By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
When I was working with Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA), an international development organisation for African women based in London (AMwA has since relocated to Uganda), my job entailed developing programs to support African women living in the UK. Whilst the focus of our work was advocacy and influencing policy, we did a fair amount of frontline work with refugee women, African women in prison and women struggling to cope in the new environment they found themselves in. One day my husband and I went to dinner at the home of a friend of his, whose fiancée had just arrived from Nigeria. Let me call our friend Joe.
Joe had been in London at least six years before we got there. He worked in Information Technology and was doing quite well. He had bought a house in a nice part of London, and so his wife to be arrived into considerable comfort. I got talking to the fiancée who I will call Mary. She asked me what I was doing in London, and I told her I was with an organisation supporting African women in the UK. She said, ‘Really? I didn’t know African women had problems here’. It took a lot of self-control for me not to stare at her in horror at the ignorance of her statement. When I told my husband about my conversation with Mary, he laughed and said, ‘Give her some time. She will learn’. Of course she did.
When I was interviewed for my job at AMwA, I was asked to name challenges African women faced in the UK.
The person who called to offer me the job told me that of all the people who they interviewed, I was the only one who fully understood what an organisation like AMwA was trying to achieve. They found it surprising that a young Nigerian-British woman who did not have to worry about her immigration status and who had already received a decent education, was better equipped for the job than older, more experienced women who had been living in the UK for much longer. I told her that being Black-British was not without its challenges.
Two days after our wedding, my husband and I were almost homeless because the flat we were paying rent on was re-possessed by the local council. Our landlord, the legal occupant of the flat who had moved to Nigeria, had sub-let to us and was collecting our rent but not paying back to the council. We had to hurriedly pack our things, our wedding gifts unopened, to stay with a friend till we could make other arrangements. In addition, at the Department of Health where I worked as an Administrative Officer, I got to know what personal and institutional racism was like.
When I think about the fuss being made about International Women’s Day (IWD), it reminds me of the Marys of this world, who were blissfully unaware that there are women working hard to build a movement for social justice. People would try and provoke me into arguments just so they could give me a piece of their mind about my feminist politics. A male family acquaintance jokingly said he would not allow his wife to be friends with me because I might ‘poison her mind’. I knew he was serious. It was not ‘fashionable’ to talk about empowering women, those who did so were greeted with suspicion.
Times have changed. International Women’s Day is now politically correct. Governments, the corporate sector, media, celebrities are all on the bandwagon. On the one hand I find it heartwarming. It means people are getting the message and things are changing. It also amounts to a mass conversion of the Marys of the past, and hope for the daughters of Mary. My good friend Mrs Betty Irabor, the publisher of Genevieve Magazine said once, ‘Whenever you wake up is your morning’. As long as a battle still rages, it is never too late for a fresh injection of troops. On the other hand I fear that the bandwagon might include passengers who are just along for the ride and will choose to hop off at the next available bus stop, leaving the others to continue the journey alone.
I had a hectic schedule last week. I chaired a breakfast summit organised by the International Women’s Society in Lagos. It was a great event with amazing speakers drawn from different generations and experiences. Later in the day I gave a talk to a group of young girls at the Oxbridge Tutorial College in Ikeja, Lagos which was established by Dr Femi Ogunsanya, a wonderful woman who has had a distinguished career as an academic and social activist. I listened to the girls at the college and was blown away by their boldness, willingness to learn and thoughtful questions.
I left feeling so exhilarated. From what I heard, here is a group who have got the message from an early age! These young women will not go through life being told that it is better to be a Nurse than a Doctor, nor would they accept violence and abuse as normal. The next day, March 9th, I gave a talk at a forum for business, professional and political women. The audience was similar to the one I had addressed the previous morning, and in my remarks I tried to push them out of their comfort zones. On Friday March 10th I was Guest of Honour at an event to launch a film project on violence against women. I was touched by the number of people who turned out to support the efforts of the organisers, particularly familiar faces in the film industry.
On the whole I was very happy with how I spent my time last week, and was grateful for the company of some of my friends who accompanied me to all the events, telling me that they knew I would not take them to a place that would waste their time.
As I went about my own activities, I followed the news about various events happening in other places around the world. In the US some women’s groups called for a Women’s Strike, so that the world would have a sense of what it means to live without women for a day. The bandwagon has gathered serious momentum, but it is not enough. There has to be strong political will to ensure that all the promises made to the millions of women who gather in the sun, rain and cold around the world do not labour in vain. In Nigeria, women were bussed in their thousands from remote areas to listen to long, boring speeches given by their leaders.
They would have been given (some even had to buy) a piece of cloth and lunch, and that would be it till next year. In my various speeches last week, I described IWD as a day to celebrate women, remember those who live their lives in need and want, as well as re-affirm our commitment to ensuring that women become productive and empowered citizens, with rights to bodily integrity and agency. After March 8th, everyone on the bandwagon will go back to business as usual till the following year. Women do not fall off the face of the earth after International Women’s Day. All those who celebrated the day with great aplomb last week should mainstream their commitment beyond one day – it should be evident through their financial, material, personnel, policy and legal investments. Women are ‘big business’.
What kind of business will you have if your workers are always battered and unable to work, too poor to afford decent housing and healthcare and too afraid to seek help? How will your business survive if your market base keeps dwindling because there is no one to buy your products? The best kind of investment to make is an investment in women, starting from girls. A healthy, empowered woman will be a good partner for a responsible man and together, they will build a healthy family, a vibrant community and a productive nation. I am thinking again about the young girls I met at Oxbridge last week, and their passion and talents. They have a long road ahead of them. Let us all look around us, at our families and networks. Please do whatever you can to help a girl achieve her dreams. You can be a sponsor, mentor, and counsellor, anything that will add value to her life. There is a special place in hell for those who prey on the young and vulnerable. Watch out for those who are dream stealers.
Even if you did not participate in any IWD activities, you can do something nice for a girl or woman every day of the year, whether you are a man or a woman. That is the true essence of the day. Making the world a better place, one woman at a time. I hope the joyriders stay on board. It is a long, lonely, ride, but worth every bump on the road.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com