Betty Abah is passionate about this initiative that seeks to protect young, vulnerable children. You could tell from just listening to her and how her face lit up as she dissected each question that was thrown at her.
She is the Founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Children’s Health, Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE), a non-governmental organisation that focuses on the rights and welfare of vulnerable children. CEE-HOPE was involved in the campaign for the release of Ese Oruru, the 14 year old girl who was abducted from Bayelsa to Kano, the abducted Chibok girls, the case of torture involving three women in Ejigbo, Lagos among other campaigns in recent years.
Recently, CEE-HOPE held a Girl Conference that brought together about 250 school girls from schools across Lagos and Ogun states to commemorate the International Day of the Girl Child. At the event, a documentary on child marriage titled “RUN”, written and directed by Betty Abah was premiered.
Can you tell us more about the CEE-HOPE initiative and what you aim to achieve with it?
The Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE) was born out of the need to provide the most vulnerable of Nigerian children and girls, especially those in urban slums and impoverished communities, much needed nurturing, development and protection, towards presenting them as future leaders.
We intend, not just to speak on their behalf but to also engage them, instil positive values in them and help nurture their dreams.
You may be aware that in terms of child protection, welfare, education and other related indexes, Nigeria rates abysmally poor. We are basically not a child-friendly country and naturally, those already in the grip of poverty and typically excluded by government because of their parents’ socio-economic status, suffer even worse fate.
There is no doubt that the way we treat our young people now, our investment in young people now, and the way we mentor them, will show in the adults that will emerge in the near future and the shape our country will ultimately take.
So, overall, we believe that it is better, wiser and indeed, less expensive to wrap our arms around impoverished and underserved children and nurture them into assets than wait for them to grow up into disillusioned and radicalised adults and start pursuing them with the armoured tanks. This way we turn them into assets and not menace, to the society.
So, besides our mentoring program, we have had to invest in them because it’s simply a good deal for everyone. We stave off a big problem for everybody, prevent them from turning into ‘children of anger who take out the pains of their discrimination, deprivation, impoverishment and general injustices of our system, on everybody, and they turn out well, for themselves and also for the society, and indeed, the whole world.
You would also agree with me that women and girls are usually the worst hit in communities such as these thus a dedicated program for them, the Girls-Go-for-Greatness (aka ‘‘Triple G’) – rehabilitation, mentorship and education. Our girl empowerment program is the most vibrant of all our initiatives so far.
God gave me the vision of CEE-HOPE while I was on a trip to Ghana in July 2010 (clearly, to reach out and salvage His traumatised and neglected children), but we officially took off in December 2013. From age 14 in Junior Secondary in 1989 back home in Otukpo, Benue State, I started this life-time calling of mobilising younger persons via children’s Bible clubs, and mentoring them, started an all-girl prayer and mentoring club in Senior Secondary School in 1992, started a journalism club in the university in 1999, started a press club in a school I served during my NYSC year, which won me the Ogun State’s ‘NYSC State’s Honours’ Awards’ in 2001 etc, so I have always been involved with children and youth, but CEE-HOPE as a structured organisation was birthed in late 2013.
-How has the response been so far?
Hmmm… So far, it has been challenging, fulfilling, depressing, but above all, gratifying, as we see so many stories of transformation. It has been by God’s grace and I know we still have a lot of work ahead of us as more and more vistas of hope and opportunities open before us.
In the last three years, we have seen complete strangers from across oceans sending us help and it’s been all so exciting. We know this is a long journey and our best isn’t yet in sight.
-What inspired you to create the documentary about child marriage, RUN?
