Erelu Bisi Fayemi: I don’t whisper about the rights of women, I speak up
Erelu Bisi Fayemi is a Gender and Development specialist, Social Entrepreneur, Policy Advocate, Writer, Business Woman, Wife and Mother. She has a BA (1984) and MA (1988) in History from the University of Ife, Nigeria (now Obafemi Awolowo University). She also received an MA in Gender and Society (1992) from Middlesex University, UK.
She spent many years working on women’s rights and development issues around the world before she returned to Nigeria in 2010 when her husband, Dr Kayode Fayemi, became Governor of Ekiti State. She is the recipient of the 2011 David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership award, one of the most prestigious awards in the field of Philanthropy. In 2011, Women Deliver named Mrs Fayemi as one of the top 100 people in the world working on women’s empowerment, and in 2012, she was named by New Africa Magazine as one of the 100 most influential Africans.
She is the author of ‘Speaking for Myself’: Perspectives on Social, Political and Feminist Activism (2013) and ‘Speaking above a Whisper’, (2013) an autobiography. She also co-edited ‘Voice, Power and Soul’, with Jessica Horn (2008) a compilation of images and stories of African Feminists. She is currently a UN Women Nigeria Goodwill Ambassador, and recently established abovewhispers.com, an online community for women.In this interview, she revals her journey of speaking up for the rights of women.
My driving force
I have indeed spent most of my adult life working on women’s rights issues. I worked for AMWA, an international African women’s organisation based in the UK from 1991-2001. During that time I established the African Women’s Leadership Institute which has supported at least 6,000 women leaders across Africa, including women in Nigeria. I left AMWA in 2001 to co-found the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), and to serve as the first CEO. AWDF is an Africa-wide grant-making foundation which strengthens women’s organizations across Africa with financial and capacity-building support. Over the past 15 years AWDF has funded over 2,000 women’s organisations in 42 African countries. I left AWDF in December 2010 after my husband, Dr Kayode Fayemi, became Governor of Ekiti State. What drives me is finding justice for women and an equitable society
I was brought up in a loving and caring environment. My father was an Accountant and my mother was an entrepreneur. My father worked in senior positions in the Federal Civil Service, and he always told us that on the day of reckoning, he would never be found wanting. True to his word, at a time when there was a change of government in 1979, a lot of his colleagues were rounded up for involvement in one scam or the other, but he was untouched. I learnt the value of contentment from my father, discipline, the right to speak up and be heard, community service, and the fact that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. From my mother I learnt generosity, solidarity with other women in need and negotiating skills.
Achievements when I served as the First Lady of Ekiti State
I focused on what I love doing, which is working for and with women. During the period that my husband was Governor, Ekiti became known for being a pace-setter State as far as promoting the rights of women is concerned. The 8 point Agenda which was the policy framework for Dr Kayode Fayemi’s administration included women’s empowerment and gender equality as one of the eight priority areas. This meant that Ekiti women did not need to beg to be included in policy processes. Through my efforts, there were a record number of women in the legislature, cabinet, and on boards and parastatals, as well as in the local government structures. In collaboration with state legislators, government officials and civil society partners, I led campaigns for the Gender Based Violence Prohibition Bill of 2011 and the Equal Opportunities Bill of 2013, both were signed into law by the Governor. I established the Ekiti Development Foundation which supported thousands of women, men and children across the state. Ekiti State became the first (and only State) in Nigeria to domesticate the National Gender Policy in October 2011. I was also able to advocate for the fast-tracking of the Family Court in Ekiti State, the establishment of a Multiple Births Trust Fund, as well as the establishment of a Social Inclusion Center for the rehabilitation of women in distress. It is a long list, but I will stop there.
