By NBF News

• Ogbonnaya

Recently, the first lady, Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan launched her project, Women for Change 2011. She demanded 35 percent of the elective offices for women. Ultimately, the vision for this laudable project is to further empower and enhance the status of women. Naturally, therefore, this initiative like the previous ones championed and initiated by her predecessors is to be replicated in all the states. In view of this, Rivers State is kick starting its chapter of the initiative with activities slated for August 19-24. The event which will be hosted by the governor's wife, Mrs. Amaechi, is to be launched by Dame Jonathan in Port Harcourt.

Dr Patricia Ogbonnaya is Permanent Secretary, Rivers State Ministry of Women Affairs and head, Publicity Committee, Women for Change, 2011. In an interview recently in Port Harcourt, Dr Ogbonnaya told Daily Sun that women have been alienated over the years, and those who struggled to gain relevance met with stiff-necked resistance. She revealed that this affirmative action, Change for Women 2011is not just elective positions but it is aimed at allowing women take part in decision making.

She talked about the structures in place and their readiness to sustain the tempo of the present mobilization to make the project go beyond 2011.

Speaking of her ministry's assistance and the impact of their programmes on the lives of the rural dwellers, she noted that their main focus is to translate the sweat of Rivers women to wealth by setting up cottage industries and training women on it. Excerpts:

Recently, Dame Jonathan launched her project, Women for Change, 2011 demanding 35 percent of elective offices for women.

What makes you think that this is achievable?
It is achievable because with God, all things are possible and God being on the side of the women. That is the wife of the President talking. So, it is coming from the right quarters. For her to have the courage to go all out and it means the husband is also in support. And of course, here in Rivers State, he is a gender-sensitive governor, also. I think in this dispensation, we have many men in positions that are well-disposed to it, but the issue is how you go about it. My strong word is prayers, then, persuasion.

They are in power now. They are holding power. For you to take a sharp knife, you have to be very careful. But we all know that that the men are also soft depending on how you handle them. They are like children. If you want to be hard, they would now flex their muscle, but if you know how to go about it, they will yield. They would say, since my wife is there and she loves me, she won't hurt me. So, I think it is all about persuasion and dialogue and of course, appealing to their mind to see your capacity and potentials to help them and the larger society

What is the grassroot level of this mobilization as it concerns women in towns and villages?

The grassroot women are very much involved. In fact, the Rivers State First Lady is working hand in hand with the local government chairpersons. The chairpersons are the chief co-ordinators and we, the publicity committee are in touch with people at the grassroot. We are in touch with the National Orientation Agency (NOA). They are good at sensitization and they are in all the local government areas and I am a grassroot woman. Our strategies is that we go to the various communities, local government areas, traditional rulers to mobilize their subjects. We also talk with the National Council for Women Societies (NCWS), it is the umbrella body where all the women's clubs are linked to. So they are all in tune with what we are doing. now

Has there been any resistance or opposition in relation to what you are doing?

No, not at all. The only is issue is that some men have had the misconception of what we are doing. Thinking that these women are out to overrun them and that we have come to wrestle equality with them, but when you explain and convince them, they see that we are far away from taking over from them but we are only trying to offer what we have and they just give their total support.

Is this agitation only aimed at creating elective positions for women or are they geared towards good governance against what we are getting from the men today?

It is not for only elective offices. It is both for elective and non-elective offices. You know before independence, we had a good structure that allowed women to go for elective posts especially as it concerns women. It was the colonial masters that eradicated that. That women can't even talk so the issue is not just elective positions, it is to allow women to take part in decision making processes. Put them in anywhere you need a change and they will bring the desirable change. That thing Nigeria has been struggling for 50 years, is in the hands of the women. Today, we are singing America's glory, there was a time their women were not given a chance and of course, that time, they were not the world leader.

Are you saying that women have been alienated over the years?

Yes, over the years, it has not been rosy and smooth for the women, especially those who struggled throughout the period. It was stiff necked resistance. They called them all sorts of names.

Would you say therefore, that women are making some progress in this regard?

I would say yes. It wasn't always so. We are making some progress. We haven't got there yet but we will soon. At least, for the first time, we have women in ministerial positions that were hithetho meant for the men. Now, like the Ministries of Finance and that of the Petroleum Resources, we have women as the ministers So, I think, we will get there. It is only a question of time

From experience, we have seen projects of former First Ladies. What makes you think that what is happening now will not end up as wasting funds or resources going down the drain?

The previous projects, by the former Presidents' wives didn't fail. Don't forget that this ministry was championed and created by a former First Lady. The Better Life For Rural Women project culminated into the Ministry of Women Affairs.

