Abigail Okpebholo is a graduate of Microbiology from Delta State University, Abraka, Delta State. While growing up, she discovered her mother didn’t pursue her dream of being a nurse. It turns out her mother was made to believe that her education ends in the kitchen and was unimportant.
The discovery made Abigail decide that she would advocate for women and girls and be able to play her role in achieving equal opportunities for women. To achieve this, she started Youngpearl Organisation.
Youngpearl Organization is a community-based NGO that advocates for the rights and privileges of rural women and girls, empower them through skill training, mentorship, coaching and education.
To achieve this, Youngpearl Organisation runs an annual skill training program that helps women and girls learn any handwork of their choice for economic empowerment and financial independence. They also take them through mentoring, coaching and fundamental support.
Youngpearl Organisation also supports underprivileged children through education with the back2school scheme where these children are provided with educational materials. This runs annually.
Talking about Youngpearl Organisation, Abigail Okpebholo says, “I decided to go ‘local’ because I understand that these grassroots populations suffer the most”.
In this exclusive interview, we discussed Youngpearl Organisation; the challenges involved in running Youngpearl Organisation; the #16Days Campaign to end Gender-based Violence; the role men can play to support women equality and some misconceptions surrounding activism.
To support Youngpearl Organisation, visit their website.
VUN: Talk about your background and how you got into activism.
Abigail: Well, I’m Abigail Okpebholo, from Edo state, Nigeria. But, I reside in Delta State. I studied Microbiology at Delta State University, Nigeria.
Actually, I have always been vocal, hence was termed a talkative. My mum always wanted to be a nurse. She craves for the profession because she loved the medical field and wanted to help people in that regard. Her dreams were, however, not realized because, she was told that, she was just a woman and women’s roles always ended in the kitchen.
She was taken away from her dream. When I heard her story with tears in her eyes, I knew I had to fight for women to realise their dreams and live up to their potentials.
VUN: Now, this is sad. Did your mother go back to school to study nursing or does she have plans to do so?
Abigail: Well, she didn’t go back. The odds were so against her, she didn’t have a chance. Then, I was so young and couldn’t do anything.
But, when I started my advocacy, she had a new love, which was the teaching profession. Hence, she went back to school and studied as a trained teacher. Now, with that knowledge, she handles my school.
VUN: Wow, that’s a nice one.
Abigail: Yes, and I’m proud of her.
VUN: Since you started YoungPearl Organisation, what other painful stories of women have you heard and how do the stories contribute to your work?
Abigail: As a women and girls’ right advocate, everything that pertains to women and girls concerns me. Gender inequality, violence against women, relegation, trafficking, early marriage and rape have been stories I had to deal with. The women folk, especially in the rural areas, are very vulnerable and they suffer a lot.
My work sees to the fact that we speak for them, and go further to empower them; thereby, buttressing our point that women need to be respected and given the opportunity to thrive.
VUN: What challenges do you face in doing this and how do you deal with them?
Abigail: The fact that tradition is tradition and the custodians of these traditions won’t let go is one major challenge. When we go for advocacy, we encounter a lot of struggles to drive home our points. These people see no reason why women should be empowered. They claim that when women are empowered, they become disobedient to their husbands and are no more submissive.
They claim that their tradition demands women to only give birth and stay in the kitchen. Hence, that is how it should be. Another challenge is ensuring that these women see reasons with us. And, understand that they need to come out. They are either scared to flaunt their traditions or are already so glued to it.
However, we give ample reason why things should change. We use influential and successful women in our society to cite examples of women empowerment. We tell them that we are not taking their tradition away from them. But, only trying to modify it a bit. So far, it has worked.
VUN: Talking about the men, I personally believe men enjoy some privilege which they do not want to lose. For me, that is the reason gender inequality is still a thing. The question is, how can men be gotten involved?
Abigail: Men should realise that when we talk about Gender Equality, we ain’t saying women should be equal with them or trample on them. Basically, that’s the fear. We are only saying that women should have equal opportunities and rights as well as equal access to programs that will develop them.
