H.E Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, the social entrepreneur and gender development specialist, positively influencing humanity
Her Excellency, Erelu Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is the First Lady of Ekiti state. She is a feminist activist, gender and development specialist, social entrepreneur, policy advocate, trainer and writer. 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 has a PhD (Honoris Causa) in Sociology from the Tai Solarin University of Education (2014).
She served as the Director of Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA), an international development organisation for African women based in London, UK, with an Africa regional office in Kampala, Uganda, from 1991-2001. While she was the director of AMwA, she established the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI), a training and networking forum for young African women. The leadership institute she developed has become such a powerful legacy that today, the AWLI has trained over 6,000 women across Africa, and most of these women are now in senior decision-making positions as Vice-President, Ministers, Members of Parliaments, academics, civil society leaders and employees of international organisations.
She co-founded the African Women’s Development Fund, (AWDF) – the first Africa-wide grant-making foundation for women’s organisations based in Ghana, and served as the first CEO from 2001-2010. She is currently CEO Above Whispers Media Group specialising in leadership development for women, and she runs an online community called Abovewhispers.com. She was until recently, a UN Women Nigeria Senior Advisor, and is currently a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Africa Leadership Center, King’s College, London.
Erelu Fayemi led the campaign in Ekiti State to enact a Gender Based Violence Prohibition Law (GBV Law 2011, revised in October 2019) an Equal Opportunities Bill (2013) and a HIV Anti-Stigma Bill (2014).
She serves on the Executive Board of the African Women’s Development Fund, and also on the Governing Council of Elizade University, Nigeria. She is currently the Chair of the GBV Management Committee for the implementation of the GBV Law in Ekiti State as well as Chair of the Ekiti State AIDS Control Agency. She is Chair, Nigerian Governors Wives against Gender Based Violence (NGWA-GBV)
Bisi is the author of ‘Speaking for Myself’: Perspectives on Social, Political and Feminist Activism in Africa (2013), ‘Speaking above a Whisper’, (2013) an autobiography and ‘Loud Whispers’ (2017). She also co-edited ‘Voice, Power and Soul’, with Jessica Horn (2008) a compilation of images and stories of African Feminists.
How are you a Feminist activist? Address the misconceptions about feminism
I am a Feminist Activist because I believe that our society is shaped by patriarchal norms, beliefs and practices which devalue women and girls throughout their life-cycle. Patriarchy works through all the political, economic, social, educational, religious and technological systems that we have to create a world in which women are perceived and treated as second-class citizens. Feminism is a global struggle against all forms of patriarchal oppression, a resistance to systems and institutions, not individual men. Anyone who hates the oppression of women, who believes women should have a voice and who believes that women are entitled to control over their bodies and choices is a Feminist. Feminism is not about hating men, misandry (the hatred of men) is not part of the feminist agenda, at least not for most feminists I know. What feminists hate is not individual men, but the things that men do to violate the bodies, minds and spirits of women, and the belief systems that enable them to do this with impunity.
How did you develop your career path around being a gender specialist, development practitioner and social entrepreneur?
After my first Masters Degree at University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University) in 1988, I went back to England. I worked in the civil service for a short while and then I went to work for an African Women’s organisation based in London called Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA) in 1991. I also did another Masters Degree in Gender and Society at Middlesex University. In 1996, AMwA opened up an office in Kampala, Uganda to run the African Women’s Leadership Institute, a training, networking and information forum for young African women aged 25-40 which I established with some other young African women. Since 1996, the AWLI has produced over 6,000 women leaders who are in prominent positions across the continent. The current Vice-President of the Gambia, Madam Issatou Tourray, is an alumnus of the AWLI, we also have many here in Nigeria. My work with the AWLI is what led me down the path of social change philanthropy. Many of the women who passed through the AWLI training programs needed access to funding to enable them start new initiatives and things they were passionate about.
Funding for new ideas or small-medium sized organisations that could not access grants from large donor agencies was a huge gap. That is how I teamed up with the late Joanna Foster of Ghana and Hilda Tadria from Uganda to start the African Women’s Development Fund based in Accra, Ghana. AWDF is a pan-African grant making foundation for African women’s organisations. The motivation behind AWDF was the need to provide African women’s movements an opportunity to engage in initiatives that would raise the status of women, with needs and priorities determined by them. We wanted to fund initiatives that would transform women’s lives and not simply uphold the status quo. We also wanted to complement the work of larger donors who were either unwilling or unable to make what they termed to be small grants. The experience of co-founding AWDF and leading it for the first ten years has been one of the most fulfilling of my life. AWDF has grown into one of the largest Women’s Funds in the world with a large network of institutional, corporate and individual donors, and millions of dollars in grants made to at least 2,000 women’s organisations in 42 African countries.
