LOUD WHISPERS: The Twenty-Five Year Old Speech: ‘Building a New House’

In August 1995, I attended the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing. I took part in many activities at Beijing, the highlight was addressing one of the daily plenaries at the NGO Forum with a packed audience of thousands of women. This is the speech I gave at a plenary on diversity in the global women’s movement exactly twenty-five years ago. It is abridged but unedited. It was subsequently published in a book of Beijing plenary speeches known as ‘Look at the World Through Women’s Eyes.’ Twenty five years ago. It is a speech I could easily give tomorrow morning.

 

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change’ Audre Lourde.

 

For us to be able to talk about strategies for dealing with the rise of conservatism, it is vital for us to understand the depths and interlinkages which make it possible for a global majority to be economically, politically, and structurally undermined by a coalition of conservative interests, intent on preserving a status quo which guarantees them perpetual supremacy. These conservative interests have operated on a philosophy of total control; they permeate economic structures, political systems, religious thought, social issues, and all areas of human activity imaginable. As tools of operation they employ racism, xenophobia, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and religious and cultural fundamentalism — pillars supporting a supremacist superstructure. Since those who control these systems are male, their tools of operation build a Master’s House. Within this Master’s House women are dispensable; their bodies and rights can be violated at will; they have few economic, political, legal, or religious rights; and any attempt to change this ordained order is violently resisted. It is also important for women in the Master’s House to be co-opted into sustaining the culture and traditions of the House in order to ensure his immortality. In addition, all elements not made in the Master’s image are rejected.

I do not need to remind people of the centuries of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism which black people and other people of color all over the world have suffered. Sadly, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and neo-colonialism are still very much alive, so much so that almost the entire global South and vast communities of the North are impoverished and lack access to basic resources and amenities.

 

Global economic restructuring has enabled international monetary institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to recolonize Africa through endless debt-servicing and the implementation of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), which have devastated entire political, economic, and social systems. SAPs have led to extensive cuts in services, unemployment, inflation, a sharp decline in standards of living, and a massive brain drain. Middle and high-level managers, whom Africa needs badly for its recovery and development, seek a more conducive working environment outside Africa. According to a United Nations Programme of Action for Africa Economic Recovery and Development (UNPAARED) report published in 1991, by 1995, there would be 400 million Africans living in poverty, of whom 260 million would be women. The perennial conflicts and wars which have beleaguered Africa over the past few years have left the continent in a state of despair. The causes of these conflicts are as complex as they are diverse. The factors are a combination of struggles over resources, power, ethnicity, democratisation, and a host of other variables. Then there are the foreign interventions by world’s superpowers, who used Africa as a battleground for ideological supremacy during the Cold War. All manner of tyrants and despots were popped up in a race for doctrinal territory, and showered with sophisticated military hardware and billions of dollars in loans.

 

This history has now caught up with us. It is payback time, and we are all caught in the most vicious cycle of human suffering and deprivation imaginable. African nations cannot afford to pay back the debts, hence the structural adjustment programs. African people are now using the stockpile of weapons they acquired years ago to wage endless wars; hence they constitute 75 per cent of the world’s refugee population of 15 million. Due to the collapse of health-care systems, Africans cannot deal with the scourge of HIV/AIDS that has devastated parts of East, Central, and Southern Africa.

All these complex issues are no coincidence. For every deficient system there is always a beneficiary. It is not surprising that due to the state of the African continent, there is a large number of African refugees, exiles, students, and migrants sustaining the economies of the West. The same applies to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. This has amounted to a recycling of slavery and colonisation on an even greater global level than in earlier centuries. There are currently millions of women working as domestics, cleaners, and factory hands, or trafficked into the commercial sex industry. The survival of entire communities in their homelands is dependent on them. It is important to clarify here that my definition of the North in this context is the predominantly white, male, upper-class leadership and big-business interests of the multinationals. There is also no homogeneous South; African people are now holding their own corrupt, collaborating leaders accountable. In order to counterbalance the immense pressures of these broad but converging conservative global interests, women all over have to consider the following:

 

  • Women need a thorough understanding of the systems which dominate their lives and deprive them of their fundamental human rights, including economic rights and a respect for bodily integrity.
  • Women need to reconsider how to negotiate with structures which use religion as political weapons of oppression.
  • Women need to build up their capacity to act as agents of change. In the post-Beijing process the global women’s movement must devote attention to mobilising resources to carry out plans of action and, at the same time, advocate for the resources being committed at the Beijing Conference.
  • Racism, as well as other forms of discrimination, is still very predominant within the global women’s movement. We must have the humility and integrity to come to terms with our own specific privileges wherever we are and assess how they impact on other women. Sisterhood might be global, but at the same time, sisters are not all the same, and they have different priorities.
  • The feminist movement has been recognized as the most powerful social force in the world. It is vital that women forge long-lasting alliances on the local, national, regional, and international level.
  • We must seek accountability from our leaders, most of whom are male, and from the women who collaborate to sustain them. World communities need good governance, accountable to and representative of the people. No amount of charity, aid, or bilateral assistance can replace the responsibility of government to its people; neither can relief workers or peacekeepers be expected to stop conflicts.

