THE BLOG
07/29/2015 04:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Champions for Change: Meet the Champions -- Part 7

Champions for Change (C4C) is pleased to continue our 'Meet the Champions' Series. This bi-monthly blog series highlights the work of 24 Nigerian leaders currently participating as C4C champions. C4C's Champions in Nigeria are working together to save the lives of mothers, children and young women through innovative advocacy and leadership development. Nigeria is Africa's largest economy, and yet tens of thousands of women and children die there each year due to lack of maternity care, preventable disease and poor health infrastructure, among other causes. This series brings a diversity of perspectives from around Nigeria to the table to discuss this critical moment in Nigeria's history and how Nigerians can work together to build a healthy future for all.

As we prepare for the third installment of our Champions Series workshops, we continue this week with an interactive discussion with Umma Iliyasu-Mohammed and Tonia Ayeke of Girl Child Concerns, an organization which provides holistic interventions to meet the reproductive health and educational needs of adolescent girls. The organization has offices in Abuja and Kaduna and operates projects in Kaduna, Abuja, Katsina, Plateau, Sokoto, Yobe and Borno States.

Meet the Champions Series Interview #7
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Tonia Ayeke, Program Associate
and
Umma Iliyasu-Mohammed, Program Manager

Champions for Change: Tell us a little about yourselves, your personal and educational background.

Tonia: I am the 3rd child of a military man and a teacher. Being a daughter of a military man, I attended Command Primary and Secondary schools in Lagos and went on to acquire my first degree in Agricultural Economics from the Ambrose Alli University in Ekpoma Edo state. In November of this year I will be inducted into the Institute of Chartered Mediators and Conciliators (ICMC), a professional body responsible for the training, regulation and development of the practice of alternative dispute resolution in Nigeria.

Umma: I grew up in a polygamous family, the fifth child in a family of twelve (4 boys and 8 girls). I was born in Kaduna (in Northern Nigeria), where I attended both primary and secondary school at Capital School Kaduna. I am of Kanuri descent, from the North Eastern part of the country. I am a journalist by training with a degree in mass communications from the University of Maiduguri and a post-graduate degree in Management Science. I started development work by serving as the Program Officer for two years under a project supported by Johns Hopkins University and USAID. I also worked for nine years in three different banks before leaving the sector in 2009 to fully re-join development work.

Champions for Change:What led to your involvement in RMNCH work? What is the one issue you are most passionate about in this field?

Umma: I am passionate about girls and women, especially the reproductive health issues of adolescent mothers and the sexual and reproductive health of young girls. I have seen how women die in child birth and how girls are left alone to deal with the health issues that affect them, especially where it is associated with sexuality. That was what made me decide that I will champion a cause that will ensure girls are provided with information and given a voice and the tools to make a choice.

Tonia: Seeing young girls die from causes that could have been prevented if adequate RMNCH (Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health) services were available and seeing babies suffer or die from preventable diseases breaks my heart. Witnessing these things still happening in our environment has motivated me to do RMNCH work.

C4C: Why is advocacy for RMNCH important in communities in Nigeria?

Tonia: Advocacy for RMNCH is important at every level because many communities are yet to access these services. Some of the major reasons include tradition and misinterpretation of religion. Advocacy at the national and state levels is also important to build an awareness of the absence of RMNCH care access in some of our communities. I think of communities I have worked in where RMNCH services were not readily available and after our organization's intervention the services become available, which has reduced maternal and newborn mortality rates by a great percentage.

Umma: I believe it is important because it helps in illuminating and addressing RMNCH issues. It also keeps the people informed about global trends in RMNCH and empowers us to understand our rights and entitlements on issues around RMNCH. Additionally, advocacy in RMNCH keeps the government on its toes in ensuring it fulfills its mandate and obligation to the people.

C4C: What is the most innovative aspect of the work of your organization?

Umma: Our scholarship scheme for indigent girls is an innovation that has created a cohort of girls who are highly empowered and empowering their parents and communities. In some cases it has led to communities demanding for schools in their settlements, having realized the importance of education via the changes they see in their girls. By extension our strategy also contributes to delaying the age of marriage for such girls, thereby delaying onset of childbirth. Our scholarship scheme is innovative because of its holistic nature; not only is a girl financially supported to attend boarding school, she is also offered a safe space to learn and discuss issues that affect her life. While in school she is mentored and expected to mentor others in her community. She is also protected from withdrawal from school until completion through an agreement signed by her parents.

Tonia: Adopting the strategy of open space technology in all our interactions with adolescent girls and mothers, where they are allowed to set the pace of discussion and set the agenda, is an innovation that has been very successful in our work. It has proven that, when given the opportunity to be involved in discussions that are aimed at addressing their challenges, women and girls can develop better strategies and solutions.

Champions for Change: What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?

Umma: Getting access to those at the very "bottom," the poorest of the poor, indigent girls and adolescent mothers is our greatest challenge, especially since they have to seek permission from husbands who are averse to them attending clinics or educating their daughters. There is also the challenge of getting support and sanctions from parents who do not allow girls access to education and pull their daughters out of school.

C4C: My favorite memory from my work is...

Tonia: ...seeing smiles on the faces of the young girls in our scholarship scheme on the day of their graduation from secondary school.

Umma: ...when the girls take charge during our programs, leading in the process as we watch from the sidelines.

Champions for Change: What is your vision for the future of Nigerian Health System?

Tonia: I look forward to a Nigeria where RMNCH services and general health care services are readily available at no cost to every mother and child. Having this in place will create a healthier nation which will in turn produce more power; this will definitely improve the country's economy.

Umma: My vision for the future of the Nigerian Health System is one in which every Nigerian will have free and unhindered access to good quality health care service, a system where a woman will not have to die in order to bring in another person to the world, a system where health commodities are available and government is accountable to the health needs of the people. A system where there is full implementation of the National Health Bill and other policies that have been ratified to address the health needs of the people.

Champions for Change: What is your favorite thing to do when you want to relax and have fun?

Umma: I enjoy staying at home or going out with the children and I love to cook.
Tonia: I enjoy spending time with my family watching films. I also love to read Christian literature.

Please complete this statement: I am a Champion for Change because...

Umma: ...I believe that through partnership we can bring a positive change to the health situation in Nigeria.

Tonia: ...I believe no woman deserves to die while giving birth.

Champions for Change:The most fun thing I've done in the last year is:

Tonia: Travel with siblings and their families to visit our parents; it was fun!

Umma: Zumba!

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Stay tuned for the continuation of this series featuring more Nigerian advocates. Meanwhile, we invite you to follow us on Twitter at @C4C_Champions and use the hashtag #MeetTheChampions to engage more closely with the blog series, the work of the 24 leaders whose work is being highlighted, and the larger conversation surrounding reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health in Nigeria.

Champions for Change saves the lives of women and children in Nigeria by empowering local leaders and organizations to improve reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health through advocacy, education, storytelling and strategic partnerships. Champions for Change leverages a program model developed by its sister initiative, Let Girls Lead, which has contributed to improved health, education and livelihoods for more than 3 million girls globally since 2009. This powerful model drives change through the passage of national laws, implementation of programs and distribution of funds to ensure access to quality healthcare, education and economic opportunity.

Champions for Change and Let Girls Lead are headquartered at the Public Health Institute in Oakland, CA, a leader in global health and development for 50 years.