Nonye Henrietta Umeh is a multiple award-winning women’s leader, body safety expert, anti-GBV campaigner, author, and Child and Women’s Rights Activist. She is the Project Manager of Powered Voices, a community-based organization (CBO) focused on raising awareness of sexual gender-based violence(SGBV) and HIV-related abuses.
The CBO educates, supports, and provides resources for the masses to create healthier families and strengthen communities. The University of Maiduguri graduate is the Founder of Body Safety Academy, a social impact organization (SIO) focused on eradicating child abuse in our world through e-learning, media advocacy, and outreach campaigns.
She is a licensed Physiotherapist and a Fellow of YALI RLC, a programme that equips young African leaders with proficiency and resources to facilitate change in their countries. Henrietta has won several awards for her work, including the ‘Most 20 Outstanding Women Leaders’ in 2021 by YALI RLC Alumni (Nigerian Chapter) for her immense contribution towards ending gender inequality and advancing SRHRs in Nigeria. She also won the FIGHR Prize of Peace, a Legacy award in the category of Outstanding Giving to Women in 2022, and other notable awards.
In this interview, she shares her inspiring story with ESTHER IJEWERE, with a focus on the importance of teaching children sex education early.
Before I fully understood the concept of child advocacy, I stood up for the rights of the children around me. I remember I never tolerated bullies in primary school. I was that child who would always say ‘Stop that.’ ‘Don’t do that again.’ ‘That’s wrong.’ ‘I will report you,’ etc. It didn’t matter if I was the one being bullied or not, I faced them confidently.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t me with grown-ups. I was taught to respect my elders without a caveat. To me, that meant not speaking up when adults harmed or hurt me. That wouldn’t have been a big problem if adults conducted themselves appropriately and protected children.
My first experience with sexual abuse was at an open-spaced wedding; a family friend whom I trusted violated me in public. Those minutes I sat on his thighs were the most uncomfortable minutes of my life. I didn’t know how to react; I knew he was wrong, I knew his hands shouldn’t be caressing my prepubescent breasts, but I didn’t know the right actions to take. I wanted to fight for myself, but I didn’t know how. So, I sat there frightened and confused. This was my first encounter with a sexual predator. That day, I learned most adults should not be trusted.
In secondary school, I became less vocal, and rarely spoke up or defended anyone and this continued till my University days. In my heart, I believed it was the job of activists to fight for the oppressed, not me. After my graduation, I became interested in developmental work, because of my late friend. I volunteered for some NGOs, attended many pieces of training and I gradually began to find my VOICE again.
It has been a long journey, but my experiences led me here. When I look back, I see how far I’ve come and those I have impacted along the way. I’m passionate about the safety of children because I don’t want any child to feel the way I did; on the thighs of a supposedly trusted older family friend.
At Powered Voices, I work extensively on projects that aim to create awareness of gender-based violence, HIV prevention, and treatment. I plan and ensure the execution of projects that reduce teenage pregnancies, prevent HIV, curb sexual abuse, encourage ARV uptake, and empower women and young girls. I have refined skills in case of management, safeguarding, community mobilization, SRHRs, trauma counselling, risk management, etc.
Many people living with HIV (PLHIV) experience different forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and they are forced to be silent because their perpetrators threaten them with exposure. Due to the high rate of stigmatization in Nigeria, PLHIV rarely shares its status with people.
They are scared they may lose their jobs, and be despised by neighbours, fellow students, or members of their religious and cultural institutions. So, they suffer, and sometimes their perpetrators prevent them from taking their antiretrovirals (ARVs) and they heed.
Young girls, especially from underserved communities, are disadvantaged in many ways. They hardly have role models to look up to and their families are impoverished. To survive, they unwillingly give up their bodies to older men for money. My work brings awareness and solutions to the struggles of PLHIV, teenagers, young children, and other victims of GBV. They are sensitized and empowered with the knowledge of their basic human rights so they can take charge of their lives, refuse and condemn violence, protect themselves, and become more in their communities. At the end of the day, they learn how to assess private and public resources available to assist them.
