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Episode 3: FCRJ Leadership Series – Nyawira Wahito, RCWG

By May 28, 2024June 12th, 2024No Comments
Episode 3

FCRJ Leadership Series - Nyawira Wahito, RCWG

In this episode FCRJ Director Awino Okech speaks to Nyawira Wahito, from Resource Centre for Women and Girls (RCWG). The conversation explores what it means to embody and develop leadership skills and roles, as well as approaches to work and living well.

Nyawira is a Kenyan feminist passionate about investing in the leadership potential and personal transformation of girls and young women in rural Kenya. Nyawira brings nearly 13 years of experience in the feminist organizing space where she has worked extensively with rural communities around the country. Nyawira’s leadership and advocacy is anchored in the belief that when girls are given space to dream, ideate and be ambitious, they can truly live into their power and transform their lives and those of their communities. She holds a Master’s in Security, Leadership and Society from King’s College London and a Bachelor’s in Sociology and Philosophy from the University of Nairobi. Nyawira is an alumnus of the African Leadership Centre Scholar’s program and the Resource Center for Women and Girls’ (RCWG) Girls’ Empowerment Retreats. She currently serves as the Executive Director at RCWG where she leads a diverse team of young women.

Read Transcript

Lydia: Welcome to the FCRJ podcast, where we discuss topical issues at the intersection of feminism and racial justice, as well as engage partners and comrades in projects that we’re carrying out together. This series of podcasts is developed by the Feminist Centre for Racial Justice, which is hosted at SOAS University of London. For more information about the Feminist Centre, please go to our website, www.thefeministcentre.org.

My name is Lydia Ayame Hiraide. I am a postdoctoral research fellow at the FCRJ, and I’m so excited to welcome our guest for today’s episode, Benedicta Oyedayo Oyewole.

Oyedayo, you work around diversity, inclusion, disability, women’s rights. You’re an intersectional feminist, a human rights activist. I’d love to hear more about who you are in your words though. So tell me who are you and what kind of work do you do?

Oyedayo: All right – my name is Benedicta Oyedayo Oyewole, and I like to say my name in full for God knows why. But most people call me Benedicta or Oyedayo, any one is fine. And I like to describe myself as someone that lives and works at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. And these identities cannot be separated, and hence why I am popularly also referred to as an intersectional evangelist – because it is a reflection of the life that I lead as well as the work that I do.

And for the past two, three years, I’ve been working with Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative as a program of diversity and inclusion at the focus of the intersection of disability, gender, and sexuality. The major front of my work was the look at the roots of inequalities and this root of inequalities can only be disrupted through the intersectional lens. So, my work also revolves around storytelling as well as showing that people live and exist at the intersection of multiple identities, and it also calls for the need for a holistic intersectional approach to deconstructing the foundations of inequalities and patriarchal values and the introduction of Intersectional Feminism in Practice. So, like I said, I work and live this life, so I can’t even separate my work from my identities.

And I’m popularly, like I said, referred to as an intersectional evangelist. So, that is Benedicta. And when Benedicta is not all of those people, she likes exploring the world as well as traveling and documenting my experiences.

Lydia: Wonderful – thank you so much for that introduction to who you are and the work that you’re doing. And I think it’s so important to reflect on not being able to separate who we are the identities that we bring to the work that we do with the work that we’re actually doing and maybe some of the theory that we have around that work. Because as you say intersectionality is not just a theory, it’s a lived experience, and then it translates into the work that we’re doing.

Can you tell us a little bit about Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative for listeners who might not be familiar with the organisation?

Oyedayo: Absolutely. So, Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative is an organisation… is a women’s Feminist led LBQTI+ organization in Nigeria that focuses on the rights, well-being, empowerment of lesbian, bisexual, queer, intersex persons in Nigeria. And we do so through various thematic areas, such as research and documentation, empowerment and well-being, wellness and… Yes, so basically puts LBQTI+ folks into the realms of our fears of the nation as well as the world as we go for it. And that is, that is the definition we give when we go to other high political platforms.

However, I’m just going to say, we are championing and we are deconstructing myths and facts and busting myths and facts about LBQTI+ folks in Nigeria. And we are fighters. We continue fighting every day for our existence to be recognized, valued and respected. And we also are in court a lot these days. We are also now involved in high level political platforms through engaging with UN treaties, such as the UPR [Universal Periodic Review] and now the UNCRPD [UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities], which I’m probably going to talk about later in the podcast, but yeah, this is the definition. I will prefer to give rather than the textbook definition of women’s health and equal rights initiative. Interestingly, one initiative has been in existence for over 10 years in Nigeria, which is always surprising to people given the political climate of Nigeria for LGBTQIA+ folks to thrive, live, and exist. But we’ve been existing for that long, and we continue to thrive, exist, and flourish, and putting LGBTQIA+ folks in the map.

And, Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative also recognizes the needs and welfare of LBQTI+ persons does not exist – their identities are non-monolithic. We understand that LBQTI+ folks have and possess multi-marginalized identities, and it is very apparent in the work in the intersection of disability, HIV, sex workers, and we recognize this, and this is very apparent in the work that we do.

So, even within our diversity, we ensure diversity within our diversity, and not uphold oppression within oppression. It’s been a very tremendous and a very big moment of my life to have been able to journey with WHER for the past over two years… so yeah, WHER initiative!

Lydia: I think your reflections also on the kind of history of this work that sometimes we can get into the trap of thinking that these issues are new or that this topic is, is new when actually there have been people putting in that groundwork for a long time. These issues have existed for a long time and these communities that… this kind of work is defending… exist and have existed for more than, you know, a year or two years – obviously. So, I think it’s really wonderful that you bring attention to that.

Staying with the context of Nigeria, what would you say are the kind of most pressing challenges for, for doing the work that you’re doing in a Nigerian context?

Oyedayo: Wow… So anytime I get asked this question or this question comes up, it becomes very… somewhat difficult to answer because they are like, as well as our identities overlap, the challenges also overlap. And we have the political climates for the policies and laws as well as the indirect traditional and religious values that has now intersected with people’s behaviours and attitudes towards people who do not assume or position themselves in the way that society expects, such as LGBTQIA+ folks, people with disabilities, sex workers, et cetera. So, I would say within the work we do, one of it is in 2024, just in January, the president at the time signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act [SSMPA], and this act goes to up to 14 years imprisonment for same sex marriages and not just same sex marriages, it also prohibits opening of LGBTQIA+ organizations, even gathering, organizing, anything of sort.

But before 2014, it is also important to know that there are already state laws. We have the Penal Code and the Sharia law that exists within the northern part of Nigeria, which is ultimately death to LGBTQIA+ folks. And more and more recently in the news, there’s been like cases, like three people last year were sentenced to death by stoning, you know, like this year there’s been arrests of over 100, over 200, pockets and pockets of arrests here and there across the country. And I said we’ve been in court a lot because there’s also been arrests of over 24, of 24 LBQTIA+ folks in the nation’s capital of Abuja. So I think one of the greatest is the fact that this law existed and the passage of the SSMPA has caused more hindrances within the work that we do because it now validates people’s preconceived notion about LGBTIA+ folks and gives non- state actors the power, the privilege, or the leverage to do to do what they do to LGBTIA+ folks. And over the years, it’s been… there’s been lynching, there’s been deaths, there’s been … big trigger warning. There’s also been high rates of violence, particularly for LBQ women. There’s been conversion practices which can also come through rape – trying to rape someone to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.

So, this alpha practices has been made validated through the SSMPA. So, there’s also been public shaming, there’s been arrests, there’s been assault, there’s been mob attacks all around the country. And whenever you get there and you ask, ‘why are you doing this?’ They say, ‘ah, because means everybody knows that it’s bad. There’s a law, there’s the 14 years. Most people do not understand the nitty gritties of the SSMP. They don’t understand the sections, they don’t know there are five sections, there’s six sections… They just know that it’s 14 years. And, while the SSMP does not even say ‘don’t be gay’, the SSMP mostly says ‘don’t get married’, but it’s open to different interpretations. It is very ambiguous. So, it’s, it’s just like most laws in Nigeria. It’s… it’s so unnecessary and it’s very ambiguous. It lacks valid and in-depth interpretation. So, I would say most of our challenges are coming from the fact that these laws exist. Different state laws govern different states or tribes in Nigeria. And we have tribes in the northern part of Nigeria, which is governed by the Sharia law, which, you know, is in within their state law that is death for gay men, but it’s also affected by gender non-conforming women and other identities that are not men. So, we would say one of our biggest challenges is not just restricted to the laws and policies, but also the misconstruction of these laws and policies that now gives power to states and non-state actors to do harm to LGBTIA+ folks.

Most of my colleagues are masculine presenting and gender non-conforming. So sometimes it’s very easy to forget because, you know, your life is very bubbled up within the organization. And there are some times we just order Bolt – that’s the cab hailing service – and they come and immediately they start picking up a fight. Or, you know, they see we go out and people are looking directly into my, my colleagues’ eyes and telling her, ‘Are you a man? Are you a woman? What are you? I don’t understand you.’ They don’t render services. This is because of the privilege that we have because we don’t live in the rural areas… we don’t engage in the rural areas. Now imagine the direct attacks and the direct violence that are being faced by people who live in rural areas.

