First Lady Of Niger State, AMINA ABUBAKAR BELLO, empowering women, solving the plight of their health concerns
I had an average childhood. I have a very large extended family and growing up, we had a lot of holidays, going back and forth to my grandparent’s for holidays. My father was in the army, my mother was a lawyer. So, growing up, we travelled a lot because my father was transferred to many parts of Nigeria.I’ve lived across the whole of Nigeria, in all the zones. In fact, I was born in Benin, after that we moved to Sokoto and then we moved to Plateau. I’ve been around the whole country. Those days, Nigeria was very peaceful, and I went to public schools. It was actually quite exciting.
Growing up, because my mother was a lawyer, education was very important. So, I had to do extra lessons, and I went to Islamic school after school. Growing up, I knew education was important and from an early age, I knew I had to do a profession, so that shaped how I ended up choosing what I chose. I actually wanted to be a lawyer like my mum, but she felt I was a better science student than an art student…and that was how I ended up studying medicine.
Throughout my nursery and primary school was in the army schools and then I went to the Federal Government Girls College in Katsina State and then I finished my education in ABU Zaria.
Why Did You Choose Your Area Of Specialty?
When I was in school, I always enjoyed biology as a subject. So, by the time I went into my final year, I decided I wanted to study medicine. When you are studying medicine, you do every aspect of it as a course, so, obstetrics and gynaecology were my favourite subjects. I enjoyed the aspect of delivering babies. So, from the time I was a student, I knew I enjoyed it. It’s a miracle to me when you see the way babies come. I find it very interesting. Then you are always advised not to decide what you want to do as a profession until you have done your house job, and ‘house job’ means you have to go through all the different departments in medicine. You do surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology. I enjoyed it and it occurred to me that this is where my calling was. And that was how I decided to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology. The rest is history.
Why Did You Set Up Raise Foundation, And How Are You Ensuring That The Vision Is Implemented?
Raise Foundation was set up because of the need in me to see that women do not die when they give birth. As an obstetrician and gynaecologist, I’ve worked in the public sector in my entire career. One of the saddest things that I said is that women who shouldn’t die because of childbirth are dying simply because they have not had the care that they desire. If you look at the statistics, Nigeria has the highest number of women who die during childbirth in the world.
When you see a woman come in and either dies or loses her baby unnecessarily, simply because she didn’t have access to care, and didn’t have access to anti-natal care, that always bothered me. But as a doctor working in a public hospital, I didn’t have a platform in which I could make a difference. And so, when my husband became governor, it gave me that platform to step out because I needed to do something that would make a difference. That’s why I set up Raise Foundation.
The foundation is set up to look at the gap where women die from and then see how we can fill it up. In clinics where hitherto our coming, you have just five women coming to deliver in the clinics, we’re now having 20/40 women coming to deliver and they deliver safely. And in a situation where the woman has complications that can’t be dealt with in that clinic, we have provided them with an ambulance that will transport them to the next general hospital.
We do this in collaboration with the state ministry of health, and all the council in Niger State, and they corporate with us.
Challenges In Terms Of Advocacy And Campaigning
To be honest, maybe when we started, we might have had challenges. But now, we’ve been accepted because we’re dealing with a subject that is quite dear to people’s hearts. The initial challenge we had was, first, Niger State happens to be a very wide state, so, you have a lot of very hard-to-reach areas, and then you have diverse languages. I always say that Niger State is a mini Nigeria because you have nothing less than 20 different languages in Niger State alone. We have three main languages like how you have Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa in Nigeria. In Niger we have Gbagyi, Nupe, and Hausa. But within the Hausa, we also have other tribes like Kambari, and in the Nupe speaking side we have other tribes like Aza.
Some of the challenges that we had were regarding access to the hard-to-reach areas. But we used to overcome that because before we go anywhere, we always go to the emirate council and do an advocacy visit which in all the cases, we were accepted fully by the emirs and their district heads and they would usually give us somebody that would interpret on our behalf. Then we always have a team of people who speak the different languages. Even in my team, we have the Gbagyi, Nupe speaking people. And so, we’re able to relate with the people.
Secondly, the misconception and lack of understanding within the people in the community of the role of women. So, those were the challenges that we had. We had to really work to change the mindsets of a lot the people that we come across, especially the men. We have a lot of harmful traditional practices and beliefs that interfere with the health and wellbeing of our women, especially when it comes to childbirth and going for anti-natal care. So, we had to work really hard to get them to understand that anti-natal care is important, to allow their wives to come for those anti-natal care visits and to come to the hospitals for their deliveries.
We also do advocacy in terms of breast and cervical cancer. That advocacy is more difficult because we have so many misconception and misinformation that people cling onto. We have to continue talking and giving sensitisation messages for people to understand and avail themselves to the interventions that we provide.
To What Extent Have You Gone In Cancer Awareness And Treatment For Women In Niger State?
The foundation was launched in 2016 with the cancer screening programme. When we started, what we usually do is that, we have a screening centre where people can just walk in for us to screen them for breast and cervical cancer and we do it usually for free. We also go into hard-to-reach areas to do the screening for women. We usually do it in collaboration with other NGOs and we do health outreaches. There we are able to screen so many women and provide them with results.
