I Believe in an Africa fit for Women and Girls

I believe in an Africa that is fit for women and girls; that protects their well-being and creates a supportive environment for them to realise their aspirations. As I look at the work done by African states in pursuit of gender equality, I am convinced that the continent is either on course for another dismal episode in the empowerment of women, or it’s on the brink of a women’s rights revolution.

The failure of African leadership in safeguarding the rights of women thus far has resulted in a sad state of affairs, where being a young African woman is perhaps the most perilous form of identity in the continent.

Young African women are at the receiving end of harmful traditional practices such as child marriage, female genital mutilation and girl-pledging which take away their autonomy and put their health at risk. These practices put them at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and are partly the reason why the complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death of young women aged 15-19 years in the Africa.

Practices such as child marriage leave girls vulnerable to violence, too, with child brides more at risk of domestic and sexual abuse than their unmarried peers.

Africa must do right by its young women, who represent more than just a vulnerable demographic, but the very avenue through which African nations can achieve seemingly elusive development goals. We know that when we invest in girls the benefits will be felt by her family and wider community. For every extra year in secondary school, girls can earn up to 25 percent more in adulthood. Educated, empowered girls have babies when it is safer for their bodies to bear them and are more able to negotiate safe sexual relations with their partners.

Having attended the 20th African Union Summit in Ethiopia this year, I believe that there is growing recognition that Africa’s progress will be directly determined by how well it performs in improving the lives of its women and girls. On the side-lines of the Summit, His Excellency Mr. Bon Yayi, President of the Republic of Benin, hosted an event for African Heads of State on ‘Reinforcing the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa’. Speakers  outlined three key steps to reduce maternal mortality on the continent: providing comprehensive sexuality education, ensuring affordable access to antenatal care for expecting mothers and the elimination of child marriage.

I believe it is our role as young Africans to pressure our leaders to turn these discussions into concrete action plans that secure the health of African mothers. In my view, the most important aspect needing intervention is child marriage, which serves as a cornerstone to ending maternal mortality and violence against girls and women. Indeed, a recent study by Professor Anita Raj and the University of California San Diego found that a 10% reduction in child marriage could be associated with a 70% reduction in a country’s maternal mortality rates.

To end child marriage, countries must move beyond the comfort of discussion to introducing and enforcing the globally agreed minimum age of marriage of 18. With the existence of dual legal systems in most of our countries, leaders must ensure enforcement across these systems especially in the case of traditional laws which are mostly used to justify the practice. Stricter penalties must be dealt to offenders, including the introduction of steep fines that should be channelled to programmes meant to rehabilitate existing child brides.

All this will require revolutionary leadership that defies existing norms and creates sustainable mechanisms to ensure justice for women and girls. The theme for Day of the African Child 2013 is “Eliminating Harmful Social and Cultural Practices affecting Children: Our Collective Responsibility”. The concept of “Our Collective Responsibility” is particularly relevant as ending child marriage will require partnership across civil society, governments, regional bodies like the African Union and community leaders.

Day of the African Child offers the opportunity for African leaders to state their commitment to address child marriage and other practices that have harmful consequences for children across Africa. A great place to start would be for African leaders to commit to enacting and enforcing minimum age of marriage laws.

As African youth we are taking the lead in the hope that by standing up for our mothers’ and sisters’ health rights, our continent’s leaders will be driven to act decisively on behalf of its women. As young citizens of the continent we are calling on our leaders to finally spark a women’s rights revolution.

Yemurai Nyoni is  a 23 year old youth advocate on sexual and reproductive health from Zimbabwe.

 

 

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Let’s Talk Abortion

By Naisola Likimani

Let’s put the facts on the table. Evidence shows that abortion has been happening for centuries, way before the pro choice movement. Wherever sex exists, there will be unplanned pregnancy, because even contraception does not work 100% of the time, there is forced/unwanted/violent sex that takes away women’s choice to get pregnant or not, etc.

Additionally in African society there is reluctance to acknowledge that sex even takes place, so we rarely provide young people and women in particular information about sexual and reproductive health, therefore they are unable to make informed choices. Then most of our women (78%) who need contraception do not have access to it, either because of poverty, because it is not provided, or they are not empowered to make that choice.

Therefore when unplanned or unwanted pregnancies happen, some will want to terminate those pregnancies. Either it will happen safely or in a kiosk somewhere with an untrained person. Our middle/upper class women can and do procure safe abortion in private clinics, for themselves and their daughters when needed. It is our poor women, our rural women, our young women who cannot afford this, and resort to very desperate measures. Women do not resort to sticking hangars in themselves or drinking bleach out of a whimsical, thoughtless decision. Let’s give them at least that respect. Research shows that all kinds of women seek abortions for all kinds of reasons, and it is incorrect to say only immoral, promiscuous women seek abortions. I can tell you many heartbreaking stories including of girls raped by fathers or other relatives who ended up with unsafe abortions, injured for life. I believe we should take our religious and moral battlefield somewhere else, not on women’s bodies. Because it is resulting in about 30,000 African women dying every year and millions of injuries from unsafe abortion, while we continue to have this debate from the safety and luxury of our homes, churches and computers.

Everyone is entitled to their belief. But no one has the right to tell someone else what to do with their own body, based on that belief. The women getting abortions in Africa are also Christians, Muslims. They are people we know and love. Let them negotiate their choices with people they trust, yes, including their god. For the rest of us, let us work to make a society where women do not have to result to desperate measures to end a pregnancy. There’s a lot we can do including preventing unplanned pregnancy. But arguing over whether abortion is morally or religiously right or wrong is the most futile of all efforts. It has never and will never stop women from seeking abortions (including churchgoing women). All it does is keep people distracted and misinformed while women continue to die in large numbers.

PS. The restrictive abortion laws we have in Africa were inherited from our colonizers. Those countries have ALL since changed their laws and now no woman dies from abortion in developed countries. Meanwhile Africa continues to have almost half of all maternal deaths from unsafe abortion in the world. As Africans we should be very concerned about the imperialist nature of some of the anti-choice campaigners from the North. They live in a society where women have choice, but is it that Africans cannot make their own choices too? Why are people so comfortable with death, poverty and poor quality of life for Africans?

Naisola Likimani is a campaigner for African women’s rights. Connect with her @NaisolaL.