Women will still be women, which is they will still be supporters to the men and not ride over the man.
So Men should have an understanding of this fact and join in ensuring women are empowered. We are not taking their rights away from them. Never!!!
They should encourage women and show their support. Strive to see what programmes and projects are put in place to enable women, get involved in campaigns that speak for women.
VUN: Let’s talk about rape. One argument in recent times is that women get raped because of the way they dress. What will you say about that?
Abigail: *laughs* Well, there might be an atom of truth in that argument. But, productive minds do not have time to consider rape by mere looking at a scantily dressed lady.
My counter-argument is if you have better things to think about or do, such things won’t move you. I have been in situations whereby I should think of stuff, but, I always say, “I’m too busy to fail”.
In as much as, I advocate for women and girls, I do not support when they go off the radar. During our mentorship program, we tutor them on how to behave, dress and coordinate. Of course, some women get raped due to the way they dress. But, what about the fully dressed ones that are also raped?
There is no excuse for rape. If you have a productive mind, you will think better and productive things.
VUN: Youngpearl Organisation is focused on the grassroots, why is that?
Abigail: Yes, squarely on the grassroots populations. Because I found out that they suffer the most. They are actually at the receiving end.
I have compared the rural and urban areas, in terms of development, prosperity and potentials, the urban areas thrive more. But, in the rural setting, there is little or no development at all. I’m not saying it’s all well in the urban areas, there are still some slacks though, but, the rural area is worse.
VUN: Which means education and exposure is one of the challenges of women empowerment?
Abigail: Yes, another challenge. The majority are not educated and are not exposed. They are ‘locked in’ and ‘locked out’. Actually, one of the major challenges. And all these are rooted in culture and traditions.
VUN: Culture is meant to be dynamic and open to change. Why do you think that it’s a bit different in Nigeria where we seem to hold on to values that no longer work?
Abigail: For the people that are the custodians, who said it doesn’t work for them? Culture is dynamic. When it infringes on human right, it’s offensive and should be corrected.
According to my work, these cultures are passed on from generation to generation. Hence, are meant to be kept. The custodians are unaware of the fact that it does more harm than good.
Culture is speaking one’s local language; eating one’s local food; dressing in your cultural attire; these are positive parts. But, parts whereby women are to be cut, uneducated, relegated and exploited are bad. Hence, we are changing the narrative. These might have worked in the ancient time because there was nobody to speak out or speak up. Not anymore.
For me, I think these custodians still hold on to these “non-working” and harmful traditions because they are uneducated enough to know the consequences.
VUN: The 16days of activism to end GBV is ongoing. What exactly are you doing to contribute?
Abigail: Oh, yes. I’m adding my voice to support other advocates in the campaign to end the practice of Gender-based Violence. It’s my work so I know what it means. I’m campaigning both on social media and I’m also working on some projects that will further boost my work on that.
VUN: How do you combine your work as an activist and running your school?
Abigail: The passion allows both flows seamlessly. I have a dedicated team I work with. So, despite my travels, everything goes on well.
VUN: How do you finance your activities at Youngpearl Organisation?
Abigail: Well, it has not been easy in terms of funding. We have a few individuals that support. Although, we are still open to more collaborations and sponsors for our activities. Most times, it’s self-funded.
VUN: In Nigeria, a lot of people see activists as people with political ambitions. What’s your take on that?
Abigail: Although, some activists are not true to their cause. But, not really with political ambition per se. There are a lot of them that are scams. They raise funds for a supposed cause and that’s the end. So, to a large extent, it’s true.
VUN: What other misconceptions do people have about activist and how can they be corrected?
Abigail: Well, people think we are not true to our work or that we want to take the glory for eradicating a particular cause. They feel we over hype campaigns and problems to make it look as if it’s critical. These problems are critical to us because if they were not, we won’t put our lives out there to speak against them. So we want the public to believe that we are working for the common good of everyone and support us.