“You Can Be Anything You Want in Life, Just Dream”

Emilia Eyo Okon is an experienced Development Practitioner with interest in Gender, Youth Participation, Entrepreneurship, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Life and Employability Skills. She has over 8 years’ experience in program design and implementation, development of policy documents, international and national volunteer mobilization, training and management. She is a development Strategist, she thinks, develops and implements. Presently she leads the Gender component of the YouLead project in Cuso International, Nigeria and is the founder of a Maternal Health Social Enterprise called “Bump2Birth&Beyond”.

Q: Tell us a few things about your country, and also your life's story!

A: I live in a small city called Calabar in Cross River State, a southern state in Nigeria. Calabar is known as a tourism state with a globally known and celebrated carnival every December. Nigeria is a very populous country of over 200 million people with diverse cultures, languages and societal values. We are mainly Christians, Muslims and some traditional religion worshipers.

I was fortunate to be born into one of the very few liberal cultures where gender roles are not exactly patriarchal. I started young to think differently, attended a self-discovery session with Girls' Power Initiative (GPI) Nigeria which assisted me to stop my family from carrying out Female Genital Mutilation on me. I guess that began my foundation on civil society work to create an impact and make changes in people's lives especially women. I love to work on any project that empowers women because in Nigeria women are disregarded. People say we are valued but in action, so many things work constantly against us: we have very low number of women in the workplace, even smaller number in leadership positions, we are plagued with a very high incidence of gender-based violence. The rate of maternal deaths is very high. I have worked with different NGOs to ensure their projects benefit and include women adequately thus have made me speak on these issues especially on social media using it as a tool for women empowerment advocacy.

Q: What is your view of the world as it is today? And how do you define the concept of a better world?

A: The world is in constant chaos. There seems to be a struggle for who is killing more, who is maiming more and who is focused on the most frivolous ideas. There is so much friction between religions, women and children being neglected and continuous victims of wars, culture and societal beliefs, hunger, poverty and lack of adequate health care. My concept of a better world is not to have more but a fair distribution of basic needs for averagely everyone. Food to eat, access to clean water, access to minimal health care, religion teaching tolerance and more societies accepting women as equal partners to positive community development.

Q: What are some of the key challenges in your society?

  • Gender Inequality 
  • Poverty/Hunger 
  • Unemployment 
  • Poor Health Facilities 
  • Poor Public educational systems

Q: As a young individual what are a few of the hurdles that you had to overcome up until today?

A: As a young individual I was told I would end up married, taking care of my children. I shouldn't dream beyond that. I attended a poorly facilitated public school, we could not afford healthcare. Presently I still face gender stereotyping at work, at home and virtually everywhere; talking too much is not for "good" women. I still struggle with sending my 2 kids to an average private school because public schools are poorly managed, we also pay heavily for healthcare.

Q: Why is the role of a mentor important for you?

A: I am at a point of reshaping my ideas and starting a project of my own. My mentor will provide guidance and insight in assisting me to follow my path.

Q: Do you have a lesson that life has taught you and you would like to share?

A: You can be anything you want in life, just dream. My parents never had a University degree. As a female child, I would say I beat all odd to become a graduate and take on other life challenges.

Q: Name a project, a foundation or a person in your country that you think is doing great work in helping improve other people's lives!

A: Moremi Initiative in Ghana is doing a fantastic job for young girls with great ideas to change the world.

Q: What are some of the challenges that women in your country face and what efforts are made towards gender equality?

  • High Maternal Mortality rate 
  • Son preference 
  • Gender Based Violence/Harmful Traditional Practices
  • Unequal treatment at work

Q: Athena40 is the first ever global selection of the top 40 women forward thinkers, commentators, activists, authors, academics, entrepreneurs, executives, innovators. Can you think of a truly innovative and forward-thinking woman from your country that you wish to nominate for the Athena40 global list?

A: Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a British-Nigerian feminist activist, writer and policy advocate. In 2001, she co-founded the African Women's Development Fund - AWDF, the first pan-African grant-making organisation. She is presently married to the Governor of Ekiti State in Nigeria.

Q: Share with us a phrase, a poem or a story that you love or you find interesting!

A: "And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man. If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, pretend that you are not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him." - Chimamanda Adichie

Q: Tell us one thing that you have learned from your mentor.

A: She is very tolerant and willing to assist anyway she can.