By all standard, Chief (Mrs) Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar is a quintessential mother figure and role model par excellence. As the founder of Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), she presides over an organisation that is doggedly committed to building global partnership for the eradication of trafficking in persons, child labour and violent abuses of the rights of women and society, as well as HIV/AIDS. At the WOTCLEF’s Headquarters in Abuja where she daily attends to the girl child and women issues, FOREFRONT sought to unveil and share her passion for vulnerable female children and how her husband, Nigeria’s former Vice President Atiku Abubakar has been supportive of her endeavours among others in this interview. Excerpts…
Is there any childhood experience that motivated your establishment of WOTCLEF?
My life story will give a background to what I am presently pre-occupied with in terms of saving our vulnerable children through my Foundation. I am the third child of my parents, we are from Ilesha and we lived in Lagos. So, I can say my childhood was spent with my parents and we were a loving family comprising other kids from the neighbourhood. Our home was a welcome abode to kids from other families and we enjoyed so much in the company of other children. While growing up with these children, I was always the one reporting to my mother anyone who was misbehaving. We had great times sharing and dreaming for a better world. I did my primary school and secondary school in a convent, and you can understand the strict discipline we were subjected to. After my secondary school in 1969, I met my husband who told me that the moment he saw me, God told him that he had met his future partner. He said I won’t allow you to go and requested to know my parents. The rest is now history. I continued with my educational pursuits in my husband’s home. I undertook a course in Hotel and Catering at the Kaduna Polytechnic where I got both my National Diploma and Higher National Diploma. I was schooling and giving birth to my children at the same time. When I completed my tertiary education, I was offered a job to teach at the Kaduna Polytechnic. While there, I became very worried about my female students who were often absent from lectures without reasonable excuses. As a concerned mother, I was inquisitive and always asking questions about these students and the reason for their questionable behaviour. Shockingly, one of the students opened up and said they were always traveling to Rome. I queried further but could not get a convincing explanation to such travels when the school was in session. My worry was about their allowing such unnecessary trip to hamper their studies. However, I got an opportunity as a Polytechnic lecturer to visit Rome and what I saw on the streets was appalling. In Rome, I discovered that people holding the green passport were herded into different bus. We were the last to be screened by the Italian Immigration. I was so concerned and wondered why we should be treated with such indignity as Nigerians. Sadly, when we got to town, we saw many black girls on the streets of Rome. As a mother who is concerned about the plight of children, especially the girl child, it was indeed a sorry sight to behold. My guardian whom I was living with told me that the Italians were fond of black women and that unfortunately these black girls, mostly Nigerians, were victims of desperate and vicious men and women in Nigeria who regularly facilitated their visas and travel documents.
Did you make enquiries about these people?
As at then it was difficult to get such information or uncover those behind the illicit business. But what I gathered was that these unscrupulous men and women always insisted that the girls must live in Italy and work to pay up the money expended on their trip to Europe. Of course, these young girls were lured with stories of lucrative job offers and easy money to be made on the streets of Italy. Others got offers to be trained as hairdressers and become rich to escape from poverty that they were exposed to back home. To perpetually keep the girls in bondage, the agents usually seized their passports and other travel documents to ensure they have no choice but continue serving the interest of the cartel that facilitated their journey. Another worrisome part was the stories of some unholy rites and oaths administered on the victims through voodoo practice with death threats should they divulge information on their trips to Europe. All these were done to inject fear in the girls and make them slaves to their captors.
How were you affected by all these?
That this barbaric act was taking place in Nigeria under the watch of successive governments in Nigeria was heartrending. The knowledge that so many of our girls were vulnerable and caught in the web of forced prostitution made me feel so bad but determined that someday, I could be an instrument to alleviate the pains of these girls by bringing hope and succour to them. That was my wish and dream. So, when by God’s grace I become the wife of the Vice President of Nigeria, an opportunity to make this dream come true presented itself on a platter of gold. Indeed, I am happy being instrumental to the establishment of WOTCLEF that has been focused on salvaging these trafficked female children, among others set objectives.
What is level of support from your husband to run the Foundation?
