"There's been a lot of pushback on women's rights in particular. Still, I also see a lot of fightback from the young women, I read a lot of what people are seeing on Twitter, how people are fighting for these things in a place like Nigeria that is very patriarchal. That, you know, misogyny is very high. And I see the battles and I see the women pushing back fighting. And I'm like, you know what's maybe all is not lost?"

Funmi Balogun is the head of Humanitarian Action at UN Women, supporting some of the world’s most vulnerable women and girls - people who are displaced or refugees. She works to make sure that the humanitarian response does not perpetuate gender inequality. Funmi says her upbringing in Nigeria spurred her to fight against gender inequality - it’s something she has experienced in her own community. The rolling back of rights for women across the globe in recent years keeps Funmi awake at night.


Full Transcript +


Melissa Fleming  00:00

From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming, and this is Awake At Night. Today, my guest is Funmi Balogun from UN Women. Welcome Funmi. Thank you, UN Women, it actually has a longer name. What is it? Because I think it really stands for what you do. 


Funmi Balogun  00:17

Yes, it goes. It's United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. 


Melissa Fleming  00:23

And you had a section called Humanitarian Normative and Coordination, Action, Peace, Security, and Humanitarian Section. So big, long, complicated title, very simply, what does that mean? 


Funmi Balogun  00:41

Yes, I work for the Peace, Security and the Humanitarian Section, which is, in a nutshell, working to identify women and girls with the most needs, when they are displaced, they're refugees and all of that, and how do we make sure that the humanitarian sector does not become another site where inequalities are ignored, but that they are recognised and that women have to have certain levels of support that are different from men, when they are displaced and need assistance


Melissa Fleming  01:14

You're bringing with you some really relevant field experience from South Sudan? Do you bring those images into your your mind? Or is there a kind of picture you could paint for us that would be allow us to really understand, you know, the work that you're doing? 


Funmi Balogun  01:29

Yes, because as we know, in South Sudan, and in a lot of places where people have been displaced, what happens is a lot of men are not in the camps. So because they're fighters, they're still fighting. So majority of those who are in those camps and displaced settings are women and children. And we had number of cases in South Sudan, where most women faced violence, usually sexual violence, when they are going to look for fuel to be able to cook the, you know, the firewood, when they are going out of the camps, because they have to leave the camps, men usually do not leave those camps. Because also for men, it's a safety space for them, because of course, there's conflict, there's war. And if they leave there is the possibility that they might get into enemy hands, they might get into the hands of government, and all of those factors. So they stay in those camps as a security net, but the women and children have to go out, they have to look for food. So the women become very vulnerable to violence to all sorts of abuses. At the same time, they are not leading in those camps. They are not the ones who speak about what type of food, they're not the ones who are consulted, about what types of housing, they are not the ones that are consulted in everything. So what we try to bring to the top level, and then at the advocacy level is that all of those things are important because they do impact on the way that women and men, boys and girls access those resources and services that they cannot be gender neutral, because their lives are not gender neutral. That's not how people live their lives. 


Melissa Fleming  03:12

There is no ideal situation, because you're describing South Sudan, a situation where there is ongoing conflict, people have had to flee within their own country, what were you doing? And what would you if you could, you know, make miracles happen? How would those camps look so that women and children would not have to face those dangers and, and suffer in those roles? 


Funmi Balogun  03:36

The first thing is about how we engage them in terms of the leadership. So all of the decision making processes in those camps and the camp management in the services that are provided, how do we make sure that the humanitarian actors also speak to women, and that their needs are integrated, and that they have an accountability to those women? How are they receiving the services? What do they think of the services that they are getting, that women do have a voice that they are not just voiceless, passive, you know, victims who are just waiting for food. And one thing that we do as UN Women in particular is that we try as much as possible to support women in their leadership capacities. So even building the skills because when women have gone through so much trauma in a place like South Sudan, and they've had to flee several times, a lot of them have lived in the bushes. It's really horrible for them. So how do you build back their confidence? A lot of them, South Sudan has about 20% literacy rate, it's very low. So how do you provide the skills right now, so that when the conflict is over, women also get the opportunity to get economic livelihoods to be part of decision making, to get into politics? 


