As a part of the ‘Saluting Our Sisters’ theme for Black History Month 2023, Alumni Voices spoke to alumna, Olúfúnké Baruwa about her work on preventing gender based violence in Nigeria.
“I call myself an accidental feminist because my experience from childhood isn’t the typical African experience. I grew up with three brothers and though my parents didn’t go beyond basic education, – they were years ahead of their educational qualifications because I wasn’t limited as a girl. I spent years trying to use the bathroom like my brothers because I just didn’t understand why I couldn’t do that. My background has always been an inclusive and just environment. There was no discrimination in my home, unlike many African homes where at a certain age you’re pestered to get married. My parents never asked me, ‘When are you going to have a child? When are you going to have a husband? Oh, don’t travel too much.’ They just said, ‘Be anything you want to be.’ I was as good as the boys, even better – there was no discrimination. It was compulsory to have an education, even though my parents didn’t because their parents died young and they came from very humble backgrounds. In those days it was very difficult because mostly the women stayed home so they couldn’t go beyond a certain level of education.
In my case, education was sacrosanct. It was a given. There were no gender roles. In fact I could never remember really doing any household chores alone, it was distributed evenly between everyone. When people say gender equality or feminism was introduced by the Western world I say, ‘No I grew up in a home where that wasn’t the issue. It’s different experiences for different people.’ Our lived experience shapes the way we look at life and the way we respond to issues in the future.
Coming from that background, it was a culture shock for me to move into the work environment – then I saw the discrimination. In the office some of my colleagues would say, ‘Oh, you can’t travel on this trip because you’re a woman – we want the man to do it,’ so I would say, ‘Excuse me. I’m just biologically a woman. We all have two hands, two legs, one head, two ears – we’re basically the same. There’s something wrong here.’ When I shared my background with many people, they would say, ‘ You are the 1%. You’re an exception.’ That just made me know that there was something wrong and, rather than complain about it, I decided to organize around it.
Between 2002-2005 I was working in the Ministry of Policy Affairs and I found that I wasn’t given many responsibilities because of my gender and marital status so I went to the HR Director’s office to ask for the schedule of duties and have specific tasks assigned to me. Many of my colleagues thought that I must have been crazy but I wanted to do something meaningful in the office, not just earn an income at the end of every month.
I’ve spent the last 23 years of my life being that person who would always say women shouldn’t be relegated to the background just because of the biological difference that they have. That’s why I say I’m an accidental feminist because if I had grown up being structurally marginalized, you would say, ‘Oh, that’s what is pushing her’ but I just felt like this isn’t right. Women need to have the same opportunities and the same shot at life. I think that Nigeria really isn’t doing very well because of some of these inequalities. I’m an advocate of ‘An eagle can’t fly with just one wing flapping.’ If both wings don’t flap, the eagle won’t move and will probably fall to the ground – we are represented by an eagle.
“That just made me know that there was something wrong and, rather than complain about it, I decided to organize around it.”
That has always been my push because I really believe that we need to move from equality to equity and to inclusion and recognize that people bring different strengths to the table. We must be able to explore and exploit those different strengths, regardless of who or what they are. We need to get to that stage fast if the world is going to move in the correct direction. That, for me, was the best place to push my energy and to be able to give other people the chance at life that I got in this vessel.
From 2000-2015, I was working in government in the Millenium Development Goals Office (MDGs) (now the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Office). We were supporting the development and implementation of government policies and practices, laws and bills by Ministries, Departments and Agencies for the National Assembly on gender, on women’s human rights, on youth development, on healthcare and education.
The Nigerian Women’s Fund was an institution that I helped set up when I was in government, to invest in the political aspirations of Nigerian women after the 2009 election when we didn’t have enough women in appointive or elective office. This allowed women to run for office and mobilized women as voters and candidates.
In government you get moved everywhere. After 10 years I was moved to the Ministry of Communication Technology, as a Special Assistant on Policy and Planning. My work has always been focused on women or girls, youth, people with disabilities – structurally marginalized populations. My role was to develop a digital policy for women and girls to be included in the digital revolution. With the increasing use of ICT, women and girls were being left behind.
