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Erelu Bisi Fayemi

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Sarah Kuponiyi is a passionate youth leader whose work cuts across gender equality and sexual reproductive health. She is also a 2019 nominee for 120 under 40 New Generation of Family Planning Leaders, recipient of Sustainable Solutions Africa 30 under 30 2019 and Cohort 15 Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) emerging Leaders Program West Africa.

The founder of  A Well-Informed Adolescent  (AWA) Initiative, an organisation where she leads the team in creating and managing Safe Spaces that ensure young people can achieve their potential by enabling them access to essential services. She recently launched Alora Reusable Pads, a social enterprise to address period poverty by creating eco-friendly menstrual hygiene products freely distributed to in school and vulnerable girls and sold at affordable prices to the public. As a Beijing +25 Eagle (women advocate) for UN Women Nigeria, she uses her skills to advocate for upholding of human rights for sexual and reproductive health as the key to ensuring that women and girls can be equal and free to make decisions in all spheres of their lives, without discrimination, violence, or coercion, and with the assurance of their dignity upheld.

She shares her inspiring journey, her passion for development work, and  endorsement of different Government parastatals  in this interview with Esther Ijewere.

Childhood Influence

No, I don’t think my childhood prepared me in any way for what I do now but I can say it’s part of what inspired me or should I say it is one of my why(s) in doing what I do now.  Growing up, it was awesome experience, had a lovely family, hardworking and sacrificial parents. Life itself was not so smooth not so rough; it was a beautiful as well as hard a journey.  Becoming an adolescent I realized I was a lone ranger hardly had friends, there were issues around self-identification and family challenges I had no one to share with, my parents were not available for those kind of talks and I always bottled them in. I was at the receiving end of my parent’s emotional breakdown when they separated and there were days I felt like running away, if there were safe spaces then that I could trust and go to it would have been helpful but I sucked it all in same with my siblings but in all right now I look back at my teenage self and I can say I am proud of that girl, the woman I have become is proud of the young teenage girl I was, she survived the lassitude of life, rode the rough waves graciously and got ashore unscathed, like not all adolescents could have been strong enough to to pull through without losing hope or sight of the goal.

So what I do now is to provide safe space services I couldn’t get at my time for adolescents and young people alike so as to enable them share their challenges, give a listening ears to them, let them know being stuck in the dark is not forever for those going through challenges and provide them tools and resources they need to make informed choices about their life, health, career etc so that they can transit to healthy adults without letting the light of their mind go dim even as the voyage on life’s journey.

Inspiration behind  “A.W.A” 

So what I went through growing up like I explained earlier inspired me to start A Well-Informed Adolescent (AWA) Initiative, which started as a community based project in 2018 to provide adolescents in rural communities an inspiration to live beyond their present definition, to aim high and think big and not let their background define them. Like the name of the organization, I am eager to have adolescents, who are well-Informed about the stage of life they are in, help them answer all the burning existential questions they have about their life, their overall health, their career, provide them guidance and tools they need to make informed choices by themselves. We achieved this through use of Multisectoral programs that link health to education, recreational activities, skills acquisition, youth club activities, school-based campaign, safe space services, advocacy and peer health education. Over the years the organization has grown to be more encompassing we also work to reduce gender based violence by educating women and young people about harmful gender norms and practices that contribute to Gender Based Violence in our society. We address issues around sexual violence; educate women and young people about their sexual reproductive health and rights. We provide parenting support programs, school-based dating violence prevention programs, & community based interventions to build equitable gender norms & attitudes in boys & girls. We provide sustainable livelihood programs for young women and girls through economic skill training and acquisition program. Nonetheless our primary core focus still remain investing appropriately in the health and development of young people and we continued to strive towards improving the health and development of this unique population sub-group

