LOUD WHISPERS: The Annual Pilgrimage
I am on my way back from New York where I went to attend the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The Commission is the body responsible for monitoring progress on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment globally, receiving annual reports from governments on their efforts, successes and challenges. After the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, CSW began devoting its annual reviews to assessments of the implementation of the 12 Critical Areas of Concern in the Beijing Platform for Action. You can call CSW an annual pilgrimage for women’s rights activists. I started attending CSW in 1993 and I have only missed a handful of meetings since then. Over the past five years, I have seen a remarkable improvement in the quality of the delegations and the participation from Nigeria.
I however wish more coordination and consultations could be done before leaving the country to avoid the convening of so many side-events in New York that should have been collaborations amongst a broad range of people. The week went very quickly, with many sessions and meetings in between. I was relieved that New York was not as cold as it usually is at this time of the year so it made moving around easy.
I was invited to be the Key Note speaker at a side event on Gender and Accountability in Nigeria, organized by Women Advocates Research and Development Center (WARDC) and the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund. In my remarks, I pointed out that in almost all areas of measurement, there is negligible accountability to women in Nigeria. The reasons for this include lack of political will, religious and cultural conservatism, inadequate numbers of women in decision-making, the fate of those living in areas displaced by violent conflict, the alarming levels of violence against women and girls and a general indifference to ensuring that women and girls can compete effectively for the same opportunities as men and boys. There are many strategies for dealing with these issues, but advocacy for strong political will for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at national and State level is key. It is also important to start rethinking political strategies. The work for the next electoral cycle should start right now and not wait for another two years. With the current figures available, the number of women in the National Assembly has dropped from 5.6% to just above 3%. It is also important to build a strong women’s movement that will concern itself with the agenda of interrogating all the economic, political and social systems that keep women and girls where they are. This is different from preoccupations with struggling for power and rewards which would then accrue to only a few individuals or interest groups, leaving the structures of exclusion and exploitation intact for the majority of women.
I attended CSW with the Permanent Secretary from the Ministry of Women Affairs, Ekiti State as well as the Director of Women Affairs. It was their first CSW and they truly enjoyed it. This means we will all go back home on the same page with ideas for driving the agenda in our own State, and we can at least ensure that there is accountability to women through gender mainstreaming, allocation of required resources, involvement of women in decision-making and mentoring of young women. Hopefully, this will bring the conversations back home from the halls of the United Nations to the lives of women living in our communities.
I also attended a retreat for the AWDF-USA Board. When we established the African Women’s Development Fund nineteen years ago, we registered a US body to support fundraising with individuals in the US. The current leadership of AWDF-USA is now in the hands of a group of fantastic young women from different African countries. They have started a young women’s network called Afri-Women Hang Out. After the board retreat on Wednesday, we had the Afri-Women hangout on Thursday and it was great. There were so many questions. How do we give back to our communities back home? How do we reject harmful cultural practices without sounding like we don’t value where we have come from? How do we build a community with other women without drama and stress? The questions were mostly directed to me and my very good friend Professor Abena Busia. Abena served on the board of AWDF for a number of years. At the time she was teaching at Rutgers University, New Jersey. She is now Ghana’s Ambassador to Brazil. We had great conversations with our young sisters and we look forward to seeing a vibrant and impactful network.
I rounded off my activities in New York with a breakfast meeting organized by the Awesome Treasures Foundation. Mrs Jumoke Adenowo, the brilliant convener of Awesome Treasures invited me as a Special Guest. We had an interactive session with over 200 women, and I found it quite engaging. The questions and concerns they raised were similar to the conversations we had at the Afri-Women Hang Out. On my way to Atlanta to see my family there, after my tasks in New York, I thought about how I had spent my week, and the issues that kept coming up repeatedly. These are the thoughts I shared with myself on the flight:
- Women are always having to explain and apologise for creating space to analyse issues of concern to them. At every turn, people keep saying, ‘What about the men’? Yes, we have to work with men, but this is not the same thing as providing safe spaces for women to talk, decompress, heal and learn from other women.
- At some point, every woman should be able to say ‘I am enough’. Patriarchy keeps spinning lies which make us chase after so-called perfection. There is no such thing as a perfect woman -there is no perfect man either! All we can do is aspire to be the best versions of ourselves possible. The scores of young women on social media auditioning to be ‘perfect wives’ by posting the pots of stew they can cook with N500 should take note. Their priorities are sorely misplaced.
- Social justice movements have different time-lines. People engage at different levels, so sometimes there is a tendency to apply the Six Blind Men and the Elephant experience – holding on to the piece we can touch without seeing the bigger picture. I am frustrated with how slow things have been or how many steps we are forced to take back, but I also acknowledge that we have come a long way. In Nigeria for example, we have legislative and policy frameworks such as the National Gender Policy and the Violence Against Persons Act that we can use to demand for accountability. There is also more awareness on women’s rights issues than there was years ago. We just need to invest more energy in strengthening movements for social justice and keep holding leaders accountable. On that note, I would like to salute my friend of many years Issatou Touray, the Gambian women’s rights activist and politician who has just been named Vice President of Gambia. Hard word, determination and consistency does pay.
- One key feature that defines advocacy and mobilization on a range of issues these days is the use of technology and social media. We are all familiar with the dark side of this, yet there is a lot to be gained if we keep using it to bring out the best in us and fast track good work. Beyond running the Above Whispers website, I am re-dedicating myself to using technology and social media for advocacy, mentoring and mobilization.
While I was in Atlanta, I visited my good friend Bamidele Demola-Olateju. I knew she would have been devastated at the passing of the late Professor Pius Adesanmi, they were very good friends. It was a delight spending an afternoon with Bamidele, her husband and daughter. We reminisced about Pius, spoke about plans to be there for his immediate family and we also noted the need not to take friendships for granted. There is nothing we can do to stop the exit of friends or family from our lives. However, we can commit to enjoying the times we do have together before the inevitable happens. May our days of mourning be very far apart.
I just took a break from writing this to check Facebook and saw something that pissed me off, so I am ending with a clap-back. A ‘human rights crusader’ has taken it upon himself to ask the question, ‘Why can’t women be natural anymore? Why do they need make-up, false eye-lashes, false hair and so on’? My response to him is that Nigerian women and girls do not owe you or anyone an explanation. False this or that might not be my own preference, but I will not deprive another woman of a legitimate choice. Leave Nigerian women and girls alone. It is this type of talk that will inspire a misguided legislator to try and pass a law against make-up! Whether we want to rock ‘Shuku’ or ‘Adimole’ hairstyles or wear 30- inch Brazilian hair, or paint our faces like masquerades, leave us with our choices. Perhaps I will talk about the politics of black beauty at some point, but for now, I am allergic to Nigerian women being spoken to as if they are imbeciles. If you really want to bother yourself with Nigerian women’s problems, help us out of poverty, give us jobs, stop our violations and stop killing our children. Have a great week.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is currently the 1st Lady of Ekiti State. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com