The Journey so far
It has been remarkable. I’ve grown, met amazing leaders, and campaigners like myself inspired others to become advocates and I’ve had different opportunities come my way. I’ve enjoyed every bit of my time empowering and advocating for the rights of the most vulnerable population. Last year, I collaborated with an International organization and 10 women from my community were given a scholarship for a three months intensive fellowship.
They graduated as SGBV Instructors on the 4th of March, 2023 and have already begun fighting against discrimination in their various communities. Advocacy is not for the faint-hearted, there are days you get tired and all you want to do is cry because of the injustice meted out to people and days you feel helpless because you lack the means to help someone desperately in need. In those trying times, your network of activists will lift you and carry those burdens.
My book and its impact on society
My book “My Safety Conversations” teaches parents and educators how to teach body safety education simply to children aged four to ten. It does this in a question-and-answer format, the answers are written in the voice of a confident child who has been taught body safety. It demystifies the shame and ignorance parents have about private parts and appropriate sex education.
It is a guide for adults to use on children. My book is a must-have for parents, guardians and educators who want to arm children with safety strategies to prevent sexual abuse. As you enlighten them using ‘My Safety Conversations’ you will be learning as well, there is intriguing and useful information for every parent intending to raise ‘safety conscious’ kids.
The inspiration behind body safety academy
Body Safety Academy provides coaching and consultation services on all aspects of child protection, sexual abuse, abuse investigations, risk assessment, exploitation prevention, etc. My academy is dedicated to enlightening and supporting families with well-mapped-out strategies to prevent child abuse.
Children are the purest creatures on earth; it’s disheartening they experience different forms of abuse, sometimes under the watchful eyes of adults who should know better. At Body Safety Academy, children are empowered with body safety education.
I want every child to be confident and aware of his or her basic human rights. I want every child fearless. I want every child in the world to know how special and beautiful they are. I aim to make every child understand NO ONE has the right to harm them in any way.
I want them to know they have a VOICE and it’s powerful. I am teaching them how to use their voices against the powers that seek to keep them downtrodden and in bondage. I want every child free from abuse. I want every child to know how to use the word ‘NO’ without feeling guilty.
I want every child to understand and apply ‘consent and boundaries’ in their daily lives. I want every child to know what to do in harmful situations. I want every child to have the knowledge, skills, and resources they can use when they need help. This is why I started Body Safety Academy.
My book my safety conversations
My Safety Conversations teaches parents and educators how to teach body safety education simply to children aged four to 10. It does this in a question-and-answer format; the answers are written in the voice of a confident child who has been taught body safety. It demystifies the shame and ignorance parents have about private parts and appropriate sex education. It is a guide for adults to use on children.
My book is a must-have for parents, guardians, and educators who want to arm children with safety strategies to prevent sexual abuse. As you enlighten them using My Safety Conversations, you will be learning as well; there is intriguing and useful information for every parent intending to raise ‘safety conscious’ kids.
Three Women who inspire me why
H.E Dr. Ameena Ali
She is a Medical doctor, humanitarian par excellence, touch bearer, a beacon of hope, and a global campaigner against sexual and gender-based violence. She is working tirelessly to ensure victims are saved and become empowered for themselves and their communities. Through her social impact organization (FIGHR), she has produced champions, instructors, diplomats, and ambassadors in human rights, SGBV, maternal and child care, mental health, etc.
An incredible human with a heart of gold. Through RADI, an NGO, she has touched the lives of the most vulnerable people in Kaduna State who have been incessantly attacked by Fulani herdsmen, kidnappers, and bandits. Alheri has worked tirelessly to provide healthcare, sources of income, housing, food, education (most of these children lost their families), clothing, etc.
1. Families of victims rarely want their perpetrators indicted. Most believe the incident is shameful and want no further exposure.
2. Funding for projects. The projects and needs of the stakeholders surpass the funds received. This has influenced the number of beneficiaries and projects executed. This is one challenge that aims to hold us back but in such times we happily use our funds and continue to apply for more grants.
