SPEECH: Women Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow – The Ekiti Experience

July 10, 2014

Erelu Bisi Fayemi


JULY 10TH 2014




It gives me great pleasure to be here this morning. I thank the leadership of FIDA-EKITI for inviting me to address this conference as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations. I congratulate you all on what you have been able to achieve by carving out this very important space for yourselves, that you can use to reflect, engage, network and re-energize. I hope that by the end of your anniversary celebrations, you would have all strengthened your bonds of professional and personal friendships.

I am particularly pleased to be talking about the topic ‘Women Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – The Ekiti Experience’. Twenty years ago, just before the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference, we would have been gathered here, scrolling through a long list of barriers and obstacles to women’s education, rights, access to resources and leadership. We would have bemoaned the fact that we have too few women in critical leadership positions in the political, business and public sectors. Today, we still have such a list of hurdles and barriers, but we have managed, against all the odds, to shift the debate about getting women educated, into employment, and into  leadership positions. By dint of hard work, intensified advocacy, showcasing role models and expanding opportunities for women, we now have record numbers of women in very important spaces in Nigeria, and one of these is the legal profession.

My frame of reference for ‘Yesterday’ could have been looking at the status of Nigerian women in ancient antiquity, pre-colonial, colonial or post-colonial times. It could also have looked at the roles women played in our indigenous economic, religious, political and social institutions. The impact of colonisation, militarisation and globalisation would also have provided insights into how and why women’s roles and status changed over the years, increasingly for the worse. However, I have decided to focus on our contemporary experiences as Nigerian women, making optimistic assumptions that we are familiar with these trajectories over time.

As women, regardless of our class, geographical location or educational status, we should be aware that we do not operate in a vacuum. We function within a context of patriarchal norms and values, which have been firmly entrenched over time, and which continue to be validated through culture, traditions and religious beliefs. For those of us who are women’s rights activists, the serious challenge that we face is the need to consistently engage with this context in ways which yield results. If we do not develop the capacity to do this, we will end up wasting our leadership spaces and opportunities. One of the most important women’s rights movements in Africa has been the movement of women in the legal profession, as epitomised through the existence of national and local chapters of FIDA, Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF) and other associations of female lawyers. These organisations have been at the vanguard of laying a solid foundation for the naming and actualisation of formal rights for women, as well as the critical role of interpreting cultures, tradition and religions in ways which recognise the personhood of women.

I spent many years working with country chapters of FIDA and WILDAF across Africa, in countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, amongst others, providing leadership development training and also raising financial resources for the organisations. Without the existence of these legal networks, many of the gains in the African women’s movement would have been impossible.

Therefore, my challenge to FIDA-Ekiti is that they should never forget that they are part of a long history of resistance to oppression and marginalisation, and they need to stay forever true to the traditions that gave birth to networks such as theirs all over the world, particularly in the global South.

Ekiti Women Today

In the run up to the recent Ekiti elections, there were many raging debates in the print media and particularly on social media, in favour of one political aspirant or the other.  One of these debates focused on my role as the spouse of the incumbent Governor, and obviously irked by the amount of positive press I was receiving, one of the commentators said in a post, ‘ regardless of what she is doing, she can’t be busier than Michelle Obama or Cherie Blair’. I smiled when I read this. I am not familiar with the itinerary of these distinguished women, and I can only imagine what a typical day for them might be like. There are some things I am absolutely sure of though. No one will wake Michelle Obama up at six in the morning asking her to come to the aid of a woman who was beaten all night by her husband and driven out of the house with only a towel to cover her otherwise naked body. No one will present Samantha Cameron with a pregnant thirteen year old who has been raped by an adult male. I doubt if Carla Bruni was asked to come to the aid of a four year old who had been raped when she was First Lady of France. And no one would have bothered Hilary Clinton when she was First Lady of the US, about an old woman who was beaten to death on allegations of witchcraft. The reason why the daily programs of these distinguished women would never include episodes such as these is that there are laws, regulations, processes and a vast array of institutions in place to take care of the victims concerned. All of these women and girls would have received justice, compensation or rehabilitation as appropriate. However, as Wife of the Ekiti State Governor, attending to these issues, (all the examples above were real), became part of my daily routine. This was for two reasons. First, it was felt that I cared enough to do something about a pervasive culture of impunity. Second, we either have no systems or processes in place at all, or what we do have is so ineffective and weak, it might as well be non -existent. I have therefore spent the past three years and nine months trying to ensure that in years to come, these victims will not get taken to the doorsteps of whoever is in government, but will be able to seek and get support from institutions set up specifically for that purpose. In all these efforts, I am very happy to note that FIDA-Ekiti turned out to be a very supportive, dedicated and professional partner. They worked with me every step of the way as we drafted legislation, conducted community sensitisation, lobbied policy makers and legislators, as well as developed action plans for implementation after the passing of various laws and policies.

