By CHARLES KUMOLU
OFTEN times, rag to riches stories have been told here with their significance resonating among our readers, who get across to us through text messages and emails. The demographic of most people we have featured doesn’t have much youths-a reminder of the sad reality that young people are not achieving their potentials in Nigeria the way they ought to. Like some of our past interviewees, who have broken peculiar Nigerian barriers to achieve eminence, we present Miss Olaoluwa Abagun, a super-youth leader. She is a lawyer, gender advocate, and founder of the Girl Pride Circle, whose incredible ascendancy is such that could fire the young up.
YOU are an astounding youth leader, can you tell us how you became a brand early?
I started my leadership journey at the tender age of 13. I was a student at Queens’ College Lagos and my favorite subject was Government. I loved it so much that I consistently received the award for the best performing student. My teacher at that time – Mrs. Ezeozue picked an interest in me and when the opportunity came, she nominated me to represent Lagos State in the Nigerian Children’s Parliament. This experience redefined me as a young person.
For four years, I was privileged to participate in mock parliamentary sessions. I was an advocate for child rights across several media platforms, and I worked closely with the Lagos State Ministry of Women Affairs under the leadership of the then Commissioner for the Ministry, Mrs. Adejoke Orelope-Adefulire. This was when my interest in girls’ rights advocacy was birthed. As a member of the Children’’s Parliament, I also travelled out of the shores of Nigeria for the first time to attend a leadership summit in Johannesburg. The exposure, grooming, and motivation were excellent for a young and inquisitive girl like me.
Moving on to the prestigious Obafemi Awolowo University to study Law, I also used all available opportunities to hone my leadership skills. I was elected as Class Governor to lead a class of over 300 students for five years and I also volunteered actively with AIESEC – the largest youth-run organization in the world. These experiences empowered me to start my NGO “Girl Pride Circle Initiative” in 2014 to play my part in promoting girls’ rights and empowering adolescent girls to transform their communities.
To what extent did your background contribute to making you who you are?
For me, growing up was an amazing experience. I am a product of an inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriage between a Delta-Christian mother and a Yoruba-Muslim Dad. Thus, my first lessons in life were tolerance and love. In my family, we have always celebrated Christmas, EId el Kabir, Easter, and Eid el Fitr. Also, despite being an Ikorodu indigene, my father enjoys Banga Soup and Starch while my mother probably speaks more Yoruba than her native dialect. So when people point to differences in religion and ethnicity as a basis for conflict, I cannot relate. My experience growing up thought me to see differences from a positive perspective and this is a lesson that would remain with me forever.
On various phases of life
So far, my life has been a collection of defining events. I remember meeting Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) and his cabinet when I was 15. He gave me my first laptop, shook my hand and whispered some inspiring words. This was a very motivating moment for me as a teenager. Another proud milestone for me was in 2015 when Women Deliver, – a global advocacy organization based in New York recognized me as one of the 200 outstanding youth advocates for women and girls across the world. Other major landmarks include being called to the Bar last year and having the privilege of representing the Commonwealth Youth Gender & Equality Network at the 62nd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York.
Where there people, who inspired your steps and how much of influence were they?
First, as a Christian, I owe my inspiration and strength to God, who has guided my path and granted me uncommon grace so far. There have also been many amazing people who have inspired my work over the years. They include my family, close friends, and mentors. For a long time, I put off starting Girl Pride Circle, until I attended a residential leadership training convened by one of my mentors – Jonah Obajeun. He inspired me to take the bold step in 2014. My family members were also my first set of funders and volunteers, and their belief in my vision greatly motivated me to keep going. I also remember when we incorporated the organization as an NGO in 2016. I was still a student at that time, but my close friends rallied around me to provide the required amount. These are the most valuable players in my life, and I am honoured to have their support.
Have you ever had an experience you can term a turning point? If yes, you share it with us?
Within the first few months of starting my organization “Girl Pride Circle”, I met a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by someone in her neighborhood when she was sent on an errand at night. She reported the incident to her mother, who turned around and blamed her, calling her all sorts of names. This girl received no medical attention or therapy, despite being deeply scared. She became withdrawn, depressed and her performance in school was heading south.
I knew about the statistics of sexual violence at that time, but meeting this young survivor put a face to every headline and number I had ever come across. It made me realize how deep sexual violence has eaten into the fabric of the Nigerian society and the fact that adolescent girls are under attack. This further inspired me to accelerate my advocacy efforts for the prevention of sexual violence – particularly against adolescent girls who are arguably the most vulnerable population.
