Success does not come at the blink of an eye, it is a gradual process of everyday hard work and input irrespective of how small, and these daily efforts eventually emerge into stunning results. This is the case of Victoria Olufunmilayo Awomolo (SAN), who started her career as a primary school teacher in 1974 and later, Court Clerk, at Kwara State Judiciary in 1976. From there, she got admission to the Kwara State College of Technology for her A’ Levels. During her National Youth Service Corps programme in 1981, she taught Chemistry at Army Day Secondary School Bida, Niger State and later joined the Ministry of Education, Kwara State in 1982 and was posted to Queen Elizabeth School, Ilorin Kwara State where she taught Chemistry for 10 years. Her passion for self-improvement in order to fulfill a burning desire eventually made her quit teaching to study law at the University of Ibadan with the 1991/1992 session and became a lawyer in 1998. Awomolo is a member of the Nigeria Bar Association, International Bar Association, Commonwealth Lawyers Association, International Federation of Women Lawyers Association, Chartered Institute of Arbitrators United Kingdom, and Fellow Charted Institute of Arbitrators of Nigeria.
She has traveled the rigorous paths of the legal profession and held several elected and appointed positions which include, Secretary Organising Committee, NBA Conference Ilorin 2007, Secretary, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Kwara State Branch (2004-2006), Chairman, Organising Committee, two decades of FIDA (Nig) Abuja Branch and Vice Chairperson, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Nigeria Abuja Branch (2013-2016).
Her love and passion for the legal profession and her desire to equip herself more for greater exploits in the law practice with a view to positively impact humanity and make useful contributions to national and global development has seen her rise to the level of FIDA International Regional Vice President, Africa North and West, a post she was elected into in the Bahamas in 2017. In this interview with Guardian Woman, Awomolo talks about the height of her profession, the ideology behind FIDA and how the non-profit organisation, made up of women lawyers who are called to practice, in order to treat the issues of women in Nigeria and on the continent.You are one of the few women privileged to become a SAN, tell us about the height of your career as a lawyer?
Out of over 350 Senior Advocate Of Nigeria (SAN), only about 22 of us are women. The first woman to become SAN was Chief Folake Sholanke in 1981 long after we have had several men as SAN. It has been a very slow journey for women to reach the peak of this profession in Nigeria. I was the 18th woman to become SAN. It is about practise and your character. It is strictly on merit. You are treated with what you have done and accomplished in the profession.
Is there any reason why women have slow access?
Yes, this issue came up at the just-concluded NBA 59th Annual General Conference in Lagos. Women tend to be very slow at pursuing a career due to a lot of factors that are solely related to women. Looking at the statistics, more women study law now than in the last 10 years. Also, more women get a first-class at the law school, but immediately they are called to bar, a lot of factors come in, marriage, childbearing, cultural biases, and the rigours of practice, thereby obstructing the furtherance of career. Some male lawyers don’t even like to employ a female lawyer because they know that she would soon leave for marriage. They say they can’t even send married female lawyers on a trip, they can’t tell her to travel with them, marital restrictions on women, maternity leave and all. These are some of the factors that inhibit our growth to the highest level in the legal profession. And so you find more women that go into ministries, banking sector, the corporate organisations.
Tell us about FIDA, what is the ideology?
FIDA is a Spanish acronym for Federación Internacional dé Abogadas, which translates to the International Federation of Women Lawyers and it was founded in Spain by a group of women.
The ideology is to bring women together and to look at the issues of women and children in our society, everywhere on the continent and then to be able to defend them. We do probe women services, we go to court, we do legal clinics, we use advocacy, we work on our men, our leaders, and traditional rulers about all these practices that are against women, widowhood, inheritance practices and others. Lately we have the gender-based violence that is rampant, rape cases, sexual abuses, a lot. These are the issues that we take up and try to advocate against. And where rights are involved, we go to court. In matrimonial issues, maybe the husband is not responsible, not doing the right thing, we put a call through, we settle, and speak to them because we believe in maintaining a stable marriage. FIDA is not a woman activist group; we are into human rights and to look at the indigenous women and children. We have been working over the years. FIDA is over 50 years in Nigeria. We have done a lot of work and there’s nowhere in Nigeria now that FIDA is not known. We are in the 32 states of the federation and more states are coming up to be inaugurated. It is an NGO, we depend on grants, on donations. We go into the prisons, teach them skills, and do a lot to impart the society.
Tell us about the forthcoming FIDA conference, what are the issues to be addressed?