Melissa Fleming  04:54

Do you think that there can be peace without women at the table?


Funmi Balogun  04:58

we like to believe yhere cannot be peace without women at the table because women are part of the society, the way that peace is out, however, being negotiated. We think those kinds of peace processes are not sustainable. And they continue to lead to the exclusion of not just women, but certain people in the communities, you know, those living with disabilities, those that are minority groups, people that traditionally do not have voices. And so the way we negotiate peace is that we negotiate with those who were fighters or at the warring parties. And typically, women are not fighters and not warring parties. So women always have to beg and negotiate and try to engage in all of those processes. That is not sustainable, because it doesn't reflect the entire society. It doesn't reflect the needs and what needs to change, because conflict in itself is a result of bad governance, and that some things were wrong. So in a way, the way we construct peace processes that does not include women and other groups, it's almost, the way I see it, is almost like rewarding those who fight.


Melissa Fleming  06:16

I want to get into a little bit of your life now. And how you got here. So Funmi, you were born and raised in Nigeria, you're based here in New York, but you originated from Nigeria, what does it mean for you, personally, to be working on empowering women?

Funmi Balogun stands next to a young female colleague for a photo-op.


Funmi Balogun  06:38

It's been a lifelong, you know, it's something like I say all the time, the personal is political. And then the political becomes a calling and a career. I'm lucky to be in the UN. And actually, make my personal actually my calling. But coming from Nigeria, and being an African woman, I became aware, just looking at the society. Yes, you can go to school, but you cannot lead. Yes, you can be smart, but nobody wants to hear your voice. You have to be silent. And you have to just listen, when men are speaking. Yes, you are a human being. But then you can be spoiled, you know, sexually, you have to behave in a certain way. Because you're a woman, you mustn't laugh too loudly, your legs must be crossed and closed. Men must not look at you. And then to see the other side of it, the extreme abuse, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, just growing up as a child. I mean, I tell people, I don't know anybody, including myself that has not experienced sexual harassment, sexual violence, just growing up from male relatives from random people, the almost casual way in which women are constantly dehumanised, derided. And no matter what you do, you're still a woman, I don't go out after seven, whether I'm in New York or in Nigeria, because in my mind it's just not safe for me as a woman. And even at this level, that I have reached, to think that there are certain things that I will not try to do, because I just don't feel safe. There is no outright threat to me, but because I know what has happened. And I know what could happen, that anyone can come to me and attack me and raped me, because I'm weaker physically. And that's just it. So so that has been the driving thing that has pushed me and has become political, because it was personal, we need to do more, we need to be able to change the way societies and the UN gradually, of course, in my career, finally found myself in the UN, but it's always what I have done. And I tell people, whether I work in the UN or not that's just my life. That's, that's just that way it is, it will always be a battle to negotiate my space, to negotiate the spaces for other women, to be able to speak, to be able to lead to be able to do what they want to do, without being told what they have to do.


Melissa Fleming  09:14

Can you maybe describe what that time was like that moment when you realised you didn't have the same opportunities or chances and actually, maybe you were endangered.


Funmi Balogun  09:24

My mother was a single mother, because my father died early. So he's been dead for 48 years now. So she was only 29 when she was widowed. And so she had to raise the three children. And so I actually grew up with a very strong woman, so that gave me the opportunity to see the world differently and what you can actually do as a woman, even though it also made me see how difficult it was for her because she had to start from scratch. She was traditional. A man was supposed to do certain things. A woman was was to do certain things. And in five, six years, it all changed. So she had to


Melissa Fleming  10:05

you were five when your dad died


Funmi Balogun  10:06

yes I was five,


Melissa Fleming  10:08

and what were the circumstances of his,


Funmi Balogun  10:10

he was just sick and died. I think I was told maybe two weeks, and he just died and he was thirty six, my mother was 29. 