My husband is a very understanding man and has been very supportive of me in all my endeavours. He is gender sensitive. For him, the girl child is special being more sympathetic than the boys. He will always say that even when one is a bit down in health, the boys will simply run into the house and say, “Baba yaya ka ke?” (Daddy, how are you feeling?) But it is not so with the girls who will always be around and close by to show care and identify with one in times of need. My husband believes that the girls show you real care and love. With such disposition, my husband has always supported my vision, which is demonstrated by his care and devotion to WOTCLEF, its activities and programmes. I remember that when Baba Obasanjo was signing the bill on trafficked persons, he described me as the ‘Wilberforce of our time.’ My husband was seated there and we were all happy that our dream of positively impacting on the girl child has actually come true.
How is WOTCLEF Funded?
I have answered this particular question several times over. It might interest you to know that from inception, WOTCLEF has remained privately funded till date. Being a dream I had long before my husband became the Vice President of Nigeria, my prayer to God was for wisdom and understanding to pursue it with all my strength and energy no matter the circumstances. The funny thing is that many people would always say then that she is the wife of the Vice President and there is so much money to spare for the project. But I must confess that we had no budgetary allocation or official donations to run WOTCLEF as an NGO. On many occasions, we made special appeal to the public for contributions to fund the organization but sadly Nigerians did not heed our clarion call for selfless service to save the girl child and Nigerian women from abuse as well as empower them as partners for socio-economic growth and national development. The good thing is that we were able to use foodstuffs at our disposal to feed them as Nigerian children deserving of such right and treatment. I was very happy doing that and we refused to rely on government money to finance our programme which is the reason WOTCLEF is still waxing strong years after my husband left office. Moreover, being God-ordained project, we have been quite modest in our outlook and have always believed that God Almighty would crown our little efforts with success despite the desperation and ill-feelings from the trafficking cartel.
Has there been any form of threats from people or the cartel?
Women and girls’ trafficking is big business that brings huge returns, so the operators easily issue threats to people they see as putting a wedge to stop their thriving and illicit trade. But i know those in this illicit business are not happy with what WOTCLEF has done and is still doing for the women and the girl child. They see us as spoilers in their hitherto flourishing trade. However, like I have always said to people, being a project ordained by God, WOTCLEF has not recorded any such threat and we are focused to continuously pursue our set goals.
How do you collaborate with NAPTIP and other bodies?
Without blowing our trumpet, we can say that WOTCLEF’s strong advocacy and campaigns engineered the process of enacting the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act in 2003 and eventual setting up of the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP). Being that NAPTIP’s job involves investigating and prosecuting human trafficking offences, we have a cordial relationship. We currently operate a rehabilitation centre for abused and vulnerable children; give them shelter, food, clothing, education, socio and psychological counseling. We equally trace the families of these victims and thereafter re-integrate them into the society. As an NGO, we partner with other Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). WOTCLEF is the umbrella body of NGOs working against women trafficking. It is called Network for Civil Society Organisation against Trafficking, Child Labour & Abuse (NACTAL). Once a year, we have a meeting of all these NGOs and WOTCLEF is the headquarters. NACTAL operates in the six geo-political zones of the country to take care of abused and vulnerable children. We also collaborate with the European Union (EU) and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that give small grants, like counterpart funding to assist us rehabilitate and empower victims, especially children for re-integration into the society. There is also this partnership with primary and Junior Secondary Schools in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), where we have established WOTCLEF Anti-Trafficking Brigade (WAB), a children participatory-oriented programme. We organize meetings with the children in different schools and their teachers are involved. Using knowledge-based strategies, WAB aims at educating them on elimination of trafficking in persons, child labour and abuse of the rights of women and children, assistance for trafficked persons and vulnerable children, collaboration with relevant stakeholders, capacity development, research and monitoring the implementation of legislations. Aside from training and partnering with the Police, there is also the Child Justice Clinic (CJC) that we report our cases for prompt action. There is also existing collaboration with the Ministry of Women Affairs for women and children to truly get justice and the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) for lots of sensitization and awareness campaign. Happily, we have a consultative status at the United Nations where they do invite us to make presentations and we intervene very aggressively on issues of trafficking and child abuse. At times, these abused children may not want to return home with their guardians. In such cases, we have to take charge of rehabilitating them and liaising with NAPTIP for further actions at a higher level. On the controversial Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill recently dumped by the Senate It is worrisome that our law makers just threw out the bill without giving it a chance for positive consideration. We are only seeking protection, improved welfare and greater opportunity for the womenfolk and vulnerable of society to participate actively contribute to the nation’s socio-economic and political growth and development. So, no matter the so-called defects in the Bill, they should have fine-tuned the Bill rather than jettisoning it that way. The women are not Oliver Twist; I know we have been enjoying the support of most men and we are just asking for more support and partnership on the 35 percent affirmative action. However, it is needful for the women to unite towards realising the UN 2030 gender equity rights. We are not flexing muscles with the men. This idea that a woman’s place is in the kitchen is wrong because both the boys and girls are sent to school and we all have a lot to contribute to Nigeria’s overall good.
