Erelu Bisi Fayemi is Ekiti’s First Lady, a Feminist Activist, Gender and Development Specialist, Social Entrepreneur, Policy Advocate, and Writer. She is the Chief Executive Officer of Above Whispers Media Group, an offshoot of an online community called Abovewhispers.com. She has a BA (1984) and MA (1988) in History from the University of Ife, Nigeria (now Obafemi Awolowo University). She has a PhD in Sociology (Honoris Causa) from the Tai Solarin University of Education (TASUED) in Ogun State. She also received an MA in Gender and Society (1992) from Middlesex University, UK. Fayemi 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. She co-founded the African Women’s Development Fund, (AWDF) – the first Africa-wide grant-making foundation for women based in Ghana, and served as the first Executive Director from 2001-2010. 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. During the first term of Dr. Kayode Fayemi as Governor of Ekiti State, Nigeria, (2010-2014), Erelu Fayemi was actively involved in a range of policy advocacy, grassroots empowerment and social inclusion programs in Ekiti State. She led the campaign to enact a Gender Based Violence Prohibition Law (2011, revised in October 2019) an Equal Opportunities Bill (2013) and a HIV Anti-Stigma Bill (2014). She is currently Chair of the Gender Based Violence Law Management Committee, Ekiti State and Chair, Ekiti State AIDS Control Agency. Fayemi 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. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her journey into gender advocacy, activism and concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. Excerpts:
Tell us about your journey into gender activism, what motivated you into taking this path?
After my first Masters Degree at the University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University) 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). 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. I was based in London, but spent a lot of time in Uganda. 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. 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, and over the past 20 years AWDF has supported over 2,500 women’s organisations in 42 African countries with millions of dollars in grants and capacity building.
Were there any experiences in your growing up that may have further motivated you to being the powerful, resilient gender/policy advocate and author that you are?
I owe a lot to my parents. My father encouraged me to develop good written and verbal communication skills. I had to write an essay for him every Tuesday and Thursday when I was in primary school, and when I was home for the holidays during my secondary school days. He raised me to believe in myself and know that I had limitless capacities. I know now, that it is important to raise girls to have self-esteem and a firm belief in their abilities. From my mother I learnt the value of generosity, sharing whatever you have with others, and the obligation you have towards those who have less than you. They both had different styles, but from them I learnt timeless lessons on strong values, leadership, community service, diplomacy and spirituality.
You shared an article while you were in self-isolation over COVID-19, which had even the thoughts of the common man in consideration, what inspired this?
I write a weekly column called Loud Whispers. My entry last week was about my experience of going into self-isolation after returning from a recent trip to the US/UK. It is very disconcerting to see the way healthcare systems in so-called first world countries have buckled under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. If we experience a fraction of what they are going through right now, hundreds of thousands might die- rich poor, old, young. The entire value chain of our healthcare systems is terribly fragile, due to a variety of reasons. The COVID-19 crisis has added new phrases to our vocabulary such as “social distancing.” What does this mean in communities where there are so many crammed together, at home and in public. What does “self-isolation” mean for the homeless? Even families who have money to buy food are finding it difficult to stock up in preparation for “lockdowns”, so what will be the fate of those who cannot afford to buy food because they are unable to go out to work? This is a crisis that affects us in different ways, but is of concern to everyone.
Would you say you are satisfied with the measures put in place as you arrived Nigeria while cases of Coronavirus spread increased?
There were commendable measures in place at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport. As I wrote in my article, there were contact tracing forms, temperatures were taken as well as photographs. All these measures were not present in the several airports I passed through on my trip, so we really do need to thank those responsible for these measures here in Nigeria. However, I expected them to provide literature on the critical importance of self-isolation for a period of at least 14 days. Not many people were aware that the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) had given directives on that. Even if some people filled in false information and disappeared into thin air, they should at least have gone away with information to self-isolate. Let us hope that the many people they are still trying to trace had the good sense to observe the directives.
You have mentioned how women in abusive relationships, who find respite in leaving their homes each day, now have to be stuck with their violent husbands. How can issues like this be tackled?
In many states in Nigeria, there are government facilities or NGO programmes available to support women in this situation. The women’s movement in Nigeria has been calling for a gender lens on the COVID-19 response. Support should be made available to the agencies I mentioned so that they can respond to the needs of women should these issues arise. The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 and the Task Forces at State level should include women leaders and take their concerns into consideration. In Ekiti State for example, we have women represented in the leadership of the state task force, as well as from the civil society networks.
With the growing number of cases everyday, how best do you think the Federal Government can check the pandemic spread?
In the immediate term, the Federal Government should invest heavily in testing so that the true number of infections are known. They also need to equip more isolation and treatment centres across the country. In addition, we need to remunerate healthcare workers in ways which show that their skills are valued. The whole world is gradually realising the folly of paying soccer stars more than Doctors and Researchers. Long term, we need to revisit where we stand in the fields of medicine, science and technology. We are too far behind.
How did you cope while you were in self-isolation?
Since the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) in Nigeria had by then issued directives on self-isolation if arriving from certain countries, and I know the responsible thing to do, I have been in self-isolation since I got back. In the over 30 years we have been married, my husband and I have never slept in separate beds if we are home together. The fear of Coronavirus has changed that for now. Throughout the period, apart from my husband, I have only seen and spoken to two people in person. I have daily tasks. I read. Check social media platforms. Write. Make calls. Watch TV and work on correspondence.
How did you feel when both your result and that of your husband came out negative?
I feel relieved, we were just lucky.
What proactive measures is Ekiti State putting in place to fight the spread of COVID-19?
Ekiti State was the second State, after Lagos, to establish a 40-person COVID-19 Taskforce, Chaired by HE Governor Kayode Fayemi. The Task Force was established even before we recorded a COVID-19 case, which goes to show the importance of being proactive. The Task Force is representative of various interest groups in the State, so there is ownership of all the Government’s decisions and directives. In addition to a robust healthcare response (there is a well-equipped isolation and treatment center), there is a lot of community sensitisation in our grassroots communities. The State is currently on “lock down” with restrictions on movements. In order to address the plight of the vulnerable segments of society, the government is in the process of providing support through a food bank. There will also be other palliatives to help those who are unable to work during this period.
As a gender specialist, social entrepreneur, policy advocate, politician, philanthropist, author, mother and wife, how have you been able to juggle all your feats and still be at your best?
I plan, prioritise, focus, and I work with others to get things done. Whatever I am able to accomplish, there are always others holding me up and providing support.
In your opinion, what should more women be doing differently to sit at the top and make decisions to drive change?
Women should stop pleading for inclusion; it is a right that we are entitled to. Women should stop fueling political machineries with nothing to show for it. There are many laws and policies in place at Federal and State levels meant for the advancement of women. Let us start implementing these so that the fate of women is not left to the discretion of male leaders in perpetuity.
What do you enjoy about being the First Lady, even when you usually refer to yourself in your articles as a Gender Specialist?
Being the First Lady is just another platform as far as I am concerned, one that has time limits. I am pleased that it enables me to make a difference in the lives of people, either through policy advocacy or practical interventions.
What is the key advice you have for Nigerian women, specifically to personal and national development?
We need to show solidarity with one another. Other women are not our own worst enemy, patriarchy is our real enemy. We need to be fighting patriarchy and not one another. Let us extend our ‘Wrappers’ to other women around us. Let us bring up our children differently so that we do not perpetuate cycles of oppression and entitlement.
How does Her Excellency spend her leisure time?
I read, write, play online Scrabble and watch TV/DVDs.
What is your life mantra?
Do unto others as you would have them do to you.