RUN came to me, like many other things, as a brain wave — a passing inspiration—to highlight the pains of early marriage which in most cases, truncate the dreams of very promising girls. This is because I have witnessed first-hand, how dreams and potentials are killed off with the introduction of early marriages into innocent girls’ lives. Their lives just derail and that’s it. Most don’t get to get further education, quality and advanced education as they start carrying the heavy burden of catering for family so early in life and are just preoccupied with that all through life with very little chances of getting a career or venturing into meaningful goals in life. They remain there, merely surviving, under-performing, meanwhile, some of them are quite brilliant, potential women who have the innate abilities of contributing meaningfully to societal progress, but with their situation, there is very little they can achieve in our competitive and complex world. I call child marriage the grave of golden girls. I have observed over the years, the devastating impacts of child marriage—from neighbours, relatives and even the young women we work with, so those provided very raw materials that guided the story lines. It was also exciting because members of our Triple G girls’ club of Makoko constituted about 98% of the cast and that made it all easy for me.
What I had in mind originally was a really short, maximum 10-minute skit to be aired at our program which we were planning to be held in commemoration of the 2016 Day of the Girl, like we had done earlier, a three-minute one which we produced to mark the second anniversary of our Chibok girl’s abduction (our Bring-Back-Our-Girls’ campaign). Then it dragged from 15 all the way to 25 minutes, because more ‘brainwaves’ kept coming even on the set! A very unique experience, and I have said to everybody that God is very much involved in this film project. I hope that the message will reach as far places as possible and that young people especially, girls will be inspired to shun child marriage. And very importantly, that our government will take enforcement of the Child Rights law which forbids marriage, seriously.
We have just started the screening in communities and hopefully, with the planned outreaches to schools, YouTube and other online uploads, it will reach so many people and make some impacts.
Can you share that unique experience/story that has made this journey worth the while?
The stories of transformation resulting from our humble efforts stare us in the face every day. It’s simply exhilarating. In spite of the sense of inadequacy and depression I constantly feel (seeing that our efforts are just like a tiny drop in an ocean of needs), I do feel still a certain sense of fulfilment that so little an effort can transform to so great transformation in lives, which makes me to believe that if all the superrich in our country can invest just a drop of their riches in helping the poor, that there will be a lot of difference. The fact that the girls that could have ended up as child prostitutes, victims of child marriages and little boys that could have been groomed in the acts of armed robbery, or just wander aimlessly through life, all wake up every day with renewed enthusiasm, renewed hope, and heading for school in about four different states across Nigeria, courtesy of your humble, efforts, counts for something. I thank God for how far we have gone, almost three years down the rugged lines! I thank God for our wonderful supporters and selfless volunteers!
One particular story that stands out for me is that of a 13-year-old street girl we rehabilitated and put in school in Makoko here in Lagos (host of our biggest programs especially the Triple G’ program which works with vulnerable girls). She was brought from Kogi State by her uncle ostensibly for schooling but on getting to Lagos, he simply unfolded his ‘other plans’, and made the poor girl, not just a house help but a slave, serving his entire family! When neigbours, seeing her terrible condition (overwork and starvation), protested and called in the police, he sent her into the streets, twice. When we discovered her, she was an emotional wreck. She is in school now on our scholarship and is doing fantastically well. Interestingly, she acted in our recent documentary film! Naturally, we have had a number of failed attempts at rehabilitating teenagers in particular due to their sometimes complex and unpredictable nature, but this is a case that really gladdens my heart and for which I am really thankful.
Has CEE-HOPE initiative received any help from the Lagos state government or the federal government?
