Anita Oghenekome Benson is a Medical Doctor specializing in Dermatology. She is also a Public Health Specialist with a Masters in Public Health from the University of Sheffield.
Anita is a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow and a Fellow of the Center for Global Business Studies at Howard University. She is an award-winning blogger and the founder of the Embrace Melanin Initiative, an NGO that focuses on eradicating colorism and harmful skin-lightening practices from Africa.
Anita is raising a generation of young Africans who embrace their melanin and are empowered, educated and self-aware.
The Embrace Melanin Initiative is quite a unique project, what led you to start it?
I was starting my final year as a Dermatology resident and I had to choose a topic for my thesis. I had always considered myself an anti-skin lightening activist because I had seen too many patients pay the price for their skin lightening practices.
Being a very dark skinned woman, I was constantly offered the option to lighten my skin by cosmetologists and well-meaning friends.
This motivated me to do a community survey to find out why people lightened their skin. I wanted to know what products they used and if they were aware of the side effects which included obesity, hypertension, diabetes, liver and kidney disease, skin cancer, premature aging, fragile skin, stretch marks, body odor, skin infections, and discolored skin.
A young woman is content with her skin color until the first time someone points out that it is 'too dark', 'dirty', 'less attractive than fair skin' - Anita Benson Click To Tweet
In a few months, I had interacted with more than 400 people and I realized that the magnitude of the problem and the level of ignorance surrounding the possible complications of skin lightening was way beyond the scope of my thesis.
The Embrace Melanin Initiative was established to address this problem.
What would you say are the major reasons African women engage in this trend?
Colorism is the major reason African women engage in skin lightening practices. It is a silent problem that exists in our communities and is simply defined as the discrimination of a person because of her darker skin tone by members of her own race/tribe/community/family.
A young woman is content with her skin color until the first time someone points out that it is ‘too dark’, ‘dirty’, ‘less attractive than fair skin’. Or she begins to notice the affiliation of some males and the media for lighter skinned women.
Kicking colorism out of Africa is the only way skin-lightening practices will ever be truly eradicated - Anita Benson Click To Tweet
She may even face discrimination at her job or a reduction in marriage suitors. Whatever the case may be, this silent discrimination leads to poor self-esteem and an unshakeable belief that lighter skin is the answer to all of her problems regardless of the potential dangers of skin lightening practices.
Men are not left out and some women even bleach their children. Pregnant women have also been reported to take certain pills to lighten their babies in the womb which can lead to all sorts of potential complications.
What can we as well as the government do to reduce this problem?
We can stop the discrimination. It happens in the marketplaces, in the home, in church, at social events, in the media, at work.
Africa has been freed from slavery for hundreds of years yet we still mentally attribute more beauty and importance to anything or person that looks more foreign than native African. We need our women to know that they are beautiful not in spite of their dark skin but because of their dark skin.
The government can provide tighter regulations on the sale of skin lightening agents in the open market and ensure that the ones that have been banned by NAFDAC are not still freely available for sale.
Another very important role the government can play is to ensure that the side effects of every skin lightening agent are boldly printed on the bottle so that consumers can make an informed decision.
Too many women are suffering due to their ignorance. One of my patients died of kidney disease a couple of years ago due to chronic use of mercury-containing skin lightening agents.
What would you say has been your key learning points on this journey?
These have been my key learning points:
1. You can’t change the practice till you change the perception about black skin.
2. Kicking colorism out of Africa is the only way skin-lightening practices will ever be truly eradicated.
3. There’s a need to change the narrative on what it means to be black which goes past our perception of our skin color to dissociating being black from words like corruption, self-hate, crime, ignorance, illiteracy, and mental slavery.
4. Do not judge a person till you have heard their story. So many women who chose to bleach did not feel like they had any other viable option at the time.
Colorism is the major reason African women engage in skin lightening practices - Anita Benson Click To Tweet
What are the possible business ideas/solutions that can arise from solving this problem?
African skin-friendly products. Not the ones that promise to tone the skin but those that make the dark skin shine and keep it healthy and protected from the UV rays of the sun.
The cosmetic industry is a billion dollar industry however right now the focus of the majority is on skin lightening agents and solving this problem will create a vacuum for healthy skin care products suitable for the African skin.
What is your advice to women seeking to advance their career while getting involved in personal passion projects?
Women are amazing multitaskers and what makes us really special is that there’s no limit to the number of caps we can wear as long as we are able to manage our time effectively.
The best way to juggle a career with personal projects is simply to maximize the number of hours you have each day. Every morning I write a to-do list and try to get through each one before the end of the day.
So many hours are spent doing things that are either distraction with high urgency or activities with little or no value. A to-do list will guide you toward achieving important deadlines with high urgency and give enough time for long-term development and strategizing.
You are allowed to slip from time to time and just do nothing because that’s what makes us human. Take it as an opportunity to get re-energized and come back better, stronger and more motivated!
Final words for our motherland moguls?
Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
When I started this project, all I had was my passion to make a difference and my experience as a skin doctor. So many people tried to talk me out of it, even fellow colleagues because they felt it was a problem too great to tackle, too entrenched in our culture to ever be eradicated.
Whatever your passion is, let it connect with your purpose so that on the days when you feel down, you can draw from the inner strength that comes from actually making a difference in the world.
That inner strength will keep you moving till the sun comes out again.
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