We developed a gender policy in education, where girls are not discouraged from STEM subjects. I spent all my younger days in Nigeria and I remember that as soon as you go to secondary school, the teachers naturally want the girls to move to Home Economics, or the supposedly ‘softer’ courses and push the boys to STEM so we had to change that to say, ‘Girls should be encouraged to go into ICT’.
But there was this gap. There was that disconnect that I had, and I couldn’t work out how to bring what I’d learned from university, from the programs that I’d done on public policy, into real issues that affect the people in our communities that I served.
“York embodies the spirit of inclusion and opportunities for all.”
The graduate program at the University of York was distance learning, which was what attracted me to it. York, for me, was the first real Virtual Learning Program that was focused on real learning, not just getting knowledge to pass an exam or get a degree. It forces you to answer important questions such as: What does this mean for you? What kind of impact or change do you want to have with this knowledge that you’ve gained from your time at York?
York helped me connect theory to practice. It helped me frame what I wanted to do, and I got a better perspective. My course at York -, Public Policy and Management – was really important because it helped me get an understanding of what I was doing and how I fit into the world.
Beyond providing the best academic experience for research, theory and practice, York embodies the spirit of inclusion and opportunities for all. This is because to change the world, we need to ensure that everyone has that opportunity to learn and give of themselves.
If you check my trajectory from the time I did the York program, it’s been excellent. It was that missing link. Some of the priorities and the things I wanted to achieve in the next 10 years were set during my time at York – I’m still on that course.
After York I was the Project Management Specialist for Civil Society and Media in the Peace and Democratic Government Office of USAID in Nigeria, which mostly focused on providing resources and capacity strengthening for civil society organizations in Nigeria around 17 different thematic issues. These ranged from health to education, to democracy and governance, women’s political participation to natural resources and climate change, disability issues, sexual and reproductive health rights and other social issues at the intersection of gender and human rights.
I currently work for The Ford Foundation, a US based private philanthropy foundation. The overarching priority now at the Foundation is to work with visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide and build a world where everyone has the power to shape their lives. We are doing this by disrupting systems to advance social justice because we believe in the inherent dignity of all people and that inequality is the defining challenge of our time. Our priority for gender, racial and ethnic justice is on addressing gender based violence (GBV) and our strategy focuses on prevention as a response to GBV. This is the first time since the foundation started that they have really focused on GBV as a priority – we’re one of the few organizations focusing on ending GBV.
The Ford Foundation works across three domains: institutions, ideas and individuals to find the best possible ways to address difficult challenges that the world faces. The main challenge has been how to balance that within the limited resources that we have. There isn’t that much money for GBV prevention and response as not many people invest in that area. Having to say no – even though you know that it’s a good idea but it doesn’t fit within your strategy or resources you are able to support – is an ongoing challenge.
There are a myriad of different problems that you’re confronted with as a human being – not just as a programmer. You have to develop that into empathy and put yourself in other people’s shoes. I’m confronted with the fact that there are no shelters or sexual assault referral centers in some communities and that’s a priority in prevention of GBV. Providing sexual assault referral centers or safe houses and safe spaces for women and girls, persons with disabilities or structurally marginalized people is in the response area of the GBV ecosystem. It’s been very challenging to balance the needs with what’s available in our strategy.
We need to mobilize governments but the failure of governments is everywhere in the world right now but particularly in Africa. The resource gap is huge because the social sector suffers the most, especially in a continent like ours where we have a lot of natural resources but management of those resources is the problem. Even though Africa is resource rich, we’re exploited every day by different parts of the world – we’re not even able to take advantage of the richness of our resources.
Governments are forced to focus more on infrastructure, roads, health care and education – but it’s the fabric of the social sector that keeps the people together. If you have a community ravaged by GBV, where women cannot even come to work or young girls are afraid to go to school, the other social amenities will suffer.