Melissa Fleming  10:21

What changed for you then in your home?


Funmi Balogun  10:23

it changed immediately. So that was one of those things about why women leadership is always important to me and women having a voice and women being able to do things for themselves. Because I recall, you know, how you have flashes of a memory. I recall, we're living in a big house, because my father was one of the earliest, after independence, and before independence, the few that went to university, so I was actually doing well. And we used to live in a nice, you know, nice, very nice house with a huge garden, I remember the garden, and then suddenly he died. And yes, people were sad. That was what we were told we had to leave the house. So that was the first thing. So we had to leave the house. And we had to move because my mother was not working. She had no money. And so we had to move into I remember some horrible apartment. And immediately my mother said, his group of friends came and said, How can we support you and she said, I want to go back to school. So they put money together and give her money scholarship to be able to go back to school. So she had to go to England, and left us two months after my father died, because she she just had to go. So she left and brought her mother to stay with us in this horrible place. And there was a baby, my sister who was just one. And so for 


Melissa Fleming  11:47

What did she study, and how long was she away?, and 


Funmi Balogun  11:50

She was away for one and a half years. So she went and did secretarial studies, because she needed to do something that she would come back quickly. In those days, people had secretaries. So that that was a that was always an easy job. You know, so she didn't see us for one and a half years, just as she lost her husband and you know, came back got a job, then we moved towns and then struggled, but to see her move from that kind of life and still make something of ourselves and of our children, but still know that there were still many things she could not do. Because she's a woman. I mean, if it were man, he probably would have married probably would have gone on in his career. But there was just so many things my mother could not do. So to look at a strong woman and see how society can make it hard, just because you're a woman, but also how individual choices can make the difference between practically having a good life of opportunities and access to having nothing, because she could easily have just decided that you know what, I don't have money, I can't send children to school. And that would have been the end of it. And we see so many like that, we see so many girls who are not able to go to school because their fathers decide that you know what, I don't want you to go to school. I come from Nigeria, there are still parts in Nigeria. When you do the analysis, you see, okay, South Sudan has 20% literacy rates. But there are states in Nigeria where the literacy rate is not more than 15% for women. So there are still so many women whose families just decide that you know what, you have to marry at 12. And that's it. So as an African woman, that's always a burden. But also a privilege to know that you do represent people, can see you, you can actually take individual choices, and you can turn your life around.


Melissa Fleming  13:50

That was quite a choice. I'm sure to leave three young children. Yes, for a year and a half. Did you ever ask her how she felt about that time and leaving you behind? And what that choice? how difficult that choice was for her?


Funmi Balogun  14:07

She said she used to cry a lot, you know, because she just lost her husband, on one hand, and then she's not with her children. And there was absolutely no communication because she had to go to the UK. You had to take the ship then in those days, and it was two weeks on the sea to get to London in the early 70s, which was what she did. She doesn't sit down and say I'm a feminist like I am. She doesn't do any analysis of all gender roles and gender inequalities and all of those things. It's just like, you know what, I need to feed children. My children need to go to school. I want them to have as much life as possible, as they would have had if they have a father


Melissa Fleming  14:47

And she never remarried.


Funmi Balogun  14:49

No, she never did.


Melissa Fleming  14:51

When was it that you started noticing I mean, she enabled you to to access education, but that maybe this wasn't going to be enough that all the possibilities for you weren't necessarily equal to all the possibilities of your male peers.

Ms. Funmi Balogun officially pinned Mr. Tewolde Gebremariam.


Funmi Balogun  15:09

I think I started noticing at about 10. When I was growing up, there were not very many women in positions of power. So you begin to know that something was not quite right, when you see that the world is is not fair. I have this thing about inequalities and poverty that just makes me unhappy. 


Melissa Fleming  15:33

Already, then at 10, you felt this, 


Funmi Balogun  15:35

you, you feel this and you feel like, it's not right. And I remember when I was young, I mean, and my friends tell me, you know, since you were young, when we were in school, you always said, this was what you wanted to do. 