Inspiration behind Alora reusable pad

As a younger girl who stayed with her father, I could not afford to buy sanitary pads for myself due to how pads were unaffordable for someone like me, neither was I able to ask him for such due to culture of shyness and silence. Likewise, working on school health outreaches made me realized this situation has not change and the Story is what cut across all region of the country; Nigeria is one of the countries that place a heavy tax on menstrual products. Without access to proper menstrual products, many girls miss classes and older women are unable to attend work A pack of sanitary pads cost an average of $1.30, even as an estimated 44% of Nigeria’s population (87 Million people) lives in extreme poverty earning less than $1.90 per day, women and girls may delay urination and defecation but it is not possible to stop menstrual flow. The lack of affordable sanitary products also exacerbates anxiety and stress during menstruation and increases their vulnerability to gender based violence and sexually transmitted infections. Alora Reusable Pads was created to solve Period Poverty by producing and selling eco-friendly reusable menstrual hygiene products from specialized fabrics that are comfortable to the skin, hygienic, and affordable. Alora Reusable Pads are made for every woman and girl. It is affordable, easy to use, comfortable and available in three sizes with varying thickness to fit every woman at all times. It is made of several layers of absorbent fabrics including cotton and water proof fabrics and it has numerous benefits such as  saves you money, very economical, environmentally friendly, safer for the body, fashionably feminine and very affordable.

The reception since we launched

Wow, the reception has been awesome. We have received considerable acceptance in the development space and government parastatas because it is a sustainable way of solving period poverty but for individuals we realized there is need to do more awareness creation on reusable pads in Nigeria, it is still a new niche and awareness about this would help influence mind shift and behavioral change which help increase acceptance. Notably to note is our Alora Pads has been purchased by the following;

  • Cross River State Ministry of Women Affairs purchased Alora Pads for its UNFPA funded dignity packs distribution project in Cross River State.
  • Ekiti State Governor’s wife Her Excellency Erelu Bisi Fayemi purchased Alora Pads for her Keep Girls in School Project for world menstrual hygiene day 2021
  • NGO in Adamawa KPANG SURRI Foundation purchased Alora pads to commemorate World Menstrual Hygiene Day
  • NGOs in Calabar Gender and Development Actions (GADA) and A Well Informed Adolescent (AWA) Initiative Purchased Alora Pads to commemorate World Menstrual Hygiene Day 2021
  • Alora Reusable Pads was invited by Federal Ministry of Women Affairs Abuja, Dame Pauline Tallen in commemorating World Menstrual Hygiene Day 2021 at the Ministry Complex in Abuja.
  • Official presentation of Alora Reusable pads to United Nation Population Funds (UNFPA) Calabar Sub office
  • Discussion on period poverty on HitfmCalabar with Abenmire Ade where we shared sustainable solutions to addressing this menace; one of which is Alora Reusable Pad
  • We are so excited as our founder and team lead got profiled by US Mission to African Union on the celebration of International women’s day 2021.
  • Gate Way Excel Collage Otupka Benue State purchase alora pads for their gate way pad up project
  • Alora reusable pads was endorsed by the UN Women Nigeria.

Being a certified adolescent sexual health professional, running my organisation, volunteering for several international organisations, and managing it all

(Smile) well, let me honest not easy, reward of hard work is more work but because all I do is what I am passionate I enjoy it and I give it my best, I prioritize my schedules and deliverables, I have calendars and to do list, I set reminders, I delegate where necessary and most importantly I work with awesome amiable teams both at AWA Initiative and with Alora Pads.  Our board of trustees, staff, volunteers and supporters are all amazing.

Challenges of my work

Time consuming, Mentally stressing -My life is all about work with little or no time for other things of life but lately I am making conscious effort to live a balance life.

Challenges involves in handling   Gender based violence prevention at the grassroot or community is having to contend with community gate keepers and community strong holds (laugh) let me not go there while for young people it just a matter of them trusting you enough and the work becomes easier.

