The Twenty-Six-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-six 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-six years ago. With all that is going on in the world today, particularly with the fate of women in Afghanistan, 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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9 Responses to The Twenty-Six-Year-Old Speech: ‘Building A New House’

  1. Femi Diipo August 30, 2021 at 12:13 am

    26 years? Unbelievable. Not a single word amiss, It reads like it was written just today. As much as that should serve as a commendable ingenuity of the writer, it depicts the unfortunate reality that not much or nothing really had changed since such a long time ago, if anything some are worse now.
    I hope the vision has began to manifest, where women and men are coming together to build. At least I believe the foundations are been laid.

    Reply
  2. Judith August 31, 2021 at 11:44 am

    Those ‘Twitter’ feminists won’t see this one o. Well done ma.

    Reply
  3. Shola August 31, 2021 at 11:45 am

    The struggle is valid!

    Reply
  4. Morakinyo August 31, 2021 at 11:51 am

    Nothing has changed since then o. Hmmm

    Reply
  5. Aderenle August 31, 2021 at 11:54 am

    We should all be feminists. This is a struggle for sanity and even after 26yrs, the struggle continues o!

    Reply
  6. Olakunle Olajide September 1, 2021 at 9:32 am

    After 26 years and the fight is still on..I really salute the strength of women and I pray and hope this patriarchy world be brought down. Thank you for not giving up on this fight ma.

    Reply
  7. Olivia September 1, 2021 at 9:34 am

    God bless you for always fighting for the cause of women.

    Reply
  8. Matilda September 1, 2021 at 9:39 am

    26 GOOD YEARS!

    Reply
  9. DSEED September 6, 2021 at 12:36 pm

    26 years! This is huge

    Reply

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