The Minister of Women Affairs, Barr Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye is one of the dependable ministers in cabinet of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. She has unveiled her mission and strategy for success in the ministry in bits and has remained resolute on achieving them. In this interview, she talks about empowering women and the girl child with skills rather than hand-outs that are not sustainable. She speaks about reducing the rate of child marriage irrespective of religion and culture with penetrating messages and empowerment schemes as well as setting aside Fridays as skills acquisition days in schools, and more. She spoke to the Arise TV. Excerpts:
You talked about how to help Nigerian women access US market and all of that. But, there’s an unresolved matter I personally would like to talk about. The last time we had you on this programme, you were reported as having told certain audience that you wanted school children to be involved in production of sanitary pads, pencils and maybe not go to school on Fridays, so, that children can be involved in industrial production. I felt it is a misplacement of priority. Something government cannot do, you are saying we should use our children’s time to go and use them for production when government itself has not been able to do that. Let’s discharge that first before we begin to talk about your trip to New York.
Thank you! I don’t know how to explain it but you actually misunderstood me, seriously. I have been saying this over and over again in different stations, everywhere, even to the donors, I have been saying it. I said I want my women empowered, I don’t want handout anymore. There has been so much handouts, over the years and at the end of the day, the women end up with nothing, poverty is increased, even every other thing they have been fighting, and including female genital mutilation in particular has increased from 5 states to 9 states.
So, what I said is even for the out of school children, if you want to curb it, there is no other way you can do it rather than empowering their mothers and equally teaching these children skills. By teaching them skills, you’re getting them ready to be able to face the world and have a voice. When they are given skills, they can fend for themselves as soon as they leave secondary schools and are up to 18 years. They have what to do and can equally train themselves in the University. So, that is what I meant from what I said that you misunderstood and I would have expected you to understand it better than every other person. You’ve been in this particular field for quite a while. I said instead of doing these things for nothing, set them in schools and the professionals would be there to run them. On Fridays, the students will be given opportunities to go into that same factory and learn how to produce those things and fortunately, there’s a school already doing that.
There’s a school in Gariki that I went to. It’s part of the videos that you have there and in that school they have all these equipment and the people managing that equipment are producing those things to the extent that they produce even the children’s tables and chairs. They produce so many things, I went there and it was amazing, I couldn’t believe it. That was exactly what I said and what I meant. I said let’s put these things instead of leaving them idle. Let the people managing the factories be producing those things.
For a while now, they go to schools, different schools once in a while to give them sanitary pads. How can that be sustainable? That is the handout I don’t want for my women anymore. They give them sanitary pads, they give this school this month and by the time it gets to that school again, that is if it ever gets to them, it takes like another one year. How will that child sustain that same thing all this while that you’ve not been giving the person? So, I am going to buy those machines and put the factory in the female schools. I will scatter it around as much as I can afford, some Nigerians can afford, to be able to meet up with the renewed hope of the President, so, that the factory will be functional there. On Fridays, if I am able to get that day, in conjunction with the Minster for Education and the President, the children will learn how to produce things and by the time they leave school, they must have gotten a skill, especially those that are interested in that particular one and that is not the only thing.
I equally spoke about toothpick and some of you were saying Barr. Uju is telling our children to go and start producing toothpicks. Are we not supposed to be ashamed of ourselves that till date, Nigeria is importing toothpick? We have wood, we have everything it takes to produce toothpick and that’s a necessity, and the best business anybody can do. You make so much money from little investments and people are saying why are you telling them to be making toothpicks in Nigeria? Why won’t I say that? Cotton bud, we are importing from China, we import everything here. We have cotton, we have wood, so why am I not going to encourage that?