Other Projects and activities

We have done various projects and here are some of them

  • A Well-Informed Adolescent Campaign 2018
  • A Well-Informed Adolescent Campaign 2019
  • A Well-Informed Adolescent Campaign 2020
  • A Well-Informed Adolescent Campaign 2021
  • Women Voice Leadership Project in partnership with Child Care and Adult Protection (CCAPI) and Action Aid Nigeria funded by Global Affairs Canada
  • UNESCO/Society for Family Health Spotlight Initiative potlight Initiative Project Activity 4.2.4 which is aimed at ”Strengthening the capacity of youth network (Civil Society Organisation) to carry our peer education and support young people to access Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) and SRHR services” in Cross River State

Here are the Programs we run at A Well-Informed Adolescent  (AWA)  Initiative

  • Tackling Gender Based Violence; A weekly program that offers crucial approach to poverty reduction, economic development and a key to protect sexual and reproductive health and rights.
  • Friday Talk Date: In this event we provide adequate age appropriate comprehensive sexuality education to adolescents at the youth resource center
  • Safe Space Activities: We provide youth friendly services that cater for the overall development of young people
  • Health Programs
  • Livelihood Programs

 3 women who inspire me to be better and why

I have plenty women ooo but since you asked for 3 here are they

  • Dr. Yolanda N George-David also known as auntlanda, I met her while I was still in secondary school through a radio program tag “Sharing Life Issues” wow she inspires me to do better because despite her own life issues that she could use as a legit excuse to just remain in her corner yet she leaves everything to give her all to total strangers, mehn its wow. And she first exemplified this bible verse “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” to me mehn Mama has plenty PhDs in Neurology, Obstetrics and gynecology, psychologist etc an OAP, a wife, mother, farmer, business mogul, caterers etc she literally made me believe I could be anything I set my mind on and work towards.
  • Mrs Emilia Eyo-Effa, I met her while working at my first NGO work ever she was the Gender Specialist, currently now works with USAID, seeing her transition from jobs to jobs gives me hope that I can achieve my career dreams in the development sector, all I need to do is work hard and be consistent. She also an amiable supporter of our organization, she is one of our astute board of trustees who always open her arms and doors for me, to advises me using her wealth of professional experience I am so glad to be in her circle and to have as a board of trustee for AWA Initiative.
  • Michelle Obama, reading her book titled “Becoming” gave me a glimpse to her life, her roots, how she came of age, her family, her life as the first lady. Reading about her triumph and disappointment made me realized I am a work in progress I have not arrived or gotten to my final destination and that in every of my life phase I keep working, keep learning, keep living and keep becoming the better version of myself always.

To young women

Self Identifcation, Self-worth, Self-value. I would tell them to work on themselves first, evolve or commence their journey of becoming before getting entangled,  and I would tell them to be strong and not lose sight of their goals not be distracted by society but rather press on and be the best version of themselves that they could be.

Future of Alora Reusable Pad

At Alora Reusable Pads our vision is A World without Period Poverty, were every woman and girl can have their period with dignity. Our Mission: To be a leading producer of affordable, eco-friendly, comfortable reusable pads in West Africa and to address period poverty through distribution of reusable pads and provision of menstrual health and hygiene management programs. We hope to reduce poor menstrual hygiene by 30% in Nigeria (and Africa) by 2025.

Being a Woman of Rubies

I am a Woman of Rubies because contribute to developing my communities; I empower women and girls to become change agents.

Awards and Recognition

National Gender Youth Activist for United Nations Women HQ, Beijing eagle (Women advocate) for United Nations Women Nigeria. A 2019 nominee for 120 under 40 New Generation of Family Planning Leaders, recipient of Sustainable Solutions Africa 30 under 30 2019 and Cohort 15 Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) RLC emerging Leaders Program West Africa. Immediate past Deputy Coordinator YALI Network Cross River State, She is part of the Cross River CSO Gender Responsive Budgeting Monitoring Group, Cross River State CSOs Network, and Cross River State GBV/SRHR Network respectively among others.

 

With at least 13 million children out of school in Nigeria presently and rising, with 60 percent of this number being girls, even when they are able to receive an education, there is still a huge challenge keeping young girls in school due to some factors

These factors include poverty, sexual and gender based violence, kidnappings, teenage pregnancy, family responsibilities and forced marriages and so on, make it difficult for young girls to focus on their education. Harmful traditional practices such as early marriages, female genital mutilation, girls trafficking, farming out children to family members to foster and so on, all contribute to creating a toxic environment for girls to grow up and be educated in.

