Chief (Mrs.) Bjorg Lawal-Solarin is the current National President of Soroptimist International of Nigeria, a non-governmental service organisation comprising professional women. In a recent encounter, she shared with Vista Woman her plans for the organisation which is affiliated to the Soroptimist International of Great Britain & Ireland, and also highlighted how beneficial the organisation has been to the Nigerian society.
Excerpts:

As the National President, I am saddled with the responsibility of overseeing all Soroptimists Clubs in Nigeria, making sure that they follow the ideals of Soroptimist International.

All of these clubs have different projects, but as the National President now, what I personally desire to do is to screen as many women a possible for breast’ and cervical cancers which are silently eliminating the lives of many women. So far, five of our clubs, including the Soroptimist International of Eko, have carried out these screening.

One of these clubs screened over 400 women, one did 150, another did 43, to mention a few. The last club that did this, the Soroptimist International of Eko, screened about 200 women.

For this Soroptimist biennial year, all Soroptimist Clubs world-wide have decided to focus on education and leadership. Our aim really is to look after women and girls. Hence, we are planning to organise seminars to inspire them. For instance, we are having a convention coming up in Canada next month in which over 60,000 ladies will be interacting ‘meaningfully.

So far, in the whole of Nigeria, we have 13 clubs. Last week, we went to the eastern part of the country, Nnewi and Awka precisely, to charter two new clubs. Before the end of my tenure, I hope to charter another two or three clubs. I agree that there are more Rotary Clubs in Nigeria than Soroptimist Clubs, but I must state that this is partly because Rotary is older than our club. However, I still think it has to do with past presidents that we’ve had; how vigorous each has been.

Perhaps some of them didn’t make it a priority to increase the number of clubs they met on ground, when, of course, they could have improved on it! I’ll advise subsequent National Presidents and Club Presidents to be confident and outspoken. Every woman we meet is a prospective member of the club, so we should not hesitate to introduce them to the family.

Future National and Club Presidents should be focused, and be determined to charter more clubs. Be clear-minded and friendly. For instance, when I went to charter the new clubs I said we chartered, the first thing I did was to familiarise myself with all our members there; and even with their names! I shook hands with them all, and I think that’s very important; don’t be aloof. I’m an Olori, but I don’t think we should stand on a pedestal. Instead, we should put ourselves on the same human level with everybody we meet. This way, we can attract more women to be Soroptimists.

The benefits of having more Soroptimists Clubs in Nigeria is inexhaustible. For girls, it is important for them to have the confidence they need in the world, and this they can build through a club like this. Aside building self-esteem in women and girls, we also work in the areas of education, health, environment, human rights and understanding. In health, we’ve done a lot of things.

Over the years, we’ve given awareness talk to market women on HIV/AIDs. We’ve been supporting many HIV positive persons with anti-retroviral drugs, and recently, we gave sewing machines and other equipment to about a hundred ladies living with the virus. That was to enable them venture into business and be able to earn a living.

Years ago when HIV was just gaining awareness in the country, we set up banners all over Lagos. Over the years, we’ve been giving out insecticide-treated nets to market women.

We do this at so many market places and health centres, including the Onikan Health Centre in Lagos. There we also netted the windows and doors to put-off mosquitoes. Our Lagos Mainland Club also donated a mammogram machine to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba, many years ago. Among other things, we had a demonstration against the marriage between Senator Yerima and a 13-year-old Egyptian girl.

We’ve done a lot in education. For instance, we had a school at Olaleye in Lagos which we ran for over 10 years before we handed it over to the community. Our Lagos Mainland Club also has a school somewhere in Palmgrove which has been upgraded to a secondary school now. In Apapa, the Soroptimist Club of Apapa has a nursery and primary school which has been on for over 15  years.

The school also operates a library for use by the community. Till date, we give scholarships to students of Abule-Eleko and Epetedo in Lagos. We have two girls who we’re sponsoring through school in the University of Lagos. We also run a Braile Centre for the visually-impaired in the University of Lagos to make life easier for them instead of leaving them to depend on the sighted.

In the area of environment, we’ve planted trees in Omole Phase II. We wrote to the Lagos State Government, asking them to support our environmental project, and then they gave us a road in Omole Phase II on which we planted. The then   Commissioner for Environment, Mr. Muiz Banire, was there with us to do the planting.

Years ago, we also beautified the UTC round-about on the Island even before the Lagos State Government took interest in the round-about. We mounted a sculpture built by a student of Yaba College of Technology at the round-about and beautified the place with grasses and water, and then fenced it round. UBA is now looking after the place.

I’m married to Otunba Yinka Lawal-Solarin, and I’ve been an architect for 45 years. Before coming to Nigeria, I lived in Norway, but studied in Scotland. I later went to do a professional programme in London where I eventually met my husband. We came down to Nigeria, and I started work at a company before setting up my own firm, NINOR (coiled from Nigeria and Norway) in 1979. Though I still practice my profession, I’m slowing down a bit because I’m now above 70.’

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