Yil Fomwul-Gonsum: There’s gross imbalance in the barbaric treatment meted on widows
A filmmaker by profession, Yil Fomwul-Gonsum’s passion for social change and community development led her to establish Saphira Global Center, a non-profit organisation that focuses on creating opportunities and working to improve the lives of vulnerable women in her society. A social activist on Good Governance, Girl Child Education and Human Rights, she has been involved in providing relief materials for widows and working on better lives for rural women in selected communities. In collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation, she recently produced a short film on anti-corruption, which has become a toll for the fight against corruption in Nigeria. In this interview with MARGARET MWANTOK, she spoke on her foundation’s campaign for an improved life for vulnerable women and widows.
What actually inspired you to engage in community-based interventions?
According to the popular American actress, Angelina Jolie, ‘Nothing would mean anything if I didn’t live a life of use to others.’ My desire to help the less privileged in the society and to contribute my part in social work, has inspired me to do community-based interventions and mentoring of young girls and women on rights and personal hygiene as well as participation in governance. When I’m not on set filming, oftentimes, you will find me on the field, scouting and mapping areas that need intervention. My ultimate goal is to help people that won’t be able to pay me back. I’m an advocate of giving back to society and I have a countless number of people that have encouraged me to start up an organisation to make my interventions easily recognisable and acceptable.
I registered Saphira Global Centre for Social Development as a non-profit/non-governmental organisation to enable me to access a wider demographic group and to qualify to access more funding needed to ease the financial burden; we must not wait for the government to do everything for us. One does not need millions to make an impact in people’s lives. My motto is, ‘If you can’t feed a hundred feed one.’ We resorted to crowdfunding after realising the pressing need to do more. My greatest desire is for more people to get comfortable with the culture of giving without necessarily expecting something in return. My NGO focuses on social change, but with precision to humanitarian activities, human rights and good governance. The closest to my heart is humanitarian aid; you cannot talk about good governance to a hungry youth without giving him food to eat first. You cannot talk about a girl’s right without providing basic sanitary kits to her. You cannot talk about empowering a widow without helping her feed her hungry children.
There are concerns over the real intentions of some activists and NGOs in Nigeria. How do you strive to remain different and impactful in your activities?
How I have remained different and impactful has a lot to do with trust and I have no idea how I managed to gain the trust of the public to believe in me firstly and secondly in what I do in relation to my community and media projects. With regards to being an activist, I think it has everything to do with what one stands for and how you stand; you cannot say you are an activist of good governance for example and you are found wanting in equivocal dealings with people of questionable character in government. People see through you and it is a huge burden already that you have to represent their interests; one has to hold on to strong convictions and values.
There’s something we need to understand though, that speaking against bad governance does not necessarily mean being an enemy of the government; constructive criticism should be embraced at all levels. Activism goes way beyond witch hunting for personal interests and gains and truly, if one does not make primary effort towards achieving justice and fairness, then your activism is going to be questioned by the people you claim to fight for. Over the years, we have seen, heard and read about great activist all over the world, the likes of Martin Luther King (MLK), Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Harriet Tubman, Miriam Makeba, Malala Yousafzai, Gloria Steinem, George Orwell and lots more. In Nigeria the likes of Dele Giwa, Fela Kuti, Femi Falana Priscilla Achakpa, Bisi Adeleye, and Feyemi etc are clear examples of front-line activists that up-comers like us should try to emulate.
Let’s talk about widowhood in Nigeria, how come there’s still a lot of deprivation and stigma going on?
In Nigeria, there’s higher percentage of widows to widowers and the gap is huge. Sadly, in some parts of Nigeria, superstition is highly practiced with the belief that widowhood has been associated with bad luck. Old and new practices in some parts of Nigeria show how widows were treated with utmost disdain and false accusations flying over their grieving hearts. There is gross imbalance in the barbaric treatment meted on widows, which goes to tell that the death of a woman is not that a big deal rather the death of a man is.
Unfortunately, most women go into marriages depending solely on their husband’s income making them full time housewives. In such cases, when the husband dies and the woman is not enlightened and empowered in any way, she easily becomes a victim of such traumatic and unfair treatment.
Stigmatisation and deprivation is a problem we need to be having constant conversations about and work towards lasting solutions. Why should one life matter more than the other? I’m working with a lot of widows; their stories are heart wrenching. As women, we need to set the pace, put our heads together with the men, set up awareness and put more pressure on the society to ensure that this gross injustice is defeated and laid to rest.
In spite of enabling laws, widows and women still face challenges in the area of inheritance in most parts of Nigeria. Is it a function of poor awareness on the part of the widows or impunity on the part of the people?
Nigeria has a gender policy that protects, empowers and frowns at discrimination against women, but women and widows still face challenges in area of inheritance due to poor awareness. From my experience dealing with women over the years, I realised most women are unaware of their rights and privileges; they are comfortable thinking their role in the society starts and ends in the kitchen and bedroom. Though women are becoming aware of their potentials and are participating in leadership roles and governance, the percentage of working class and enlightened women is still low.
Widows are becoming more aware in area of inheritance due to sensitisation efforts from NGOs, CBOs and Governments. Though widows still face challenges accessing their rightful inheritance due to traditional and cultural rites, the legal system has to a reasonable extent been of help to them in that regard. Some NGOs are still pushing for stronger laws to protect widows in Nigeria. However, a few men are becoming conscious of their unwillingness of not writing will and are beginning to write will not minding their age as opposed to old believes that a man has to hit age 70 before he writes his will.