Barr. I appreciate your passion for Nigeria to begin to create, make things, produce things. What a number of people criticize is that are you just looking at the wrong demography with all these production issues in Nigeria whereby you’re taking it to the students to do. It almost looks like you are punishing the girls for them to have a period to manufacture their own sanitary items and the likes, dedicating a whole day. That’s one and you know the second part of this is for those who are not interested in production, who are interested in STEMS, science, technology, engineering, mathematics. What do they do on the Fridays while their counterparts are learning how to make toothpicks? Are you saying it’s going to be compulsory for everybody? What I understand here is rather than addressing an issue for jobless Nigerians, a number of unemployed youths in Nigeria, you’re asking children whom you should encourage to go to school and learn because we have education challenge in the nation. You’re asking them to embark on production and that’s the issue here. It is not your good intention to go and tackle the issue of production we are worried about. Then the second question I would like you to address since you have been responding to statements that are controversial, what happened at the University of Calabar, what’s the update on that?
Let me first take the first one because if you juggle the two questions, I won’t be able to give you the correct answers. Let me take the first one that you asked. I never said it will be only this thing because if you go to all the schools, they have places they produce things. They have the ones that are plumbers in the making, they have mechanics in the making, they have traders in the making, they have all these things in technical schools. That is what I am talking about. I am talking about almost all the vocational that will be helpful to these children.
They equally have Information, Communication and Technology,ICT. I just used a few as an example and I was totally misunderstood. So, I was talking about vocation totally. I only mentioned few as an example. I equally went ahead to mention empowerment of women generally. That is what I’m in charge of, women and children, and I said instead of giving our children money which is an handout, let us equally introduce them into anything they can do, depending on the area where they belong.
There are women today that are almost living on a river, they can do fishing, that is what they are doing for a living already. I can encourage them, give them the machine they are fabricating in Nigeria as I speak, that can roast and dry 500 fishes at a go. This will enhance that business for them and I equally made it possible for them to have people who can help them in marketing these products. So, I am talking about empowerment in general, preparing the children for empowerment and employment.
Where would the funding come for this project? How do you want to fund this project?
Okay! Some of these projects do not need lots of money. There are some of these machines that are 350,000 naira. No matter the little money I’m given in that my ministry, I will be able to use it and achieve a lot, then if you go to the acquisition center of Minster of Women Affairs, we have machine across the 774 local governments. So, what do I do?. All I need is to enhance it, bring in a more recent machine to mix up with the older ones and they will start production. Things that are good enough to be exported and can be worn in Nigeria, that is all. I don’t need so much money to achieve all these things.
So, what’s the cost of the project? What’s the total cost of all these, that is what she was trying to ask you before I ask my main question. If you have planned it, what is the cost, give us the number.
The total budget I planned for everything is about 64bn naira and it is inclusive of many other things I can still mention to you if you give me the time.
Let’s talk about this University of Calabar sex scandal. There were allegations of threats and defense. Anyway, you’ve apologized for it, but, the truth of the matter is that the call you made, can you tell us more about all of these, please?
Number one, let me start by saying good to meet you. I have actually been looking forward to this. Number one is I stand with my women, I stand with the girls and it is my duty to protect them, protect their secrecy. I’m not supposed to come out here and start saying so many things, I just want you to realize that I stand with my women. Then, number two, people are different in how they do their work. Some people like to sit down and delegate things to people. In my own case, I like to get involved in my job. I was not nominated to be a big woman, sit down and hang my shoulders that I am a Minister. I am here to serve, I was sent to serve these women and these children, protect them and that’s why I took it upon myself to make the calls myself and it is not everything one talks about. Forget social media, it is not everything you see on social media that is worth discussing. Maybe you didn’t read my statement well.
You first denied the calls and said it was not you even after Truecaller brought out your number. You first said it was a wrong number. Those were the statements alluded here and afterwards, when the heat was much, you went out there to apologize. So, what really went wrong? We need clarity as regards that matter because you are a Minister and you are also a lawyer and you know the evidence of all these things going on.
