Why Maternal Health was my priority-Olaokun Soyinka | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Why Maternal Health was my priority-Olaokun Soyinka

Posted: Jun 6, 2015 at 8:51 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Dr Olaokun Soyinka held sway in the Ogun State Ministry of Health for four years and as a public health physician with special interest in clinical medicine, he was recently credited with achieving a remarkable improvement in maternal healthcare development in a state hitherto known for her very poor indices. In this interview with our Health Editor, YINKA SHOKUNBI, Soyinka shared some of his remarkable moments whilst in office. Excerpt:

Maternal Health is key to economic development no doubt; what has been your experience with reproductive healthcare delivery in Ogun State?

Dr Olaokun Soyinka

Dr Olaokun Soyinka

Working in the area of reproductive health is a difficult terrain but it has a very important contribution to maternal mortality in Nigeria and Ogun State couldn’t be left out.

Since I became the commissioner of Health in Ogun state, one of the things I didn’t realize I would be doing was of much legal work; there would always be bills to be constructed, put together, drafted, and amended and to be passed; so for us we realized there were so many barriers to reproductive healthcare such as culture and religion that people hide under to perpetuate violence on women which make reproductive healthcare service delivery difficult.

For instance we have lots of gender based violence and people hide under culture. We do not have accurate data in the State to show the extent of gender based violence and indeed rape cases for instance but when I became the commissioner of health, the figure I came across, shocked me when I learnt about the scale of need for abortion services, the scale of need for proper care, the scale of need for information and the scale of need for family planning commodities that would enable us to reduce the need for abortion in the first place.

So much so that somebody once made a comment to me while tiptoeing around on some of the problems facing us; he reminded me that the law (on abortion) was not on our side and that probably the intervention that would have the greatest impact would be changing the abortion laws in Nigeria and I went to see the Attorney General of Ogun State to see if there was anything we could do in that regard and also went reasonably far to know how one could do this but then, there was a very quiet resistance.

I was there with so much enthusiasm to see what can be done to make a great change engaging in different conversations, exploring what can be done and basically the feeling I got was that I would be taking a big risk exposing myself to a lot of controversy and was advised to face other things and not try to do that. Though I resolved not to give up but then chose to tackle some more urgent issues first.

With the recent signing of the VAPP Law, there is still need to domesticate it at the state level if given a second chance would you explore the option?

The VAPP bill is an important one. Violence against persons is a big problem in Nigeria; not just violence between persons but gender-based violence and I think it’s a real shame on the nation to have had such an important bill sat on for so long waiting for Presidential assent.

I can feel that our society is changing and it is no longer acceptable to allow gender based violence. I was reading the statistics in our recent demographic health survey and it is still frightening the degree of spousal violence and particularly violence within relationships and unless there is a law that can specifically help us in this area, we are going to have a slow time of reducing this thing.

If I return to cabinet of Ogun State, we would certainly undertake to domesticate it. If it is within my power and position, regardless of the national status, if it is within my level, there wouldn’t be anything to gradually work on our own bill and putting it in right perspective.

The Governor is a man of peace and one who will definitely support a bill prohibiting violence against persons and so there is no reason why we wouldn’t have one in Ogun State.

In view of the restrictive nature of the law on abortion, how would you convince the citizens of the State that a woman should be allowed to terminate a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest if she doesn’t want to keep it?

Well I guess one could look at the outrage that is surrounding the recent experience in Uruguay, where a 10-year old was raped and is pregnant; because their laws are very religious-based, there appeared to be some reluctance to allow termination on a 10-year old victim of rape. I think it is this kind of extreme case that brings to light the issues surrounding the difficult area.

I am not under the illusion that the crafting and the final wording of such a bill would involve a lot of dialogue, a lot of discussions, negotiations, enlightenment of the stakeholders. For me, of course the life of the victim and the decision and autonomy of the victim is absolutely paramount. We do live in a society that may have a lot of input into such a bill but I am confident having been in Ogun State long enough and involved in crafting lots of these legislatures and policies that involve individual rights, such as rights of the child and women and I know the tide is changing and we are becoming more pragmatic in respecting religious principles whilst respecting human rights. I know we can come to a bill that would be acceptable to all and would enable such delicate problems to be dealt with.

Setting Agenda for new government on health:

It is to make sure that there is provision of affordable and efficient health care to the majority of the people including those who are traditionally left out such as those who do not have financial access, the rural poor among others. If we have a system that would take healthcare to these ones we can assume this modern elements of healthcare would equally reach the people.

If there is efficient Primary Healthcare to the rural poor and everyone, those services we are talking about on reproductive health would become part of primary healthcare that people can access.

So for me (in Ogun state) the main agenda would be the community health insurance programme (‘araya’) which is taking healthcare to the grassroots and making it affordable and on the part of ‘araya’ there is another part that is important and that is quality of the health service that is being delivered; which has to be good health services which embraces best practices that are being developed and everybody is beginning to accept as the way forward.

Achievements and challenges as commissioner of Health in Ogun State:

The main challenge has been financial. Nigeria as a nation is struggling with finances. Many states are struggling with enough money to do all the things they want to do. You can have a wonderful plan but if you do not have the finces to implement the plan then you would not be able to dseliver the whole menu that you have.

In terms of key achievements, I think the main thing has been the fact that health was on the second list of the five point agenda of the Governor and as a result, public health has got a higher profile. We have managed to launch and pilot our community based health insurance scheme; constructed some new hospitals and refurbished old ones. But beyond these, we have been able to consider the people who work in the sector as the most important aspect of the healthcare services through our recruitment programme which has been able to recruit well over a thousand health workers which is still on-going to back-up the healthcare system in the state.

Through our recruitment exercise, we have been able to re-populate our hospitals and improve on the services our people are able to access.

What would you like to do differently?

One of the things maybe that I haven’t done enough for is joining the PPI. I realized at a stage that the hopes we have for bottomless financial pockets are not likely to be realized and that it doesn’t happen in any government. I think people at my level are guilty of being optimistic. So with that reality, I think we could build stronger partnership with the private sector.