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

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Thank you, Françoise. I don’t think it’s a mistake that I’m the only man speaking tonight. I think it’s destined to be so. And I will tell you a story or two stories actually. I like telling stories. The first was when I was 6 years old and I had a cousin who was living with us. She was a young girl. She was about my age, but at 6 I think I was a big bully and so, I think she said something which upset me a little bit. So, I hit her. And she started crying. And then I was reported to my father. My father called me and said, “From today you treat every woman like your mother.” 

That single event started my feminism because I then realized that I was living in a household and in a community which was gender neutral. And that everybody was to be assessed and to be treated as a human being. But, more recently, when I was appointed as the executive director of UNFPA there was a lot of rumbling in this town. How can an African man defend the rights of women? And, of course, many people did not know me. There are people in this audience who know me and stood up for me. And, of course, IWHC with its track record of working with me through Joan Dunlop and Adrienne Germain actually stood up for me. And I want to acknowledge IWHC for doing that. 

I then came to town and I was invited by all the female permanent representatives to the United Nations. I remember I stood there, it was like I was still taking an oral exam in my medical school. And I was wondering what I was doing here and each one of them started asking me questions: “Now, tell me what you do know about childbirth? Tell me, what do you know about child marriage? Tell me what you know about and I’m not allowed to be as coy as Christiane Amanpour talked about it as female genital mutilation, it’s female genital cutting. And they asked me all the questions. And then I was able to answer. By the time I finished, one of them stood up and said, “Okay. We are satisfied. From today we confer you the title of honorary woman.”

And that I’ve carried, so I’m standing here before you as a woman because I believe that women are superior to men and they should be allowed to run the world. But, okay, so I’ve done that commercial. Let me now go to the main business of today. I met Joan first when I served on the board of the MacArthur Foundation’s population program and I want to tell you that I was brought up in that school of feminism by her, by Carmen Barroso, and also by Jacqueline Pitanguy, and much later on Adrienne Germain. So, I went to the real school.

Everything you said about Joan is correct. It’s something you did not say. She was the greatest strategist I’ve met. If you wanted a problem solved just give it to her. It’ll be solved. And so, we learned quite a bit from her very clear view of things, her courage was unmistakable and Joan was a presence. Her presence was something you could not ignore. So, it is a real pleasure to stand before you today and speak about her. And also, for me to actually now present an award to somebody I admire a great deal. 

When Françoise spoke to me about being here to do this I accepted without any reservation. And at the time, I have to say, I did not know who was going to win it. But, my commitment to this was total. And then when it came to my knowledge that it was going to be Adenike Esiet, I promised myself that wherever I am, I’m going to be here tonight. Just to be sure that I do this.

Adenike has inspired me. She’s younger than me, but she has inspired me. She has worked tirelessly in Nigeria, and for those of you who don’t know Nigeria, let me tell you two things about Nigeria. Nigeria is probably the most complex country in the world to work in. You talk about a country, but Nigeria is 37 countries. Each state has its own characteristic. But, you have to work with it. And you have to make sure that everybody comes to the same conclusion as the other. And I’ll give you the essence of this: when we were looking at the comprehensive sexuality education program for Nigeria, Adenike and her organization led the way. And it brought everybody to the table from the Muslim cleric to the Christian fanatic to the community leader to the students and to teachers. And we agreed on a comprehensive sexuality education program in Nigeria, which we consider in my present institution as the benchmark for the world. Now, that to me… I think the most remarkable of it was that the first state to actually adopt it–because we did it for everybody and we said every state will adopt it according to their own circumstances—the first state to adopt it was the most conservative Muslim state.

So when people talk to me about our inability to talk about sexuality education, when they talk to me about the culture, and when they talk to me about tradition, I tell them there is nowhere in the world where we cannot break through this. It requires us to be humble enough, it requires to dialogue with people, it requires us to respect the space of other people, and I think that’s what Adenike did. And that’s what has brought her here today. 

Adenike, I salute you and I congratulate you. Of course, as a Nigerian I’m very proud of you. Thank you very much.