A big threat to the voice, agency and power of women is the patriarchal norms that are currently being imposed under the guise of religion and culture. Some of these narratives are not written or cut in stone as a religious or cultural injunction. That’s why we’re working with leaders of faith and culture and we’ve been interrogating several cultural norms and religious narratives – we’ve found that many of these don’t even exist in Islam and Christianity, it’s just interpretation.
One of the most pressing issues on violence against women and girls is the influence of cultural and social norms. Even though many schools of thought say, ‘Oh, this is in African culture. This is an African theme.’ Some of the issues like female genital mutilation in some parts of the country, yes, but in other parts of the country, no, there is none – it doesn’t exist. These are specific to different contexts.
“That culture of impunity is growing and, for me, it’s the biggest problem. The fact that people can do these things and get away with it and nothing is happening is instilling fear in women.”
The growing misogynistic movements in Africa, US and Europe poses a threat to some of the gains that we have made in the last decades or so. It’s a coordinated attempt to bring back the women who were submissive, who didn’t leave their abusive marriages, who – when they got hit – would be quiet and stay in such abusive marriages for their children or culture. I think the men who are the perpetrators of these practices and whose father’s enjoyed those days, want to bring back those days of the ‘submissive’ woman. In the last few years, I’ve seen the anti-gender movement pushing to roll back the gains that we’ve made on gender equality and women’s empowerment and organized institutions, including religion, are at the forefront of this movement.
Increasing poverty is also rolling back the gains because when families are pressed for resources, who suffers more? It’s usually women, girls and children. Many families are having to monetize their daughters just to get by, sending them off to work as domestic servants in unsafe houses or even given out in marriage as child brides. We see a lot of violence in domestic servitude.
Insecurity is another factor with the increasing wave of religious fundamentalism, banditry, and local militias, women and girls are at a greater risk of sexual violence, internal displacement, loss of livelihood, access to education and health facilities and even death.
Another challenge to preventing GBV is impunity and people getting away with violence. We do not have the resources at the policy or law enforcement level to deal with the surge in GBV. The number of rapes and sexual violence is on the increase due to access to social media and the internet. Some of these practices are down to a culture of impunity and people getting away with violence. We have law enforcement, politicians themselves, the political class and the elite being the perpetrators of violence.
When a woman says that something has happened to her, the first thing people say is, ‘What were you doing? What were you wearing? What did you say? Oh, she’s lying.’ That culture of impunity is growing and, for me, it’s the biggest problem. The fact that people can do these things and get away with it and nothing is happening is instilling fear in women. The way to shut women up as victims and survivors is to make sure that you don’t believe any woman when she speaks up.
This has not just been done by men; the anti gender movement is being co-led by both men and women – women who themselves are socialized to think that men are untouchable or are forced to perpetrate violence because of what a woman or girl says, wears or does. Many of these men and women are influenced through wrong interpretations of culture and religion. I don’t see them as the enemy, I see them as being socialized that way. If I was socialized to believe that I’m just a woman, I’m not important, and I should be subservient to my brothers or men in general, it’s going to take a lot to change that narrative decades after. I’m lucky and I’m privileged because I grew up in a context that did not enslave me to those ideologies. So rather than fight those with these mindsets, our job is to show empathy and provide the resources to help them come to that understanding.
The most pressing concern is that even countries that we used to look up to in the past as being democratically mature or forward looking are beginning to lose their moral credence. That is the worst. I’ve been on panels where men in Nigeria say, ‘Come on but this even happens in developed countries who have had a democracy or advanced human rights laws for centuries so why are we expecting too much from Africa? We’ve only been a Democracy for 60 years. Even in developed countries, there are rape and lots of human rights abuses happening there.’ This narrative is giving people ammunition to say that all men are the same everywhere. And that we cannot expect Africans to change overnight – we have 300 years to get there. How do you counter such narratives? That for me is the greatest challenge because the older democracies are not leading by example. The roll back in gains on gender equality is being encouraged by those who should know better as they continue to lose their moral authority.
