Loud Whispers With Erelu Bisi Fayemi
I am particularly pleased to be speaking to the theme of this year’s conference: Shaping the Future: Strategising to Win’. I have just returned from Addis Ababa, where I went to attend the UN Economic Commission for Africa and Africa Union Regional Preparatory Conference for Beijing plus 25, which will review global progress at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March 2020 in New York.
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The UN invited a group of African women who were involved in the Being Conference 25 years ago, (they called us ‘Beijing Veterans’) and we were asked to be part of the technical review of the progress reports submitted by African governments.
Reading through the documents, I thought about something that happened on my first day at the Beijing conference in August 1995. I was the Executive Director of AMwA, an international development organisation for African women based in London. I was responsible for a group of 20 women from the UK, other European countries and some from Africa. We arrived in the hotel around 11am.
I did not finish checking in till 4pm, my colleagues left me to go to their rooms while I was there at the front desk. I tried to explain to the person who first attended to me that some people in our group would be leaving on certain dates and others would come in to take their place, so the bookings we had would not change, only the names of the occupants of the rooms.
After listening to me for a while, the Chinese guy said, ‘Wairamini’ (Wait a minute) and called someone else to listen to me. I had to start all over again with this new person, only for him to ask me to ‘Wairamini’ while he called someone else. I had to tell the same story four times, growing increasingly frustrated but knowing that it would be eventually sorted out, I just needed to keep explaining till everyone understood. The progress of African women since Beijing has been one of ten steps forward and five steps back, with many ‘Wairamini’ moments where we have had to say the same thing over again to different audiences.
Most of us at AMwA were young women below the ages of 35. We were concerned about the future of the women’s movement on the continent, and our struggles for peace, democracy, political participation and economic empowerment. We knew that as young women we needed to have a say, but we had to prepare ourselves.
I started the African Women’s Leadership Institute in 1996, a pan-African training, networking and information forum for young African women aged 25-40. This was a deliberate way of shaping the future, using different platforms and spaces. Our thinking back then was that we needed a cadre of women across the continent who were grounded in feminist theory and practice, gender mainstreaming and analysis, with strong leadership capacities. We figured that the next generation of women leaders would emerge from this process, directly or indirectly. Guess what? We were right. Today, the AWLI has produced over 6,000 women leaders across Africa and many of them are in key decision-making positions.
With the success of the AWLI came the need to consolidate the gains we had made with the growing number of women passing through the leadership program. It was time to help shape the future on another platform. I teamed up with two other African women, the late Joana Foster of Ghana and Dr Hilda Tadria of Uganda and we started the African Women’s Development Fund in 2000, the first Africa-wide grantmaking foundation for women. AWDF has funded up to 2,000 women’s organisations in 42 African countries with millions of dollars. Here in Nigeria, there are at least 300 AWDF grantees in 15 States, including WIMBIZ.
I stepped down as Executive Director of AWDF when my husband became Governor of Ekiti State in October 2011, though I am still on the Executive Board. I see this position as just another platform to continue my life’s passion which is working for and with women. Thanks to the belief that my husband has, that no development can take place without the involvement of women, Ekiti is now known as the State that has the most comprehensive legal and policy frameworks in Nigeria that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.
I am a feminist. To me, feminism is a global struggle against all forms of patriarchal oppression. It is not a battle against individual men, it is a desire to transform political, economic, social, religious and cultural institutions which devalue the lives of women throughout their life-cycle. Any woman or man who is genuinely committed to breaking the cycle of discrimination and exclusion is a feminist. Not all women are feminists and not all feminists are women. It is also important to note that patriarchy thrives on the co-option of women to sustain patriarchal norms and values, using the nurturing roles of women as mothers. If we want to break this pattern, we should minimise our investments in the Bank of Patriarchy. We should also note that the plan is not to replace a Patriarchy with a Matriarchy. We want a world that is equitable and fair to all.
In the past three electoral cycles, the showing of Nigerian women has gone from bad to worse. We now stand at less than 5% of women in the National Assembly, and there are some State Houses of Assembly where there are no women at all. Nigerian women will continue to beg political leaders if we do not ensure that there are constitutional guarantees for effective representation and participation specifically through affirmative action and quotas. The Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill that keeps stalling at the National Assembly needs to be passed. This Bill will also help enhance women’s equal access to economic activities and resources such as land, credit, technology, training and information. Where we do have legislation and policies such as the VAPP Act and the National Gender Policy, we need advocacy for the political will to implement these instruments.
As women in leadership, we cannot strategise to win if we have no agenda. It does not have to be the kind of transactional agenda which is usually associated with conventional leadership practices. I am talking about having an agenda grounded in social justice, equality and fairness. To be an authentic leader, you have to have a theory of change. My own theory of change is that for Nigeria to achieve the greatness it truly deserves, it needs to invest in women and young people in very significant ways. Shaping the future also requires planning a legacy. If you occupy a leadership position and you are unable to develop an agenda for change, if you are incapable of serving and supporting other women and unable to leave an identifiable legacy behind when your time is done, I am afraid you have wasted that space. One of the best moments of my life was one evening in 2017, I was listening to the radio, and there was a report of a man who was jailed in Ekiti State for rape. In sentencing him, the Judge cited the Ekiti State GBV Law of 2011. I started to cry. The Law I had fought for was serving its purpose – protecting women.
We have to mentor young women in ways that nurture them and prepare them for the harsh world of business, politics and public life. As we do this, we also need to be honest about the price to be paid sometimes for stepping up as a woman. The sight and sound of a powerful woman can be very scary to some people. If you are not prepared to be called names, vilified, lied against and the target of abuse, if you want everyone to love and like you, stay home and hide under your sheets.
As we shape the future, we should also prepare for life’s transitions. We are all in transition from one phase of our life to the other, but while we know this, we hardly prepare ourselves. Some of these transitions are linked to joyful milestones such as academic accomplishment, marriage, childbirth and so on. Some might be unpleasant, sudden and shocking such as divorce, loss of livelihoods, failed business ventures, electoral loss, illness or even death. Let us learn to reflect on our various transitions and prepare as and when necessary. For example, if you are over 50, do you have a retirement plan in place? If you are married, what would happen if your spouse was no longer in the picture? Are you able to learn a new skill in case you need it?
Let us all rise and set our sights on all the great things we know we can accomplish. Use your spaces and power well, in the service of others, particularly women and children. We can no longer ‘Wairamini’. We are done waiting, this is our time.
This is an abridged version of a Keynote Address delivered at the 18th Annual Conference of WIMBIZ in Lagos, November 7th 2019.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com