This is the second interview in a three-part series with FAR allies who have participated in our previous webinars.
*This is a shortened and lightly edited version of the full interview. Read the full interview with Buky Williams here.
Buky Williams: My name is Buky Williams. I am the Executive Director of Education as a Vaccine. It is a nonprofit organization in Nigeria and we work to advance rights to health and freedom from violence for adolescents and young people. And we do that in three ways by building the capacity of young people to advocate for themselves and provide services to their peers. To push for access to youth-friendly services either by the government or in the programs that we do, and then to influence policy either at the national, regional and local level.
How has the Nigerian government slowed down progress on women’s human rights and how do feminists combat this?
So in terms of women’s rights, what we’ve seen from the government is really lip service. You hear speeches from the president saying that we really just care about affirmative action and he supports the 35% of women in leadership positions either appointed or elected. But the truth of the matter is when you actually look, does the rhetoric match the investment? Have we actually seen the implementation of women being in leadership? So for example, if you look at the presidential task force on COVID-19, there was maybe one woman who was there in terms of high level representation. If you look at the development of a recovery plan, there’s really no clear understanding of the gender impacts of the pandemic on women and girls. So, they say they care but the proof of showing that they care is not really there.
Like you said, the government does not actually do anything [to advance women’s human rights], so how do feminists create this outcry to pressure the government to do so?
For at least my generation, we are considered like middle age women, we are definitely building on the work that older women have done. You know, advancing legal rights, strategic litigation, pushing for the recognition of women’s rights, even though the constitution is very much gender blind. We’re really ensuring that women are part of the constitution, really pushing for Nigeria to domesticate laws, like CEDAW for example. We’re providing services, setting up sexual assault referrals, doing empowerment activities, and really just filling gaps in terms of what is being provided from the government. We are ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health services, not just in terms of reproductive health, which is always the main focus, but really looking at sexual health as well: even though it can be a controversial issue, we’re really trying to push for access to safe abortion. We’re looking at the issues of LGBTQI women more and more. It is really exciting to see more LGBTQI women step up. Young women are using technology, including social media, to have conversations around feminism and women’s rights in Nigeria. Women’s rights activists of all generations continue to in the spaces in which they work and in the spaces in which they live find ways to speak truth to power, to challenge authority, to support each other, to develop interventions and address these issues.
Can you talk a little bit about how the #EndSARS movement changed as a result of the Feminist Coalition’s involvement?
It was really amazing to see these young women come together. One of the things that the Feminist Coalition did really powerfully was to say clearly that [police brutality] doesn’t only affect young men. For example, female sex workers have been facing a lot of harassment in the state capital. Many of them have mentioned being harassed, raped, and arrested. So there had been really big protests and rallies around those issues. What the Feminist Coalition was able to do was bring the focus on what the issues were, tell these stories, fundraise in a very real and coordinated manner and then disseminate that level of support to [activists] in the different States where it was happening. It was really a powerful and strong way of showing women organizing and mobilizing, and the fact that we are constantly in this mode, not just to survive but also to thrive. They were also providing legal support as well as when people were getting arrested, they were able to get lawyers to them. They were able to provide medical support. And because of that, they were targeted by the government. They were targeted when they wanted to be inclusive in their messaging.
When the LGBTQI community started talking about the ways in which they were being similar targeted by this unit and by police brutality, the reaction of some was that mentioning LGBTQI would derail the conversation and that it was going to make it difficult for people to join and understand the movement. It was like, “Let’s deal with this issue and then we’ll get to women and LGBTQI [people] later”. I think [feminists] did a really great job of ensuring that it wasn’t just a movement about young men and of avoiding replicating patriarchal structures within supposedly progressive movements.
Can you talk a little bit more about how specifially the LGBTQI community has changed the feminist movement what goals they’ve brought to the table?
The critical thing that LGBTQ women have brought is the fact that they need to be part of this movement. There’s no, ifs, buts, or ands in our feminism. We often want to leave them out, but I think it’s quite important that what they’ve been able to do is been able to show the many ways in which our oppressions are linked and connected. I think one of the things that has been useful for me personally to be able to be in solidarity LGBTQ women and being in movement with them is the understanding and the ability to mobilize in restrictive contexts. They’re able to advance the conversation around human rights and use media to be able to share stories and to be able to show that in many ways when we talk about gay people in Nigeria, they’re referred to as nouns. They’re referred to as, “that person who doesn’t exist on my radar as a person whose humanity should be respected”. And I think what they’ve done is challenged that. To be able to be like, “I’m a mom, I’m a sister, I’m a cousin, I’m a friend, I am your colleague”. They’ve shown that our freedom as a country, our ability to speak to our human rights, really requires us to stay engaged in those conversations even when people don’t want to do it. I think it’s really critical that feminism in Nigeria really does take on an intersectional approach and understand that we are not limited by culture and religion, but that we can use culture and religion as ways to turn this conversation on its head and challenge this whole moral, patriarchal, capitalist structures that wants to restrict our understanding of ourselves, our cultures, and how we see ourselves as women in a country like Nigeria.