Being the wife of a politician
The wife of a politician has to learn to be all things to all people. As I wrote in an essay last year, in honour of the late Mrs H.I.D Awolowo, about the role of political spouses, you are expected to be the main support system of your husband. You are a hostess, adviser, philanthropist, mobiliser, campaigner, counsellor, mediator, spiritual intercessor, the list is endless. The responsibilities draw on every mental, financial and emotional resource you have. I learnt to take everything in my stride and never complain, because I saw it as a duty and opportunity to serve. I always tell people that I consider myself to be a politician because I am concerned about the world around me and how decisions are made. Any woman married to a senior politician who tells you she is not a politician is in denial. The seemingly benign philanthropic activities that spouses of politicians engage in are all political strategies, and it is entirely legitimate. The level at which we engage might be different, I must admit I was very active politically, especially in policy advocacy.
There are no short cuts to success. You should be prepared to put in hard work to see results. Focus on the things that you love and inspire you. At a stage in your life, you might have to take on ‘survival work’ which is a job that you don’t really like doing, but it pays your bills. The moment you feel you are able to, move on to doing things that really excite you.
My Above Whispers Project
I have always wanted to run a story-telling project for African women. I have come across many amazing women and stories over the years, and people might not get to hear about them because are not rich or famous, yet they are powerful in their communities. I also noted that most of the content on our blogs and websites here in Nigeria is targeted at a young demographic. When women and men of my generation go online, we want to look at content which is relevant to us such as politics, entrepreneurship, financial security, health parenting and so on. I therefore decided to launch an online-platform that we could use to share information, news, stories and campaigns. I also want us to be able to use Above whispers to showcase the unique ways in which Africans engage in community service and philanthropy.
My Sisters Keeper’s Campaign
At Above whispers, we decided that we wanted to mark international women’s day differently. We wanted it to be about women celebrating other women. On March 8th,women around Nigeria, and in other African countries such as Kenya and Burundi, took part in the campaign through simple acts of kindness such as buying goods from market women without haggling, paying for the hair of another sister at a salon, giving gifts to or female colleagues, especially those junior to us, and so on. It was a phenomenal success online, considering the fact that we did not run an expensive corporate campaign. We have got very touching feedback about the campaign, and we will certainly run more like that.
On women living their dreams
Let me preface my response by saying that it is difficult to give advice on this because women are in different situations. However, as a general principle, I would advise young women who are not married yet to think carefully before they choose their husbands. A man should not just choose you as his wife after having met his own laid down criteria. You too need to have criteria for choosing a husband. Marriages flounder when one party has to minimize their own dreams in order to boost the ego of the other.
A marriage is a partnership. Have a clear understanding with your partner about the kind of life you will have together and what dreams you both have and how you will support each other. This way you build a marriage based on love, mutual respect and support. Responsibilities in the home can be negotiated so that you have time to pursue your interests. Sacrifices do have to be made at certain times; especially when there are young children, but there still should be a level of understanding that does not leave you bereft of your bearings in life.
Advice to women entrepreneurs
There are no short cuts to success. You should be prepared to put in hard work to see results. Focus on the things that you love and inspire you. At a stage in your life, you might have to take on ‘survival work’ which is a job that you don’t really like doing, but it pays your bills. The moment you feel you are able to, move on to doing things that really excite you. When you focus on something you are good at, your passion will shine through and it will encourage investors to support you because they can see you know what you are doing. No investor wants to back a failure, so when they see you are committed to success, you get their attention. Be professional in all your dealings, and cultivate good manners such as arriving in time for meetings, appropriate grooming and being polite.
Lessons life taught me
I have learnt to be grateful for all the opportunities I have had in life, considering what life is like for the average African woman. After every experience, positive or negative, I always ask myself ‘What have I learnt from this’? This habit of reflection enables me to work on things I need to change or simply, to cut my losses and move on. I do not encourage negative energy around me, and I do not take on the baggage of other people, when you do that, it weighs you down.
Women and nation building
I think that question should be how can women be better appreciated in nation building. Women have been contributing to nation building even before we became a nation. What we need is an appreciation of women as citizens with rights to lives of dignity and respect. We need to see women empowered economically, educated, present at decision-making tables and free from all forms of discrimination and abuse. Policy and legislative frameworks to promote women’s empowerment are key, that is why passing the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill is imperative. We also need to see implementation of the National Gender Policy, as well as the laws and policies we have at State level.
What makes you a Woman of Rubies?
I speak up about the rights of women, well above a whisper.