Melissa Fleming  15:49

What did you tell them?


Funmi Balogun  15:50

That I wanted to work for women's rights. But I wanted to do it from the perspective of a journalist, because I was a very shy child. And that came from also being female and not been allowed to speak. I had very bad eye, so I couldn't see. So I would just see figures, I wouldn't know who that person is. I didn't realise that everybody didn't see the way I saw. I didn't know that. Because nobody took me to a doctor to check. So I never complained to say I can't see. So I became very introverted in class. I couldn't follow things that were written on the blackboard. But I could read. So English, History were my favourite subjects, because then I could bring the books close and read them. So I couldn't do math. I couldn't do science. I didn't because I didn't see. I didn't know what was I was a bit dull. In class, everybody treated me as the dull child. But I read, I read a lot I read, I read, I read. And I thought to myself, you know, the only way to influence the world is actually if you write, and then I decided that I wanted to be a journalist. So I did English. But in the, after I finished, I got the opportunity to be mentored by fantastic feminist. I mean, I don't think she'll call herself a feminist. But she was one of the first women activists in Nigeria who fought battles, Professor Bolanle Awe, she went to Oxford, very smart. And my mother was working for her as a secretary. So she kind of, I started talking to her. And then she kind of guided me and said, You know what, rather than be a journalist, you can work. You can actually make this a career. And then so she guided me, she mentored me, and then I got my first job. So that's all I've always done.


Melissa Fleming  17:43

I want to just touch back on something that you alluded to earlier, that women and girls are victims very often of sexual harassment or abuse. And that also you yourself had faced this and it's very personal. What did you yourself face and maybe your friends? And how has that influenced you?


Funmi Balogun  18:06

Yes, it has influenced because I think when we kind of when we talk about it, we joke, in fact, I have a friend, we were talking about it just recently, and she's like, you know what, I think we all need to go to therapy. Because we really did not deal with all the sexual violence and abuse that occurred in our childhood. It's from someone touching your breasts inappropriately, just as you walk by, just the feeling of helplessness, and not being able to do anything, because you couldn't in those days, and still with a lot of people not even be able to tell your parent, your mother, because then it was always you were the bad girl, girls were always as a tendency that girls will be bad, 


Melissa Fleming  18:55



Funmi Balogun  18:55

And blamed, you know, they are bad. And so they will be blamed. So why were you there? So if you say, Oh, I was working out and someone grabbed my breast, what will happen is nobody will let you go out again. So you then become, you know, everybody is watching you the sense that you just had to keep quiet. It forces you to think about the body, the female body, and what it means in patriarchy, the control of women's bodies in different ways by either disrespecting it, or giving it some level of almost idolising it it's so perfect is this it has to be covered up it has to be this or you've totally disrespected. And it's not up to women who make those decisions.


Melissa Fleming  19:40

And so you have a daughter? How did you bring her up with all of this, this knowledge then?


Funmi Balogun  19:46

My children are very they joke that they could speak about sexual rights since they were five years old because of... from when they could speak, we were always talking about autonomy and your bodies and how it's yours, whatever you like you do with it. This is how you negotiate your space with people, people must not come close to you this way, and about sex and sexuality. Because in Africa, in a lot of cultures, sex and sexuality is couched in so much myth that girls and women and boys too don't have the tools to engage in relationships and partnerships that are safe that respects them. Because nobody tells them anything, nobody tells them what to do, how to feel how to respond. And I remember I used to this was actually with my son, and I think he was maybe four. So no, maybe older. I said, Why are you not allowed to have sex? He said, because of responsibility. Just to show you how much I had drilled, you know, so it wasn't, this like, you can have sex, but you can't have sex at 9 or 8 or 10. Because it is like, because of responsibility, because you can't deal with the aftermath of it, because there are all sorts of things around it. So that's how I have brought up my children. I don't force a lot about academics. Am one of those parents, everyone says, I'm the ultra liberal. I don't fuss about academics. But I want children who are respectful, who respect themselves, respect, other people, will fight for people, who see injustice and they fight for it. Those are the values that I celebrated my children that will make me very sad if they didn't have, whether they past exams or not. 


