The argument about more responsible and intentional, value-driven parenting is unexceptionable but it truly takes a village to raise a child, and to the extent that the environment is important: Certainly there must be roles for institutions – religious, civil, traditional and communal. Okeowo raises important questions about how to save the girl child. Who will save the boy-child too? And what role must governments play to protect all segments of the population?
We have had a dizzying last 10 days at home and abroad: Novak Djokovic, with his COVID timeline of humiliation, from Melbourne to Dubai, and probably back to his home land of Serbia, where a disgraceful hero’s welcome awaits him for his abominable conduct, which may have far-reaching implications for his legacy and career. Then, the Party Gate Scandal at No 10 Downing Street, where PM Boris Johnson and his team have been downing booze during COVID restrictions (May – December 2021) and pretending to be holier than thou on top of it. BoJo needs to be reminded that he is not above the law. The U.K. needs to remind its leader that if the Chairman of Credit Suisse can be forced to resign for failing the test of personal responsibility and accountability, and Her Majesty’s favourite son can lose his pampered kid privileges because of bad association and conduct, then journalist-turned-Prime Minister Boris Johnson also needs to be reminded that the laws of England do not allow him to disobey the people’s laws and his own government’s guidelines, and get away with impunity. The Labour Party is 10 points ahead in the polls, and Boris Johnson is about to lead the Conservatives to perdition. His hurriedly concocted “Operation Red Meat” and populist sops may not save him and his government. China has recorded a GDP growth of 8.1 per cent, above the target of about 6 per cent, but retail sales is down to 1.7 per cent, the property sector which accounts for 25 per cent of the GDP is in trouble, the country’s zero COVID policy has impacted on productivity and efficiency, the People’s Bank of China’s reduction of interest rates has raised questions about how far China is willing to go to make key loans cheaper for businesses, even as that amounts to a loosening of President Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity policies”. Nonetheless, the president of China is beating a different tune on interest rates, and the path to economic recovery. The Chinese should keep their troubles to themselves!
Back home: There is the on-going African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon. The Super Eagles seem to be doing well. But there have been killings in the North-East of Nigeria and yet the Governor of Yobe State and Caretaker Chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress party (APC), Mai Mala Buni says there is so much peace in Nigeria, that the people can now sleep with two eyes closed, because President Muhammadu Buhari has tackled the insecurity problem in the country effectively. Pure sycophantic tosh. That is what that is – in a country where the people have been blinded by killings and sundry forms of terrorism in all directions. And on top of all that, in the week that just ended, more Nigerians showed interest in the 2003 presidential race: Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) increased the volume with his visit to President Muhammadu Buhari to declare his interest in the presidency of Nigeria and seek the president’s support. Questions: Is the Tinubu dream realisable? And what next for Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, just in case he is also interested? Can he stand up to his former boss and mentor? In a copy-cat move, the governor of Ebonyi State also rushed to the Presidential Villa to announce that he is also interested in the Nigerian presidency. He also met with the president and addressed the State House Press Corps. Can someone in charge please stop this charade of going to the president to announce presidential interest? Nigeria does not run a branch of any political party secretariat at the Presidential Villa. I honestly hope that one of these days we would not wake up to see some elements pasting their campaign posters in front of the president’s office and other parts of the Presidential Villa! These are definitely issues of interest, but sometimes the big issues can be boring and so repetitive, “the God of small things” speaks truth to power, and that is why I have chosen today to talk about books and something else, and here goes.