As the administration of my husband winds down, I am therefore pleased to report the following:

First, I have been actively engaged in framing legislative and policy frameworks that serve to guarantee women’s rights and gender equality in Ekiti State. The government of Dr Kayode Fayemi came in with an Eight Point Agenda as the roadmap for the development of the State. Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment is one of the pillars of the agenda. As a result, gender issues are taken into consideration when human, material and financial resources are being planned and allocated. In addition:

  • Ekiti State became the first State in the country to domesticate the National Gender Policy.
  • The Gender Based Violence Prohibition Law was signed in November  2011 . The GBV Management Committee responsible for the implementation of the law also oversees a Survivors Fund, the first of its kind in the country, for the rehabilitation of victims of gender based violence.
  • The Equal Opportunities Law was signed in December  2013.
  • Dormant laws such as the Child Rights Law and Widowhood Practices law were implemented

Second, I have been able to work with others to bridge the gap between government policies and the realities of poor people, especially women. Through training, capacity building, small business development schemes, social welfare programs and awareness raising, the Ekiti Development Foundation has worked with thousands of women and youth in the State to lift them out of poverty. Some of the initiatives I have helped support include the following:

·        The Multiple Births Trust Fund (domiciled at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Social Development and Gender Empowerment) which has supported over 800 low-income families of multiple births in Ekiti State

·        The Food Bank/Soup Kitchens (managed by Center for Famly Health Initiatives), which provides nutritional support to the indigent and elderly

·        Economic empowerment of women’s associations and groups

·         Financial and material support for market women’s associations, and market women, including advocacy which led to the building of model neighbourhood markets across all the sixteen local governments in the state

·        Advocacy for the establishment of the Family Court in 2012

·        Establishment of the Social Inclusion Center for women in distress

·        Convening an annual Gender Summit (in collaboration with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Social development and Gender Empowerment) to bring together women from all walks of life across all communities in the state.

Third, I have been able to popularise the notion of women as leaders in Ekiti State. We have record levels of women in Government, from the cabinet right down to local government level. We also have up to 35% of women as Permanent Secretaries. We went from having no women at all in the Ekiti State House of Assembly to having 4 in 2011. There is also a Forum for Women in Leadership in the State to support the women who hold formal official positions in government.


Moving forward, I would like to leave FIDA-Ekiti, other civil society organisations and all concerned stakeholders in the State with thoughts on how we can deepen our understanding of the political, economic and social trends around us and develop the proper analytical and practical skills for engagement as we face the challenges ahead:

1.     There needs to be a rigorous and  in-depth analysis of the Ekiti elections,  June 21st 2014.

A lot has been said and written about the June 21st elections that took place in Ekiti State. The immediate interpretation of the election results by some analysts was that voters in Ekiti State made an informed choice to massively endorse a candidate who offered populist, people-oriented programs as opposed to an incumbent who had performed extremely well in office, but became detached from his support base, the ordinary people. It was also claimed that the incumbent, Dr Kayode Fayemi, was more interested in investments in long-term development programs which were considered elitist, as opposed to the more immediate ‘stomach infrastructure’ .