In light of all these, the first lady of Ekiti state, Erelu Bisi Fayemi is focused on addressing these issues with her Keep Girls In School Campaign. According to her, one of the factors that keep young girls away from school is ‘period poverty’ or lack of capacity for menstrual hygiene management.

Lack of appropriate facilities such as gender segregated toilet facilities, adequate safe water supply in schools for washing hands and maintaining good hygiene, absence of sanitary menstrual materials and so on can and does prevent girls from safe hygienic management of their periods.

These may result in absenteeism, reduced levels of concentration in class and low participation in school activities like sports and other extra-curricular activities. The campaign therefore launched a Pad Bank on Menstrual Hygiene Day to enable vulnerable girls in the state have access to reusable sanitary protection, a sustainable way of menstrual hygiene management.

According to the first lady, the bank’s objectives include having a steady supply of menstrual hygiene products, helping young girls who are unable to afford sanitary materials and ensure that young girls don’t stay away from school because of their monthly cycle.

Others include, promoting good menstrual hygiene amongst young girls, providing training in the use of menstrual hygiene products and providing opportunities for young local entrepreneurs to learn how to produce reusable and safe sanitary products.

She added that a box of six reusable pads that can last for a year costs N2, 500 and their target is 3000 girls yearly in the state. Calling for support to enable them reach and surpass this goal, she said donations in cash or kind would enable them keep a steady supply of these reusable pads for regular distribution to young girls that need them the most.

In celebration of her 57th Birthday, The First lady of Ekiti State; Erelu Bisi-Adeleye Fayemi donates N1m to Rubies Ink Initiative for Women and Children, through her Above Whispers “A Wrapper for Women  Initiative.

The aim of the donation is to support Women in dire need during this uncertain time in the World, and alleviate their pain.

The Wrapper Network which started In October 2019 was inspired by a question she asked  during her speech at a Women’s conference.

According to Her Excellency;

Those wrappers symbolize solidarity, unity, love, protection, care and so on. If we want to be blessed as women in any way, Where is your wrapper? Where is your wrapper for the poor widow who is struggling to pay the fees of her children? Where is your wrapper for your wealthy but very sad friend who is experiencing domestic violence? Where was your wrapper when a woman told you she had been raped but you asked her what she was wearing?

In addition, a lot of women need help with modest contributions that could make all the difference. That is why I decided to start The Wrapper Network, for women who need a wrapper and for women who are prepared to give wrappers to other sisters. I am flagging it off with an initiative for some women entrepreneurs to mark my birthday on June 11thThe Wrapper Network will be able to support up to 40 women with between N50,000-N200,000 for various businesses. I hope that the sisters who will benefit can go on to bless other sisters with a wrapper when things are good for them”.

We will be disbursing the funds in the next couple of days among 100 women; from the most vulnerable to the downtrodden, we will make sure these Women get a “Wrapper”  of hope from this donation,and the names of the beneficiaries will be published for accountability.

We appreciate Erelu Bisi Fayemi for her kind gesture and we will make sure the funds gets to those who truly need it.

Happy Birthday to a wonderful Mentor, Encourager, Women lifter, Wrapper Giver, A woman above Whispers, an enigma of hope and purpose. We celebrate you today and always.

Esther Ijewere

Founder, Rubies Ink Initiative for Women and Children & Editor-In-Chief; Women of Rubies

 

Erelu Bisi Fayemi is a Gender and Development specialist, Social Entrepreneur, Policy Advocate, Writer, Business Woman, Wife and Mother. She has a BA (1984) and MA (1988) in History from the University of Ife, Nigeria (now Obafemi Awolowo University). She also received an MA in Gender and Society (1992) from Middlesex University, UK.