The issue to be addressed is centered on this year’s theme “The growth of women and children in Africa: Beyond rhetoric”. We cannot continue to see our women stagnant, we need them to grow and develop. Look at our political space for example, the percentage of women in the legislature is embarrassing and it is getting lower and lower everyday. We have only seven women in a group of 43 ministers, seven senators in a House of Assembly of 109. The House of Representatives with 306 members, women are not up to 10 per cent there. So what are we saying? We are saying that Nigeria in particular and Africa in general needs to do something about the status of women. The men also know, the politicians know that women constitute a larger percentage of the voters, so we have to figure out a way to get us working and on the move to. The congress commences on October 11-15 2019. This is Africa and African issues are going to be discussed. We are going to look at different issues concerning our children and women in Africa, so that we can make recommendations.
One of the many issues of women is financial empowerment; how is FIDA treating that?
The second day of the congress, Saturday 12th is our skills acquisition for 50 women. It is not about teaching them and letting them grow. We want to give them materials that will start them up. We don’t want to give them money, we will teach them how to be skillful and industrious. I believe that if the monetary social empowerment programme the federal government is doing goes to the poorest masses, they should be seeing changes in their lives by now.
How do you raise funds?
We go into collaboration with banks, with multinational companies and we also get grants that help us to work in states and empower women because we have discovered that no matter how much advocacy you do, if we don’t empower women, they will continue to suffer these prejudices from men, because some men intentionally trample down on their wives so that they will not have any power at all.
Does FIDA also handle the issue of gender equality
Yes, that’s the basis of our goal. We are affiliated with the United Nations, we go there every year and come back home and then deliberate. The last General Assembly, there was a gender equality bill that was brought back by Senator Olujimi and I was going to come out to give FIDA’s position when they said we should come and defend it. But alas, we got to the National Assembly, they told us that they didn’t form a quorum and asked us to go away indefinitely. Up till today, the papers are still on my table. We were not able to defend it. But thank God for the VAPP – Act (Violence against Persons Prohibition), it deals very much with issues about violence against men and women. That act is being used now by NAPTIP and by other agencies to deal with offenders. We also have the child right act. Children now have rights in Nigeria. We now have this set up in most states of the federation’s family courts so that if there’s any infringement on any child, these courts handle them separately. We have collaborated with other agencies and big players in the actualisation of these laws. We advocate for gender equality, going to the markets, going to villages, discussing with traditional rulers and all stakeholders.
How does FIDA treat the issue of Rape?
FIDA has always condemned rape. In fact, at FIDA branches, they will tell you everyday, one rape case comes up at that desk and we have curb against it vehemently. But thank God for social media, the issues are more open, because there used to be a culture of silence. Victims will not want to speak out, parents would want to cover them up, whereas victims are psychologically and physically traumatised. Some have contracted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, others, without speaking out. Diverse cases like fathers raping their daughters, men raping toddlers and all.
Is FIDA involved in the case of the Benue girl, Ochanya?
FIDA is on the case in Benue State, we have taken it up. The 13-year-old girl, Ochanya, who had been raped since she was seven years old, unfortunately, died. FIDA is on it. Also, we must speak to ourselves as women to be more humane, sensible and sensitive to such issues. Look at the other woman that locked a boy inside a dog’s cage. Another one beat her daughter until she collapsed and died in Ondo State.
Is there anything FIDA is doing to keep women in marriage and still find a way to pursue their career?
Marriage is a private thing and it is a choice. FIDA will not go into any man’s house, or any woman’s home to ask how are you doing? How is your husband treating you? But if there is a problem reported to us, we now call the husband, seat them down and mediate. But generally, whenever we have the opportunity for advocacy, whether we go to them directly or we speak on radio, we insist on women empowerment. We tell women not to give up on their jobs for marriage.
While they stay to take care of their homes and children, they should at least get something doing however small so they can be financially independent. However, with what is happening in the world now, in the last five years, I don’t think any woman who has a job before marriage will give it up because of a man.
Any plans to go into politics?
Yes if I have the opportunity and feel safe about it because politics, as it is being played in Nigeria, calls for caution and intense passion. At my age, I must be careful. I won’t just jump into politics, I would rather wish to be approached to come and represent my people, that way, I have their support. However, I don’t have the kind of money put into politics but God can provide.
How do you relax, considering how much work and time you put into everything you do?
I ensure to keep work away from home, the same with my husband so we can spend quality time when we’re together. My husband is my best source of detox, I love and respect him and he is my number one inspiration.
Interview by Marie Diamond for Guardian