I have read some armchair commentaries equating the ‘Stomach Infrastructure’ debate with one about the critical importance of the economy as an election issue. The debates around the ‘economy’ are usually  tied to creating an enabling environment for modes of production and industries of various scales  to thrive, development of required infrastructure for investments to be made more feasible, the creation of employment opportunities, peace and stability, and so on.

Stomach Infrastructure’ however, is about a combination of instant gratification, normalising corruption and nepotism and tolerating a culture of institutional decay, immune to efforts at transformation. It is about squandering the commonwealth of the people, ostensibly for the benefit of the people but ultimately for the good of only a select few. It will be very hard for any informed analyst writing about Ekiti to accuse Governor Kayode Fayemi of not working to improve the economy of Ekiti State. It of course serves the interests of some to hastily attempt to re-write the history of  Governor Fayemi as one who was disconnected from his people – the same people he built roads for, provided electricity and water for, provided healthcare for, developed education for and introduced social security payments for? The same people he visited in their 132 communities every year without fail, to listen to their priorities for the next budgets? The same people whose children he employed in the thousands through the YCAD, Peace Corps and other youth focused initiatives?  The same people on whose  behalf he created processes to stem corruption and attempted to reform institutions that would become enduring custodians of the people’s resources? What Governor Fayemi stands guilty of is his refusal to accept the ‘significance’ of this unfortunate addition to Nigeria’s and even Africa’s political lexicon – ‘Stomach Infrastructure’.

This is not the time and place to provide an adequate response to these lies and falsifications masquerading as ‘insights’. However, since an understanding of context is critical to how we move forward, for the record, I would like to state that we have not heard the last about the election. Two weeks after the immediate confusion and the hysteria of the June 21stelections, a picture has begun to emerge, which will hopefully reframe the debates emanating from and about Ekiti and the choices they allegedly made on that day. In due course, the full and real story of how the Ekiti elections of June 21st were manipulated from source will be revealed. If it is true that Ekiti people voted in favour of ‘stomach infrastructure’ as opposed to sustainable development, then organisations such as FIDA-Ekiti are in for a very tough time. There are many implications of Ekiti people having voted the way they supposedly did. One of them, as far as women is concerned for example, is that all the policies, laws and structures put in place over the past three years plus to protect women do not hold any meaning for them. Worse still, what they have gained so far, if care is not taken, will be taken away from them or be rendered meaningless.

In time, the truth will be known. In the interim, all of us concerned are moving on.

2.     Rights versus Rice: The need to sustain Ekiti women’s gains

Another challenge I leave FIDA with, is the task of consolidating the rights Ekiti women have gained over the past three years and nine months. I am aware that there are many who, in light of the discourse around ‘Stomach Infrastructure’would argue that Ekiti women are more impressed with immediate economic gains other than elitist, elusive ‘rights’. It is alright if there are some who want to argue along those lines. People are entitled to their own opinions, not necessarily their own facts. As First Lady of Ekiti State, I have engaged in various ‘empowerment programs’ ranging from the disbursement of grants for revolving loan funds or micro-credit programs, to the donation of materials and cash for small businesses or for social welfare needs. The disbursement of equipment and cash is no guarantee of empowerment. This can only be made possible by creating an enabling environment for people to have opportunities to access capital, training, employment, and so on, and to live lives free of fear, disease, exploitation and injustice.

In my own experience, women in grassroots communities know the difference between practical and strategic needs, we do not need to patronise them about this. We however need to intensify our efforts at communicating the need for them to be consistently aware of the difference and overlaps so that they can hold each other and their leaders accountable and minimise the potential of jeopardising their own interests. Sadly, the combination of poverty and ignorance is toxic and deadly.

During election seasons, women and other vulnerable groups  become easy prey for all political parties, to cajole, bribe and manipulate with all manner of things. It is all part of the contemporary political experience. It is hoped therefore, that organisations such as FIDA can address these issues within a rights context. Essentially, the message boils down to one of Rights versus Rice – is it a case of either/or ? Or both?

