From inception, there had been a seeming misconception that feminism was about rivalry between male and female genders. But Ekiti State First Lady, Erelu Bisi Fayemi thinks otherwise, writes Victor Ogunje
Most appalling has been the fact that most of the proponents of feminism on the African continent, had painted an erroneous impression that it was a muscle-flexing game between the two opposing sexes and a desperate contrivance to bring men under control and suppress their chauvinistic posturing.
But, for Erelu Bisi Fayemi, the First Lady of Ekiti State, her brand of feminism negates this belligerent disposition and invidious perception. This connotes women’s emancipation efforts bereft of venomous hatred for the male gender purposely, because of age-long patriarchal advantage they enjoyed.
“Feminism is not the same as misandry, they should not be conflated. A Misandrist is not necessarily a Feminist and a Feminist is not a Misandrist”, the First Lady clarified.
Recently, Mrs Fayemi was engaged by some globally renowned academia and interviewers, led by Prof Toyin Falola. The interaction was far more revealing and rewrote the wrong perception that had been woven around feminism.
Also paraded in the star-studded interview session, was the Chairman, THISDAY Newspapers’ Editorial Board, Mr. Segun Adeniyi, Prof Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, Mrs Bamidele Oladele Olateju, an upcoming gender wizkid, Idaniloju Sotunsa, among other distinguished academics, who participated in the highly didactic and intellectual programme.
In the two hours and 45 minutes stormy and exciting session, the first lady espoused her views on broadbased backgrounds covering feminism, politics and governance and how they complement one another to curb societal crises.
She drew a refined conclusion after speaking elucidatively on these broad areas that the trio were intertwined and should be means to promote humanity in all facets, rather than being weaponised to ignite gender war. Her thoughts gave pointers and clear signal that a new identity needed to be devised for feminism to imbue and bolster its acceptability .
The First Lady, being an insider, gave a startling disclosure that feminists, old and young are very angry these days. She said older feminists are angry with institutional systems of oppression, which remains impervious to change, while younger feminists are angry, because of the expectation that they too should conform to the systems of oppression their mothers and grandmothers had to endure.
“If our societies are seeking development and progress, it is unbelievable that people will expect power relations to remain the same. I think the anger is a good thing. It propels action and change. Negative anger of course brings disastrous results so I am not advocating for that”, she clearly stated.
The globally reverred gender activist believed the philosophy behind feminism was targeted chiefly at dismantling the partrichal norms among Africans, where girl child’s voice was being freely subjugated and rights brazenly abridged without her blinking an eyelid due to agelong, twisted and well entrenched culture and norms.
There is no misgiving for the fact the First lady, as a co-founder of African Women Development Fund (AWDF), a body, whose exploits, had reverberated positivities in terms of women empowerment, emancipation and liberation from cultural, political and economic shackles across 42 countries in Africa, had etched her name in gold in humanitarian services. Whatever she says in this aspect could be taken as law and the view of a well grounded gender expert.
She was blunt in her averment that her own belief of the phenomenon is one that promotes girl child education, facilitates political emancipation for women, career progression for female gender and freedom from knotty cultural practices feterring women’s hands from advancing in a society, where male has gained unbridled control, dominance, and recognition.
The First Lady agreed with the fact that the reason feminism was eliciting a lot of hoopla was the fact that radicalism has crept into it. In her view, radicalism came to the fore, because the protagonists, had to be forceful while trying to dismantle the well permeated evil practices, citing female genital mutilation, to buttress her point.
She said: “I learnt early on, the importance of naming in feminist politics. I grew up with the different debates around feminist naming, and the so-called baggage it comes with. To me, feminism is a global struggle against all forms of patriarchal oppression. This means addressing the political, economic, educational, social, religious, cultural and technological institutions that patriarchy rests on and from which it draws its strength.
“I believe that by naming myself a feminist, I am taking a clear position on my understanding of Patriarchy and how this affects women’s lives throughout their life cycle and focus on the tasks every feminist has to understand what Patriarchy means, which is reform or transform. I have done this as a theorist, writer, activist, mobiliser, non-profit specialist and politician. This has, of course, made me come across as too radical for certain spaces for example in the political context.
“My current work on Gender Based Violence is an example of challenging years of oppression and impunity and what that entails. That might come across as too radical. I have, however, learnt that this is not work that can be done in isolation of those who control the levers of power at political or community level. I have had to learn how to speak that language in order to get my message across. This then comes across as being ‘Too conservative for the radicals’.
“Gendered power relations in many African communities are complex and nuanced and we need to have an understanding of that. Context and how they aid or restrict platforms has been something I have always had to consider over the years”.
The First Lady perceived education as a right and not a privilege. However, she bemoaned that the issue of geometric increase in number of school dropouts among girls came to the fore for global discussion at Beijing Conference in 1995, and that poor enough, it is still an issue staring the African citizens in the face and constituting a huge clog in the wheel of progress even in 2021.
She submitted that the challenges comfronting feminism have manifested in multifaceted forms like increased Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), disruption of the education of girls due to conflicts and insurgencies, the resistance to women’s leadership, the undervaluing of educated women, the gaslighting of young women, to the more extreme of using sex toys as replacement for women,socially and sexually.
Espousing her views on education and its link and relevance to a girl child’s future, the first lady averred: “Education is a right and not a privilege. During my husband’s first term (2010-2014), there were some researches that were done by a well-respected national NGO, which showed that Ekiti State had a high teenage pregnancy rate. This was very alarming. We had wanted to address this during a second term, but that did not come till 2018.
