Successful people always talk about launching projects and figuring out the fine details after. We hear this and usually never apply it, out of fear of failure. For the Feminist Coalition, we spent months planning our launch as a women’s rights advocacy group and yet our roll out was nothing we could have ever predicted.
It all started during a women-only party that Wine & Whine hosted for over 200 young Nigerian women in December 2019, where a friend pulled Damilola Odufuwa aside saying “this could be something more”. A few days later, Damilola proposed to Odunayo Eweniyi the need to create some form of grassroots movement that brought a community of women together to organise around the social, economic and political equality for Nigerian women in a more sustainable way.
While these conversations were ongoing, 2020 happened. COVID-19 came with an increase in gender-based violence in Nigeria and across the world. In June 2020 all Nigerian states declared a state of emergency over rape and gender-based violence and many concerned women, activists and organisations sparked online and offline protests and raised funds for victims and the need for immediate action grew even greater.
There was a sense of disillusionment and anger about the treatment of women in Nigeria and an even greater urgency to do more.
So in July 2020, Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi decided to kick off their idea to create a coalition of feminist women with a vision of a Nigeria where equality for all people is a reality in our laws and everyday lives. They approached other women who they considered exceptional leaders who were equally passionate about changing our country and the role of women in it.
Around this time, Ozzy Etomi was also thinking along the lines of how to make organising around women’s issue’s more sustainable and impactful for millions of women across the country, as opposed to the one on one cases that filtered their way to Twitter.
According to Ozzy, when she read the introductory email from Odun, at that moment it clicked that this sort of organisation was what she had been looking for.
Many have wondered how the founding members were chosen; Odun and Dami had worked with many of the founding members through their individual activism and through Wine & Whine, and so they had a sense of not only their work ethic, but that they were committed to advocating for gender equality. In addition, they carefully selected women who possess strong skills and expertise across various sectors. The shortlist had women who had done work across grassroots community organising, tech, media, public health, non-profit, fintech, gender advocacy and more. Most importantly, they carefully chose women with similar views on feminism and who understood the urgency in the fight for women’s rights in Nigeria.
During the first call, it was quickly agreed that the mission of the Feminist Coalition is to champion equality for women in Nigerian society with a core focus on education, financial freedom and representation in public office.
So how on earth did we get involved in supporting the peaceful #EndSARS movement?
On October 9th, going through social media like everyone else we were upset at the violence unarmed citizens were facing at the hands of police, especially as that same day a woman was shot in the face by a police officer — and we believed that without structure, the protests could turn violent and women would be the most affected.
“What I also know though is that if we lose this SARS fight, women will be the biggest losers still”, Odunayo said to Dami when we debated if we should get involved in the October 2020 #EndSARS movement. The women in the group all agreed and we set a one hour meeting for 9pm WAT/ 8pm GMT on October 9th to strategise and organise.
We’ve had monthly meetings since our inception in July 2020, but we had not started on any projects yet. We joke that this was a baptism by fire — We designed a logo, set up the website, got some copy assets together, set up our social media, set up the donation accounts, the request forms, the tracking sheets; Fem Co as it’s known today, was literally a reality overnight.
The meeting ended up running for 2 hours and the conclusion at the end was clear.
We would help crowdsource donations for the peaceful End SARS protests. Focusing on food, water, medical, legal aid etc. More details here (P.S. you need a VPN to access this)
The first night we announced the Feminist Coalition’s decision to play a supporting role in the #EndSARS protests, we started the pot with our own funds. As a group we made monthly donations to ensure we could tackle our women’s rights projects but as End SARS became our first project, we pulled some money into it. In a few hours after announcing our decision to support the movement we had ₦807,000 and by the next day (October 10th) we had received donations of over ₦5 million from well-meaning people who believed in the movement.
The support for the movement and the growth in donations was a shock to us. We had zero expectations. In fact, part of the reason we didn’t reveal the names of the founding members was because we know how feminism is perceived in Nigeria and we weren’t sure how much support we would get if our identities were known.