25 years after the Beijing Conference for women, are your expectations for the advancement of African women and girls met?
It is a case of five steps forward and ten back. African women have come a long way. A lot of progress has been made in terms of recognising the need to have gender mainstreaming policies and practices in place. The are several regional and national legal and policy frameworks meant to guarantee the promotion of gender equality such as the Protocol on Women’s Rights in Africa, the AU Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality as well as Agenda 2030 for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More girls are enrolled in schools these days than ever before, and women are in leadership positions in the public, private and social sectors. However, due to the pervasive nature of patriarchal power, attitudes and behaviours towards the empowerment of women and girls continues to work against the vast majority of women on the continent.
Most women live in poor, rural areas where resources are scarce and decisions have to be made by families on who gets what. Under these circumstances, boys tend to be favoured over girls in terms of educational opportunities. A lack of education and training opportunities means a life of dependence and poor choices, making women vulnerable to trafficking, commercial sex work, exposure to HIV/AIDS and violent marriages. Negative cultural practices continue to place women at a disadvantage for example lack of inheritance rights, widowhood practices, female genital mutilation and so on. Other factors such as violent conflict and displacement, lack of political will to implement laws and policies, lack of financial, material and technical resources and others have meant that the gains that African women have made over the years continue to be eroded.
Is this why you are actively interested in policy advocacy?
Yes, legal and policy frameworks help create an enabling environment for change to happen. During my husband’s first term as Governor, I worked on policies and legislation to ensure that gender issues were taken seriously in Ekiti State. I was able to advocate for the passing of three laws, a Gender Based Violence Prohibition Law (2011), a Gender and Equal Opportunities Law (2013) and a HIV Anti-Stigma Law. In addition, Ekiti State became the first State in Nigeria to domesticate the National Gender Policy (2011) as well as the first State to have a Sex Offenders Register (2013, reopened in 2019). In October 2019, the GBV Law of 2011 was replaced with a new one which domesticated the Federal VAPP Act of 2015. In addition, a Compulsory Treatment, Care and Protection of Sexually Abused Minors Law was passed in June 2020. It is not easy to get laws in place but it is even harder to implement them. Ekiti State has one of the most comprehensive legal and policy frameworks for women’s empowerment in Nigeria, but it can only be sustained by political will to ensure that they are implemented and mean something in the lives of people.
Women empowerment and girl child education, why the importance?
Women’s empowerment is important because without it, none of our development goals will be met. Women contribute significantly to national development, and to the informal economy which keeps us afloat. Women give birth, nurture and care for everyone in the community. If women do not have access to education, a means of livelihood, health, adequate nutrition and decent shelter, they will never be able to fulfill their potential and society suffers. A non-literate woman has less affirming choices than a literate one, and she is unable to secure a better future for herself or her children. The more we educate our children, girls in particular, the more empowered they will be, the more opportunities they will have to escape a life of drudgery, poverty and churning out children they cannot afford to care for. If we invest in women and girls, we will break the cycle of generational poverty.
Being First Lady twice, running many life-changing empowerment programs in Ekiti State, what are your aspirations for the people of Ekiti State?