NO! We haven’t received anything of such. I doubt if we will from Lagos State government in a long while as we have been ‘antagonizing’ them in recent times over their very insensitive demolition policies, and which impact children terribly. Really, it should beat every human imagination why Lagos State would choose to embark on demolition exercises that would throw thousands of already vulnerable children into the streets at the height of the rainy season, at the resumption of a new school year and with absolutely no relocation or rehabilitation plan! How do you admit that you have an acute shortage of housing, to the tune of 2.4 million houses, and in the same vein, order the demolition of places you call ‘shanties’, by criminalising the millions of people there, including new born babies! Meanwhile, these are people seeking self-help to provide shelter for themselves in the face of government’s failure to shelter them as constitutionally required? To even imagine that this is against the background of the fact that Lagos has the highest concentration of children in Nigeria and Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world, so effectively, rather than boost school enrolment and retention, or make attempts to supply basic welfare at a time of unprecedented economic recession, Lagos State Government simply chooses to further worsen the situation for these children whose only ‘crime’ is the poverty of their parents, thereby increasing the number of street children and childhood misery! It’s just so unfair. If you can’t improve people’s lot, why make it worse and more unbearable (and this is not to mention the indiscriminate demolition of tens of thousands of shops all over the state, taking food away from the tables of families already battling economic meltdown). This has got to be the most inhuman policy in Lagos’ history, second to none other than the 48-hour demolition notice visited on Makoko in 2012 during the last administration. I understand they have seen reasons and suspended the exercise after all the hues and cries from the civil society and the public’s outrage.
By and large, due to the advocacy programs that we run, it is not possible for us to go cup in hand to government at either state or federal level for help for now, though we can’t rule out future collaboration for the overall good of our children, and that is if such partnerships wouldn’t make us shift grounds in our humble efforts at holding up the light of philanthropy, accountability and justice for our vulnerable youngsters and future leaders.
Much of our support so far has been from individuals, with limited institutional support, and so far, so good. But like the restless Oliver Twist, we are asking for much more.
What are your thoughts on President Buhari ‘s comments about his wife and how that affects women in Nigeria?
Ha! I think President Buhari is just being true to himself and I am rather surprised that people are expressing surprise. By his body language and action, he has never pretended to be anything other than a chronic conservative who believes women belong only in the kitchen, sitting room and in ‘the other room’ and exclusively at the service of their male folks. Well, I would say that those who voted him in must have taken all these into account and chosen to brave the risks. As it is, we are saddled with the reality of having a leader whose perception of the place of women in our modern age doesn’t tally with modern reality, and ofcourse, that would affect women’s inclusion in the governance process to a large extent, women’s visibility and voice in the entire process under his administration. There may have been a few appointments and faces here and there but to my mind, it is all basically tokenism. It’s really sad that we have had to take a few steps backwards despite the advancements made by the previous administration, their weaknesses notwithstanding. Women have had to go back to the trenches again to fight to have their voices heard afresh. I hope things can improve, though.
In any case, concerning the First Lady’s comments, I must say I have my reservations about the medium that Madam Aisha used to air her grievances and the immaturity of it all. God bless Nigeria! (I am smiling and grimacing same time).
What are the challenges you’ve faced so far?
So far, we have faced a number of challenges, but I prefer to dwell more on the support we have received, both from those who believe in our vision of raising the next generation of exceptional national leaders and actors from the very impoverished and excluded communities, and who have supported us, and the communities we work with. Our challenges lie mostly in resources, to meet increasing demands amidst our expanding work.
We currently work in Lagos, Ogun, Plateau and have just started work in Benue. It’s been challenging but we CEE-HOPE!
What are your long term goals for the NGO?
To have, in a matter of years, CEE-HOPE Africa. I believe the vision is bigger than me and I believe it is even bigger than I can imagine. I think what I feel is best captured in the words of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia: ‘If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.’ It is not my personal charms or intelligence that will attract the right kind of help we need to continue and to expand; it’s the spirit behind CEE-HOPE, the sincere and burning passion to make a difference in the lives of millions of precious but impoverished children and girls across Nigeria, and ultimately, Africa. We thank those who have stood by us these three years. We thank, in advance, those who will come support us to expand our dream to reach and inspire hope in millions of lives, ‘one child, one girl at a time.’
Thank you for your time.
You are most welcome. I do truly appreciate this gesture, the quintessential YNaija. Thanks to Chude, my great friend!
Watch the RUN documentary on girlchild marriage here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCXckHgofl0