Inimfon Etuk :‘Women Must Learn To Master Strategic Engagement’
Inimfon Etuk is the founder and host of She Forum Africa, a pan-African Women Development, Leadership, Mentorship and Lifestyle Community aimed at amplifying personal development opportunities for women and girls through strategic mentoring, innovation and life-long learning. She is also the Founding CEO/Lead Strategist at Premium Logic International, founder of Friendraiser Community Initiative, a registered Social Enterprise and Networking Initiative that engages, inspires and motivates women in local communities, with a special focus on ending domestic and all forms of gender-based violence. A recipient of the Women Economic Forum (WEF) 2019 Global Award for ‘Iconic Woman Creating a Better World’, a 2015 alumna of the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) of the United States Government, gifted communicator and facilitator, she has over 22-year period managed organisational projects of select non-profit groups initiated in partnership with such international organisations as the UNDP, British Council, DFID, USAID and UN Women to implement target development goals. Her passion for constructive cross-generational engagement earned her coveted youth leadership award in 2003 from the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) for Synergy of Thought and Action. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her vision for the girl child, as well as influencing Nigerian women through her expertise.
Take us through your career journey?
I love what I consider my life’s journey and quite frankly, looking back, I wouldn’t wish it had taken any other turn. I grew up in a family of five girls; my parents had five girls straight, one after the other for a couple of years, before the first boy arrived. For a typical African family, that is not quite an amusing story when you think of all the family pressure to ‘have a boy’ who will preserve the family name.
What this inadvertently did was that it made my parents devote a lot of time, attention and resource to our education to ensure we turned out okay in life. So, I like to think that it’s really where my passion for development work, especially things that have to do with women and girls, truly emanated from.
Somehow, that background influenced the kinds of associations I found myself in; the kinds of extra-curricular activities I got into and capacity building programmes I subscribed to. All these armed me with life skills, which are now most essential for coping in today’s world. My career path is two-fold; there is my development work and advocacy, and there is the professional side of Public Relations and Strategy Consulting.
I work with my team to facilitate positive change by improving individual and corporate images as well as social intelligence skills. I love nurturing dreams into reality; that is my personal signature, it is what drives me. It is what sparks my interest in whatever I set my mind to do. In my mind, I am an artist who begins a work of art from a blank canvass. I am intrigued and challenged by the twists and turns, the moments of uncertainty, the bold decisions amidst little fears. These fuel the passion to get it right and add that little extra oomph in the expected outcomes. The reward is that sense of fulfillment that comes when things we build from a state of nothingness blossoms into something people see, feel, experience and appreciate.
At the end of the day, it is all about making impact that is authentic. That’s what I find most soothing about my job. The little ‘Thank you Ini’ that comes from a place of true appreciation for the extra value one brings to the table wherever and whenever it is required.
You have hands-on technical expertise and experience in public relations/public communication, journalism, inter-generational diplomacy, gender development, social entrepreneurship, youth leadership and mentorship. What informed your passion for these critical sectors?
It is ironic. Growing up as a little girl, I wanted to be a pilot. I am all grown now and the closest I have come to the cockpit of an airplane is perhaps sitting close to the front. But then, a pilot really is someone who flies high, takes people from one destination to the other essentially.
In retrospect, I have long concluded that my child’s mind connected with the fact that I wanted to be someone who impacts people’s destinies, a high flier on a mission to providing solutions and direction, a guide, a mentor, a role model. That is why I believe my child’s mind interpreted that to mean pilot, and when you look at what has been my life’s journey, the women and girls whose world is impacted by our work at She Forum Africa, my professional background in Public Relations, Strategic Communications, Media and Development Consulting, then it all adds up.
I am a ‘pilot’; I have been piloting destinies for the past years of my adult life. I love it all; I often tell my mentees or anyone who cares to listen that, whenever they are confused about their life’s purpose, a great place to return to for a quick reset is our childhood. Go back and check with your child’s mind who you wanted to be and ask yourself if you became that person, or there was a detour. Can you imagine how frustrated I might have become that I am not a pilot, if I proceeded without this clarity of purpose and vision within?
At a time like this where young people are clamouring for better governance and reforms in critical sectors, how does your expertise come to play?
I think what I bring the most to any table is my analytical skills, which strengthen my ability to offer a sense of direction and guidance to the people I serve. I am a process person; I am also quite creative; it is an interesting mix. Add the ability to be versatile in my approach but focused on my goals. I have a decent mastery of the art to ask the right questions and distill issues.
There is so much going on in our polity and it is easy to get lost in the fray. Sometimes, all that people require is a sense of direction, an accompanying clarity of vision and matching technical and people skills to drive the process.
