Girls need to understand that a woman can be more than a wife and a mother – Emilia Eyo Okon
Emilia started her journey into development work after attending the Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) 3-years training on Leadership, Sexuality Education and Life Management Skills, she also gave back to young girls by working as staff of GPI for 5 years where she was involved in training young girls, teachers, students and journalist on Gender. She has trained and mentored over 1000 young girls, 300 teachers in Cross River State, carried out sensitizations and advocacy for women’s rights, safe space for adolescent and recently concluded the Cross River State Gender Policy drafting for signing in partnership with Cross River State Ministry of Women Affairs and other key development partners in Cross River State. She is known to lead the commemoration of several women and reproductive health-related events: International Women’s Day, 16 Days of Activism, day of Women’s health and The Day of the Girls Child in Cross River State.
Emilia has a degree in Computer Science, an Associate degree in Community and Public Health and certifications in Entrepreneurship Development and Project Management for Development. She is a fellow of the African Women Entrepreneurship Cooperative (AWEC), New York on Social Enterprise Development and Coady International Institute, Canada on Facilitation Approaches for Social Change.
She also led the sexual and reproductive health training for national volunteers and beneficiaries at the Youth Resource Centers in 18 LGAs in Cross River State. Emilia shares her inspiring journey with me.
I AM not sure if my childhood prepared me for anything, I grew up as any other female in the “hood” but somethings shaped my mentality right from the get-go. Am Efik, one of the tribes in Cross River State. The Efiks are quite matriarchal in terms of how they treat women. We have popular sayings like “eyen mi no ke ndo idighe uyam” meaning my child is for marriage and not for sale. Infact other tribes around us see Efik women as proud and do not stay in their marriages. This is not to glorify divorce it is to put in perspective the kind of conversations that shaped my thinking.
Another big event that shaped my childhood was when I joined the Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) Calabar in 1996 as a GPI girl. We were re-sensitized on certain norms that people found normal. I attended the Sunday sessions 3-6 pm which talked about everything a young girl would experience ranging from Menstrual Cycle to Sexual Harassment. This is the institution that set the foundation for many years in the development sector. All the opportunities I had to grow, be exposed and learn began with that GPI Sunday lesson.
Being an experienced Development Practitioner with interest in Gender Mainstreaming & Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
Following up on my experiences in GPI and my cultural background. I think I got captivated by the sense of being different. I became strong-headed and stubborn when it came to discussing women/girls’ issues. This was pure activism and advocacy. This translated to me coordinating the GPI Girls Alumnae Association for more than 3 years, serving in GPI as an intern and working as a staff for more than 5 years. My conversations around gender and women’s right were then properly molded and developed. When I left GPI to get into the normal development sector with men, I struggled because this was the practical aspect of what we talked about every workday. The struggle about women continually being dropped from leadership positions, young girls being socialized to be sex objects and materialistic, political scenes carved out to be a platform for men only continued to bother me and I saw myself speak about these issues more often than not.
I was once told by a popular radio presenter on air, that he didn’t think Gender was such a huge issue for a position called Gender Equality Officer to be carved out as he couldn’t imagine what I would be doing in the office. These kinds of comments have fueled my work over the years.
The years I enjoyed most were when I became a facilitator for young girls in the GPI training program, giving back to young girls using the skills I learned several years back to talk to these girls about their bodies, their sexuality including sexual and reproductive health and rights. I found myself as a role model for these young girls, am not sure I am. I became their confidant and at some point, their counselor, where we talked openly about sex, sexuality, protection and seeking help where necessary. I remember taking up sexual abuse cases for them, accompanying them to hospitals, etc. It was one of my most exciting times because I felt the impact of my work directly on the beneficiaries and I was learning every day.
Being a fellow of the African Women Entrepreneurship Cooperative (AWEC) and other organisations
The AWEC fellowship was training I did in my bid to further understand Women in Business. I was part of a project which assisted over 11,000 young women and men get entrepreneurship training and some were able to develop viable businesses using the support mechanism the project provided. It provided training, small grants, business development mentorship, etc. at some point in the project part of my role was to assist women specifically gain access equally to this project opportunities, train them on developing business despite their peculiar challenges as women and work with the available institutions to be gender-sensitive while dealing with businesswomen.
I decided to apply for the AWEC fellowship to be part of a platform where only women who were in business were sharing ideas, challenges and learning from each other. It was a great learning experience for me as it translated into my work while developing ideas on how to deepen gender issues on the project.
The Coady Institute experience was to further deepen my facilitation skills while delivering sessions. Sometimes people love to lecture while taking sessions, I did learn early while at GPI to use creative approaches in delivering my topics. As I grew in the development sector and my responsibilities kept being intertwined with delivering sessions all the time, I felt it would be nice to learn new skills, interact with other development practitioners whose role is deeply involved in delivering community relates sessions and learn. It’s was a great experience and very useful for my work presently.
Training and mentoring over 1000 young girls, 300 teachers in Cross River State
This is was the direct outcome of my roles in GPI and The Bridge Leadership Foundation (TBLF). I trained and trained mostly around gender, sexual violence, women and girls, sexual and reproductive health and rights. I saw young girls coming to me for so many things, mentoring, references, linkages, etc. I remember walking into the University of Calabar and spending most parts of it were amazed at how many young girls recognized me immediate and spoke about how I affected their lives. Some follow my social media page closely to interact and keep their fire burning.
The teachers’ training, I can not take full credit for because it was a project GPI carried out as part of introducing teachers and student teachers to the Family Life and HIV/AIDS national curriculum. At the time I was one of the lead trainers on that project. I was in my early 20s at the time.
You are a gender advocate, activist, broadcaster, and convener of several initiatives, mother and wife, how do you manage it all.
I ask myself this question every day, I guess am restless.
2 things; I think I always want my daughter to see me like that mother who also contributed immensely to her life. Not only socially but financially. I want my kids to understand in practice that women can be more than a wife and a mother so they know what to expect and grow up with this as a norm. I rationalized and agreed with myself to have a career and do what I love every day of my life if I have to. Otherwise I would be unhappy and that I refuse to be.
Challenges of being an Advocate
Too many to mention. I have lost friends because I am probably too outspoken, lost opportunities because I would not settle for less, tagged difficult, strong feminists not in a good way, etc but those things do not deter me. I maybe intimidate for a period but I usually bounce back within a space of time am back to being me.
Being an Inspiration in other Organisations
I do not own an organization but have worked for several others, my contributions are left for my colleagues, former and present to analyze but one thing they would not forget is the amount of project analysis, creativity and innovation I bring onboard while implementing any project/program.
What makes you a Woman of Rubies?
I love the fact that it creates a platform for women to be showcased with their skills and not how much their partners have or how many children they own. I identify with this space because it has open arms, any woman, young old, married, divorced, single or single mother can be showcased purely based on their skills. We learn, criticize and evolve together.
To young women who want to go into advocacy
Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do. Dream BIG and work hard. Have Faith, plenty don’t know but my Faith level is way too high, that’s why when am low I know, I will be back up. If you fail? Understand it is a learning curve, take the lessons to forget the event. It is a tough road, buckle up and keep it moving.
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