But Nigerians and well-meaning people around the world supported us and for a few days we all felt so proud of the collective passion and kindness Nigerians were displaying.
But a few days later, the reality of the country set in. We woke up to calls from well-meaning people letting us know we were being watched by security agencies and our phones had allegedly been bugged. We all left our homes to seek protection, scared, confused and wondering why a simple request for human rights was being treated as a national security threat.
This didn’t stop us. Many Nigerians were still offering their support and ‘decentralised’ was truly the word of the moment: Before Fem Co decided to support the movement, others were already on the ground providing food, medical support and more for innocent unarmed Nigerians exercising their constitutional rights to protest against police brutality. Our actions spurred more people on to independently help out wherever they could, providing support to fellow Nigerians.
It was a strange combination of feeling like we were making a huge impact, but also not nearly enough.
Over the week of October 11th 2020, we spent all our days working on different parts of Fem Co — from running our social media, to checking DMs to verify protests, paying bills and setting up a network of lawyers. We worked with other organisations like End SARS Response, Legal Aid Network, Food Coven etc. We were exhausted, juggling full-time jobs, motherhood, family and the paranoia of being targeted by security agencies.
Obbie recalls the seemingly endless overnight phone calls and the early morning statement reviews, the fear, the anxiety, the many glasses of wine. In the thick of it, we were all barely getting any sleep. Odun remembers sleeping about 2 hours a night because like all of us, she was now juggling two jobs — she still had a fintech company to run and suddenly Fem Co had become this fully formed organisation overnight. But juggling roles always means someone will be let down and Tito felt she had to choose: her company or her Fem Co sisters. There was no time, strength or emotional bandwidth to equally support both. For Layo, it meant taking on Fem Co as a second full-time job, sleeping at 5am most days and up by 7:30 again. Laila knew it was her duty as a journalist to cover the protests to the fullest extent and she wasn’t going to let anything stop her from achieving that. But she also had a duty to directly help peaceful protesters and doing both simultaneously was much harder than she thought it could possibly be.
Karo talks about starting and ending everyday with a phone in hand, even making food while on calls with the group, and still having to show up to other parts of her life. For her, Fakhrriyyah and Ire, being abroad, somewhat safe, made them feel guilty as they worried about the safety of the other women in Fem Co and also felt there was a limit to how much support they could offer.
But this didn’t only affect us, it affected our loved ones too. For Dami, seeing her close family members panic every time she picked up her phone or relayed a new update to them was extremely heartbreaking. Jola had to fight off feelings of crippling paranoia and anxiety, so as not to panic her parents. Ozzy recalls times when she thought in horror she may never see her son again.
The fear and exhaustion went into overdrive on October 13th 2020. But we had started and people were counting on us. We realised restrictions had been placed on the Nigerian bank accounts we were using and our payment link with Flutterwave was deactivated — it went into ‘maintenance mode’ and never came back up. Many people who had donated to us or received donations from us have also alleged and complained of restrictions placed on their accounts by certain banks. This forced us to move to decentralised payment platforms and only accept donations in Bitcoin using BTC Pay.
People often ask us, why bitcoin? As a group of tech-savvy women, some who work in the crypto industry, across fintech and also invest in crypto assets, bitcoin was a no-brainer. It came naturally to us because of the many use cases & advantages: remittance, cross-border payments, privacy and transparency to name a few.
Initially, we thought this would slow donations down in great volume. However, with a simple tweet of support and a retweet from Jack Dorsey, we believe we were able to encourage donors to both learn more about cryptocurrencies and continue donating. Thank you Jack. Not only have you supported us, but all young Nigerians who are pained and aggrieved yet awakened and determined to hold our leaders accountable. You lent your voice to the cause and stood with us, encouraging many to feel validated and heard.