3.     Political will and Gender Equality: Lessons Ekiti women can share with others

A key lesson Ekiti has to share with the rest of the country, is the role of political will as the key to most of the goals and aspirations we have as social justice advocates. Regardless of our political affiliations, we cannot achieve gender justice for women without a focus on the specificity of women’s needs and rights.  We need to craft demands to our political leaders which need to address, at a minimum, the following commitments:

  • Women’s economic empowerment and livelihoods
  • Women’s participation in public life
  • Women’s health, security and safety

Nigerian women will continue to march on one spot if we do not ensure that there are constitutional guarantees for effective representation and participation specifically through affirmative action and quotas. We should always remember that in spite of the many constitutional guarantees of equality of citizens, there is no level playing field out there. Without concrete and proactive measures such as affirmative action and quotas, we will continue to see dismal statistics of women in business, politics and decision-making.

When we ask for affirmative action and quotas in business and politics, it is because we recognise that men and women are not starting the race as equal runners. Men always have a head start. Therefore we should not find ourselves advocating against affirmative action. When you argue against quotas and affirmative action for women, you are shutting the door on many women who, regardless of their qualifications and expertise, would not be given an opportunity to demonstrate their worth. By asking for these quotas, we are not saying women are not competent, what we are saying is there is now an obligation to ensure that more women get through the door, and usually they do have more qualifications and expertise than the men, they just don’t have the opportunities. It is my fervent hope that the female delegates who are attending the national CONFAB can work on the issue of women’s rights and gender equality in ways which can settle the question of the personhood of Nigerian women, with rights to live free from discrimination, fear and violence. Ekiti women have managed to achieve what women in many other Nigerian states have. Organisations such as FIDA-Ekiti have an opportunity to share the Ekiti experience with their colleagues in other parts of the country.

4.     The use of Social Media and the role of civil society

Another challenge I would like to leave with FIDA and other civil society organisations is the need to be vigilant about the use and role of social media. For all the positive ways in which social media  can be engaged to promote citizen engagement, provide information and mobilise around the world, we need to face up to the sobering reality that social media has also become a key tool for the erosion of core values. Basic principles of respect, decorum, decency, integrity, fairness and so on, increasingly have very little space on social media. The immediate victims might seem to be the presumed ineffective, clueless and corrupt public servants who are usually treated as belonging to one huge cesspit deserving of all the epithets, adjectives, lies and innuendo that is usually thrown at them. Ultimately, it is the fabric that binds us together as a community of people that will unravel, when we can no longer talk to one another in civility, when young people can abuse their elders at will in the anonymity of cyber space, and when reputations built over years of hard work and service get tarnished with one stroke of the keys.

5.     Inter-generational organising

We need to keep mentoring young women in ways that nurture them and prepare them for the harsh world of business, politics and public life. In doing this, we need to be able to set an example for them because they will practice what they see and not what they hear from us.


Yesterday, it could be said that Ekiti women struggled for recognition and significance, with all their contributions to building the state taken for granted. Today, Ekiti women are visible, relevant and acknowledged. This has been made possible by the political will of the Dr Kayode Fayemi administration. As we look towards tomorrow, it is hoped that Ekiti women will be able to build on the foundations that have been laid. This will require ongoing political will, a significant number of women in decision-making, women’s rights champions, sensitisation and mobilisation at grassroots level, vigilant and committed civil society organisations, and the capacity to develop women leaders across board.

All of us here have a sphere of influence we can operate from. Let us use our spaces wisely and purposefully. Let us all rise and set our sights on all the great things we know we can accomplish. Let us stop being complacent. Let us move out of our comfort zones. Let us stop passing things on to the next person. You are the person. You are the change. You have the power. You have God’s blessing and grace. Use this in the service of others, particularly women and children. On my part, I remain, as always, ever committed to promoting the rights of women and children, regardless of the position I hold.


Last modified: July 10, 2014

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