opinionBy Simon Ebegbulem
Benin City — It is no secret that prior to 1999, some persons were in the habit of sponsoring girls from Edo State to Europe for prostitution. The situation was so bad that some parents in Benin sold their properties in order to get their daughters abroad to make quick money from prostitution. The illicit trade became so competitive then that any family whose daughter is not abroad in Benin City will be seen as among those still living in the past.
The situation became worrisome and embarrassing when the authorities in some of these European countries, particularly Italy and Spain, started deporting these girls back home. It was at this point that Eki Igbinedion, wife of the then governor of Edo State, Chief Lucky Igbinedion, came in the saddle. Shortly after her husband was sworn-in as governor, she vowed to stop this illicit trade, particularly after when the issue started giving the state a bad name both at home and abroad.
She set up Idia Renaissance, an outfit geared towards checking the activities of the sponsors of these girls which was like a cartel then. Eki Igbinedion visited Italy and Spain then where she met with some Edo girls counseling them on the need for them to stop the illicit trade and get decent jobs. Some of the girls were languishing in jail in Italy and she made frantic efforts to get them released and brought them back home. But she incurred the angst of some parents who wanted their children to remain there and make money for them.
She was abused by some parents and her name was allegedly taken to some shrines because some of these families felt she was killing the business. Unpertubed, she even got the Edo House of Assembly then to pass a law prohibiting prostitution. She created a niche for her self, infact she was known during her tenure as one of the most outstanding first ladies due to her programmes against human trafficking.
However, many thought her activities against human trafficking would stop after her husband left office as governor of Edo State in 2007. But rather Idia Renaissance has expanded. Having fought human trafficking doggedly, she now focuses on indigent girls and even boys.
The kids are trained in different vocations free of charge in the complex located along Ihama Road Benin City. Some of the girls who were recently deported from Mali also received assistance from Idia Renaissance through counseling and engaging them in different vocations available at the center. Sunday Vanguard met with Eki on Monday in Benin City to find out how she had been able to cope with the responsibility of taking care of the girls and how life has been with her after leaving office as the First Lady of Edo State.
"I feel very grateful to God Almighty for giving me the grace to carry on. The determination, the compassion for the people and the job, I thank God that I have that because if I had listened to the threats then, I would have been distracted. And I would have derailed and lost focus but I never listened, I never lost focus and I was determined and I thank God we are here today. And we are still expanding, the children are still learning and people are being blessed".
Speaking further, she explained: "The center has been running very smoothly with the help of various organizations that identified with this project and they have seen the work. The sustenance of this NGO has been based on the solid foundation which has been laid in the past ten years. And that foundation is what we are building on today. As you can see, training is going on in the center.
"We have girls who trained here, they graduated to become teachers themselves. People have come to identify with this project as a result of the hard work, the dedication of the staff who run the center. A bit of it is me but most of it is the collective effort of the workers.
"The collective effort of all these people coming together to share their vision, that is what has kept us. This project is a special calling from God and if you have a calling you pursue with zeal. What I am doing is not a job but it is passion, it is some thing that I am convinced in my spirit that it is making meaning in the lives of many young people in our state and country. And I am happy to do it and it gives me great pleasure to be able to do it. Most of our graduates in different places are making an income and making themselves useful to their families and the society.
"Majority of these young people could have been languishing in one African or European country but they are here doing some thing good. That gives me pleasure and I think that is the most important thing because this is my strong way of serving humanity whether in government or out of government. So I derive a great deal of satisfaction from it and I know that a lot of blessings come from it. So what I am doing is a calling, it is not just an NGO touching the lives of young people, the downtrodden, the indigent children and those who need this opportunity and the opportunity has been given to them".
Admonishing First Ladies on the need to embark on projects they believe in, Mrs Igbinedion said: "My advice to fellow colleagues (former First Ladies) and those who are there now is to embark on projects that they totally believe in. They should not go into projects just because every body is doing it. You must have a conviction that you are doing what is right and it is what you want to do.
"Because when you enjoy what you are doing, you get fulfillment and you want to keep on going. With or without sponsorship, with or without people supporting you, you want to keep on going. It is part of you. So this project is my baby and it is like nursing your little baby and that is the way we have nursed this project and I thank God for the staff I have. The project has outlived the governmental Eki Igbinedion, it is now a project that many people have come to realize that it is here to stay".
Speaking also to Sunday Vanguard, the Vice President of Idia Renaissance, Mrs Esohe Oyenwense, said: " It has been good, although we have had our own challenges left and right. We started off in 1999 primarily with the aim of rehabilitating victims of human trafficking, girls who have been trafficked across borders as sexual hawkers. Secondly, Her Excellency, Mrs Eki Igbinedion, set up this center to help rehabilitate and empower these girls so that they will not fall victims to these vices any more.
"But over the years the center has expanded to now accommodate not only victims of human trafficking but indigent young girls who for one reason or the other cannot afford to acquire formal education but they are willing to work with their hands, they are willing to be productive persons, and then they come to the center and we train them on various vocations.
"And as time has gone on we have progressed from being a center that just train girls and send them out to now helping them acquire even some form of qualification. By that I mean that at the end of their training these girls are enrolled to write the NABTEB modular exams, at the end of which successful candidates certificates and diplomas are awarded and that gives them some credibility in the training they have received here. This we have done in the last five years".
Omina Oghor from Delta State, one of the beneficiaries, said, "I was brought here by a Youth Corper. I am from a poor home, I lost my dad two years ago and things became very difficult for my family. So, one Youth Corper came one day and told me that I could get help in Idia Renaissance. I have spent three months here now learning fashion designing. I thank God for this center because my life has changed.
They provide food for us, brought back hope, if not I don't know what life would have been like". Chinyere from Enugu State also narrated her experience: "I am from a very poor background and I was attending a church. One day my pastor told me that I could come and learn work here. I lost my parents at a very tender age, so I have nobody to take care of me. But God provided this opportunity for me, I am learning a vocation that at the end of the day I can set up my own business and make money. Now I can sew trousers, baby clothes and a lot of things I can do now. I thank God for what he has used Mrs Igbinedion to do in our lives".
Asked how the management has been able to cope with the number of indigent girls and the ones who were deported from abroad, Mrs Oyenwense explained: "I will say that we had a problem of sadly turning away people because our capacity is full. We have turned out not less than two hundred students at the end of each training and we train intensively for six months in every vocation. So in a year we pass out on the average four to five hundred students. We started off initially with three departments, the hair dressing department, the fashion and tailoring department and then the hotel and catering management department.
The hair dressing department has further expanded the scope to include bead making and cosmetology. Just last year we opened a new department which trains young people in photography and video and camera use. By that training they are able to not only make films, they can edit productions, they can make documentaries using the video. Currently we have five departments. NAPTIP has been a major partner with Idia Renaissance because we have been combating human trafficking. Some times last year we received from NAPTIP thirty girls who were sent to the center to train in various vocational skills.
These girls had their training from January to July 2012. They were girls accosted while on their way to Europe. They were brought back from Mali. About three hundred of them were brought back and Idia Renaissance helped to shelter and returned many of them to their families after which NAPTIP sent down thirty who were willing to acquire vocations in various skills. And as we are talking, quite a number of them have found jobs and they are working legally in the country now.
"We also helped them to get some money to start up a business in the form of micro credit facility. We have had instances where some of these girls will come here very hostile, very unfriendly because they see us as partnering with government to hinder their future. But by the time they come into the center we re-educate them that what is actually happening to them is that they are being helped so that they will protect their lives and dignity".