We were three on this particular mission armed with our promotional materials on family mediation, adult education and job procurement services. We fanned ourselves out in different directions handing out the three flyers as we moved along taking time to proffer explanations on these services and respond to enquiries.
The mediation flyer as usual attracts lots of enquiries because of this esoteric terminology while the adult basic literacy programme generates a great deal of interests mostly from women traders who yearn for knowledge but bemoan the period they would have to spend away from their places of business attending classes considering the current economic conditions.
On my bit, l got to a bus shelter under construction, occupied by some youths known to be notorious for causing violence in the area. It was not without some trepidation that l moved in to give out the mediation handbill to them having run out of the other two. I proceeded to explain to them in Yoruba language this voluntary process whereby a neutral third party assists two or more parties in a dispute negotiate mutually acceptable settlement of their disagreement, resolve their issues in a way that satisfies the interests of all the parties in the dispute. That it usually takes place with both parties present but the mediator may meet with the parties separately as well. I went further to say that it settles family disputes amicably, while ensuring the welfare and protection of children.
I had barely finished speaking when one of them shot in these translated words, “we want everyone to hear what you have just said pointing to a billboard mounted by the highway he continued, we want it to be displayed there we will get it for you when you are ready”. Though these words are amazing, they are equally thought-provoking. This experience form the basis of this article.
When children are abused, left unprotected or neglected, the risk and social cost is high. Family breakdown, juvenile delinquency are frequent associates and criminal offending by children is usually a symptom of a crisis or problem within the family.
In divorce proceedings for example, the courts assist the parties to deal with the consequences of the established breakdown of their marriage and adjudicate on matters of custody of children, maintenance and disputed matrimonial property. The courts generally precede this with an attempt at reconciliation to reunite the spouses but this is usually ineffective since this takes place when one of the parties has already filed for divorce by which time reconciliation becomes a remote prospect.
It is believed that courts are not the proper places for resolving matrimonial and family disputes. Legal proceedings are adversarial, escalate conflict and hostilities, do not enhance cooperative communication and create lasting bitterness. The concept of family courts has not changed the physical location and surroundings of the courts. They share the same premises and their hearings are held with normal criminal and civil business of the courts. The design of courts frightens or creates awe in litigants.
An alternative to litigation found in mediation an alternative dispute resolution procedure is recommended. It recognizes the uniqueness of family cases and affords a more rational solution to family problems. It helps people end a quarrel amicably by finding common understanding.
In matrimonial disagreements tempers are high; couples find it difficult to initiate or sustain a dialogue or engage in calm, rational discussion. This process if explored will help them resolve their differences and reconcile. It helps to identify child neglect and control juvenile delinquency. It preserves the welfare of children and prevents judicial proceedings.
In domestic violence, privacy is a big issue. A battered woman, victim of spousal abuse would go to any extent to shield her abusive partner while suffering in silence. Also, when an abusive husband or father, who is the breadwinner, is incarcerated or fined, his family suffers. Divorce on its part has open-ended consequences for children. These demonstrate the inappropriateness of courts in matters involving complex social issues which rarely come to light in legal proceedings. Mediation addresses the needs and interests of all parties in a conflict settlement.
The inherent benefits of family mediation led me to volunteer my services some few years ago at the Citizens’ Mediation Centre of the Lagos State Ministry of Justice which renders free mediation services to the citizenry. While serving at the Yaba office and later at the headquarters of the Centre at the Lagos State Secretariat Alausa, l discovered that these offices were flooded principally by landlord and tenant cases. There were other matters such as employer and employee, small monetary claims, inheritance and family matters but I discovered that the number of family cases was negligible. I blamed this on family privacy, the tendency by families to keep their affairs secret away from public scrutiny. I resolved that a private family mediation service would provide solution, ensure privacy, attract and solve family conflicts.
Wide-base support strategies
A family mediation was conceived to form part of already existing informal services aimed of supporting families in need to meet their needs and those of their children. These other services or pet projects that had run at different times were all brought together with the mediation services to attract beneficiaries. They are Family Mediation, Job procurement services to empower families economically, Adult education for the attainment of functional literacy, and In-house publications on marriage and family counselling.
If l thought that a private family mediation service would attract family matters, I was wrong. We received regular enquiries to clarify the services from curious visitors but when we proceed to explain our mission, we get the usual uneasy gaze and glazed stare. Someone opined on how feasible it is to bring family matters to a third party in our cultural setting, a stranger which would amount to “washing their dirty linen in public” not recognizing that the third party in this case is a neutral who mediates in a professional capacity. We changed our signboards several times to connect with potential beneficiaries. It was discovered that what mediation could not achieve alone it did in combination with the other services.
In a bid to fight unemployment, the job hunting service provides free access to employment opportunities by sourcing vacant positions for job seekers. The outpouring of applications for different job positions was inundating. We explore different avenues to generate job openings through conducting searches in newspapers, advertisements, referrals, partnering with recruiters, distribution of flyers to companies, homes and undertaking road trips.
We organize workplace preparatory programmes for the job applicants to enhance their marketability and career success and certify participation with a “Good luck” slip. Due to the tough job market and difficulty in securing jobs, we resort to encouraging the applicants to explore business skills acquisition option. We equip them with information on free vocational and entrepreneurial skills training opportunities while assisting with small loans to start off businesses even though this was limited due to financial constraints.
The adult literacy programme basks in past glories. It had enjoyed great successes since its inception in 1999. It runs in collaboration with the Agency for Mass Education of the Lagos State Government which supplies the programme with free learning and writing materials. Classes are held at different venues at a time to bring the programme closer to the beneficiaries and facilitate commitment. There has been a lull in attendance in recent times which could be attributed to the economic situation. This has necessitated the introduction of some adjustments such as accelerating the duration of the programme, changing the period of classes to suit the schedule of majority of the learners to sustain their interest. We also disseminate information on free education and empowerment programmes of the government and other bodies.
However, nothing compares with the outburst of joy and confidence a learner radiates when he/she attains the ability to read and write. Our in-house publications empower families with conflict management principles. They help to prevent, reduce conflicts and present how to resolve them when they occur to avoid litigation establishing the distinction between the legal system and social reality.
Creating a culture of peace
All the services were brought under an umbrella the Initiative for Family Support. Our mission statement details our services with recommendations. The chain of signboards was replaced by a simple door label Family Support.
The connecting practical support strategies restore self-worth and self- esteem of the beneficiaries. They feel positive about themselves and their co-operative character re-inforced. They feel supported, share their problems and receive assistance and solutions. Needs are met, negative emotions and feelings assuaged and despondency exchanged for hopefulness. Many bought or received our publications as gifts thereby receiving help and healing. Families were empowered , counselled and reconciled while allaying legal element and preventing the vulnerability of children.