This week, Pope Benedict XVI will make his inaugural trip to Africa after nearly four years as the head of the Roman Catholic Church. During this trip, Pope Benedict will visit Cameroun and Angola to make preparations for the upcoming Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops.
“The what?” you ask. We wondered the same thing and decided to do a little research.
The first Special Assembly, held in 1994, brought together Catholic leaders from throughout Africa to focus on some of the continent’s most pressing issues. Intended to be an “occasion of hope and resurrection,” the Assembly examined fundamental challenges to the health and well-being of Africans, including poverty, international debt, HIV/AIDS, ethnocentricity, and “the liberation of women.”
At this point, we’d like to ask our readers to review the list. See anything odd? As a group of Camerounian advocates working to protect the rights of women and young people, we take umbrage with the Church’s statement that the “liberation of women” is a pressing concern for Africa, on par with some of the world’s most intractable problems.
Is the Church suggesting women instead remain subjected to the entrenched gender inequality rampant not only in Cameroun, but throughout the world? We ask Pope Benedict XVI to enlighten us on the Church’s position on this matter during his trip to Cameroun, if so inclined.
If the bishops truly want to stem new HIV/AIDS infections in Africa, they must recognize that women and girls are more vulnerable to new infections than their male peers precisely because the “liberation of women” has not yet been fully realized. Young women in Cameroun between the ages of 15 and 17 are more than three times as likely to be infected with HIV compared to young men in the same age category. By the time these girls reach the ages of 23 and 24, they are more than five times more likely to be infected.
Girls and women are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS because they face violence and sexual coercion; lack the power to negotiate sex or marriage; have unequal earning power; and lack access to education, including comprehensive sexuality education. More than half of all women in Cameroun have been subjected to violence, and 43% have experienced violence by their spouse further increasing their vulnerability.
Throughout much of Sub-Saharan Africa, marriage has become a risk factor for HIV. The Church’s preferred HIV/AIDS prevention program of “chastity” and “fidelity”, reiterated by Pope Benedict yesterday, unrealistic for the vast majority of women who are unable to negotiate when they have sex or with whom, and is a dangerous prescription that threatens to keep women and girls vulnerable while the world turns a blind eye.
Despite the fact that abstinence-only education has been proven ineffective time and time again, these policies and programs have continued at the expense of women and young people. Why?
The post- Assembly report states that “The concerns of the Synod Fathers were all the more justified in that the preparatory document of a United Nations Conference held in September 1994 in Cairo – on African soil – clearly seemed to wish to adopt resolutions contradicting many values of the African family.”
The conference referred to is the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which took place shortly after the First Assembly. Hailed by sexual and reproductive health and rights advocates as a victory for women around the world, the Conference’s Program of Action, agreed to by 179 governments, asserts a woman’s right to control her body and sets global goals for achieving gender equality and eliminating violence against women.
The Program of Action also committed to reducing infant, child and maternal mortality; and ensuring universal access to reproductive health care by 2015 , including family planning, assisted childbirth and prevention of sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS. ICPD will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary this year, once again coinciding with the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops. Coincidence? Perhaps. But perhaps not.
We call on our fellow Camerounians, Africans and citizens of the world to make it clear to Pope Benedict XVI, that we refuse to relinquish our “African values” of ensuring every woman and girl’s right to comprehensive sexuality education; sexual and reproductive health services; and a life free from gender inequality, violence and sexual abuse.
Damaris Mounlom is a Coordinator at Femmes, Santé, et Développement en Afrique Sub-Saharienne (FESADE) in Cameroun.