She spent many years working on women’s rights and development issues around the world before she returned to Nigeria in 2010 when her husband, Dr Kayode Fayemi, became Governor of Ekiti State. She is the recipient of the 2011 David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership award, one of the most prestigious awards in the field of Philanthropy. In 2011, Women Deliver named Mrs Fayemi as one of the top 100 people in the world working on women’s empowerment, and in 2012, she was named by New Africa Magazine as one of the 100 most influential Africans.

She is the author of ‘Speaking for Myself’: Perspectives on Social, Political and Feminist Activism (2013) and ‘Speaking above a Whisper’, (2013) an autobiography. She also co-edited ‘Voice, Power and Soul’, with Jessica Horn (2008) a compilation of images and stories of African Feminists. She is currently a UN Women Nigeria Goodwill Ambassador, and recently established abovewhispers.com, an online community for women.In this interview, she revals her journey of speaking up for the rights of women.

My driving force
I have indeed spent most of my adult life working on women’s rights issues. I worked for AMWA, an international African women’s organisation based in the UK from 1991-2001. During that time I established the African Women’s Leadership Institute which has supported at least 6,000 women leaders across Africa, including women in Nigeria. I left AMWA in 2001 to co-found the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), and to serve as the first CEO. AWDF is an Africa-wide grant-making foundation which strengthens women’s organizations across Africa with financial and capacity-building support. Over the past 15 years AWDF has funded over 2,000 women’s organisations in 42 African countries. I left AWDF in December 2010 after my husband, Dr Kayode Fayemi, became Governor of Ekiti State. What drives me is finding justice for women and an equitable society

Growing up
I was brought up in a loving and caring environment. My father was an Accountant and my mother was an entrepreneur. My father worked in senior positions in the Federal Civil Service, and he always told us that on the day of reckoning, he would never be found wanting. True to his word, at a time when there was a change of government in 1979, a lot of his colleagues were rounded up for involvement in one scam or the other, but he was untouched. I learnt the value of contentment from my father, discipline, the right to speak up and be heard, community service, and the fact that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. From my mother I learnt generosity, solidarity with other women in need and negotiating skills.

Achievements when I served as the First Lady of Ekiti State
I focused on what I love doing, which is working for and with women. During the period that my husband was Governor, Ekiti became known for being a pace-setter State as far as promoting the rights of women is concerned. The 8 point Agenda which was the policy framework for Dr Kayode Fayemi’s administration included women’s empowerment and gender equality as one of the eight priority areas. This meant that Ekiti women did not need to beg to be included in policy processes. Through my efforts, there were a record number of women in the legislature, cabinet, and on boards and parastatals, as well as in the local government structures. In collaboration with state legislators, government officials and civil society partners, I led campaigns for the Gender Based Violence Prohibition Bill of 2011 and the Equal Opportunities Bill of 2013, both were signed into law by the Governor. I established the Ekiti Development Foundation which supported thousands of women, men and children across the state. Ekiti State became the first (and only State) in Nigeria to domesticate the National Gender Policy in October 2011. I was also able to advocate for the fast-tracking of the Family Court in Ekiti State, the establishment of a Multiple Births Trust Fund, as well as the establishment of a Social Inclusion Center for the rehabilitation of women in distress. It is a long list, but I will stop there.

Being the wife of a politician
The wife of a politician has to learn to be all things to all people. As I wrote in an essay last year, in honour of the late Mrs H.I.D Awolowo, about the role of political spouses, you are expected to be the main support system of your husband. You are a hostess, adviser, philanthropist, mobiliser, campaigner, counsellor, mediator, spiritual intercessor, the list is endless. The responsibilities draw on every mental, financial and emotional resource you have. I learnt to take everything in my stride and never complain, because I saw it as a duty and opportunity to serve. I always tell people that I consider myself to be a politician because I am concerned about the world around me and how decisions are made. Any woman married to a senior politician who tells you she is not a politician is in denial. The seemingly benign philanthropic activities that spouses of politicians engage in are all political strategies, and it is entirely legitimate. The level at which we engage might be different, I must admit I was very active politically, especially in policy advocacy.