In order to stop GBV we need to begin to attract a broader cohort of champions. We have to step away from the usual champions that we have. Usually we go to civil society and government, those allies alone are not going to help us anymore. We’re having a roundtable with leaders of faith and culture with old monarchical systems to tell them this is a problem. If they agree, we will put it to them: what do you think we should do about it? We’re not bringing the solution. We’re going to come as an empty slate and say, ‘It cannot be a good culture, whether for your religion or for your culture for women and girls to be battered and raped, or for women and girls to be killed.’
Last year was the breaking point for us – a woman – Osinachi – who was a worship leader in one of the biggest churches in Nigeria, was battered to death by her husband. We’re using her story as an entry point for us to speak to traditional religious and community leaders to step in and show that GBV also happens to ‘good’ women.
“Who better to help in dismantling social norms and cultural narratives than the leaders of faith and culture themselves?”
We have a priority to focus on locally led organizations because we believe that they are closer to the issues and they’re closer to the problems. They understand, feel and experience the problems and the issues. We work with womens’ rights organizations, most affected women and leaders of faith and culture on a grassroots level who have access to the people. The failure of governance means that not many people have access to police but you have these traditional and religious institutions who predate the colonial era, who have structures that people are familiar with. Who better to help in dismantling social norms and cultural narratives than the leaders of faith and culture themselves? Because they are custodians and gatekeepers of faith and culture and they sit in the realms of power that can shift social norms and practices that tacitly encourage a culture of violence.
The second part that we’re now looking at in terms of champions is the private sector. Here we look at how much companies are losing in terms of HR and capacity when a woman is brutalized in the workplace. Violence brings an economic cost to organizations. We are collaborating with the UN Women and WISCAR to launch a GBV Private Sector Fund.
In the past we’ve always eliminated or sparsely engaged these two groups (leaders of faith and culture and the private sector) from this conversation but they need to come on board now to end this ‘shadow pandemic’ that is GBV.
The Ford Foundation has also launched the African Young Feminists Plus Fund. Considering what’s happening with the anti gender movement, young people are targeted more online and offline. We need to begin to look at a crop of young people who can sustain the movement and continue the gains we’ve made – and they come with different skill sets. These young women have access to social media and digital skills. One of them just designed a digital app called ‘CampusPal’ for young students in universities to report violence. Another one is creating an app that provides psychosocial support for victims and survivors of violence. We are also working with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) who have the mandate to implement the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Law to connect survivors to community based first responders and ensure that government leads the fight against GBV.
There are many things that we didn’t even think of 20 years ago but COVID has made these things possible. Unfortunately, it also caused a spike in GBV because there was no opportunity for victims and survivors to escape from the abusers. During Covid the lines between work and home became blurred so technology was a way to breach that gap and bring support and response to survivors.
“Many people get it wrong because they look for the funding before their passion.”
The best way to come into philanthropy is to ask yourself: what are you really passionate about? It might not be a very popular thing that everyone is doing. I just spoke to a young lady yesterday who had spent five years as a classroom teacher in a secondary school in Nigeria. She said she wanted to work on GBV like I was doing. I said, ‘No. You shouldn’t do it because I am doing it. Why don’t you focus on what your skills are? You’ve been a teacher for years. You can look at enrolment rates for girls. Look at your experiences or GBV in school. What, with your experience, is the best thing to go into to make a positive impact in your community?’
Look at the solution that you can provide to a problem that exists in your community and you will never miss your passion when you do that. I looked at the structural issues that were preventing women from being who they wanted to be in the workplace. I thought that inadequate policies, resources and inequality were at the root of all the social injustices that women faced in Nigeria and I decided to focus on that. My work started without even knowing that there could be funding from anywhere. Many people get it wrong because they look for the funding before their passion.
People need to really connect their passion to advocacy, if there is no passion to advocacy, you’re just doing a business and philanthropy is not a business.”