I want the women and children of Ekiti State to have all the opportunities available to live prosperous, productive, healthy and peaceful lives. These are some programs I am involved in: Gender Based Violence: I am Chair, Ekiti State GBV Management Committee, responsible for coordinating responses to GBV, Anti-Female Genital Mutilation: I am currently involved in activities to remove Ekiti State from the list of States with a high prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation. Last year I launched ‘Drop the blades’ a campaign that uses a combination of community sensitisation, awareness raising and economic empowerment activities. The campaign saw up to 120 women from six local governments literally dropping their blades and knives in exchange for an alternative means of livelihood. Keep Girls in School Campaign: This is a new advocacy initiative aimed at creating awareness and mobilizing resources to ensure that indigent girls stay in school for as long as possible. Cancer Prevention and Healthy Living: I am a passionate advocate for cancer prevention and healthy living, using my various networks and platforms to promote these issues wherever I go as well as organizing regular screenings for women. In October 2013, the Ekiti Development Foundation worked with the Ekiti State Government to establish the Funmilayo Olayinka Diagnostic and Well-Being Center at the Ekiti State Teaching Hospital. I am also part of a network of Nigerian First Ladies known as First Ladies against Cancer (FLAC). HIV/AIDS Awareness: As Chair of the Ekiti State AIDS Control Agency (EKSACA) I lend my voice to HIV Awareness, prevention and treatment efforts in Ekiti State. Multiple Births Trust Fund: This is a project in collaboration with the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development which I established in 2011. It provides financial and product support to poor families with multiple births and long-term investments for families with triplets and above. Elderly Outreach Program: I have an elderly outreach initiative which involves paying occasional visits to elderly citizens across the State. I also run a Food Bank initiative for the elderly known as Ounje Arugbo which distributes food packages to elderly people in need across the State. We recently added an Oral History Project to the work we do with the elderly, to record the stories of the very old people in our communities before they pass on. Arts and Culture: I am strong supporter of the Arts and Culture community. I work closely with the Ekiti State Ministry of Arts, Culture and Tourism. I am also Global Ambassador for Africa Fashion Week London. I am committed to promoting the mat weaving and pottery industries in Ekiti State, as well as reviving the indigenous cloth weaving industry, all these industries are led by women. I have also recently facilitated the establishment of a FADAN-Ekiti chapter, a network of local Ekiti Fashion designers, who showcased their work at Africa Fashion Week Lagos last December.
Ekiti is at the forefront of the fight against sexual abuse. How are you championing the cause?
As Chair of the Management Committee responsible for the implementation of the Ekiti GBV Law, I am dedicated to ensuring that this very important legislation continues to protect vulnerable citizens from all forms of violence. The GBV Committee is an inter-agency body made up of key Ministries such as Women Affairs, Justice, Health, Education, Information and Local Government, as well as civil society organisations. Some of our achievements include a Gender and Vulnerable Persons Unit, which is a collaboration between my office and the Ministry of Justice, a State shelter run by the Ministry of Women Affairs, as well as a Survivors Fund which has helped many women rebuild their lives after surviving various forms of GBV. Recently, Ekiti State opened the Moremi Clinic, a Sexual Assault Referral Center for survivors of SGBV. The GBV Committee has developed a broad range of support with religious, traditional, community and political leaders in the State, and we have paid many advocacy visits to these key stakeholders over the past few months. We are in the process of setting up a GBV Monitoring Committee and shelter for women in every local government with the support of the local government Chairs.
How is Ekiti State coping with the Covid19 pandemic and how are you contributing to the efforts?
Ekiti State has been quite proactive with the Covid19 response. Even before the first case in the State was recorded, HE Governor Kayode Fayemi had put together the Ekiti State Covid19 Task Force. A team of healthcare professionals with infectious diseases expertise was identified, an isolation center set up, and public awareness campaigns were run. Ekiti State took the Covid19 lockdowns very seriously, and during that time, there were only a small number of cases reported. Through the Food Bank that I run, over 60,000 food packs were delivered to indigent citizens across the State, most of the food items were donated by organisations and civic minded individuals. HE the Governor also set up a Covid19 Resource Mobilisation Committee, which involves prominent Ekiti sons and daughters around the world. This committee is working on addressing short, medium and long-term health needs in the State. The Molecular Testing Laboratory which they have funded has helped with community testing across the State, hereby saving many lives. We however need to keep advising people to avoid large crowds, observe social distancing, personal hygiene and any activities that can put them at risk. Last week, HE Governor Kayode Fayemi tested positive for Covid19. We thank God he is doing okay now. Hopefully, people will understand that Covid19 is real and affects us all.
In 2016, I established the Above Whispers Media Group and the Above Whispers Media Foundation. I initially wanted to provide a platform for middle-aged women like myself to engage with social media, providing access to relevant content. However, it turned out that young people wanted it for themselves too. The AWMG runs the news, information and social justice website Above Whispers, where I write a weekly column Loud Whispers. My weekly articles are syndicated in national newspapers such as Vanguard, Daily Independent and Sun as well as many online platforms. In June 2020 Above Whispers Media Foundation launched the Wrapper Initiative, which is a platform to support women with business grants, information and mutual support.
What books you have authored?
Speaking Above a Whisper (2013) an autobiography, Speaking for Myself, a collection of essays, lectures and poetry (2013), Loud Whispers (2017) and ‘Where is Your Wrapper?’, another collection of essays (due out November 2020).
Any advice for young women out there?
There are no short cuts to success, hard work never goes unrewarded. Don’t believe everything you see on social media. Just be yourself.