“When we were campaigning in 2018, I saw girls, who couldn’t have been older than 15 running around either pregnant or with babies on their backs. I go around giving out kits to maternal health centers and it breaks my heart to see so many young girls there. If you are from a poor family in a predominantly rural State like Ekiti, and you get pregnant in school, that is the end of the road for you.
“There are up to 15m out of school children in Nigeria and 60% of them are girls. Granted majority of them are in Northern Nigeria due to the insurgencies and conflict there and restrictions on girls accessing education, but every state also shares in this burden due to the high attrition rate of girls,who drop out due to poverty or sexual exploitation.
“With the Child Rights Act (2006) and VAPP Law (2019) in place, the minimum age of consent and marriage in Ekiti State is 18. Anyone, who has intercourse with someone under 18 is guilty of Statutory Rape.
“If the girls get pregnant, they can go back to school after they have had their babies or even stay on in school while they are pregnant if that is their choice. African feminists fought to get Girl-Child issues on to the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995. Now, 26 years later we no longer have to make a case for girls to go to school, but we have to make a case to keep them in school”.
The Chairperson, Nigeria’s Governors’ Wives forum, regretted that 26 years after going all the way to Beijing, that the issue of sexual abuse still form part of the societal bane the people are still grappling to eradicate the monstrous scourge pillaging our society.
She revealed that two major concepts have always been important to her in feminism, which are the ‘Voice and Space’. She said feminists use their voices to raise issue of concern, make themselves visible, refuse to be silenced and tell their own stories not minding whose ox is gored. She added that the spaces they have created, either in the academia, community or online are used for learning, solidarity, mobilisation and common action to help the fight.
“In this context, as far as I am concerned, every woman is entitled to a voice and space across all the lines that usually divide us. Second, a feminist agenda has to envisage workable solutions, at least as far as African feminists are concerned. We have done a great job of developing a body of thought and knowledge and how we experience multiple layers of oppression as African feminists.
“This knowledge we have built will not serve its purpose if it is not applied to workable solutions that will lift the burden off the backs of the vast majority of women, for example, through addressing the feminisation of poverty, lack of access to decision-making, freedom from violence and abuse and so on.
“This is why I am so invested in policy advocacy. I can also be impatient and irate, as a matter of fact,I believe my age and years of work give me permission to do so. I also know that social change is painfully slow, and we have to leverage on the agency of everyone, sometimes whether we agree with them or not.
“Third, context matters but I believe that women’s rights are inalienable and universal. Culture, tradition or religion cannot be used as an excuse to perpetuate discrimination against women”, she insisted.
Preaching the need for the African society to exhibit generosity and kindness in view of pervasive poverty and other challenges confronting women, Mrs Fayemi, said her new scholastic literary exploit, being a book she wrote and titled: “My wrapper” taught a lesson that the populace should bring out their wrappers for those who are worthy of support.
She advocated that women in leadership, who have the right values and who will not do business as usual like the men should exhibit this tendency to improve women’s recognition in the scheme of things.
“If a woman in leadership has been indicted by a competent court of law, then, she has been found to be a criminal and must face the consequences. We should, however, not indulge the media frenzy that always consumes women in leadership differently from the way it deals with men”.
She was of the opinion that ranking men and women as equals in a political race was a sinister devise to put the women in a disadvantaged position in the political arena.
“Right now, we are playing the political game as if we are all peers with men, starting a race from the same point on the field. That is an illusion. The men are always mid-field by the time a political race starts.
“We need to have a stronger voice in the key political parties; we need strong women’s wings and we need a critical mass of women voters, who can ask the right questions and make those the basis of their demands. We also need the backing of laws and policies, because we cannot continue to rely on goodwill and discretion”.
She maintained that for the fight against gender equality to come to fruition, it has to be institutionalised, that is, being backed with policies and legal condiments that are almost irreversible.
She said Governor Kayode Fayemi strategically located the Funmi Olayinka Development Centre and Moremi Clinic within the premises of the Ekiti University Teaching Hospital (EKSUTH) to ensure continuity.
“There is a budget for the running of these institutions through EKSUTH and the Ministry of Health and Human Services. The Transit Home is managed by the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. There is a budget for facility management, welfare of the survivors and a GBV Survivor Fund to enable the survivors rebuild their lives.
“The GBV Law of Ekiti State makes provision for an inter-ministerial GBV Management Committee responsible for the implementation of the law. This is known as the GBV State Coordinating Mechanism. It is supposed to be functional regardless of the government in power”.
Charting a way through which transactional sex in institutions of higher learning could be routed, Mrs. Fayemi advised authorities to exhibit a zero-tolerance culture for sexual harassment and GBV, initiate mandatory anti-Sexual harassment/SGBV Policies, a transparent grievance procedure that does not victmise victims, appropriate accommodation for students as well as introducing Anti-GBV clubs in every tertiary institution.
As daunting and knotty as the challenges were, the first lady, an incurable optimist, had a good prognosis that the female gender shall overcome. She suggested that Africa shall be better off, if its enormous female resources, with intellectual acumen, moral and physical endowments that can turn things around, are harnessed optimally.
She aptly concluded that it would be dangerous to still measure women with that opprobrious and barbaric scale that they are only good as mothers and remain child-bearing machinery.
The First Lady said in clear terms that those era were gone and should be allowed to remain in the past.