Interview with the General Manager Lift Above Poverty Organization

LAPO Is Committed To Gender Equity And Social Justice In Nigeria

Sabina Idowu-Osehobo is the General Manager of Lift Above Poverty Organization, a non-governmental and non-profit community development organization committed to empowering the poor across the country. Over the years, the organization has demonstrated uncommon commitment to poverty alleviation through the provision of health, social and economic empowerment services. In this interview with James-Wisdom Abhulimen, she chronicles gender and health issues affecting the poor especially women in the society as well as the success of the intervention programme of the organization.

What is LAPO’s strategy and role to achieve gender equity and overcome discrimination and injustice against women in the society?

LAPO does gender awareness training, sensitization and advocacy on gender issues affecting women in the society. We work to create understanding of issues that supports discrimination against women. We work with various groups in the society to bring about change to the nation. Over the past 20 years, we have worked with groups and other organizations to ensure that enabling laws are put in place so that women will be able to get justice and fight discrimination. Some of these are the Widowhood and Human Trafficking Laws in Edo and some other states. We create awareness and sensitize people on the availability of these laws as well as work with those in position to see that the laws are implemented. In a nutshell, we work at the level of putting relevant laws in place, we sensitize people and also offer training to ensure that there is a better understanding of discrimination issues and ways that they can be curbed and addressed at both the household and community level because the issues start from the household level and then, of course, we see them at the larger community. What is very good for us is that we have partnered a lot with other groups while doing our work. These include NGOs, government, communities and other bodies whose work it is to end discrimination against women and ensure an egalitarian society.

LAPO champions the cause of women and the less privileged in the society. Does the organization have any mechanism to ensure quick access to justice for women and widows subjected to violence and inhuman practices in the society?

Yes. The organisation has a Legal Aid unit headed by a lawyer and what we do in that unit is to counsel, mediate and then seek legal redress if it becomes necessary. Women who have issues of abuse or violence come to the unit which takes up their case. This is what we have been doing. The unit collaborates with various bodies including the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), the police and welfare departments. They also work with law chambers which provide free legal services to vulnerable people. The first thing we do is to counsel people and find out exactly what the issues are and then we talk about mediation. It is in cases where there is absolutely nothing else we can do that we go to court. Litigation is not the first option. It is actually the last option where everything else has failed. We work with the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) body to ensure that cases are resolved out of court. We have been able to obtain favourable court judgements in the few cases we have prosecuted. In the case of one Philomena, the court ruled that she could not be thrown out of her matrimonial home by her husband. There was also a case of a widow whose in-laws wanted to take over her late husband’s property. We went to court which ruled that the properties belong to her children and not to her husband’s family. However, we have observed that a lot of the abused women do not want to seek legal redress because of our peculiar environment and all that. For most of them, what they just need is economic empowerment. We link up such women with financial services provided by appropriate sister organizations in the LAPO system.

What effort is LAPO making to achieve 30% representation of women in elective and appointive positions in Nigeria?

We have leadership and governance programme under which we sensitize people, especially women across communities. In 2004, we won a recognition from the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) for doing a political mobilization programme that was adjudged one of the best in Nigeria. We were given that recognition because there was a lot of apathy before then. That election recorded improvement in the participation of people, especially women.

We use advocacy as a tool to engage relevant stakeholders including political parties on the need to field more women in elective and appointive positions. With the political parties, we have also worked on how they can make changes in their party structures to allow more women in leadership positions and we have also canvassed actively, directly and through the media to push this position Of course we are also pursuing the domestication of CEDAW, along with other organizations. This is another opportunity for us to raise our voices that CEDAW should be ratified. CEDAW is the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. The 30% representation for women is an affirmative action on political positions that should be reserved for women. If CEDAW is domesticated and implemented, it means that political parties will have no alternative and if they don’t, then of course, people can go to court and say you are breaking the law of the land. These are some of the things that we are doing. Nigeria is a signatory to the CEDAW document internationally. The National Assembly needs to ratify it so that all the states will begin to domesticate and implement it.

You will agree with me that awareness and acceptance on gender equity and women’s participation in governance is quite high now compared to what it was. We have come a long way from “no woman at all” to “so long there is one woman” to the present situation where women are holding very important positions in government.