In Plateau State, stigmatisation and discrimination still lingers on widows; a lot of women are suffering due to lost battles of inheritance. Although my work is strictly targeted at the vulnerable women, women with no or little basic education, there’s hardly high percentage of inheritance battle because their husbands did not even own much left for them to inherit. The major problem with rural women is the high ignorance level of their rights, which transcends to lack of empowerment; they are not aware that they are supposed to build themselves and prepare for rainy days of unfortunate situations like the death of their husbands. They lack the culture of saving.
Statistics released on the distribution of cash by the Federal Government placed many states in the North, including Plateau State, very high on Nigeria’s poverty index. What’s responsible for that despite years of huge allocations to poverty alleviation?
Going by United Nations between 2004 and 2014, Plateau State falls exactly at 51.6 per cent, which is high alongside all Northern States. In Plateau State, the National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP) was directly in the office of the Secretary to the State Government to ensure execution of this mandate. A Directorate of General Service was created in 2003 to effectively coordinate poverty eradication programme and other donor agency activities. Spanning from 2001 to 2005, a number of poverty alleviation programmes were implemented ranging from Capacity Acquisition Programs CAP, Mandatory Attachment Programs MAP, National Program NAPEP, Farmers Employment Programs FEM, Promise-keepers Program PKP. But the State has either benefited from or implemented them in the last few years.
The Buhari administration established a National Social Investment Program NSIP to tackle poverty and hunger across the country in 2016, supported by the Ministry of budget and national planning MBNP, under the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs Disaster Management and Social Development. This social welfare scheme has created four programs; N-Power, Home Grown School Feeding Program, Conditional Cash Transfer Program, Government Enterprise and Empowerment Program. Plateau State is currently benefiting from the Conditional Cash Transfer in areas like Bokkos, Mangu, Barkin Ladi, Jos South, Riyom and other rural areas across the state.
Plateau State, peace is still elusive. What else can be done to arrest the situation?
Peace is still elusive in Plateau State, yes, but to a certain level, I know some NGOs are working tirelessly on conflict resolution and peace building on the plateau; I personally know Search for Common Ground is doing a fantastic job to see that the farmer-herder crisis is reduced to minimum if not completely eliminated. Plateau State Government has a Peace Building Agency that has been working with Stakeholders across the state and beyond to see that peace is returned to the state.
The Agency has had quite level of partnership with reputable international agencies. However, our major challenge is insecurity; there’s still some silent killings going on in different communities in the outskirts of Jos. There’s weekly outcry of people being murdered in the dead of the night by ‘unknown gun men.’ Our security is seriously threatened and the sooner the government tackles these challenges head on, the better our chances of knowing and embracing lasting peace. We have IDPs scattered around the state with no proper camps for them; no adequate welfare and basic health care from the government. These vulnerable people are victims of crisis; these are people that have seen near death experiences, and they have lost loved ones and have cried through dark nights of anguish and pain. There’s no constant support going to IDPs by the government; the source of their feeding is largely dependent on charity from individuals, religious organisations and NGOs. These are victims of crisis that have not properly had the opportunity to go through trauma sessions and provide healing to their mental and psychological state. I’ve been working with IDPs for about two years now and I make bold to say that these people are left to their own fate and I would like to plead to the government of my state to kindly pay more attention to IDPs.
The government needs to intensify effort put in place already; bring in experts on peace building to champion the course, pay more attention to displaced people and victims of crisis because they’re a ticking time bomb. They need to reach out to them and let them know they’re being thought of and offer trauma-counselling sessions to them. Government should make extra effort to deliberately preach peace and intensify state and community policing measures, which should be top priority. I’m aware Operation Rainbow (our state police) is back in full gear now and that is commendable.
You recently produced a short film on corruption funded by the Mac Arthur Foundation in partnership with Equal Access International. What was the motivation?
It was a film competition I entered for and got selected to be one of the eight people that won the privilege of accessing small grants to make an anti-corruption themed short film, as one of the advocacy medium of the NGO in its fight against corruption in Nigeria. It is very important to mention that I did not choose the theme anti-corruption; it is part of the key areas of intervention for Equal Access. But it was my absolute delight to be part of the story telling process of using the film industry to pass serious messages across to citizens. I’m an advocate for good governance and human rights; therefore, it is always a delight for me to contribute the little I can to nation building.
Filmmaking is my profession and there is no better way to pass messages across to people but through the arts. In the course of my volunteer work with IDPs, I have come across different people with different stories. I intend to use filmmaking to project some of these stories for the world to see, especially that of Plateau State. We are already working on film projects and trying to get across to the State government to partner with us to tell the Plateau story to the world. We are a beautiful people with beautiful stories and creative minds. We should not wait for someone to tell our own stories; we are telling it ourselves.
Can you measure its impact in terms of reversing the trend?
I believe the impact of the short film in reversing the trend of corruption is effective, especially to the targeted audience, which the organisation has designed to reach. Equal Access International together with Mac Arthur Foundation has been partnering with television, radio, social media and other media platforms to create contents that are focused on corruption at all levels. Not just concentrating on government officials and stakeholders, but down to its citizenry.
You seem to have too many things going, how do you cope?
God has always been my constant motivation. I talk to God all the time; I don’t think there’s any project I embark on without talking to God. I make my own effort, but I allow him take absolute control over everything. I often shuttle between film and community development projects; the beauty lies in how I manage the two. Though sometimes one has to suffer for the other to work, but I try to balance it. I have volunteers in the office that I mentor and often help with research, advocacy and interventions. We are only a small organisation with no official grant or funding from any donor agency yet.