3. Ignorance about Sexual and Reproductive Health Education. The unawareness of bodily autonomy, the rights of children, and body safety are alarming.
Being A Woman Of Rubies
Just like the hardness of the ruby, my experiences have cultivated resilience in me. My imperfections remind me I’m human and I should be kind to myself. I make mistakes but I don’t let them weigh me down but use them as stepping stones to achieve my goals.
Importance of parents having the safe sex talk with their children
Every parent who grew up in homes where sex was a taboo topic must demystify the shame, fear and ignorance that was instilled. Unfortunately, this acts as an impediment to teaching body safety and sex education. A child who is armed with safety strategies to prevent sexual abuse will hardly fall prey to destructive peers or adults who want to lead them astray. There is this confidence ‘safety conscious’ children possess, you can almost see this expression “I am not one to be messed with”.
Do not for any reason prevent your children from obtaining it. A child becomes sensual at age three, body safety education should be started earlier with the correct identification and use of anatomical names of all their body parts, including the private parts. You can start body parts awareness and identification as early as a year old, although I started earlier with my daughter.
My students have achieved great success with their kids. When a child starts body safety early you will never hear them murmur, whisper or laugh awkwardly when the proper names of the private parts are mentioned. They will use these words in conversations when needed, freely and without shame. They will confidently reprimand and report anyone who attempts to touch them inappropriately. They will understand harmful situations and avoid them as much as they can. Give your children these keys by educating yourself about body safety via experts in the field. So you can teach your children comprehensive body safety education, this will consequently give your kids a fighting chance against predators.
At eight a child should already know about menstruation and the functions of a vagina. It is so sad most parents wait till their children start menstruating before they attempt to give them the ‘sex talk’. You think your kids haven’t been learning from adults, TV or peers in their school? I know a child who had sex at 13 because her boyfriend convinced her to, before then the only talk she was given was “Babies are placed by God in the stomach and any man who touches you will make you pregnant”.
When we spoke at length she said “I wish my parents enlightened me better. I wish they allowed me to ask questions, I would have waited. My boyfriend wouldn’t have been able to persuade me. We did it without protection, what if I fell pregnant or contracted diseases? I am so angry, he deceived me.
I had no business having a boyfriend without comprehensive information”. She has since broken up with the boy and is making wise and healthier decisions for her life. As a parent or guardian, you have the opportunity to educate them thoroughly before anyone strives to deceive them with wrong information. Always start with body safety which is for younger kids, then end with sex education which should be introduced at age eight.
Body safety nuggets
Body safety education is a lifesaver. For parents, guardians and educators who learn to enlighten children, their lives will never remain the same. Children hardly lie about sexual abuse but most have been shunned and condemned when they shared their stories. Never shut them down, blame them or insist they are lying. If you do, they’d handle issues without telling you anything next time and they will suffer greatly at the hands of sexual abusers. If your child can have any kind of conversation with you without feeling scared, you’re on the right track. These are somebody safety nuggets for your children;
- Strangers are not the only sexual abusers in the world. Anyone can be one, including loved ones and people you know.
- Your private parts are special and beautiful. They should be called by their correct names like the other parts of your body.
- It’s okay for you to stand up for yourselves.
- Look into anyone’s eyes as you speak to them.
- You do not have to be around anyone whose actions make you uncomfortable, scared and confused.
- When adults need help, they should ask other adults, not children.
- Keep no secrets. Anyone who encourages you to keep secrets is a tricky person and should never be trusted.
- Your body is your own.
- No one should disrespect your boundaries. You have every right to protect it.
- You have the right to scream and RUN away from unsafe people and places.
- Don’t obey an adult who has tried to touch you unsafely. Your protection supersedes their desire to hurt you.
- You have every right to use these sentences when you’re scared or confused;
- Stop it, I don’t like it.
- Don’t do this, again.
- Don’t touch me.
- I don’t want to sit on your thighs.
- I don’t want to hug you.
- I’m okay by myself.