When we started, we hardly had anybody walking into our centre for their screening services even when we go to the villages; we actually have to make the women come out for the screening services. But in the last two years, we have seen a tremendous increase in women walking into our centre on their own and availing themselves for cancer screening. We do a lot of advocacy and sensitisation messages. I go on the radio, I do public lectures, my team goes on advocacy and sensitisation visits to markets. Now, people actually know that the wife of the governor has a programme on cancer. We now get people calling into our foundation, coming to be screened, coming to avail themselves of our services. We have seen a tremendous amount of awareness in the state. Apart from that, every year we try to do an advocacy walk to increase the awareness of what breast and cervical cancer is and that has also increased the awareness around the state. We now have a steady navigation system.
When we screen women and we find that they have lumps, we would take them and do the investigation that is required to get a diagnosis, then we link them up with doctors that will treat them—either to do a biopsy or to remove the lumps. Or, if it is cancer, we link them with the cancer team at the Federal Medical Centre in Niger state, and we’re able to provide some kind of financial assistance towards their care. For the women who have cervical cancer changes, we treat them then and there for non-cancerous lesions and we follow them up. For those that we discover they have cancer, we link them up to the doctors that can treat them and give them the appropriate care. So, people are aware of that now and we tend to get a lot of women who come for our services.
Issues With VVF
First and foremost, I was a doctor for a long time before I became the governor’s wife. Already knowing how to talk to patients was something I already understood. If you understand what VVF is, then it’s very easy for you to communicate to the people who are most affected. With VVF, there is this misconception that it is about early marriage or teenage pregnancy to be specific. Teenage pregnancy is one of the most important causes of VVF however, it will interest you to know that of all the cases I have done since my foundation came on board, over 60 percent of the women who we have treated for VVF were not teenage girls.
They were women who had had other children because the second important cause of it is lack of access to basic emergency obstetric care, meaning lack of access to skilled people attending to people giving birth. What causes obstetric fistula is prolonged labour and obstructed labour, meaning a woman goes into labour that becomes so long and she has not been able to deliver which causes damage to her bladder, so that by the time she actually has the baby, there is a hole that has been created in the bladder that causes the urine to come out.
Yes, it is common in the North, but it will interest you to know that there is a VVF centre in Ebonyi State. In fact, it is one of the biggest VVF centres in the country after the one in Katsina State, because you also have VVF cases in the East especially where they also have marriages that happen early. So, the important thing is for people to understand that when you go into labour and you don’t conceive within twelve hours, you’re in danger of complications including VVF, and that is the message that we take round when we go for our sensitization messaging.
Then, we try to encourage people. What we do, for us, is that we work with what Niger State government is doing. There is a law that says every girl child should be in school and a child cannot be removed from school to be married. When you do that, you’re held liable. So, we work within that and when we go to the villages, we tell the village heads to inform their people not to allow their children marry early, let them go to school. And even when they do, let them go to the hospital when they are in labour. It’s a very difficult thing because it’s the mindset that people are used to, and then, unfortunately, the infrastructure required for girls to go to school within these villages are not there. So, it makes our messaging difficult.
If I say take your child to school, but in this village, there is no school, how am I supposed to take my child to school? So, part of what we do is, we also advocate at the level of the government, local government: We say to them, please, this area doesn’t have a school. If you want your girl child not to have complications, please, provide that school for them. It’s a holistic approach that we use, addressing the education, the health system, the cultural beliefs and addressing the norms that put women at disadvantages. One of the most important things is the poverty and the lack of education and unemployment for women that make them unable to take the kind of important decisions they need to go to the hospital. If a woman has her own economic empowerment, she’s able to convince her husband on the need to go to the hospital. But then, a lot of them are not educated. If they are not educated and they do not know what is good for them, how will they take themselves to the hospital. So, our intervention is holistic.
Covid-19: How Is Niger State Handling It And What Has Your Foundation Done?
Niger State has done quite well with the COVID-19. I think it was among the first states to institute a lockdown when the COVID-19 started. In fact, I think we’re there first state. We started out by doing a curfew. Niger is very central. If you are going to the south or the eastern part of Nigeria from the north, you have to come through Niger State. At the time that COVID-19 started, the governor instituted a curfew and then a lockdown eventually. It restricted movement interstate. People that were coming from out of Niger State were barred from entering Niger. When we started this, all the cases that we got were people that came either from Lagos or Kano. That was how we got COVID in the state. Right now, we’ve had cases in the state and about 12 people have died. Currently there are about 14 or 15 people who are on admission or isolation in the state.
I think Niger State has done quite well in terms of trying to curb it when it came. We instituted the same thing: no public gatherings and the use of face masks. Right now, we have the rule that everybody has to go out with face masks. The situation now it that, people are not adhering as they should. But fortunately, we are not getting the kind of numbers that other states are getting.
