She is a Nigerian child health activist. Over the years, she has spearheaded awareness campaign on breastfeeding through her organisation, Child Health Advocacy Initiative (CHAI). She also won the 2017 Scaling-Up Nutrition award organised by the United Nations. Mrs. Lola Alonge, who is the Executive Director of CHAI, emerged the nutrition champion for Nigeria and was among the 18 shortlisted out of 50 nominations for the award at the UN global level. In this interview with OMOLARA AKINTOYE, she bares her mind on how she is championing the course of women and children, how she is playing a vital role in moving nutrition and breastfeeding agenda forward through collaboration and support to government institutions, private sector, among others.

Why did you focus on survival and development of women and children?

As a mother, when I got married and started having kids, I developed interest in motherhood and by the grace of God Im blessed with three of them. Actually, my background is communications, public relations. I have that skill, but I believe it all has to do with information and how well informed you are; this will help you in fulfilling your potential. Unfortunately in Nigeria, you discover that most young ladies are not adequately prepared for motherhood. There was a time we were advocating for that among youth corps members.

Yes, youth service is fine but I think government should incorporate a bit of parenting in their programmes. There is need to get both male and female prepared for that. While they are going for other community work, they should also be exposed to parenting. This will help them to develop, but notice that its like an accident. You just get pregnant one day and you are not prepared for it. I tell you that antenatal period is just too short for them to get the required knowledge needed. Also, I m interested in the development of women.

As a woman, I have realised that women are not really that protected, they are not that supported especially in Nigeria and I believe they can do a lot better if given all the necessary support starting with things like girl-child education, empowerment access to good health care. Yes, things are changing and getting better but there is still a whole lot to be done. CHAI is a nongovernmental organisation. It was established 10 years ago, impacting lives, focusing more on the survival and development of women and children in Nigeria, maternal and child health. We also focus on nutrition; we look at issues such as family planning, immunisation, malaria, child protection as well as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), protecting the rights of women, among other things.

Share with us your experience while relating with women over the years

I think its been a passion for a very long time as far back as year 2000. I used to be a communication consultant with USAID on child survival. I realised that women need more support on information, so I think I started like putting together even the basic and simple rules on baby and child care. So, I partner with paediatricians, gynaecologists on how a woman should help herself, protect herself in pregnancies, and how the child should grow. We also organise seminars and workshops on courses in public health, all in a bid to help them to develop. And that has been like a journey and I have my own profession, which is public relations, as I said. And then the NGO was what I started and it was initiated by USAID.

As I said, I was a consultant with them, there was a project we were working on and when it ended, we discovered that we seemed to have a lot of experience from private sectors skill experience and exposure. We also relate well with government. Why dont we start a child advocacy initiative through which we can work together with government and look at ways of helping the women and the girl-child. That was how the NGO started. It was not funded. Its just my own way of using my own personal fund for project.

For Lagos State in particular, Ive done a lot over the years. We use to champion the World Breastfeeding Week; that was nutrition. Then I was also a member of the maternal and child mortality reduction committee where we did a lot of awareness campaign on why mothers should attend primary health centres and not traditional birth attendants. Even beyond that, we are not only doing the campaign with govt. But we also support them by encouraging corporate organisations to donate items such as furniture, generators, to support most PHCs. We also organise programmes on our own by partnering with local government areas whereby we give awards and gifts to mothers and health workers to encourage them to do more. Over the years, CHAI has done so much in the area of child protection, immunisation, nutrition, among others.

In the area of child protection, we partner with Ministry of Justice, the Domestic and Sexual /Violence Response Team (DSVRT). We were like technical partners, whereby we train school counsellors, the health teachers and some other health workers on the rights of the child and child rights protection and Im happy to say that there are lots of success stories in that area. DSVRT is a very strong team today. We have been able to come up with a lot of policies and they are very effective in communities now. Child abuse is what a lot of people are scared of now; we done a lot in that area. We are actually the key partner training the DSVRT team.

Also CHAI has done so much in the area of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Its a violation of the rights of the girl-child. I can tell that things are changing for better. It was a cultural thing. But we have been able to say that this is harmful to the girl-child and things have to change because the girl-child is affected psychologically, emotionally and her life is also at risk.

So we are doing a lot of campaign in this area. We also partner with Osun State because the state has the highest prevalence and the Ooni of Ife has been of great assistance by condemning the act in communities. The campaign is also being taking to so many other states. We also partner with medical students to say No to Medicalisation of FGM; FGM should not be encouraged in the hospital setting. The Medical Students Association is already involved in the campaign and are also condemning the practice within the medical setting. Apart from stopping it in communities, it must also not be practiced in the hospitals.

What are the challenges encountered?

Finance is the major challenge. Because we wanted to do a lot but we didnt have enough resources, so I was funding most projects with money from my business. We also partner with some corporate organisations to assist most primary health centres with furniture and generators. We have been able to look for ways of getting most projects executed. Also whenever we want to communicate with people regarding behaviour change and awareness campaign, we try to talk to advertising agencies to allow us to use the billboards for communication message instead of leaving them blank. We had to look for different strategies of getting things done without funds, and these strategies have worked for us several times. The other one is not a challenge per-se but supporting government, non-governmental organisations can just do their bit.

If you are passionate about an issue, you can work with them, advocate and convince them on better ways to improve things on ground; that is why I was part of various committees at the state level. Such as when we are talking about increase in health budget or timely release and complete release of the health budget. Many a time budget is not released on time to them until very late. Little wonder that when you get to most hospitals, there are issues that health workers are complaining about unpaid salaries, no fuel, no generator etc.

But the good news is that concerning the 2020 budget which Lagos State government presented to the House of Assembly, its really a good step in the right direction because the health budget rose from 8.8% to 15% or thereabouts, which is about 58% increase; meaning that there will be a lot of revitalisation in the health sector. And the issue of health insurance scheme will also be addressed. We are also joining the campaign, because a lot of people still dont know the importance of the scheme.

Your educational background

My background is Public Relations I hail from Osun State while my husband is from Ekiti State. I was born in U.K but my education is here in Nigeria. I had my first degree in English Language, had my Post Graduate Degree in Advertising/Public Relations, my second degree in International Law/ Diplomacy from the University of Lagos. I also had a lot of certificates on public health, nutrition, and Ive been doing a lot on public health and nutrition with Lagos State government.

So in 2017, I was nominated for the United Nations Nutrition Champion for Nigeria. It was done in 2017 but Im still the current champion. This, to an extent, motivates me to do more. We also have a platform called Nutrimums where we have nutritionist, paediatricians, nursing mothers, pregnant women and some officials of the ministry of health. On a daily basis, we teach mothers and nursing mothers all about baby care and breastfeeding. They are also asking questions. All these came out of my being a UN champion.