HIV/AIDS has gone beyond educating the populace about the reality and dangers of the disease to include support and care for people living with the ailment. What is LAPO doing about this?   

A lot of progress has been made in the fight against the scourge. I remember that when we first started work in Benin City over 20 years ago, stigma was very high. If you look at the sentinel survey and all the current data, you will observe that there has been an improvement. For us in LAPO, our programming spans the areas of HIV prevention, impact mitigation as well as care and support for those living with the disease. We are making people aware and working with various target groups on how we can prevent further spread, and how we can prevent new infections. We work with people who are already infected to see how we can make life better for them. Part of our prevention measures is the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission of the disease to ensure that pregnant women do not transfer the ailment to their unborn babies. For those who already have it, we have support groups affiliated to Network of Persons with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (NEPWAN), through which we provide counseling and psychosocial support. We also distribute food items, drugs and provide financial services to them as needed. These are some of the things we do in that area. We are part of the National Response through interaction and participation in the activities of the various Agencies and Networks at the national, state and local government levels. In fact, LAPO received an award by CISHAN, the Civil Society Network on HIV and AIDS in Nigeria, Edo State Chapter. This was for the reach, depth, consistency and impact on our beneficiaries over the years.

Malaria still constitutes a major threat to public health despite government’s huge budgetary allocation and funding from International Donor Agencies. Is there any role LAPO can play to check this?

LAPO has a huge malaria programme that we are implementing. We have Community Action Against Malaria (CAAM) programme which brings people in various communities together to see how we can take action to control malaria in their environment. In all the states where we work, we have a health committee. Part of their primary responsibilities is malaria prevention and control. They ensure that their environments are clean and that people in the various environments are given information on how they can prevent malaria by keeping their environments clean, by using insecticide-treated mosquito nets, by going for test and then making sure that they take their drugs properly. This step is to ensure that it is malaria that they are treating because there are some other illnesses that present the same kind of symptoms. Part of what we do with clients of MfB and some community members is actually to do malaria test and do referrals in health facilities with whom we have built linkages for treatment. We have recorded a lot of successes in being able to reduce malaria in communities. We also have a lot of publications just as with HIV/AIDS and other health issues. We have regular publications on malaria that we distribute amongst communities. We are active in our malaria network, the Association of Civil Society Organizations in Malaria Control, Immunization and Nutrition (ACOMIN) and continue to work at various levels with policy makers, health care providers and other stakeholders to reduce malaria in Nigeria. 

How equipped are your location officers to deliver social and health empowerment services across the country?

They are well equipped with necessary tools and all of them are graduates in their fields. They are also regularly trained and retrained for effective service delivery. A few months ago, we equally organized another retraining session for them. The training was facilitated by a consultant of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Adeleye and his team.

What progress has the organization made over the years with her social and health empowerment programmes across target communities?

We have made a lot of progress. If you look at some of the testimonies, you will see the impact. We have documented some in books. There is one called Stories of Change which tells some of the stories of those that we have worked with and communities where we have worked over the years. External Evaluation Studies of our activities also document the impact of our work. Again, the demand for our services by those not currently reached is high. A close look at what we do with LAPO MfB clients show that impact is being made. Over the years, we have been able to give social and health information. The global realization that credit alone is not sufficient to fight poverty lends credence to what we have been doing for so long.

Are there plans to extend services to other states?

We are currently providing social and health intervention services in seven locations across seven states. If you look at where we started from and where we are currently, you will notice that we have expanded over the years. In future we do not intend to continue to move like this. We want to partner with other organizations who are doing what we do in those various locations to be able to provide this kind of services to people within those localities. Not necessarily providing direct services but working in collaboration with other organizations to reach more people.

What has been LAPO’s source of strength over the years?

Our willingness to change, our willingness to embrace innovation, our willingness to continue to learn and our willingness to meet the needs of the constituencies we serve, our people.

Who are your partners in the fight?

We have worked with likeminded organizations. Over the years we have worked with quite a lot. EED, OXFAM-Novib and CORDAID of Netherlands, the Society for Family Health(SFH), various State Action Committees  on AIDS, ACOMIN, Partners for Development (PfD), Civil Society on HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (CSHAN), Civil Society Action Coalition on Education For All (CSACEFA), Development and Peace and the LAPO MfB, amongst others.