Melissa Fleming  21:51

How  old are they now? 


Funmi Balogun  21:52

My son was 18 last month, and my daughter will be 20 in November,


Melissa Fleming  21:58

What would they say about you and your work?


Funmi Balogun  22:02

I think they're very proud of me, because I am also a single parents, and I have raised them alone. And so they have seen also the struggle. I mean, it's much easier for me than it was for my mother definitely, way easier. So they've, they've seen the struggle. So they they constantly say, I'm their mentor.


Melissa Fleming  22:24

So just back to, then how did you come to join the United Nations?


Funmi Balogun  22:30

I actually started my career as a UNV. 


Melissa Fleming

That's the UN volunteer.


Funmi Balogun 

UN Volunteer. Yeah. So I started my career with the government of Nigeria. And then from there, I worked I was one of the first staff members for the Ministry of Women. And I was also one of the first people to actually go and get a degree in gender and development. Then, I did the UNV in Malawi. And then I went back home as a National officer in with the UN because an opportunity opened and I went back to Nigeria,


Melissa Fleming  23:00

We're now living in a terrible crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has swept the world and the impact, the secondary impact of coronavirus is hitting people in so many dimensions and one of those is in the dimension of gender. Women and children are being hit by many accounts, the hardest in some places. How is this affecting you? And what are you doing about it?

Funmi Balogun is at a farm site with local farmers surrounding her


Funmi Balogun  23:27

Women have always born the brunt of any upheavals, they are usually the ones that would lose their jobs. They're the ones who have to take care of the children of the families when people are sick. When government come up with stimulus packages, they make them gender neutral. They don't decide that, oh, women are the ones taking care of sick. They're the ones subsidising the institutions, this is the kind of support they need to get. So on a professional, on a professional level, of course, those are some of the things that we highlight in the work that we do. Because at the end of the day, the mindset of public policy is still that men are the providers. And that so when anything happens, men should be prioritised. And so those are the kinds of things we want to make people aware of. And show the disparities and the injustice in the system, that men are not automatically they don't automatically think, for women, and even when they're not bad men. It's not like they're bad. But people think about themselves about what they need and about people who look like them. Yeah, that's just how we are as as people. women cannot just continue to suffer on behalf of the rest of the world.


Melissa Fleming  24:51

Do you think, are you optimistic, that there'll be more awareness that people in power might realise that we don't want to go back to where we were before? We could possibly use this opportunity to make change.


Funmi Balogun  25:03

Unfortunately, not. Unfortunately. In fact, what has really shocked me about the whole Coronavirus has been the response to it. I see if all of the work that we've done in 75 years and I'm using the UN as reference was kind of undermined in six months. You know, even those where we had made lots of gains, it was like, it was an opportunity to push back. It wasn't an opportunity to build back better.


Melissa Fleming  25:33

Is this what keeps you awake at night? or What does keep you awake at night?


Funmi Balogun  25:38

Two things do keep me awake at night. The first one is the how the reaction, the world reaction to Coronavirus has actually opened up all of the gaps and the challenges that we face. And the fact that negative nationalism is growing, backlash against women's rights, rising misogyny, negative masculinities, clamped down on human rights, you don't even hear people talk about human rights anymore. All those things that we've battled that 20 years ago, I would have thought 20 years ago, I thought to myself, you know, we had settled the why we were only now working on the how: how do you do it? What do we need to change? Now we've come full circle. So I get a lot of anxiety. And it's linked also to the future. So I think I worry about the future of the world. And I worry about the future of the UN. So that keeps me awake, because I expected that COVID Coronavirus was actually the opportunity, what the UN was established for. That was why we have the UN. That's you know, when we have a global crisis, we have something that all of us can fall behind. And to see how the UN is being undermined. And the negativity that has surrounded the UN generally, has worried me, what's going on? What did we do wrong? What can we do differently? You know, I thought we had settled all of those things.