There are no short cuts to success. You should be prepared to put in hard work to see results. Focus on the things that you love and inspire you. At a stage in your life, you might have to take on ‘survival work’ which is a job that you don’t really like doing, but it pays your bills. The moment you feel you are able to, move on to doing things that really excite you.

My Above Whispers Project
I have always wanted to run a story-telling project for African women. I have come across many amazing women and stories over the years, and people might not get to hear about them because are not rich or famous, yet they are powerful in their communities. I also noted that most of the content on our blogs and websites here in Nigeria is targeted at a young demographic. When women and men of my generation go online, we want to look at content which is relevant to us such as politics, entrepreneurship, financial security, health parenting and so on. I therefore decided to launch an online-platform that we could use to share information, news, stories and campaigns. I also want us to be able to use Above whispers to showcase the unique ways in which Africans engage in community service and philanthropy.

My Sisters Keeper’s Campaign
At Above whispers, we decided that we wanted to mark international women’s day differently. We wanted it to be about women celebrating other women. On March 8th,women around Nigeria, and in other African countries such as Kenya and Burundi, took part in the campaign through simple acts of kindness such as buying goods from market women without haggling, paying for the hair of another sister at a salon, giving gifts to or female colleagues, especially those junior to us, and so on. It was a phenomenal success online, considering the fact that we did not run an expensive corporate campaign. We have got very touching feedback about the campaign, and we will certainly run more like that.
On women living their dreams

Let me preface my response by saying that it is difficult to give advice on this because women are in different situations. However, as a general principle, I would advise young women who are not married yet to think carefully before they choose their husbands. A man should not just choose you as his wife after having met his own laid down criteria. You too need to have criteria for choosing a husband. Marriages flounder when one party has to minimize their own dreams in order to boost the ego of the other.

A marriage is a partnership. Have a clear understanding with your partner about the kind of life you will have together and what dreams you both have and how you will support each other. This way you build a marriage based on love, mutual respect and support. Responsibilities in the home can be negotiated so that you have time to pursue your interests. Sacrifices do have to be made at certain times; especially when there are young children, but there still should be a level of understanding that does not leave you bereft of your bearings in life.

Advice to women entrepreneurs
There are no short cuts to success. You should be prepared to put in hard work to see results. Focus on the things that you love and inspire you. At a stage in your life, you might have to take on ‘survival work’ which is a job that you don’t really like doing, but it pays your bills. The moment you feel you are able to, move on to doing things that really excite you. When you focus on something you are good at, your passion will shine through and it will encourage investors to support you because they can see you know what you are doing. No investor wants to back a failure, so when they see you are committed to success, you get their attention. Be professional in all your dealings, and cultivate good manners such as arriving in time for meetings, appropriate grooming and being polite.

Lessons life taught me
I have learnt to be grateful for all the opportunities I have had in life, considering what life is like for the average African woman. After every experience, positive or negative, I always ask myself ‘What have I learnt from this’? This habit of reflection enables me to work on things I need to change or simply, to cut my losses and move on. I do not encourage negative energy around me, and I do not take on the baggage of other people, when you do that, it weighs you down.

Women and nation building
I think that question should be how can women be better appreciated in nation building. Women have been contributing to nation building even before we became a nation. What we need is an appreciation of women as citizens with rights to lives of dignity and respect. We need to see women empowered economically, educated, present at decision-making tables and free from all forms of discrimination and abuse. Policy and legislative frameworks to promote women’s empowerment are key, that is why passing the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill is imperative. We also need to see implementation of the National Gender Policy, as well as the laws and policies we have at State level.
What makes you a Woman of Rubies?
I speak up about the rights of women, well above a whisper.

Erelu Bisi Fayemi is a Gender and Development specialist, Social Entrepreneur, Policy Advocate, Writer, Business Woman, Wife and Mother. She has a BA (1984) and MA (1988) in History from the University of Ife, Nigeria (now Obafemi Awolowo University). She also received an MA in Gender and Society (1992) from Middlesex University, UK.

