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Martha Emmanuel, wife of the governor and a church deaconess, has taken on the task of safeguarding girls and women. By Idongesit Ashameri

IN AKWA IBOM State, the adolescent preg­nancy rate is estimated at 17 per cent, which means that nearly one in every five girls aged 15-19 is either pregnant or has had a child. This alarming development, which mirrors a 2008 report of the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) that identified the country as one with highest adolescent pregnancy rate in Africa, has aroused great concern about the need to empower families and to restore values among young people.

To address the problem, the Family Empowerment and Youth Reorientation Programme (FEYReP), a project run by the First Lady of Akwa Ibom State, Martha Udom Emmanuel was inaugurated on September 21 last year.

The five pillars of the project were stream­lined to empower women to provide eco­nomic and emotional support to their fam­ilies, advocate for the prevention of teenage pregnancy and education of girls, create a platform for promoting moral values and economic excellence among the youths, and to support government efforts towards sus­tainable development.

To achieve this it became expedient to deliberately shift the paradigm beyond charity for its sake, and approach such inter­ventions as a social investment. With this in place, social returns on investment (SROI) in the form of reduced incidence of adoles­cent pregnancy, low youth-related violence, cultism and crime rates, reduced rates of drug and alcohol abuse, improved educa­tional achievements, reduced maternal, infant and child mortality and morbidity, improved health, educational and economic outcomes for the entire society, would be expected as reward.

The project seeks to stem the tide of teenage pregnancy and encourage the edu­cation of girls, empower women to impact positively on the society, combat gender- based violence, poverty, provide economic lifelines for vulnerable families (including those with disabilities) and support youth development through reorientation and eco­nomic empowerment.

Mrs Emmanuel said at the inauguration of the programme: “Some of these girls are victims of rape and other forms of gender- based violence.

According to the 2012 Gender in Nigeria Report, one in every three girls aged 15 to 24 experiences violence. We cannot go on to condone the stigma and culture of silence that allows such acts to go unabated and perpetrators to go unpun­ished.”

Now, coordinators of FEYReP can either sue in favour of victims of sexual and other forms of abuse against women or call for accelerated justice on pending issues on these.

To make the programme impactful to its target groups, the FEYReP team embarked on a tour of rural communities in the state. Afterwards Mrs Emmanuel reported: “As we went round our beautiful state, we met even children whose pride in their culture, language and heritage seems fast dwindling; disengaged youth, further rendered unem­ployable for lack of requisite skills, which is in sharp contrast with this administration’s irrevocable commitment to industrialisation, employment, wealth creation, cultural ren­aissance, moral transformation and spiritual rebirth.

“It is also heartbreaking to see hardworking women struggle to support their families with teenage girls ... saddled with unplanned pregnancies ... and attempting to raise chil­dren alone. These give rise to serious health conditions, social, psychological and eco­nomic challenges affecting the dignity of our families. As a mother, this inflames my passion and drives me to action,” Mrs Emmanuel added.

For optimum impact in tackling this menace, the First Lady has called for synergy between FEYReP and other relevant bodies and agencies. One of such groups is Conference of University of Uyo Women Association whose members have a role to play in reversing the damaging trend, she said. In her strong belief that they could make a clear difference, she challenged the leadership and members of the group to come up with enlightenment programmes on campus that will help educate students, especially girls, on the need to uphold their dignity and restore moral values in youths and families at large.

The management staff of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) were also tasked not to relent in their efforts at training unemployed youths and women in the state, as the task of developing, training and empowering the youths and women, according to Emmanuel, remains the col­lective responsibility of all.

Driven by her passion to reduce teenage pregnancies, Mrs Emmanuel’s FEYReP, as part of its inauguration, empowered more than 40 youths with a range of support, ranging from providing hairdressing equip­ment, and sewing machines to fashion designing skills training to boost their eco­nomic livelihood.

More than 200 multiple birth families across the state were also empowered, through the programme with cash and gift items during one of the programmes. The empowerment, according to Mrs Emmanuel, became necessary to assist the families cope with the demands of raising numerous chil­dren.

More than 300 elderly people across the state also received cash and gifts as part of the activities to mark the 2015 party with the elderly. Mrs Emmanuel said she decided to celebrate them because it was no mean feat to attain the age of 70 and above,

As part of the sensitisation campaign for teenage girls in secondary schools across the state against unwanted pregnancies and premarital sexual relationships, FEYReP, led by the coordinator Ime Ephraim Inyang, visited selected secondary schools in the state. The campaign tagged ‘Girls Uphold Your Dignity’, is designed to shift the par­adigm by advocating for complete abstinence from premarital sex, which according to Mrs Inyang, can lead to various health hazards such as visico vaginal fistula (VVF) and HIV/Aids.

This attitudinal re-orientation plan has not ignored those behind bars as the initiator of FEYReP has also visited and challenged inmates of the Ikot Ekpene Prisons not to give up on life irrespective of the situation they have found themselves in, even as God has not given up on them. She assured the inmates that life behind bars does not mean they can no longer be productive citizens ofNigeria.

For Governor Udom Emmanuel, FEYReP is a soothing balm to homes all over the state as it is geared towards touching the lives of youths of all ages and genders. He particularly called on the women to align with the programme as they are the pillars of society. He then expressed optimism that the programme would launch Akwa Ibom women into more productive and meaning­ful realms.

In line with the rehabilitation, reformation and reintegration policy of the Nigerian Prisons Service, the First Lady, through her pet project, FEYReP, also visited prisons across the state and promised to partner with relevant authorities to establish vocational training workshops for inmates of Ikot Abasi and Eket prisons.

In addition to the more than 5,000 people who recently benefitted from the free surgical care exercise courtesy of the FEYReP, Pro-Health International and Akwa Ibom state Association ofNigeria (AKISAN USA incorporated), the charity has also taken steps to restore dignity and pride to children and people living with disabilities. To build momentum on this, Mrs Emmanuel has called on people of the state to desist from discriminating against the disabled. She strongly believes these people have yet to be harnessed talents embedded within them, and should therefore be encouraged to attain their full potential.

“Imbibe the ‘I can do spirit’, shun self- pity and rise to their faith of greatness as captured in the Dakkada creed,” she urged. “There is ability in your disability. Do not see yourselves as being inferior, but rather look forward to the future with great hope."

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