In the early 1990s, I was privileged to have been actively involved in the Non-Governmental (NGO) community in Nigeria, working either as a consultant or resource person on a number of diverse issues including development funding by international aid agencies, HIV/AIDS and health reporting, public health communication, women empowerment advocacy, women’s reproductive health and decision making, youth mentoring, population management, the environment, and adolescent reproductive health and sexuality. International donor agencies were particularly interested in the latter, that is adolescent reproductive health and sexuality in the context of the spread of global poverty, population explosion, harmful cultural practices and prejudices, gender imbalance and the rapid surge in cases of HIV/AIDS, and the findings by researchers and observers alike that both the girl-child and female adolescents were among the most vulnerable categories of the world’s population. I recall, in particular, in those days, sessions at the Action Health Incorporated (AHI), a Lagos-based NGO established by Mrs Nike Essiet and her husband, Dr Uwem Essiet, with a special focus on adolescents. The Essiets conducted research and surveys, and ran advocacy and peer review clinics for adolescent girls on such topics as abstinence, reproductive health, family life, sexuality, condom negotiating skills, and the dangers of early pregnancy and marriage. The tone of the methodology was preventive: How do we prevent many young girls, burdened by all kinds of factors, from becoming victims of those same factors and how they can be empowered to negotiate and make informed choices, and live meaningful lives. One of the early gains of that period was the development of a National Sexuality Education Curriculum within the school system, and the generation of useful literature on the subject to promote awareness.
The problem, as identified, was that adolescent sexuality was unusually high among Nigerian adolescents. Many young girls in secondary schools were already sexually active by the age of 16, many of them with multiple sex partners. The result was a high rate of abortion, often carried out by quacks and in secrecy, because of the illegality of abortion in Nigeria and the stigma of teenage pregnancy. Many young girls had their future aborted, their potentials destroyed, and the net of poverty and social deprivation was expanded. The boys and men who put the girls in the family way were usually not affected; nor did they take responsibility. The girls were either forced to marry early or they dropped out of school. Close to 60 per cent of abortion related cases in Nigerian hospitals involved adolescents. Many were also not protected by culture. In parts of the country, male adults married teenage girls and justified this on the grounds of religion and culture. Many of such girls were denied the opportunity of going to school, and because their bodies were not fully developed for pregnancy and motherhood, the hospitals were filled with young girls afflicted with Vesico-Vaginal Fistula. Maternal mortality and morbidity among pregnant teenage girls was high. The girls needed to be saved.
It is unfortunate, however, that as I reflect on some of the early work done in the 90s, in which I was both an observer and a participant, the condition of the Nigerian adolescent appears worse today than it was two decades ago. The education sector is troubled, as young girls are now special targets of kidnappers, bandits, terrorists and criminals, who turn them into sex slaves or brides against their wish, to their detriment. Nigeria has in place the Child Rights Act, signed into law in 2003 but many states, 12 of them, have to date refused to give assent to the law. Child marriages remain rampant. Poverty has turned many young girls into prostitutes and victims in the hands of sexual predators. Rape is prevalent. Economic deprivation has destroyed family life. Parents are distracted. Teachers no longer pay enough attention to their roles in loco parentis. The gains of the past have been eroded. The present is worse than the past. Nonetheless, in a country that has one of the youngest populations in the world, a critical segment such as the youth population cannot be allowed to lose its potential to reckless sex and depravity, in an age of sexual permissiveness.
It is with these preliminary thoughts and reflections that I introduce three books that I have just read and which are now available for public appreciation and appraisal by Temilolu Oluwakemi Okeowo, namely Becoming An Alpha Female – A Guide Book for the Young Female, (2021, 96 pp.), Wisdom for Girls (2021, 84pp) and Letters To My daughters (2021, 82 pp.). Temilolu Okeowo is an Apostle, a Christian Evangelist of the Word, founder and Head Girl of The Girls Club of Nigeria, The Girls Apostolic Ministry of All Nations and the The Girls Club of Africa US. Inc. Since her days as an undergraduate student of Law, Ms Okeowo has been involved in advocacy for the girl child: How can she be saved in a depraved society, where a young girl is a natural victim of the combined forces of poverty, sexual predation and misogyny. Whereas the NGO work that I referred to earlier conducted research and community based counseling, Temilolu Okeowo adopts the strategy of counseling and mentoring, and her platforms are the church pulpit, newspaper writings, the social media, books and direct action. She relies heavily on the Bible, and in all three books, the moral and Biblical dimensions of her arguments are unmistakable. Okeowo does not talk science. Her mission is to prevent young girls from going to Hell and losing their souls, because of what she calls “five minutes of enjoyment.”