We’ve had a trans woman – God bless her soul – she was killed by her family members in her room, in the house she paid for, and she was buried within the house by her family members. And it’s been over five years and justice has not been meted to this trans woman. So, cases, and cases, and cases like that. The indirect validation these laws and policies gives to people, even when you report it, it just makes it normal. And I feel that there are some state actors that, even when there’s like a mob attack, they contribute to the mob attack. So, it’s a lot. That is the reality and the challenges we do face by living in a very homophobic, very patriarchal system.

Lydia: I think it’s also a reminder of how important this work is. It’s about people’s lives, about people’s safety and about people’s ability to even go outside as they are. And, and I think that’s so important to, to remember and reflect on.

Could you tell us a little bit about how you see some of the connections between what you were talking about just now with this kind of disability element of the work? Is it relevant to thinking about LGBTQ rights and feminism more broadly? And if so, could you maybe explain how you see those connections to someone who might not be familiar with that way of thinking.

Oyedayo: Whenever I answer questions like this, I like to just point out up front and say, as I’m sitting here, having this conversation, I’m not just sitting as a woman, I’m not just sitting as a woman with disability, I’m sitting in all my identities as a queer woman with disability. And just like I said, it can’t be separated, and it is very important, because if we are fighting for disability rights and disability justice. And let’s say we eventually fight, and we win and there is disability justice and there’s the recognition of disability rights. My queer identity does not get taken away from me and if we do not, you know, include queer justice within our fight for disability rights, that means that after we win the fight for disability justice we have to ripple back and start again and start thinking about where justice is, and that is why it is very important for us to work hand in hand.

Feminism in practice or intersectional feminism in practice is leaving no one behind. And leaving no one behind in this context is… feminism is the economics, socioeconomic and political empowerment and liberation of people, of sexes, of genders. And it is also recognizing that these people, sexes, genders, do not exist in silos they have and possess multiple marginalized identities and these identities can be based off the situation I’m born into. I’m born into a family that is not well-to-do, or acquired disabilities, or disabilities I’m born with. So how then do we intersect these

our issues? And also recognizing that the foundation of this issue is still patriarchy, is still inequalities that exist through the system. It is recognizing that in order to move forward as feminism, we need to, as feminists rather, we need to deconstruct these inequalities and all these patriarchal values or foundation, which is patriarchy and the system.

So, in order to deconstruct the system, there’s a need to holistically do it through an intersectional feminist lens. So, it is knowing that you’re coming as one. We are representing thousands of people who are also within the system, who are also fighting to be seen, to be heard, to be appreciated, to be valued, and to be respected, which include persons with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ persons, which include persons at war zones, which includes etc., because… I’m having a reflection about different wars and country inequalities that is happening across the world and seeing how women are disproportionately affected. Women with disabilities are disproportionately affected. So, my feminine values are not just written as women that exist within equalities.

So as there’s a need for us to look for ties, because there are always ties… and recently I’m working on the intersection of faith and HIV for women in Nigeria. And it’s very important for us to reflect on it and see there are women with this- there are trans women there are gender non-conforming folks who are HIV positive, who have disabilities. And people actually do come for in these trainings, in this workshop and consulting, and attest to these identities. And there’s something very important… that’s why I said storytelling elements of my work… there’s something that kind of subconsciously gives power to the other people. You’re recognizing the intersection within the identities. For the start of my work, it was really struggling to find the link within my identities or within my passion, but, coming to recognize that it’s all connected at the end of the day, it’s very important.

I mentioned our UNCRPD, which is the United Nations Commission on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and for the first time ever, WHER is part of the organizations responding to the initial report of Nigeria to the UNCRPD. And there is going to be a reflection of LGBTQIA+ folks with disabilities, we did that that alternative report or shadow reporting, and I think these are like very critical and very strong elements in finding links and intersections. And we all, through this process, we also get to interact with other UN mechanisms, such as the CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women], just to see that we do not exist in silos, we have these identities, and there’s an urgent need to challenge this framework that has been a stopping block to our work, which is the system. So, to challenge this systemic structural and systemic limitation or structural and systemic inequality, there’s a need to find links, because there are always links within the work that we do.

Lydia: I love what you’re saying about there always being links, I mean that makes me think of Audre Lorde’s work and this idea that we don’t lead single issue lives and therefore why would our work be single issue? It’s not the case and certainly your reflections from a personal perspective- I really relate to that as well as a black woman from a working class background – I totally relate to this idea that it comes from, first, a way of trying to understand your own place in the world and then reflecting on how that place in the world is shaped by different structures that affect people differently, but also that we can find commonalities amongst, amongst those differences too.

