was in our bid to make Cross River State fit to live for every woman and every child.
Then again, I got a call from UNICEF saying we have street children in Calabar. I said we didn’t, unless they were talking about another state. So they said they were going to send someone to me to take me to where these children were. I didn’t believe them. They took me to the back of Okoi Arikpo House and I saw about 36 children were staying there.
I interviewed some of them and some said their parents had died, their aunties do not want them, they ran away from home for whatever reason. Quite frankly it was not a very good sight and I promised them that I would get them out of there and into a home by Independence Day which I didn’t do.
But one of the things I did was that we were able to give them food on a daily basis. Because they needed food, people were using them to make money to get food. They were running drugs. They were doing all sorts of things just to be able to make money. So, we established a resettlement home, Destiny Child Centre, for the reintegration and rehabilitation of street children and we moved them into that home on the 16th of October 2009, and, presently, there are over 100 children there.
The good news is that they are all in school or there are some in vocational skills training. We have a few that have graduated from vocational skills training and we applied for jobs for them in technical companies and all that. We thank God their lives are better. We have also been able to reunite some of them with their parents because that is the end result we are looking at, and get them to live happily ever after.
As God would have it, we are doing these interventions for women, and I thought there are a group of women that I have not really heard much about. And these are the widows. During our last campaigns, I did a lot of sensitization with the widows and found out from them what it was that they really needed, and we found that there were regular people. Farmers, traders and so on.
Then in some areas when their husbands died, they were inherited from their homes which is illegal. It is illegal to take properties from them, so I decided to put something together that will assist them especially when they are being maltreated or where they are having a rough time just because their husbands died. We established an initiative which we called Giving Life Options to Widows (GLOW).
Basically we want to not just focus on women but this set particular set of women who are disadvantaged just by the mere fact that their husbands died. Some are ostracized, some are even stigmatized because they are widows and they are not able to access funds and facilities the way other women are able to. We want to make a conscious effort to get these things to them so that they can live without finish that their lives ended when their husbands died. It is always more difficult for the widows than the widowers. So with all these we hope we can improve the lives of the people of Cross River State.
When we started we would probably pick up a child every month. I don’t think we have more than two children that have died this year from being abandoned. For instance, our home for teenage girls presently, we have just one girl. Normally, it would be six or so. I believe we are beginning to make impact. The CCQ works very hard. I believe we are on the right track.
What have been your challenges?
They have been many. Of course you know the Office of the Wife of the Governor is not constitutionally approved. And like I have said, I have seen it as a duty to complement what my husband is doing. But most of these things are capital and personnel intensive, well trained and high tech personnel. We had a doctor, a psychiatrist, who started with us and, within a year, he passed on. It was a big setback for us because he was able to work with the children and find out what was going on, because if you get a child off the street raw, it is a crazy experience.
We also have challenges of parents who could not live up to their responsibilities. They just don’t want those kids. I have never seen anything like that. We struggled to get the Child Rights Act and we really need to begin implementing that Act. Why would you refuse to care for your child that did not choose you to have him or her? You chose to make it happen. I have heard reasons as ridiculous as the child is very stubborn. So these are some of the challenges. It is heart breaking even for the child.
Of course you know that is this life, we have all sorts of people and I just put it down to the devil’s advocate, because I believe I came fully to Cross River State about five years ago and I believe these things did not just start happening when I got here. They have been happening since and I decided to try and curb this situation, taking children off the streets, taking babies off the streets, help young girls, and then you find people misinterpreting what you are doing; it is not just insulting, but it is also heart-breaking.
You ask yourself, where were they when the children were being abandoned on the road? What had they done to the mothers and fathers of those children who would not have them back? You know, I don’t understand it, this twisting of what you are doing to make it look as if you are doing something bad, it is quite demoralizing. That to me has been one of the greatest challenges that we have had.
What has been your saddest moment as First Lady?
I had a very sad day one day. I actually called my husband and told him, ‘you know what; I am going to leave this. I don’t want people writing and talking about me’. There was this doctor in the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, who had literally written to everybody he could possibly write to saying I was trafficking children. It just didn’t make sense. I couldn’t understand the wickedness behind that. I called my husband and said I was shutting down everything. He came back from work early that day to come and counsel.
To me, that has been my saddest day. How could one think about such a thing? It is evil. If you are such a great activist, the children being abandoned all over, what have you done to save their lives? We cannot be perfect but we are trying to do what we know is right. We have young girls who come with absolutely nothing. We start from the beginning, we buy them clothes, we clean them up, and we send them to hospital to do their medicals. We beg them, it is on their forms, and our first choice is that you take your child with you.
And we don’t take anybody twice because we believe that when pass through our programme you should be able to respect your body and all that. So you ask yourself how people come up with these things. We have a no exchange policy. Even to thank us we are okay. We know why we are doing it. It is to save that child’s life. We never exchange money, gifts or anything for those children. But I got past that. Too bad for the detractors. I am going to do what God has asked me to do and I will do it well.