Running She Forum Africa, what specific activities have you been involved in?
She Forum Africa, which is a women development, leadership, lifestyle and young female mentorship community, is a brand that is evolving at a time of factual relevance. We are in our seventh year since we set out in 2014. At the heart of our organisation’s focus is the burning need to promote healthy conversations and solutions that will help address persisting issues surrounding the education, health, safety, integrated development and economic advancement of our women and girls.
Our target audience is Women and Girls. Within this catchment group, you will find a growing realisation of the need to evolve with the times, step into their space and live the lives of their dreams. This is accompanied, if not driven by the need to self-develop; it is this need we are responding to. That is why there is an appreciable level of positive response towards our activities.
Secondly, we are consciously expanding the conversation to cover the men and boys in everything we do. We cannot keep talking to and with ourselves alone if we are to achieve greater and impactful results. We are by and large, the first organisation to have a dedicated HeForShe All-Male Panel in a Women’s Conference, a year ahead of the United Nation’s launch of the HeForShe Campaign. We started this right from when we first convened the Forum in 2014 and we’ve kept it up till date. That way, we are able to bring the men’s perspective on the issues in focus to the table from the start and deal with whatever perceptions, misconceptions or stereotypes exist.
Thirdly, our engagement approach is quite different from what most people are used to; we are respectfully conversational in our engagement. We allow and encourage the ownership of the discussion space to be audience/need driven not theoretical and prescriptive. Everyone brings something to the table at all levels and we ensure that our learning and advocacy spaces remain a platform for sharing in a way that creates impact and inspires towards greater personal productivity. Advocacy is our main tool.
There is also the all-important issue of girl-child education. This year, we launched the Her Tuition, Her Voice Campaign in partnership with the Embassy of Finland in Abuja, Nigeria. It is a campaign that seeks to create awareness, but primarily promote the enrolment of indigent girls in school for high order thinking and action-learning education that will not only accomplish the provision of learning for them, but also equip them with hands-on skills to escape the entrapment of poverty, primarily poverty of the mind.
We gave ourselves a target of enrolling 25 indigent girls in school during the new school year that just commenced. The campaign was launched on the International Day of the Girl-Child and the first phase just wrapped up with a Webinar hosted by the Embassy of Finland on the occasion of Finland’s Independence Day on December 6. Education remains a luxury in many Nigerian homes, especially families in rural communities. Issues like gender discrimination, disasters and armed conflict, language challenges, household poverty, child labour, and child marriage have contributed to depriving many Nigerian children, especially the girl-child of their right to access quality education.
Since the onset of COVID-19, millions of children in Nigeria have been stuck at home not learning. For vulnerable and disadvantaged children, the impact has been worse. There is now a real risk that millions of children forced out-of-school by the pandemic won’t ever return. So, for us setting out to enroll 25 indigent girls seems like a drop in the ocean, but we have to start somewhere until we can leave no girl behind. The 25 was, however, chosen as a commemorative gesture for the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Conference marked globally in 2020 by the United Nations. Our 25 indigent girls target for Phase 01 represents a practical, low-hanging fruit and realistic route to deliver impact in the most meaningful way for indigent girls.
These modest efforts will also enable us contribute to achieving SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 10 (Reduced Inequality) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals). So far, through support from the Embassy of Finland, we have successfully enrolled 17 indigent girls. We are driving a robust social media and crowd-funding campaign to ensure we continue to raise awareness and the resources that will enable us see these girls through secondary school for the next 6years. We have advanced conversations with other donors and are optimistic that we are well on our way to meeting the 25 target. The Her Tuition, Her Voice Campaign will leverage other related International Observances and convened activities to roll out renewed calls for subsequent phases of the campaign.
The point must be made that there exists a positive correlation between the enrollment of girls in school and the gross national product and increase of life expectancy. In view of this correlation, enrollment in schools represents the largest component of the investment in human capital in any society. To bridge this enrollment gap, it becomes imperative to address the major economic hindrance to the enrolment of more girls and indeed all children in school: their tuition.
While we are on the subject of the education of our girls, it has been a herculean task working with other advocates to increase the enrollment of girls in schools especially up north. You will recall, over the last two years to the present, just at the point where we thought things were getting better with increase in the enrolment rate, the challenge became one of safety almost immediately. The issue moved from enrolment to safety before we gained any grounds.
The safety of our girls in school cannot be over-emphasised. How can we encourage more girls to be enrolled in school if their safety is not guaranteed? This takes us back to the issue of our value system as communities and as a people. We are tireless in our call on institutions and decision-making organs across the continent to go beyond laws and put in implementation systems that work to protect women and girls, especially girls in school. We are operating from the prism that in all moral consciousness, Nigeria, Africa and indeed the global community, cannot rest while her girls and women are not safe.