At a time local government chairmen were mobilized to imbibe the vision espoused by WOTCLEF. Has this positively impacted the fight against human, particularly child, trafficking in the states? Then, when we went around sensitizing and creating awareness in the states, it was quite encouraging and well received by the governments that level. But as always with people, things simply change when you are no longer in office. If you want to run an NGO like ours, then, you must have a large heart. Some people believe that being wife of former Vice President, I should have all the money to run WOTCLEF. But I tell them, we do not have such funds. So, we just make do with what is available. You must be focused and selfless to operate in the NGO world. Some of our people do not believe in NGOs’ activities. We had Co-ordinators in about 21 states before now but this has reduced to only few states like Adamawa, Plateau, Kano, Taraba and Niger among others. This is what we can manage effectively for now.
Is there any special motivation driving the WOTCLEF dream?
Considering my background, I have no choice but to do what is right and pursue my objectives in life. After leaving office, some people wonder how we have been coping and I tell them, there is really no difference between when my husband was in office and now that I am a private person. I’m still the same simple woman that many have known and interacted with over the years.
So, how is life then and now?
To me, it is practically the same. When my husband was in office, my doors were opened to everyone 24 hours. I facilitated things for many without asking anything from anyone. It is in my nature to help people and sometimes, after assisting people, they do come back with disturbing tales. Though some of their stories are usually made up, I still go ahead to help them. That is the way my life is. I cherish the act of helping people and alleviating the pains of living for them. I was born with it and I have done that in office and out of office.
What are the challenges facing WOTCLEF?
I will say funding remains our major challenge. It is difficult to raise adequate funds to engage the number of coordinators WOTCLEF would love to operate with. Besides the financial support from the Board of Trustees, our purse has grown lean due to lack of funding. But I am confident that things will improve in terms of funding so that we can still expand our programmes and activities around Nigeria. Also, it is my wish that Nigerians shun pettiness and mundane sentiments in the fight to protect women and the girl child as well as abused and vulnerable children. There must be the political will and implementable laws to address these issues in our overall national interest.
Going forward, what is your vision for WOTCLEF and message for Nigerian women?
My vision for WOTCLEF is to have a safe and free society for all. As I have said, WOTCLEF is an organisation that will outlive me. My advice to mothers is that we should take great and particular care of our female children. Like the case of Ese where the issue of kids dating themselves came up, we can avoid so many untoward developments if mothers are more circumspect in the girl child upbringing. You know in our society, if a child is good, the father will claim the glory but if otherwise, it is the mother’s fault. As mothers, we must ensure the girls we will be handing over the baton of motherhood are well brought up to face the challenges of the future. There is no option than working hard to take care of our girl children. The only tool we can deploy towards a better and prosperous future is through education. Mothers should insist on the education of our female children in order to create a better future for them. Education starts from the home and they should be made to understand and fight when they are abused. We must not shy away from our responsibilities. Our parents once shied away from sex education. But that was then. Now we are in a modern society where things have gone haywire and technology is everywhere. We should open up and allow our children to learn and have the right education from us. Sex education is important for our children, both boys and girls. It is imperative we do that now so our children will be better equipped to do things right for the betterment of society as our future leaders. As the founder of WOTCLEF, it is a dream that must not die. I believe that concerned and well-meaning Nigerians would come forward and share in our vision to make the country a better place for the generations coming after us.