Melissa Fleming  27:14

So anything you're optimistic about?


Funmi Balogun  27:18

Yes, you know, because once there's life, there's hope that there will always be change. At the end of the day, I believe that every individual, we have to continue to fight to make opportunities available and choices for individuals, that every little step that every individual takes to do something differently, that we're actually making progress. They might not seem like that right now. But it will be well, at some point.


Melissa Fleming  27:46

Is there any woman who gives you hope for this kind of, you know, path, that's kind of resilience?


Funmi Balogun  27:53

There's been a lot of pushback on women's rights in particular, but I also see a lot of fight back from the young women, I read a lot of what people are saying on Twitter, how people are fighting for these things in a place like Nigeria that is very patriarchal. That, you know, misogyny is very high. And I see the battles and I see the women pushing back fighting. And I'm like, you know what? maybe all is not lost?


Melissa Fleming  28:21

You blog Funmi, what do you write about?


Funmi Balogun  28:24

I write about life. Feminism, usually, that's like I say, that's all my life. So I've written about accountability as women leaders, how do we hold ourselves accountable? Because I think in a way, because we have all, we come from a lot of struggle as women, especially as leaders, we don't hold ourselves accountable enough. And the the fact that we lump women together all the time as if women are homogeneous, and we're not women have interests they have you know, there are very many layers within the inequality. So usually I'm sitting down and and then I blog, of course, it takes me a long time at times, I might not write for six months, because I just can't get anything on paper. And then at times I do six articles just sitting down.


Melissa Fleming  29:17

Anything else you do to relax and


Funmi Balogun  29:21

I do. That's the nice thing we live in in New York and living in Manhattan. I like to walk so I do long walks. I go to the park a lot to Central Park a lot. I love it. 


Melissa Fleming  29:31

So maybe I'll bump into you. 


Funmi Balogun  29:33

Yeah. I love going to the park. Yes, that's all I do. Because I'm alone and stuck at home. Every day I have to go out and do a long walk. So that's like,


Melissa Fleming  29:45

Is there anything in your personal life that you would have done differently? 


Funmi Balogun  29:51

I don't know if one can say diff maybe maybe my I can't even say that. You know My marriage, maybe I should have done it differently. Maybe I should not have married. You know, I should have done something different. But it just shows when you reflect on your life and you think, you know what? the marriage, it was always I could have children without marriage, nobody would take me to jail. But I thought I needed, I still felt that I should have a husband to have children. And that was the respectable thing to do. My mother tells me all the time, you're not the marrying type. I'm like, that sounds like a insult.


Melissa Fleming  30:36

Was she right?


Funmi Balogun  30:41

No, but I think she does feels that you know, am I do negotiate on anything I'm very, you know, opinionated, I do things the way I want to do it. I want to do everything. Because I feel I have reached the level where I understand my life, I understand my path. And I know where I'm going. And I don't want any, you know, so anybody that comes into my life has to either submit completely, or you know, have to be exactly like me. And just let me be and that's very hard. So that's what she means when she says, you know, you shouldn't marry, you should not be married. Yeah, I think I think my life has been as I'd hoped it would be.


Melissa Fleming  31:23

Funmi, thank you so much for joining us. Today at for Awake aAt Night. It was just such a pleasure to you know, listen to you to learn from you and to hear your remarkable life story.


Funmi Balogun  31:37

Thank you very much for having me. It's been a pleasure.


Melissa Fleming  31:40

Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of a major global crisis. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org-awake-at-night. On Twitter, we're @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Funmi is @funmib subscribe to Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. It does make a difference. Thanks to my colleagues at the UN and to my producers Bethany Bell and the team at Chalk and Blade Laura Sheeter Fatuma Khaireh and Alex Portfelix. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah, and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.