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I’m determined to stop the practice of Female Genital Mutilation – Ikanna Okim

By Esther Ijewere
06 February 2021   |   4:15 am
I tell people that if everyone was raised in my home, they may never get to see the sad realities of gender inequality existent in the world today.

There are many emerging female leaders in Nigeria, young women who are breaking boundaries, against all odd, to make their voices count. Ikanna Okim is one of them. A phenomenal woman, she believes she is equipped with everything needed to make a difference in the world. Ikanna is the movement leader of the No-FGM campaign against female genital mutilation in Akwa Ibom State communities where the practice is rampant. A student leader, she is currently the President of the LAWSAN Bar Association, University of Uyo Chapter. Teennation Country Lead for Nigeria and Head of Legals, Ikanna is a prolific writer and has authored five books, which have reached over 1,400 young people in Nigeria. As a result of her commitment to correcting social ills, she was conferred the honour of a Fellow of the African Young Leadership Fellowship in 2018 and in 2020, she made it to the nominee list of Community servants in Akwa Ibom State. She also acquired certifications from different institutions around the world, including University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, Negotiation studies certificates from University of California, Irvine Extension, and Yale University. A child of God and a preacher of the gospel of Jesus, her life principles are integrity, responsibility, and transparency. She shares her inspiring journey in this interview.

Growing Up
I tell people that if everyone was raised in my home, they may never get to see the sad realities of gender inequality existent in the world today. I was brought up in an African home of average social class. My dad is an ace journalist, and my mum is a civil servant. We live in Lagos, Nigeria. I have a sister and a brother, and my parents never made us feel like we were different – I mean the girls from the boy.

I grew up with confidence, more confidence than my peers in school and church. My dad especially made me know that I could be anything at all that I wanted to be. My brother could wash plates and I would be trying to fix a bulb, no gender roles. I always came out first right from nursery school as much as I can remember. The boys never intimidated me in my class. I could argue with my dad on an issue; I was allowed to have a different opinion. This is to say that my upbringing gave me zero preparation for the realities outside.

Imagine the shock I had to see that the world thinks I’m a second-class human because I am a woman; I was shocked. I can, however, say that my upbringing helped me develop an unshakeable confidence in myself and I gladly pass it on to other women who did not have the opportunity to grow up with the confidence I grew up with.

Inspiration Behind NO-FGM Campaign
I generally started having detestation for violence against girls from 2016 when I founded Fingerprints Group to engage my peers and help them build capacity to fight social issues. We evolved into doing projects concerning the girl child in secondary schools. We went from teaching girls confidence to teaching them how to defend themselves against rape through our #SheDefence series in 3 states in Nigeria. While interacting with these girls, I met girls who were circumcised in cities like Lagos; I could not sleep. The whole genitalia area off, in this time and age!

I felt heartbroken. Those conversations drove me to make more inquiries and to my shock, people in Uyo Local Council of Akwa Ibom State where I come from and where I school, still mutilate their girls. I also discovered that it is still being practised in Oron, Uruan and Itu Local Councils of the state. It is true that the rate of female genital mutilation has reduced in Africa as compared to the situation in ancient times, but that is not enough. That it is still being practised, despite laws prohibiting it, is a problem. I saw a need to get words out there to those people who do not read or write English in the languages they understand that Female Genital Mutilation is evil.

Implementing The Laws Against Female Circumcision
Yes, we have many laws, which prohibit female circumcision, but how can one implement the laws? It is impossible to go round from house to house to tell girls ‘open your legs, let’s see whether you have been mutilated.’ If you’re waiting for the victims to report, that’s far from possible because they don’t even realise that they’re victims in the first place; the custodians of a culture cannot report it. Also, the effect of the laws would only punish offenders and do little to prevent it.

The Impact In The Communities I Serve
Speaking of impact, let me begin from the 5-hour street/market campaign we did to begin the campaign in 2019. We printed fliers in pictures, Ibibio language, English language, pidgin English and every language an average person in Uyo can understand. We also made use of public address systems and aids. We are working towards having that in Akwa Ibom. People threatened to pour water on us to send us away for preaching No FGM, but things like that do not deter us; they make us stronger.

Being The President Of A Bar Association In My University, And Managing Everything I Do
I have always been someone that multitask. At a point, I thought it was a problem because it was difficult to face one thing and do it. When I was younger, when people said they wanted to be this or that, I could not say it because I had about 10 things in mind that I wanted to be and could be. I recently learnt that it is not a defect; it’s a superpower and superpowers should be managed.

I cut down on some things according to priority so anything I do now is because I consider it incredibly important. So, I do not spread myself too thin, but I do everything that I manage to do and do them excellently too. By God’s grace and without being immodest, I can say that I am an excellent student. I have won four major academic excellence awards while in school, even with all the non-academic work that I do. Something that has helped me, which I cannot fail to mention, is my journaling life. I am in love with my journals; I have about three journals now, which I run at the same time.

Challenges Of My Work
I do a lot of work – leading LAWSAN Bar, Teenagers at Teennation, No-FGM campaign, Authoring, Mentorship, School work, helping women and girls and so on, but I would like to talk about my work with girls. This is because my major challenge falls in here; working to help and protect girls involves a lot of emotions.

My View Of The Legal System In Nigeria
We have a long way to go, though I acknowledge how far we have come, and the improvements made. I celebrate laws like the Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act and other groundbreaking laws, which I have come to find useful in the course of my work.

However, the archaic nature of some procedures is worrisome. We need to be able to allow lawyers to start filing cases online from the lowest courts to the highest. Furthermore, many times in Nigeria, we have experienced sheer neglect of our laws. Why do we have laws if they would not be kept? We were taught that law is blind and so does not look at the person or his social class. But this is not true of the justice system in Nigeria today.

Three Women Who Inspire Me To Be Better And Why
My three super women remain the same; I talk about them everywhere: Dr. Utibe Alex-okoro, a medic and my big sister; she’s my only sister actually. I love the way she sets standards for me without speaking; she shows me how to live by doing it. My sister is not one to talk on and on about being strong, what she does is to be strong; I watch and learn.

Mmanti Umoh is the next person. I met her when I could not find my way around my long-term goals. She came in and helped me through and has been my friend since then. Her life is a great example of walking on hot water to get to wherever you want to go. She inspires me to never give up.

Indra Nooyi, former CEO of Pepsi Co. I started following her last year and I’ve been a great follower since then. She represents the reality of women at the workplace and succeeding nonetheless. I see her as the ideal woman in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. That’s a book that changed my mind about many things. I want to meet Indra one day.

Being  A Woman Of Rubies
I am an outstanding woman. I can go on and on about what I have and what I have achieved, but what makes me a woman of rubies is not all of that. It is the fact that there is no other person like me in this world. I am unique, with all my weaknesses too. My weaknesses are beautiful.