For my foundation, what we did was that we provided women with masks. We also did a programme where we provided palliatives to the less privileged. We specifically targeted widows and those with special needs. We have an organised system of getting those with special needs in Niger State. They are in associations and cooperatives and we were able to reach out to them and provide them with food palliatives, face masks and other essentials they need for hygiene. We also did some sensitisation videos on the importance of handwashing and staying away from public gathering and so on. That’s what we did as a foundation and it is ongoing. But of course, like other things, a lot of the things we were doing were affected, but we still made sure that our women got access to our volunteers who ensured they would go to the hospital to have their babies. They were afraid of clinics, but our volunteers connected with them and got them to go to the hospital and reassured them that they won’t be infected with COVID-19.
Importance Of Girl Child Education
I don’t have the current figures, but when we came in 2015, we conducted a study to find out what the state of the girl child education was in Niger state. We found that up to 40 percent of girls in Niger State were not in school for secondary school age. The reasons we discovered were that they might have been enrolled but they eventually dropped out (that was in the rural areas). And the reasons why they dropped out of school included complaint about transportation, lack of infrastructure in the villages. So, even if they go and they don’t have teachers, eventually their parents take them out of school. When they are on their period and needed privacy, that lack of privacy makes the girl not to go to school and eventually they drop out. Then the third thing, the parents complain of not having enough money to pay for the school supplies and so, the girls end up being taken out of school and some of them just get married.
Apart from what my foundation is doing, there are a lot of programmes that the state has partnered with other bodies like UNICEF, where they do a programme to encourage the enrolment and retention of girls in school and that has gone fantastically well in Niger state. There is a programme that’s done by an organisation called HILWA, High Level Women Advocates, and Niger State is one of the states that has the organisation. It is made up of women who have attained a high status in Niger State. They work with UNICEF to ensure girls go to school.
There are specific local governments in the state that have very bad indices, so, the last time we heard a report from them, those local governments have recorded over a 70 to 80 percent increase in the number of girls that enrolled and the numbers that have been retained in school as a direct result of the programmes that the state and UNICEF have worked together to implement. So, things are better now.
What my foundation does is that, we do a mentorship programmes where different women who have achieved some kind of career, no matter what it is, would come and speak to the girls so that they can understand how important education is and that they can be someone great in life.
So, you have people from different backgrounds similar to those who are in school coming to tell their stories and experiences in school, the idea being that the girls themselves have a love for school that encourages them to stay even if their parents do not keep them in school.
The state government encourages that from primary school and to JS three is free in terms of school fees. The parents are only supposed to pay for their PTA and school uniforms. So, that also encouraged the number of girls who enroll in school. The school feeding programme that was instituted by this administration has improved the enrolment and retention of children generally in the state, girls inclusive. I would like to think that that is the same thing across some of the other states in the north, but for us here, we have seen a definite improvement in the number of girls that are going to school. And we hope very soon we would be able to tell what difference we have recorded from 2015 and now.
How Do You Balance Work, Family And Being First Lady?
For me, it’s about time management and prioritising things properly. Every one of those roles has to be played to the best of your ability. The important thing is to understand that each is important and to give each role the time it requires. So, you have to have excellent time management skills and prioritising whatever is in front of you. You have to know what is important at the time you’re doing the work. But the most important thing is, you allocate as much time of your day to everything properly. So, you structure your life so that every aspect of your life is given its due.
Working With The Wife Of The Vice President, Dolapo Osibajo
She invited us to collaborate with her organisation to train youths and women on different skills. We trained them on decoration, embellishment and shoe-making. We trained about 250 people in collaboration with the wife of the vice president. As a result of that training, we included embellishment in the training that we give people in my own foundation after working with the wife of the vice president because we realised it was such a wonderful and easy thing that people could actually make a career from.
What Makes Niger State Tick?
One thing I would say about Niger is that we’re extremely hospitable. Right now, you hear a lot of news about banditry in some parts of the states, but before that and even now, Niger on its own is a very peaceful state. We have a lot of tribes but we end up living in harmony. It was known for being peaceful. It is actually a very beautiful state. There are some parts of Niger that you would swear you’re in Hawaii in the United States. If you go to Gurara Falls, it is the most beautiful sight you can see. If you go to Shagunu in the Kainji area you would see beautiful landscape of river and greenery everywhere you go. That in itself is something you should come and see.
We have the rich culture of the Nupe people, we have our beautiful dancers and when you see the way they make their cultural clothes, very beautiful to behold. We have a rich history. We have the Kainji Games Reserves where we have exotic animals that you can come and see. So, there is so much for you to come and see in Niger state.
How Did You Embrace The Reality Of Being The First Lady?
I think that I struggled with it even before he won the election. I had gone through the emotions. I went through ‘I don’t want it’, I went through ‘no, not sure’. But it occurred to me that it was a reality. So, at the time we started the campaign, it became real, so I started accepting it. By the time he won, it was more like, “God, we’re grateful that you have accepted our prayers and we pray that you hold our hands through it and make it easy”. That was how I took it. And then I tried to see how I could adjust because it was foreign to me. I took it one day at a time and by God’s grace we are where we are today.