She spent many years working on women’s rights and development issues around the world before she returned to Nigeria in 2010 when her husband, Dr Kayode Fayemi, became Governor of Ekiti State. She is the recipient of the 2011 David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership award, one of the most prestigious awards in the field of Philanthropy. In 2011, Women Deliver named Mrs Fayemi as one of the top 100 people in the world working on women’s empowerment, and in 2012, she was named by New Africa Magazine as one of the 100 most influential Africans.

She is the author of ‘Speaking for Myself’: Perspectives on Social, Political and Feminist Activism (2013) and ‘Speaking above a Whisper’, (2013) an autobiography. She also co-edited ‘Voice, Power and Soul’, with Jessica Horn (2008) a compilation of images and stories of African Feminists. She is currently a UN Women Nigeria Goodwill Ambassador, and recently established abovewhispers.com, an online community for women.In this interview, she revals her journey of speaking up for the rights of women.

My driving force
I have indeed spent most of my adult life working on women’s rights issues. I worked for AMWA, an international African women’s organisation based in the UK from 1991-2001. During that time I established the African Women’s Leadership Institute which has supported at least 6,000 women leaders across Africa, including women in Nigeria. I left AMWA in 2001 to co-found the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), and to serve as the first CEO. AWDF is an Africa-wide grant-making foundation which strengthens women’s organizations across Africa with financial and capacity-building support. Over the past 15 years AWDF has funded over 2,000 women’s organisations in 42 African countries. I left AWDF in December 2010 after my husband, Dr Kayode Fayemi, became Governor of Ekiti State. What drives me is finding justice for women and an equitable society

Growing up
I was brought up in a loving and caring environment. My father was an Accountant and my mother was an entrepreneur. My father worked in senior positions in the Federal Civil Service, and he always told us that on the day of reckoning, he would never be found wanting. True to his word, at a time when there was a change of government in 1979, a lot of his colleagues were rounded up for involvement in one scam or the other, but he was untouched. I learnt the value of contentment from my father, discipline, the right to speak up and be heard, community service, and the fact that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. From my mother I learnt generosity, solidarity with other women in need and negotiating skills.

Achievements when I served as the First Lady of Ekiti State
I focused on what I love doing, which is working for and with women. During the period that my husband was Governor, Ekiti became known for being a pace-setter State as far as promoting the rights of women is concerned. The 8 point Agenda which was the policy framework for Dr Kayode Fayemi’s administration included women’s empowerment and gender equality as one of the eight priority areas. This meant that Ekiti women did not need to beg to be included in policy processes. Through my efforts, there were a record number of women in the legislature, cabinet, and on boards and parastatals, as well as in the local government structures. In collaboration with state legislators, government officials and civil society partners, I led campaigns for the Gender Based Violence Prohibition Bill of 2011 and the Equal Opportunities Bill of 2013, both were signed into law by the Governor. I established the Ekiti Development Foundation which supported thousands of women, men and children across the state. Ekiti State became the first (and only State) in Nigeria to domesticate the National Gender Policy in October 2011. I was also able to advocate for the fast-tracking of the Family Court in Ekiti State, the establishment of a Multiple Births Trust Fund, as well as the establishment of a Social Inclusion Center for the rehabilitation of women in distress. It is a long list, but I will stop there.

Being the wife of a politician
The wife of a politician has to learn to be all things to all people. As I wrote in an essay last year, in honour of the late Mrs H.I.D Awolowo, about the role of political spouses, you are expected to be the main support system of your husband. You are a hostess, adviser, philanthropist, mobiliser, campaigner, counsellor, mediator, spiritual intercessor, the list is endless. The responsibilities draw on every mental, financial and emotional resource you have. I learnt to take everything in my stride and never complain, because I saw it as a duty and opportunity to serve. I always tell people that I consider myself to be a politician because I am concerned about the world around me and how decisions are made. Any woman married to a senior politician who tells you she is not a politician is in denial. The seemingly benign philanthropic activities that spouses of politicians engage in are all political strategies, and it is entirely legitimate. The level at which we engage might be different, I must admit I was very active politically, especially in policy advocacy.