I am sorry please, I have never denied the calls. Why should I do that? I even came out on a video to repeat the same thing and for the interest of the girls, I needed to talk to them. I wanted to invite them over, I don’t want to go into all these. But, the point is that I never ever denied the call. How can I deny the call when there is a video where I said the same thing? How could I deny it? And the issue of apology, I did not apologize on the issue of standing by justice. I want justice to be done. I have even gone further. I had a meeting yesterday with all the press and I said. This is my exact word. I stand with my women, I stand with justice and if anybody has misconstrued what I said or misunderstood me, I am sorry, but I still maintain I stand with justice. That was my exact word, bring it out and you see it and I still stand with justice.
Now, let’s go back to New York. You attended the meeting on trade facilitation where you pledged that you will do whatever you could to ensure that Nigerian women have access to the market in the US. You also participated in a forum where the issue was about child marriage and how to achieve SDG 5 and.3 and you made a pledge that under your watch, you’ll do whatever it takes to end the scourge of child marriage in Nigeria. You quoted the child right acts and other steps that have been taken by the government. I looked at the details of your presentation. How are you going to deal with the scourge of challenge of culture and religion? Some members of our society think that religion allows you to marry a girl child even if that child is 10years old. How are you going to go about that because that has been a problem and we have seen senators in Nigeria parading 15years old as their wives? So, just take us through some of your summations at UNGA 78.
Thank you, just like I told them at UNGA and I keep telling the donors, every area has a particular approach. You can’t approach Nigeria with the same way you approach the Westerners and you expect it to work. Which is one of the reasons all of the money they’ve been bringing in have been spent and nothing much have been achieved and I told them how grateful we are concerning the money they’ve been bringing in, but, they have to start channeling that money with a new narrative on how it will impact my country because the style they are using is not working and when you are using a style that is not working, what an intelligent person would do is to change the narrative of things. We really need this in the country.
So, I told them for child marriage, number one, generally, if you want to curb child marriage, it starts by empowering their mothers. When you empower their mothers like I am trying to do. I have already started. Within three weeks, you start seeing the actions of what I have been doing. So, if you empower their mothers, you’ve built their self- confidence, and when their self- confidence is built, they will be able to stand firmly and defend their daughters and if you encourage the girls to learn vocation and it depends on what that girl wants.
Everybody has a choice of what kind of projects or things you want to get involved in. Any acquisition you want to get involved in, if you equally empower that child with skill that will equally build the confidence of that child to stand firmly and say no, I am not ready to marry now. Most of the families that get married, they are marrying their children on time out of poverty. Look at them, how many rich children are married off at 15 years? So, if we are able to contain poverty and empower these people, it will be able to go a long way, both North and South. Then again, issue of advocacy, the way you talk to Northerners and get them to understand what you’re saying and do it matters. They are human beings and everybody has a friend. There is a way you can approach anybody and you will be able to get to the conscience of that person and the person will start having a rethink. They should be handled differently just like female genital mutilation is still the same within the same child law.
After that, we now move forward to empowering them, then we go into sensitization, and then the sensitization we want to do will follow each area in the manner they will understand it. Introducing them in the language they will understand. But, can you do this without the rule of law? No! Can you do this without empowering them? No! Because these basic things are not there. How do we achieve that?
During the president’s campaign, he made mention that his cabinet will be made up of 35% women. Currently, he has only 19%, that is, a little over half of what he promised. What would you do to champion more women in governance, to support the president to actualize his campaign policy? What policies would you put in place to ensure that not only do women get a seat at the table, but there is a space for them consistently? Just touch on how you hope to get more women to government.
When it comes to president Bola Ahmed Tinubu, believe me I don’t need to do anything. You will see for yourself by the time he finishes with appointment. You’ll be so shocked, he is He for She. He doesn’t joke with smart women that can deliver. The most important thing to our president is how he will move Nigeria to a different position all together, when I mean position that America will be a child’s play. That is what the man is targeting. He doesn’t need anybody to, he knows and that is what he wishes to do, so, let’s calm down, let him finish his appointment. Even as we speak, the majority of SAs and SSAs that he appointed, are women, so, more appointments are yet to come. So, just calm down with time, you will see.