And intersectionality is a way to create coalitions and do that work, that is necessary to deconstruct those structures, as you’re saying. I think that’s a really beautiful insight and thank you so much for sharing that with us. I want to circle back a little bit to what you were saying about storytelling and maybe hear a little bit more about the role that storytelling plays in your work, because we’re thinking a little bit at the Feminist Centre, about creative approaches and maybe (quote, unquote) ‘alternative approaches’ to thinking about these issues from your kind of standard academic or policy based interventions -even if those things are extremely important as you’ve outlined.

What, what does storytelling do and how can we think about it in relation to advancing feminist justice and LGBTQIA rights and intersectional disability justice?

Oyedayo: I think last year -I had a creative storytelling workshop- and should I say the consultant at the time said something that really stuck with me and he said, ‘people don’t want to listen to your story. People want to hear themselves in your story’. And I think that is very fundamental, because stories have connected people from different cultures, from different backgrounds, people that you never think they would meet, I mean, look at us! yeah. So, I think storytelling is very, very useful.

So, saying it really briefly, as a child with a disability in Nigeria, it was very difficult to navigate, say, life… So, what I did was draw myself in books and more books. And in winning those books, I become the main character, even though my real life was a reflection of being a main character. And because I’m a Leo, I have a main character syndrome. So, to get to this, I become the main character in those stories I read.

And I think just at the brink of COVID 19, I realized that we say things like ‘avoid physical touch, don’t touch surfaces.’ But here I am, with my gaits being very shortened, with my cerebral palsy, I need to lean on everything, just in order to be able to function appropriately. And within this break, I decided to start sharing my experiences every day as a, as a person with disability in Nigeria, navigating life. I think people have the broad idea that, ‘oh, persons with disabilities are suffering, they are this, they are that’, but nobody really understands the intricacies of their day-to-day life, what it constitutes, or how … I just crossing the road, for example, for me, it’s very tedious. The zebra crossing, for example, is not functional here, so what does that mean to me?

So, I tell my everyday story, and people started messaging me through that means and saying, ‘oh, I’m a person with disability, but I’m shy. I’m a person with disability, but you’ve just given me, you know, you’ve just given me happiness to know that you’re sharing your experiences. And that’s what stories do. They connect us. They, they have a very powerful way of … not just telling ourselves, but also connecting us with other people who share within the experiences that we have and also educating other people who do not share in their experiences, but there’s an urge for them to do something about our experiences and they have the will and power to do so.

So, in the brink of COVID 19, 2020, there was this viral protest in Nigeria, the End SARS protest, which was a very angering moment for Nigerians to protest against police brutality for young people in Nigeria. And I was very involved in the protest. At

the time I just tweeted: ‘I’m a queer and disabled woman going for a protest today, catch me at the protest. Let’s organize.’ And that tweet had gone viral and that was sort of like my coming out online. And that was just the breaking moment and that was the start of the work that I now do now. Just by that single tweet, just by my experience sharing, I have now become someone that can quote the Constitution.

As funny as it may sound, but that is what the power of storytelling can do. And over time, I’ve gone to write very serious stories about myself. I’ve gone to write publications. I voted for the first time this year, which I wrote about as well. So just, just with a lot of writing and a lot of connectedness, and that is the power of storytelling. And we are whole stories. And I think it’s very important that I highlight that we are whole stories and there is no one that doesn’t have a story to tell about themselves.

The digitalization of the of the media has shrunk the space … in as much as I can connect to a story of someone in the UK, I can connect to a story of someone in Italy, and I’m here in Nigeria, it’s my hometown here in Ibadan, and I can connect to stories from people all over the world, and that is the power of storytelling, and that is how much within the work we do as feminist organizers, as feminist organizations, as feminists all around, very much.

So, yeah, storytelling really makes me excited. You can see the mood has changed. But yeah, I am grieved a lot by my own personal experiences and also the experiences of people around me. And I’m very grateful for words. And the capacity to string them together and form something beautiful out of it.

Lydia: Amazing. I think that’s a really wonderful note to actually close this conversation on. Your excitement about storytelling is exciting me. I feel really excited because it’s true that stories connect people and that’s even what we’re doing right now. And for listeners who will be engaging with this podcast, they may be anywhere in the world and being able to listen to your story and think about how the, how your story connects to ongoings in, in politics and in law in all of these things that shape our lives that seem like really abstract, faraway things, but actually are very real and very everyday.

And so, thinking about how we respond to stories, but also tell our own is, is a wonderful way to kind of reflect on the types of futures we want to create and the types of stories we want to write together in this work. So, I think all that’s left to say is thank you so, so much for this conversation, and I hope that we can carry on this connection and carry on hearing about your stories and, and stories that you’re connecting with elsewhere. And we’ll finish there. So, thank you.

Oyedayo: It’s been amazing.

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