 

On the road to Beijing, women were asked if they hoped to achieve anything tangible at such a massive, miscellaneous gathering. Some replied that the mere fact that large numbers of women would be gathering and exchanging experiences would be enough of an achievement. There was of course a deliberate effort to de-legitimize the women who would actually make it to this conference, under the excuse that they do not speak for the vast number of women they were leaving back home. This is a familiar trick used by local and international media. My vision is a world in which women and men can forge new tools to build, not a Master’s House, but a place where there will be respect for humanity and dignity of humankind, a place where we will all truly appreciate the world through women’s eyes.

 

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 the First Lady of Ekiti State, and she can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

 

 

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15 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: The Twenty-Five Year Old Speech: ‘Building a New House’

  1. Femi Diipo August 21, 2020 at 2:32 pm

    Incredible!!! It’s almost unbelievable that this speech was written 25 years ago. It could have been written yesterday and not a single world would be out of place. As far as we think we may have come this shows how far we still have to go.
    Each line, each paragraph, each thought is still as relevant as they were in 1995. This is a reminder to everyone working towards and fighting for social change. There is still a long way to go.

    Reply
  2. Lola Aina August 22, 2020 at 7:27 pm

    After 25yrs!!! Still valid and true! Wow!

    Reply
  3. Gloria Maduka August 22, 2020 at 7:28 pm

    The struggle has been for a long time and it is a pity that some people are tarnishing the movement. Young people who were born later in the years are the ones trying to tarnish the movement. I hope they learn!

    Reply
  4. Ibukunoluwa Esther August 22, 2020 at 8:49 pm

    I don’t know if I should be happy or sad because if 25yrs ago this was addressed and is still being addressed now, it seems as if we are walking in circles. It is so sad. Very sad. I hope that the change we desire comes indeed.

    Reply
  5. Vanessa August 22, 2020 at 8:49 pm

    It’s been a long time coming and still a very longgggggggggggggg way to go oooo. wow.

    Reply
  6. Oluwatoyin Adams August 22, 2020 at 8:56 pm

    These are the people who understand the meaning of feminism not those who think they are jumping on the wagon because ‘it is the cool thing’. I hope they read this article and learn that feminism has been a movement for the rights of women and girls. This is a movement of serious-minded people not those who want to chase clout for social media buzz. 25yrs ago and this is still as relevant as rice. Where do we go from here? how do we start changing the narrative? how?

    Reply
  7. Kiki Odewunmi August 22, 2020 at 8:57 pm

    The struggle continues!!!

    Reply
  8. opeyemi salvage August 22, 2020 at 8:58 pm

    Maybe we need to reiterate to those people in my circle who keep saying women are asking for too much that this has been said over 25yrs ago! They need to see this and I am posting it to them individually.

    Reply
  9. sheila Ibrahim August 22, 2020 at 9:00 pm

    Just take a look at us. A lot of us have deviated from this movement. These are the women who paved way for us. Now, we are just saying ‘the name’ to get grants etc. May God help us.

    Reply
  10. Lucas Aina August 23, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    Have we made progress indeed? where are we for real? God help us

    Reply
  11. Lupita August 23, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    25years and the issues are same just a pity that the field has lacked those with the will to fight genuinely

    Reply
  12. Cecilia Andrews August 23, 2020 at 1:17 pm

    I don’t want to be a bearer of bad news but I feel progress will be hard if after 25yrs we are still tackling the same issues… progress will be hard o.

    Reply
  13. Maryam Suleiman August 23, 2020 at 1:18 pm

    Let’s take a minute to leave the message but admire and applaud this woman who’s been fighting this cause for over 25yrs! what? this is not a joke.

    Reply
  14. DSEED August 23, 2020 at 3:35 pm

    Message over decades and still valid. The bitter truth is that nothing changes.

    Reply
  15. Olakunle Olajide September 6, 2020 at 2:46 pm

    This is just a reminder that with all the efforts put in place to build a new house, no big achievement can be sighted because the old house is still standing with just minor refurbishments. I think a drastic effort must be taken to actually destroy the old house and to start afresh. Be it racism, patriarchalism, colonialism, colourism and many more. A drastic change really needs to occur or else everything in this speech will still be said 25 years after from this time.. I really can’t wait for women presidents in majority of the countries. That might most likely be the spark we need..

    Reply

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