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‘I Consider Women In Nigeria, Especially In Rural Areas, Very Vulnerable’

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Clare Henshaw

Clare Henshaw is a professional development practitioner and astute project manager. She is best known for her work in human capital development and gender-based initiatives spanning across several marginalised population segments. Over the last decade of her career, Clare has contributed her progressive experience in programme development and management, grant management and community engagement to the benefit of numerous communities across West Africa.

In the course of her professional life, she has equipped herself to identify gaps in several sectors and developed creative ways to fill them. Clare has secured and executed on-going funding partnerships, in form of CSR, for several non-profits and social enterprises from over 40 global and local organisations. She has executed an expansive portfolio of projects, designing research projects, coordinating and mobilising against human trafficking, modern-day slavery and irregular migration.

Most recently, in her role as a Project Manager with Arc Skills Nigeria, Technical Partners to the Lagos State Education Trust Fund (LSETF), Clare manages the Employability Support Project operated by the Lagos State Government in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Vocational Skills Programme. In this interview with Guardian Woman Clare talks about her community-based initiatives to advocate youth education, girl-child education, healthcare, girls’ involvement in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses, economic empowerment and the safety of marginalised people across Nigeria.

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As a development practitioner with diverse experiences, what are your thoughts on the level of human development in Nigeria?
Education, Nelson Mandela said is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world. Education is the key to reducing poverty, creating a sustainable planet, preventing needless deaths and illness, eliminating gender inequality and fostering peace. Nigeria is blessed with rich human capital, arguably some of the most intelligent people in the world are Nigerians; sadly, we have not earned our rightful place in the comity of nations.

As a young development professional working in the education space in Nigeria, I have seen first-hand the level of decay in our educational system both in urban and rural communities. Children who should be in school are left to their fate on the streets, schools lacking basic amenities are left to providence, while governments at all levels continue to pay lip service to quality education in Nigeria.

It is a deeply saddening experience seeing that what we need lies within our capacity but the country is faced with a systemic challenge, which cuts across all strata. I once went to a community where the children had no idea what tissue paper is used for; in the 21st century, we still have this hitch under our watch. Interestingly, during the last JAMB examination, some students apparently could not use the computer, as reported by eyewitnesses in specific centres.

What do you think government can do to ‘undo’ the setbacks in human development especially education?
At the Federal level, there should be enforcement of the implementation of policies that will grow the human capital and social capital sectors; this has always been the Nigerian challenge. There is also a lack of policies on some issues.

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The government also needs to look deeply into teacher’s development, training and capacity building as well as curriculum reviews. In fact, I believe we need to declare a state of emergency in our educational and healthcare sectors. The disparity in skills gap between the average Nigerian artisan and his counterpart in Togo or Benin republic is disheartening. Our institutions of learning need to be improved at all levels from early childhood development, primary, secondary, technical to tertiary institutions.

There has been so much buzz about STEM education, how valuable is this for developing nations like Nigeria?
Technology is ever-present in the world today, and its effects can be felt and seen in emerging nations. Here in Nigeria, 90 per cent of technologies used are imported.

The introduction of STEM/STEAM into the educational system is a brilliant solution to the country’s importation of technology. STEM/STEAM will also see Nigeria producing people with innovative ideas and creations, thereby cementing our contribution to the world’s technology and science sector. This will henceforth shed more light on Nigeria as an innovative and progressive country, putting the country on the world’s radar.

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The regular girl-child especially in Nigeria eschews STEM related courses, what can be done to have more girls involved in STEM?
I have a first degree and diploma in Computer Science and I am deeply passionate about how technology can be used for social good. I use my background to find sustainable ways to empower women and girls. I work hard to encourage girls to pick an interest in STEM with an emphasis in computing, technology, engineering and generally just getting them interested in solving everyday problems around them innovatively.

To this end, I founded an NGO to support young girls and women. Our programmes seek to strengthen the importance of education to the country’s development and growth. A couple of these programmes are SHE CODES, a STEM and tech hub, targeted at adolescent female students in secondary schools, between age nine to 18 years. We run a mobile coding lab to reach marginalised and disadvantaged girls across various communities.

The idea behind this decentralised learning approach is to take the coding lessons to girls in their communities, making access to learning closer and reachable. Many girls from low-income homes may never get a chance to access computers since they have to support their families after school, parents are also extra protective of girls and may often not allow them stray too far from home.

We try to bridge that gap by reducing commuting hours. To also encourage more girls to pick interest in STEM fields, we run the WIRED FOR IMPACT program which provides scholarships for the less privileged and deserving young African girls and women studying STEM-related courses in universities, we also provide free UTME forms for intelligent but disadvantaged young girls who wish to study STEM courses. I also set up a tech-enabled platform on safety for girls and women, called i-Safe.

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We are presently working to ensure that girls across Nigeria have access to safety tools, instructions, training and self- defence skills, including where to find help and safe spaces when in distress. i-Safe was set up to ensure that as much as we can, young girls willing to go to school should never be afraid as a result of abduction, insecurity or whatever reason that may dissuade them from getting an education.

You’ve been quite vocal around issues of girl-child empowerment and gender parity, where is Nigeria at on the development of the girl-child?
Gender parity is a big problem in the world and it is a major concern for human capital development in Nigeria; we cannot fully develop our potential as a nation if we keep half of our population uneducated. Nigeria has the highest number of child brides in Africa with more than 23 million girls and women who were married as children, most of them from poor and rural communities.