What inspired your interest in the affairs of the Girl Child?
My early experience as a child parliamentarian exposed me to the peculiar issues that confront the average girl child. Through grassroots engagement, I came face to face with lack of access to education for girls, female genital mutilation and other disheartening forms of child abuse which are largely perpetrated against girls. It did not take long before I realized that protecting girls’ health, rights and wellbeing is my life-long struggle. Girls makeup over 12 percent of our population and empowering them is the right thing to do.
On being a feminist
It may not have been conscious, but my parents groomed me to be a Feminist. I grew up as the only girl child amidst my three brothers, yet my upbringing was not different in any sense. I had access to the best education my parents could afford, I played video games as much as I played with dolls, and I did the dishes and washed my daddy’s car – just like my brothers.
My parents set the same moral and behavioral standards for all of us, regardless of whether we were male or female. Having this kind of equal mindset as a child, I was shocked to go into the wider society to witness patriarchy and gross gender inequality. This is the social ill that Feminism seeks to fix.
Feminism is an ideology that simply champions equal socio-economic opportunities for all, regardless of gender. It is not a battle of the sexes or an off-shoot of “man-hating” as wrongly projected by many. There is no simple solution to our developmental challenges in Nigeria. However, ensuring that everyone can have their voices heard and access opportunities on the basis of individual competence is a great way to progress. Gender is simply what it is. It should not be a prerequisite for leadership, economic empowerment, and dignity.
Tell us about your experience at the UN where you flew Nigeria’s flag?
I was privileged to receive full sponsorship from Women Deliver , a global advocacy organization, to participate in the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly , UNGA. Apart from the political deliberations at country level, the UNGA also presented an opportunity for Civil Society and UN agencies to engage meaningfully around pressing global issues. It was a very insightful and empowering experience for me. I was privileged to attend a breakfast strategy meeting alongside 20 influential civil society representatives and Dr. Tedros Adhanom, on his 100th day as the first African Director-General of the World Health Organization.
Also, I was invited by Population Council, National Democratic Institute and Running Start to speak about the dividends of civic empowerment of adolescent girls and young women. The highlight of my time at UNGA was speaking on a high-level panel convened by the H6 – a partnership among the UNAIDS, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN WOMEN, WHO and World Bank for synergized actions on Sexual Reproductive Maternal Newborn Child and Adolescent Health (SRMNCAH) within the UN system.
I was humbled to share the stage with Mr. Alexander de Croo – Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development Cooperation, Digital Agenda, Telecommunications and Postal Services; Dr. Flavia Bustreo – WHO Assistant Director-General for Family, Women and Children Health; Mr. Yannick Glemarec, UN Women Deputy Executive Director; and Mr. Ted Chaiban, Director of Programmes, UNICEF.
When you look at the kind of high-end exposures you have had in the light of the fact that a larger percentage of youths in the country are constrained from living their dreams by systemic challenges, how do you feel?
To me, achievements are not about awards, position or privilege. My understanding of an achievement can be summed up in one question: “What or who is better because of you?” I am particularly proud of the impact that Girl Pride Circle has made in advocating for girls rights and empowering girls to make a difference.
So far, we have been able to reach over 1500 girls across Southwest Nigeria through education clubs and grassroots workshops, educating them about leadership, advocacy, sexual/reproductive health and rights and ancillary gender issues. This was possible because of my amazing team and our selfless volunteers. With the support of our donors, we currently keep 200 girls in school by providing them with termly supplies of hygienic sanitary pads. Most significantly, my organization launched a project last year – “Safe Kicks Initiative: Adolescent Girls Against Sexual Violence. We designed a curriculum on sexual violence prevention and engaged 270 adolescent girls through after-school clubs. We also provided the girls with basic self-defense classes (Taekwondo) to improve their self-confidence and self-defense skills. These girls have drafted an unprecedented Community Action Plan for the Prevention of Sexual Violence in Alimosho Local Government Area, LGA, the largest local government area in Lagos. The Action Plan was adopted by the LGA and other community leaders. It is currently in the hands of over 1,500 community stakeholders and serves as a uniform tool to help the community deal a final blow on sexual violence. We are looking forward to scaling impact in the coming years.
As a young and passionate leader, I hold three values close to my heart. Ther are integrity, excellence, and service. In everything I do, I am committed to being transparent, putting in my very best and serving as many individuals as I can. With a commitment to these values, I believe that there are boundless opportunities to soar.