Today, women have a voice. It doesn't matter whether or not the voice is heard. At least, they are talking. Another woman has come with the intent that this voice must be heard. Maybe, another will come to make people listen to that voice. They have made one impact or the other at their different times of emergence depending on their areas of focus. And when the problem is enormous, you can be sure that people may not see the results immediately but with time, they will see.

What about the challenges of funding, would it not be an issue?

The issue of funding is a great challenge, but at the same time, the funds is in the hands of the men, our husbands, our sons and brothers. It is a vicious circle. No matter how they try to run, we are there. It is just that we have not really applied the potentials on them, of course, we will get what we want. If we appeal to them, with God on our side, we will get the fund.

Do you believe in the saying that men are the heads, no doubt, but women are the necks that spin the head?

Yes, of course. I believe in hierarchy. Even in the animal world, there is still the male dominance. So let us not deceive ourselves. God is an orderly God. He has made it so but He is a just God. The men are truly the heads. Let us applaud them. Their headship is not in contest but they can't at the same time be the necks. All we are saying is while you are the head, give us our due. The truth, however, is that the neck has to be careful. If anything affects the head, it will affect the neck and if anything affects the neck, the head will suffer. So, it is all about understanding

What words of encouragement can you give to women who might be skeptical about this project?

The Bible says faith without work is dead. The fact is that they should look back at history and compare with today, they would realize that women have been on the move. This fight that seemed insormountable, they will know that there are challenges at every stage.

They should be courageous enough and come out to join in this struggle.

What structures are in place and what plans do you have to sustain the tempo of this campaign to make it go beyond 2011?

You can easily sustain it if you are able to win the hearts of the people. Once they are convinced, you can be sure that it is sustained. You now leave it for them and they will run with the vision. You won't have to struggle on how to sustain it. They will. It is train the trainer process, it keeps going. Once you do this job well making sure that the people have bought into the vision, it will sustain itself.

As a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Women Affairs, can you tell us the direction and focus of your ministry?

Our main focus is to translate the sweat of the women to wealth. It has been women who are being driven for every job such as farming, fishing and other duties. They will sweat and gain nothing afterwards. We want to ensure that this goes to the point of production, processing and harvesting for them. Let this woman who has been sweating enjoy and benefit this time.

How do you want to go about it?
We are establishing cottage industries. We are trying to train women in agro related programmes. We have trained women in production of cat fish and we will go into mushrooms, snail and other such areas. We are setting up small scale celophene industry.

We don't believe in this white Elephant projects. We want to have small compact process line that will start and finish. We also want to have feed mill process line and fish farming from process to finishing line that you can manage.

You don't need huge sum to start. Take manageable level and run with it. If only women can sacrifice a little and shelve quest for fashion trends, everyone will in no time become a manager or owner of small business. We are interested in cottage industries and training women on it. Then, with time, we can go into cooperatives and giving out loans

Has the state government put in place mechanisms that positively impacted on the lives of women?

Like for widows, this government is passionate about their plight and have put in place mechanisms to alleviate their sufferings. The Governor and his wife gave the widows raw cash and most of them who have no business before now are proud owners of businesses. Initially though, they were afraid of taking the loans and worried about how to pay back. We gave a minimum of N50,000 which is the CBN regulated standard for micro credit. The only way to pay back is by being prudent and save whatever little you can from your daily sales and in no time, you are paying back effortlessly. With that theory, many have expanded their businesses while those who didn't have before were able to start something. Even if it is crayfish, pure water or any item, you will be glad you did

What has your Ministry done so far for the girl child in schools?

We have met with our girls in the secondary schools and we had a lot of revelations. Some of the girls are so depressed. They have no one to talk to, not even their parents. We noticed the communication gap between them and their parents. People think they have no needs but they have. They have been looking for people to talk to because their parents have become so officious in relating with them. It is so sad that that the girl child can no longer rely on her mother again because her mother is trying to please her husband. We met with this group of girls. From there, we established a counseling programme for them. We also 11 days of elaborate celebration of activities geared towards ending violence against women in Rivers state.

We went for advocacy to traditional rulers, the House of Assembly and even the Police. If we have any case of violence, we just hand it over to the police to help us investigate and sort it out. After our interaction with the girl child, we met with parents and told them of our findings. We are working with the medics on infant and maternal health care delivery. We are working hard to meet up with our mandate. This Ministry has a paint factory but at a point, it stopped working. The most practical of all these is the reactivation of the paint factory. Now, we are producing at optimal level.

Is there any follow-up system to monitor the effectiveness of what you have put in place?

Yes, we have monitoring departments that are in charge. They go to the fields and report back to the Ministry at all times. Knowing that implementation of and adherence to regulations is our bane, this Ministry recognizes the need for change of attitude and focus on that. We believe strongly in advocacy. We call different groups of people and talk to them. Once you convince some on what you are doing, you don't need to police her.