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2013 Gala Remarks by Adenike Esiet

Adenike Esiet, founder of Action Health Inc., receives the first Joan B. Dunlop award at the 2013 IWHC gala.

At its annual gala on April 8, 2013, IWHC presented the first Joan B. Dunlop Award to Adenike Esiet, Executive Director of Action Health Incorporated, based in Lagos, Nigeria. The award recognizes Esiet’s outstanding work to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of adolescents in Nigeria. Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, presented Esiet with the award. The following are Esiet’s remarks.

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Thank you very much, Professor Osotimehim. I know you’re not called Prof. in New York, but you’re a professor, so thank you very much, sir. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. When I received the letter from IWHC informing me that I had been selected for the Joan Dunlop Award many thoughts went through my mind. Many thoughts about the personality of Joan Dunlop. She was an Amazon, beautiful, courageous, dedicated, elegant, inspiring, unintimidatable, I could go on to Z. But, one of her qualities that stand out most to me was her ability to listen.

I came in contact with IWHC at a training that was convened in Lagos for us members of the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa in 1991. At the end of the training I spoke with a program officer from IWHC about a concern I had, a concern about the plight of adolescent girls in my country, many of whom were getting pregnant, being kicked out of school once the school authorities found out after being shamed. And the very fact that nobody seemed to understand that this was an injustice. Girls who were not being taught about how to navigate puberty and take control of their sexuality and were being treated in this way. After she listened to me, she said, “Well, you know IWHC only works on women’s issues. We don’t talk about the issues of girls. However, you can give me a proposal. I’ll take it to the leadership when I get to New York.”

I was surprised a few weeks afterwards when she called me and said, “You know, the proposal has been reviewed and the president, Joan Dunlop, really likes it and she thinks that we’re going to support this work. We’re going to take this idea forward with you.”

That was the beginning of the partnership of Action Health Incorporated, my organization, with IWHC.

From this time onward, every time I met with Joan Dunlop it was an experience. An experience. I remember very well many things. But, I’ll speak to one particular experience. She practically guided me through writing a letter, a counter aggressive actually, so an aggressor who had sent me a letter trying to dissuade my organization for going on a beat for some funding. She was in Nigeria at that time, it was 1993. The letter came onto my table in my office and she was there. I was totally flustered. She said, “Don’t ever be intimidated by bullies. They are cowards. Let’s get this done.”

This was the personality of Joan Dunlop. At every point in time, you could understand that Joan would listen. This was the hallmark of her leadership. She listened. She genuinely listened to the opinions about what you consider important in your own context. You never felt like this was some funder with a predetermined plan of what you had to go on to do. Rather, she was always willing to hear you out, reflect with you on the possibilities and support you with sharpening your strategies to get it done. And yes, Joan was very savvy about knowing how to make things happen.

Subsequently, Action Health became a partner with IWHC. The clinic that IWHC supported us to establish in 1994 still functions in Lagos today. Every year at least 3,000 young people get to access services in this clinic. And people come from all over Nigeria; public health practitioners come to learn how to serve young people.

So, for me today, this award is really invigorating. It’s a strong reminder that we cannot sheath our swords just yet. There’s still unfinished business with making sexuality education comprehensive and more accessible to young people across the world, especially girls. The need is even greater now more than ever for young people, especially girls, to be able to access sexual and reproductive health services.

So, in the spirit of Joan Dunlop, we must get to the work that is at hand, that urgently needs our attention. We have to hold our leaders accountable. We must make it impossible for them to deny girls their right to sexual and reproductive health.

I thank you all very much for this honor and may grace and peace be upon you all. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I need to say one thing that I’ve been wondering if it’s okay to say. I’m in all this glitz today because I’m here dressed in honor of Joan. These earrings I’m wearing, she gave me in 1993 when she visited Nigeria. She was a beautiful woman. She sought to make people beautiful. It’s truly an honor for me to be getting the inaugural Joan Dunlop Award.