Many people are ignorant or nonchalant about the issues that affect girls and women. You will be amazed at the level of inequality that exists in present-day Nigeria. I am glad, however, that women are becoming more vocal and serious about these issues. We still have a long way to go. Men need to be fully carried along as well, to avoid a repeat of this imbalance.

In the communities where I worked, I saw first-hand how women hold the forte for their families and communities, yet, when it comes to accessing fundamental rights, women are always at a disadvantage.

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Between 2009 and 2015, I worked actively in rural communities to provide access to healthcare for women, by refurbishing and equipping dilapidated primary healthcare centres, upgrading maternity wards with basic amenities, hand washing facilities, improving sanitary hygiene, running extensive free healthcare programs and providing access to professional medical practitioners who volunteer time and skills.

I consider women in Nigeria, especially in rural areas, very vulnerable. Cases of abuse, rape, underage marriage, trafficking and modern-day slavery are among the dire issues they tackle everyday with very limited support.

The most common, of which is spousal abandonment and abuse. Too often, many women are affected when it comes to spousal neglect, and the burden of childrearing and child support is left to them to manage single-handedly.

This happens because we lack laws or do not implement laws that mandate men to pay for childcare support, we have also enabled a society where women are mocked and shamed for being single parents, while the men are glorified. This mentality has empowered too many men to relegate their responsibility to the women.

Lagos State is, however, leading the pace in this regard. A few other States like Edo and Ekiti are also trying to make efforts in certain areas as well. A lot needs to be done in this regard.

You express deep interest in education, what is your stake in that sector?
Education and human capital are a fundamental factor in determining the development of a country and should be considered as an investment in the growth and development of Nigeria. Investing and focusing on education will improve the quality of lives of the people in the country. In previous portfolios I managed, I was very instrumental in providing school libraries in public schools across communities to improve the reading culture among youths.

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My visit across several states to conduct a needs assessment of school libraries in public institutions clearly showed that children in schools may never have the opportunity to explore the world through books. There are no reading facilities, no books in schools; where you manage to find a library, they are grossly under-equipped.

So in order to improve reading culture among secondary school students, I worked with stakeholders to provide about 15 school libraries in Lagos, Abia and Edo States. The desire to do more in this area remains a priority for me, however, funding remains a critical issue.

In various positions I held as Programme Directors of local NGOs, over 500 children received full scholarships to keep them in school. These cut across primary and tertiary institutions. I am a strong advocate of mentorship in schools, especially secondary schools.

Mentoring is profoundly lacking in many of our learning institutions. I designed a number of mentoring intervention programmes to support youths across Nigeria.

I think the third sector has been very instrumental in these areas, a lot of NGOs have helped the government to bridge this gap, otherwise, we would have fallen into severe crises, due to the high number of young adolescents influenced by peer pressure, drug abuse, gang violence among other things. These vices thrive, because schools are underfunded, under-equipped and these youths are not fully engaged in meaningful extracurricular activities.

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How can young people contribute their quota to self-development?
Beyond academic work, young people seriously lack soft skills, social, entrepreneurial and leadership skills. I think it is about time we looked inwards; there is a sense of hopelessness among youths, they are not equipped to handle the lemons life throws at them.

The consequences of government inaction over the years are now reflecting deeply today. I use the respective platforms I have to advocate for better opportunities for youths. I run educational training programmes on skills acquisition and development for girls and women, both vocational and entrepreneurial among other things. I also run Job-Readiness Skills programmes with internship placements for graduates.

I advocate and volunteer in groups such as the National Economic Summit Group (NESG) to support in the pursuit of policy reforms in TVET education eco-system, as I strongly believe this is one of the most effective ways we can gain quick-wins for the economy.

Young people need to understand the value of skills acquisition and development and discard the notion that technical and vocational education is belittling. There has to be a re-orientation around blue-collar education and the role it plays in job creation and economic development.

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You have been involved in a couple of migration-related projects, what have been the highlights and lessons, thus far.
The problem of irregular migration is intertwined with the pending issues of poverty and unemployment. If solutions are not provided to these problems, the issue of irregular migration will always be present. Like I said, avenues should be created for citizens to alleviate poverty and increase their standard of living. If this can be achieved, migration could be gradually regulated.

In 2018, I worked with a team of local migration experts to drive a communications campaign (The Migrant Project), a behaviour and communications change campaign, aimed at influencing migrant decision-making.

Our objective is to discourage potential migrants aged between 16 to 35 years from travelling out of the country irregularly and illegally, but rather through the right channels by providing them with factual and useful information to help them make more informed decisions about migration.

You never seem to get tired of doing more, what motivates you?
I consider myself to be a passionate Nigerian, hard as it is to hope sometimes, I do love my country, and I hope for a better Nigeria.

I am an avid believer that we will prevail and overcome many of the challenges we face; we only need to have a few good people in the right places to influence change. I am mostly motivated about the future outcome of whatever I do, so when I start a new project, I visualise the results first and measure the outcomes. As long as I can imagine it, I can make it happen.

More importantly, I have been blessed to impact so many people, youths especially within my sphere of influence, seeing these people turn out well with flying colour successes, pushes me to keep doing what I do.

Also, I am a mother of two adorable girls and I am fighting for a better future for my children, and for the many children who remain unseen and unheard. I always prefer to be a part of the solution to issues, rather than being a part of the problem. I enjoy reading and impacting change initiatives.


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