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Individuals, organisations, and government agencies must aggressively pursue programmes directed at increasing girl child rights, privileges, and opportunities

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Oby Ohakim

Oby Ohakim is a Lawyer with core specialty in Corporate Litigation. She has over the years coordinated and supervised over 300 complex cross-jurisdictional commercial litigation matters.

Also founder of ProjectBaby Nigeria, an early years learning resource centre for children between ages zero to six, Ohakim has acquired professional certification in several Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) courses, including an accreditation from Yale (online), and worked in collaboration with preschools, parents and reputable organisations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to bridge the gap between early learning at school and at home.

She was selected as a Stakeholder for the UNESCO Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Project to identify gaps in efforts to promote quality ECCE in Nigeria. Subsequently, she was nominated by the Regional Director, UNESCO Abuja as a member of the Technical WorkGroup to develop ECCE Play and Resilience Training Manuals for Teachers and Parents in Nigeria. She’s a member of several professional bodies, including the Nigerian Bar Association, the International Bar Association, where she has also served on the Corporate Counsel Forum and the African Regional Forum, the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, and the Institute of Chartered Mediators and Conciliators.

Aside from the Law and Early Years Education, she advocates for gender parity through female empowerment in education, and volunteers as a mentor and ambassador for female focused charity organisations. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she spoke on issues concerning gender parity and her passion for child-led advocacy.

With a thriving career in Law, what endeared you initiative Early Childhood Care and Education? 
I have always been very passionate about education and specifically early years, with my mother being the proprietor of a Nursery and Primary school in Lagos (with four branches and 22 years’ experience in Early Years Education). My siblings and I worked summer jobs every holiday at my mum’s school to earn our summer trips. So, I grew up with that EYFS background, understanding the importance of engaging children in hands-on activities and integrating learning through play. Of course, when I became a mother, I found myself constantly searching for age appropriate learning resources to engage my kids at home, but soon realised there were not a lot of options available locally. Essentially, ProjectBaby evolved out of the desire to make such resources easily accessible and affordable in Africa. So, what started off as a lifestyle organically grew into a business venture.

What is your core focus as an advocate for gender parity and woemn empowerment?
In advocating for gender parity, my core focus is on empowering girls through education. To ensure balance in the economy, we need to start from the root; we need to curb gender disparity in schools, in education. The goal is not only gender balance in education, but also to have a gender-balanced boardroom, a gender-balanced government, gender balanced employee ratio, gender-balance in wealth acquisition, in STEM education, careers, and so much more. Towards this, I regularly volunteer my time and resources as a partner, an ambassador and mentor for several female focused charity organisations where we tour schools, seek scholarships for and mentor young female students on their educational development and career paths.

What informed your interest to tilt towards gender parity? Was it your family background, career in Law or your enthusiasm for early years education?
I will say a bit of all. Growing up as a girl in an Igbo family with six brothers, I had a first-hand experience of what it is like for a girl to be stereotyped and raised different from boys, even in the same household. Now, many years down the line, becoming a parent amplified this reality that gender-stereotyping starts from childhood, and this in turn made me realise the importance of advocating for gender parity from early childhood, specifically through female empowerment in education. Delving into Early Years Education also made me understand that low female participation in STEM related subjects in schools is heavily influenced by the gender stereotypes that communicate the idea that STEM careers are male domains. However, it is in our place as parents and teachers to correct those stereotypes. Ensuring my sons see women as equals (different but equals) is probably going to be my biggest parenting success.

A lot of young girls today have become victims of sexual assault and violence. As a parent, what is your take on this menace? 
The growing statistics are disgusting and alarming; if this is ever going to change, we need to arm our children with proper knowledge. I strongly believe that the onus lies on us parents to raise our kids to grow up into adults who have a better understanding of consent and body safety. Education from the home – from childhood – may be the best bet for faster, sustained progress on eradicating gender-based violence because childhood is a critical time when values around gender equality are developed.

How can parents, particularly mothers, identify potential sexual abusers, especially with cases of fathers defiling their daughters? 
Intrafamilial sexual abuse is more documented; thanks to the social media era. Unfortunately, child abusers/molesters are not easily identified prior to being caught, because distinguishing between sexually motivated behaviours by abusers and normal adult/child interactions is quite difficult. But there are some ‘grooming’ behaviours I think parents should be cautious of. For example, a person who has a favourite child they seem to spend time with; gives gifts or special privileges to a child for no apparent reason; child molesters offer inducements (including money, treats, gifts, fun trips) to develop a ‘special relationship’. Seeing one or more of these red flag does not necessarily mean that someone is a sexual abuser, but if your instinct is feeling something is off, be vigilant. Trust your gut, speak up and minimise this person’s access to children.

Tell us about ProjectBaby Nigeria and what activities you are involved in? 
At ProjectBaby, we make learning fun for kids. We design and locally manufacture unique and affordable learning resources, which encourage learning through play. Our goal is to inspire parents to reduce screen time and have fun creating hands on learning activities to engage their little ones at home. We are focused on the most important period of a child’s development, from birth to age six, when they can learn and absorb information at a rapid rate. In a little less than three years, we have launched a wide range of locally made learning resources, worked with over 30 preschools, hundreds of parents and collaborated with reputable organisations such as the UBEC, and UNESCO towards changing the face of Early Learning in Africa. Currently, our learning resources are stocked in select stores in Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Ghana. We also host parenting workshops and seminars in collaborations with schools, to bridge the gap between learning at school and home.

What cues can young children be taught so as identify sexual predators? 
The best prevention involves having somewhat awkward but age-appropriate conversations with our children. There are a variety of ways we can promote bodily autonomy and strengthen their intuition for abusers. You can start by reading books and doing activities about body safety. Regularly, take time to remind children that they can tell us anything and we will always believe them, and that inappropriate touching is never their fault. Listen to children; if your child tells you that he does not want to be around a person or take part in certain outings, take him seriously.

As a gender advocate, what in your view are some of those issues affecting the girl child and women in Nigeria?  
Honestly, too many to highlight. There is a direct correlation between the disparate treatment of boys and girls in Nigeria and the unequal treatment of men and women in wider society. Growing up as female in a developing society like Nigeria involves being faced with misogyny, patriarchy, stereotyping, educational bias, sexism, gender-based violence, harassment, etc. These discriminatory, and exploitative treatments continue up to womanhood, and contributes to perpetuating the patriarchal and sexist society against women in the workforce, in leadership positions, in government, in business and even extends to gender-pay gaps, access to capital and economic opportunities.

What in your opinion is the way forward?  
Individuals, organisations, and government agencies must aggressively pursue programmes directed at increasing girl child rights, privileges, and opportunities. The Nigerian government should strengthen the relevant agencies responsible for ensuring parents from rural areas are enlightened on the need to educate and reduce biases against the girl child. Public school curriculums should also be revised to ensure gender and cultural sensitivity.

With all these hats you wear, how do you manage to blend work and family and still be at your best?
 
I am very big on schedules and routines. I’m also a strong believer in observing self-care and outsourcing; it literally takes a village. I am blessed to get a lot of support from my husband, my mother-in-law, my sister and family support staff. The most important thing is choosing and maintaining a life style that works for me and my family, because no matter how hard we try, being a mother while simultaneously trying to achieve career / business success, could be quite difficult.

What has motherhood taught you?
To be kind, empathic and much more considerate of other people’s feelings; you never know who just lost a fight with a two-year-old that day.


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