Do you think more women are given the kind of opportunity they need to grow?
We are no longer in the years when our advocacy was about being ‘given’ opportunities. This is not a season or era of waiting to be invited, this is a season of ‘Doing’. Gender data of women in leadership, women on boards, women in politics, women in science or STEM, will tell you that we have waited too long for an invitation to the table that may never arrive in our lifetime because patriarchy runs deep in the fabric of our African Society.
Rather, we are choosing to cast the spotlight on women who are already initiating change through the work they do; women who are serving as role models, women who are blazing the trail, clearing a path of progress as they climb the ladder of success, women who remember to send the ladder back as they arrive at the top, what we know as mentoring. The narrative I consciously support is about the women who defy the odds to show the world that we can be, should be and indeed we are partners, if integrated development is to be achieved.
In your opinion, what should women be doing differently to sit at the top and make decisions to drive change?
Collaboration; that is something we all are still learning, but we have to master the art of working seamlessly with others to optimize our outcomes and impact. No one succeeds alone. We also have to master strategic engagement. The fringe-sitting season is coming to an end and the Nigerian woman will need to be saying a more affirmative ‘NO’ to dregs going forward.
As emotional beings, most of us women tend to think with our hearts rather than our head when it comes to critical decisions. We can learn to be more strategic without losing our femininity; that is very important. It is common to hear the ‘frightened’ voices in patriarchal heads whisper loudly; Nigeria is not ready for a female President, my response typically is, who has the bell in their hands to ring the bell? Whose job will it be to ring the bell when Nigeria will be acceptably ready for a female President? Who will blow the whistle for when the time is right? Who has the requirement template for what the ideal female Presidential candidate for Nigeria should look like or what qualifications she must possess to be found worthy?
As the road to 2023 begins to welcome all travelers, women organising and mobilising will need to assume a more strategic and futuristic form. The Nigerian woman is at the point where she understands more about the collective strength in numbers. Nigerian women will need to be re-aligning their multi-sectorial skillsets, building new and stronger alliances and positioning for the long haul.
The affirmative action messaging is going to have to be more pronounced, reformed and data-driven. The year 2021 for the Nigerian woman has to be a year of transformation, innovation and pragmatism. We have to be driven by intentionality of purpose and convictions. We need to be positively disruptive with a voice that is firm about what we want and unquestionably resonates.
What advice do you have for Nigerian women towards personal and national development?
Don’t stop showing up; we are making progress. It might be slow, it might be intangible, but we are making progress. If we don’t stop, if we don’t give up, one day, hopefully in our generation, we will wake up and boom; we are there. Personally, I have often maintained that we women have a critical role to play in achieving Planet 5050 by 2030. We are the ones who must take the initiative to address issues of poverty, inequality and violence against women that continue to inhibit our abilities to lead normal productive lives.
This is fundamentally why our organisation, She Forum Africa, exists. The equality that women seek is not a change in gender such that we become men, but a change in attitude towards our gender. It is an equality that is better referred to as EQUITY as it applies to equal access to opportunities for education, better healthcare, and abolition of laws, policies, gender-based stereotypes, social norms, all forms of bias and discriminatory practices that continue to dehumanize women instead of according us the right coverage our gender truly deserves. We have to give priority to the growth and development of our girls. In this regard, continuous intergenerational mentorship is key; the future depends on it.
In the face of current global economic downturn cutting through the developed and underdeveloped countries, it is currently being reported that 51million girls are out of school; a data that I believe might not adequately capture the true picture of our current situation. In Nigeria, over 10 million children are reportedly out of school, according to UNICEF. With wars in some parts of Africa, famine, drought, and all kinds of natural disasters in different locations, such as the cyclone we witnessed in Mozambique a couple of months ago, and the rather challenging COVID-19 pandemic amongst other man-made debilitating issues, all constituting a threat to education for our girls on the continent, the picture of the future is painted in bleak paints.
We cannot afford to jettison our journey to a 50/50 World by 2030 or 2063 as now promoted, which by the way is attainable. It is possible with renewed commitments by you, I and all lovers of women. The girl-child is deserving of every support that is available; she is the one who grows into womanhood and subsequently becomes the mother at whose instance the world is preserved.
What is your life mantra?
Live and Let Live; seemingly easy, but difficult to practice for most. Many of us are too invested in the personal world of others. Be happy about your growth journey. Whatever stages you are in life, embrace it, love it, live it. Be a joy carrier as much as you can and remember your happiness truly depends on you and no one else. When you over-focus on other people’s actions towards you as the reason you cannot be happy, you rob yourself of the ability to live life to the fullest within your maximum limits.