LOUD WHISPERS: A Different March 8th

A few weeks ago, I received a message that an old friend and mentor of mine would be in Nigeria on an official visit, and had requested that I meet with her during her stay in Nigeria and take part in some events with her. When I saw the dates she wanted us to meet in Abuja, I winced. I try not to travel these days unless I really have to. I have not allowed myself to be carried away by the many people who have told me I must have COVID19 antibodies. I don’t blame them for thinking that way because there was a time when COVID blazed through the Ekiti Government House and official circles, taking down many people, including our big Oga who I sleep on the same bed with! People went on so much about me having antibodies that I took an antibody test when I was in the US in December and it came back negative, so no antibodies for me.

As I stared at the email message inviting me to meet with my old friend in Abuja, I thought back to July 1996. I was in Kampala, Uganda, where I had gone to set up a flagship project for Akina Mama wa Afrika, the African women’s development organisation I was working for in London. We were setting up an African Women’s Leadership Institute for young women aged 25-40. It was just one year after the 1995 Beijing Conference for women, and even though we had been planning the program before Beijing, it was now time to put the plans into action. I had done what was to turn out to be the easy part, I had made the case for the project and I had raised the money to open an Africa office, hire staff and run a Pan-African training institute.

Now came the hard part of building and sustaining relationships with a range of women in the feminist movement around the African continent and within Uganda itself. These women would be the ones to lend their goodwill to this new project run by a group of young women, nominate candidates, provide content for the training programs, co-host off site events, and serve as faculty members. I had been given the name of an awesome woman in her late thirties at the time, who had trained as an Aeronautical Engineer, the first woman in her country to do so. She went to work as a Flight Engineer for Ugandan Airlines and quit her job to join the Ugandan war of liberation (also known as the bush war) from 1981-1986.  She was a combatant in the National Liberation Army, alongside their leader, current President Yoweri Museveni. That was when he was a true revolutionary with a clear vision and not the dictator he has morphed into. After the liberation war was won, she went to serve as Uganda‘s Ambassador to France for a number of years. When I first met her in July 1996, she had been back in Uganda for two years and was a member of the Constituent Assembly. She was a formidable politician, keen on building networks and creating opportunities for other women in politics. When I walked into her office that day, save for her height, there is nothing about her demeanour that would alert you to the unbelievable things this woman has accomplished. From the first day we met we clicked and she became my big sister. She dutifully attended every event we invited her to over the years for the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI) and other programs for the movement around the continent. In May 2005, when she was head of the Gender Directorate at the African Union, I was invited to Dakar, Senegal for an Africa-wide AU meeting on Gender Mainstreaming. I was on the Committee for Women and Development at the AU at the time, and the plan was to have a meeting of the committee, plus the official Inter-Ministerial meeting and a couple of side events. The five days I spent in Dakar turned out to be chaotic and terribly stressful. The AU had made their own arrangements for a smooth meeting, but for inexplicable reasons, the host country and the local organisers were not cooperating. The rooms for the various meetings kept changing, we kept getting lost trying to find our meeting rooms in the bowels of the vast conference center, there was always a problem with translation/translators and at some point, the local secretariat mysteriously ran out of paper and ink to print the conference documents. It was a logistical nightmare and I was worried that my friend might be blamed for whatever was going wrong, even though it was not her fault. I watched her move around sorting things out and with determination, perseverance and diplomacy, the meetings got done. She has always been such a class act. Our paths have crossed many times over the years. When she left the African Union, she joined the United Nations for a while, then left to serve as the CEO of Oxfam International. The organisation she founded (FOWODE) just after she started engaging as a frontline politician in Uganda has been a long-standing grantee partner of the African Women’s Development Fund, the grantmaking foundation for African women I co-founded with two other African women twenty years ago, and which still continues to support thousands of women’s rights organisations around the continent with grants.

As I typed a ‘Yes’ to the March 8th invitation, it dawned on the that it was exactly 25 years ago that we met for the first time, and so much has changed in the African women’s movement, yet many things remain the same. In August 2019, this big sister and friend of mine, Winnie Byanyima, was appointed Executive Director of UNAIDS. When I heard the news, I was overjoyed. At long last, an African woman at the helm of a vital UN Agency that has such a critical impact on the lives of African women.

Every year, governments and citizens of the world gather to mark March 8th which has been set aside to celebrate and identify with women of the world. It is a time for reflection on how far we have come in raising the status of women, fighting for an end to all forms of gender discrimination and ensuring that women play full and equal roles at all levels of society. In spite of the many efforts at ensuring that women are empowered and that they have equality of opportunity, Nigerian women still live-in dire poverty, they suffer many forms of discrimination, unprecedented levels of sexual and gender-based violence, they are collateral damage when there is insecurity, they are mostly excluded from key decision-making positions, they lack access to water, shelter and adequate nutrition and they struggle to access qualitative healthcare services.

The theme for IWD 2021 is Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world. I have been thinking about what this means for women like Winnie and me and others like us, who have travelled this road together for so long to change the narrative. Working for key institutions, raising money for programs, advocating for laws, influencing policy, fighting personal and institutional discrimination, building the capacity of women, it is a long list.

At one of the interactive sessions with Nigerian women leaders that was organized to host Winnie on March 8th, I looked around the room at the much younger women who are all doing amazing things to bring about change. They do not have the history and context that we have but they have their own agency to shape the present and the future is theirs. I looked at Winnie again and I thought of what I have been able to do since I walked into her office as a nervous, young but determined and focused young woman 25 years ago. I started feeling less tired, and more hopeful. Less cynical and more optimistic. Suddenly, March 8th wasn’t a bore and chore for me anymore. It was full of possibilities.

We all have a role to play. We will all be called or a calling will find us. I found my calling a long time ago and I found mentors, guides and advisers who held my hand and created opportunities for me. Winnie Byanyima is one of them. I have learnt to do the same for others. This is why every day is March 8th for me. It is nice to set aside a day to celebrate women, but much better to remember every day that women matter, women have dreams and the world would be a better place when everyone understands this. I am so thankful that I got to connect with Winnie Byanyima and celebrate March 8th with her. I was reminded that the commitment to our struggle is not counted in years alone, but in the courage and determination we have to do better every single day, regardless of the spaces we occupy.

Happy International Women’s Month to all wonderful women and thank you to the men who genuinely support the progress of women.

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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3 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: A Different March 8th

  1. Femi Diipo March 15, 2021 at 10:27 am

    Happy international women’s day and happy mother’s day. As we celebrate our women and mothers generally, it should serve as a reminder to us that we still have some ways to go in creating a safer society for our women where they can be progressive, thrive and play a pivotal role in the general development of our society without any form of fear, intimidation, stigmatisation or discrimination.

    Reply
  2. DSEED March 20, 2021 at 10:44 pm

    Happy International Women’s month to us all.

    Reply
  3. Olakunle Olajide April 11, 2021 at 8:33 am

    March is basically the month for women. I am glad you have taken the role of a mentor and guide to upcoming women to continue the work you and other great women have been dutifully doing. God bless you ma’am.

    Reply

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