While the support from global figures was encouraging, we had our fair share of trolls on Twitter — men determined to spread misinformation about who we are and what we stand for. You know who they are, you saw their vitriol. We strongly believe being called cultists, witches, insurgents, lipstick terrorists and being blamed for sponsored violence (when ALL our efforts were focused on the peace and safety of all Nigerians) was not only damaging, but dangerous. This put our safety at risk and encouraged the intimidation and bullying we endured for weeks from various authorities. We are a women’s rights advocacy group and our mission and vision are clearly visible on our website.
(P.S. our website is still blocked on a number of networks across Nigeria and is inaccessible without a VPN).
We remained anonymous until October 17th because of the valid concerns for our safety. However we felt we were safer in the public eye and by remaining open and transparent as always. But even revealing our names came with a lot of drama and career losses for some founding members. Since October 22nd, the day we put out our last statement around the End SARS movement, some private organisations (who were very supportive prior to October 20th) have cancelled work events with founding members and their respective women-focused NGOs because of association with End SARS & Fem Co. Ayodeji described it as feeling as though fighting injustice was a crime in itself. She experienced being bullied by organisations she was affiliated with, with demands that she desist any engagement with Fem Co.
The impact of this work on our mental health has been tremendous. As a group, we had a therapy session and each founding member recounted their fears over the month of October — struggle sleeping, anxiety, depression, anger. We were completely exhausted and devastated by the events following October 20th. Seeing so many people affected — family members lost, medical needs, people being arrested etc.
This is why although the recognition our organisation has received in such a short time has been remarkable, it’s also bittersweet. It’s great that we grew in such a short time and that our work is being recognised, but what started out feeling inspiring quickly spiralled to nationwide horror with the unfortunate violence in which many lives were lost, and that leaves a hollow feeling.
But we feel the Feminist Coalition and all Nigerian women who supported the movement against police brutality, have probably made one of the strongest cases in recent Nigerian history of why women deserve to be represented at all levels of leadership. We work hard, and we get the work done. Most of us were doing this while still working our full-time jobs, some while running companies, and also caring for our families.It just lends credence to the fact that women are still very much an underestimated and under rewarded asset both globally, and specifically in our society.
We always joke that Feminist Coalition has sanitized the word feminism for Nigerians. Kiki Mordi recently tweeted, “2020 was the year the word feminist was on the front pages of mainstream Nigerian newspapers and it wasn’t an insult.” and we all agree. Ire Aderinokun knew we wanted to incorporate the fist in our logo, which has become a symbol for fighting for justice, with something to symbolise the fact that we are a women’s rights organisation. But when she designed the logo, we never expected to see so many men having the female symbol as their avatars and on t-shirts on the street, and women who were previously scared to associate with feminism embracing it proudly. It was really quite a moment for us.
Since our October 22nd statement, we have done exactly what we said we would: donated funds for medical to End SARS Response (₦20,114,087.25), mental health to #EndSARSMentalHealthSupport (₦6,121,678.73) and allocated funds to the Legal Aid Network (₦15,741,459.59). We spent months researching and have now successfully donated ₦500,000 each to ~70 victims of police brutality and the families of the deceased, totalling almost ₦35 million. Our target is 80 victims before the end of the year (with a total of over ₦40 million disbursed). We will not be releasing their names for their safety. We also funded a memorial video for the many innocent people who lost their lives to police brutality. RIP to our fallen heroes.
We remain focused on our mission to champion equality for women in Nigerian society and on December 16th, we organised a food drive in Lagos, Nigeria: providing bags of food for 1000 women and their families. We provided bags filled with rice, sachet tomatoes, whole chickens, maggi, salt, face masks (donated to us by C.E.E Industries LTD) and bottles of cooking oil. The entire project — food for 1000 families, transportation, bags etc — amounted to almost ₦8 million and was possible through our personal donations and people who have donated to the work Fem Co is doing specifically for women (and outside of End SARS).