She leaves the reader in no doubt that she believes pre-marital sex is more than a sin, that sexual intercourse is a spiritual encounter and chastity until marriage is the best and only option for any young lady who wants to become an Alpha Female. In the book, Becoming an Alpha Female, Temilolu Okeowo articulates the main themes of her concern. In a rather feminist tone, she argues that an average woman is imbued with divine privileges and gifts that men cannot “boast of” – women are designed by God to nurture the universe and sustain it, but many women have lost their purpose in life and ruined their own potentials because of sexual intercourse with men who deposit ill-luck and evil in their destinies. In 20 Chapters, the author offers detailed counsel about what a young girl must do to achieve her full potentials in line with God’s principles. She says for example: “Girls, You are Institutions, not Barbie Dolls”, “Don’t let the World Damage You”, “Don’t End up (as) Slay Morons”, “Must You Have a Boyfriend Even at 18?”, “Pre-Marital Sex Gives the Devil an Upper Hand…”, “Don’t Let the Social Media Redirect Your Life”, “A Prayer Warrior Has the World At Her Feet”… “Stop Idolising Your Pastors”. My favourite Chapter, if you may imagine, is Chapter 20 on the dangers of idolising pastors. Okeowo is forthright in declaring that some pastors are at best “evil men hiding under the cloak of man of God”, and that they are human and not flawless men who could destroy the souls of innocent young girls.
Okeowo preaches faith in God, proper alignment with God. This much is well stated in the two other books: Wisdom for Girls and Letters to my Daughters. Here, the author is the “Agony Aunt” as she provides a compilation of columns she had written in The Nation and PUNCH newspapers and on her Facebook page. The chapters in both books are in the form of requests for advice, as well as comments, sent to the columnist/author by the public, mostly young girls, and their mothers. Accordingly, every response is directed to “my darling, precious, glorious, dignified, world-famous and heavenly-celebrated daughters”. Her tone is affirmative and optimistic. She seems convinced that every girl can be saved if only the female adolescent would avoid sex, or covenant with the Devil through pre-marital sex, and live a chaste life like Esther and Joseph in the Bible. She recommends the spiritual life, and the need to avoid a certain distraction called “boyfriend”, which can only result in sexual exploitation, slavery, misery and bondage. There are practical tips about how to go through university and graduate as a virgin! In Wisdom for Girls, the author specifically tells girls to beware of men and to learn how to deal with them, and that it is possible to get pregnant as a virgin if a woman does not keep her distance from a man. Okeowo’s ideal girl is “The God Girl”, “The Virgin”. The villains of her narrative are lecherous men who take advantage of young girls with baits, randy young men who are just interested in their own lust, reckless young girls who give in to peer pressure or are simply wayward, and parents who have a duty to guide their children but are themselves neck-deep in sin, setting bad examples from generation to generation. Okeowo’s evangelical mission is to save everyone and to get those who may have been victims at one point or the other to move on, and embrace a new life, like Oprah Winfrey and Joyce Meyer.
These are altogether, books that should be read by every young girl out there who has been rendered vulnerable in a society that has lost its moral dimension. Copies of the book should be purchased and distributed widely in schools not just across Nigeria but the entire African continent. The plight of the girl-child in Nigeria, as demonstrated in the pages of these three books, is fairly representative of a universal dilemma, felt and experienced more, in varying degrees, in the developing world, especially, where poverty is rife, and the enforcement of fundamental human rights is culturally determined. Okeowo constructs a binary universe of vulnerable girls and bad boys/men but isn’t it society itself that should be blamed and isn’t the system of leadership and governance in need of re-consideration? The assumption that men are evil may be too much of a generalisation. I do not believe that all men and all boys are bad or that the overriding goal of every male in relation to the opposite gender is sexual intercourse. The truth is that even adolescent boys are also as vulnerable as the girls and there must be examples in that regard if we look closely enough. The argument about more responsible and intentional, value-driven parenting is unexceptionable but it truly takes a village to raise a child, and to the extent that the environment is important: Certainly there must be roles for institutions – religious, civil, traditional and communal. Okeowo raises important questions about how to save the girl child. Who will save the boy-child too? And what role must governments play to protect all segments of the population? These are the other questions beyond the teachings of the Bible, beyond morality, beyond faith and individual choices.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.