There are no short cuts to success. You should be prepared to put in hard work to see results. Focus on the things that you love and inspire you. At a stage in your life, you might have to take on ‘survival work’ which is a job that you don’t really like doing, but it pays your bills. The moment you feel you are able to, move on to doing things that really excite you.

My Above Whispers Project
I have always wanted to run a story-telling project for African women. I have come across many amazing women and stories over the years, and people might not get to hear about them because are not rich or famous, yet they are powerful in their communities. I also noted that most of the content on our blogs and websites here in Nigeria is targeted at a young demographic. When women and men of my generation go online, we want to look at content which is relevant to us such as politics, entrepreneurship, financial security, health parenting and so on. I therefore decided to launch an online-platform that we could use to share information, news, stories and campaigns. I also want us to be able to use Above whispers to showcase the unique ways in which Africans engage in community service and philanthropy.

My Sisters Keeper’s Campaign
At Above whispers, we decided that we wanted to mark international women’s day differently. We wanted it to be about women celebrating other women. On March 8th,women around Nigeria, and in other African countries such as Kenya and Burundi, took part in the campaign through simple acts of kindness such as buying goods from market women without haggling, paying for the hair of another sister at a salon, giving gifts to or female colleagues, especially those junior to us, and so on. It was a phenomenal success online, considering the fact that we did not run an expensive corporate campaign. We have got very touching feedback about the campaign, and we will certainly run more like that.
On women living their dreams

Let me preface my response by saying that it is difficult to give advice on this because women are in different situations. However, as a general principle, I would advise young women who are not married yet to think carefully before they choose their husbands. A man should not just choose you as his wife after having met his own laid down criteria. You too need to have criteria for choosing a husband. Marriages flounder when one party has to minimize their own dreams in order to boost the ego of the other.

A marriage is a partnership. Have a clear understanding with your partner about the kind of life you will have together and what dreams you both have and how you will support each other. This way you build a marriage based on love, mutual respect and support. Responsibilities in the home can be negotiated so that you have time to pursue your interests. Sacrifices do have to be made at certain times; especially when there are young children, but there still should be a level of understanding that does not leave you bereft of your bearings in life.

Advice to women entrepreneurs
There are no short cuts to success. You should be prepared to put in hard work to see results. Focus on the things that you love and inspire you. At a stage in your life, you might have to take on ‘survival work’ which is a job that you don’t really like doing, but it pays your bills. The moment you feel you are able to, move on to doing things that really excite you. When you focus on something you are good at, your passion will shine through and it will encourage investors to support you because they can see you know what you are doing. No investor wants to back a failure, so when they see you are committed to success, you get their attention. Be professional in all your dealings, and cultivate good manners such as arriving in time for meetings, appropriate grooming and being polite.

Lessons life taught me
I have learnt to be grateful for all the opportunities I have had in life, considering what life is like for the average African woman. After every experience, positive or negative, I always ask myself ‘What have I learnt from this’? This habit of reflection enables me to work on things I need to change or simply, to cut my losses and move on. I do not encourage negative energy around me, and I do not take on the baggage of other people, when you do that, it weighs you down.

Women and nation building
I think that question should be how can women be better appreciated in nation building. Women have been contributing to nation building even before we became a nation. What we need is an appreciation of women as citizens with rights to lives of dignity and respect. We need to see women empowered economically, educated, present at decision-making tables and free from all forms of discrimination and abuse. Policy and legislative frameworks to promote women’s empowerment are key, that is why passing the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill is imperative. We also need to see implementation of the National Gender Policy, as well as the laws and policies we have at State level.
What makes you a Woman of Rubies?
I speak up about the rights of women, well above a whisper.

Do you know an exceptional woman with an inspiring story worth sharing? Kindly send her details to info@womenofrubies.com and let’s inspire and transform more lives.