Sexual Health and Rights Conference Tackles Harmful Traditional Practices in Africa

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 6th African Conference on Sexual Health and Rights (ACSHR) held in Yaoundé, Cameroon, from February 3-7, 2014. IWHC has supported this conference since its inception in 2002 by the African Federation on Sexual Health and Rights, chaired by our longtime Nigerian partner Dr. Uwem Esiet of Action Health Incorporated. This year’s conference was hosted by another IWHC partner, Women in Alternative Action (WAA), based in Cameroon. The conference is one of the few opportunities for stakeholders to gather to exchange information and ideas on effective strategies for addressing sexual and reproductive health and rights in Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for over half of the 800 maternal deaths that occur globally each day. The region’s rate of unsafe abortion is the highest in the world due to restrictive policies and lack of access to safe and legal abortion services. More than 45 percent of African women and girls experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Thirteen million African girls under 18 are married—often to much older men—increasing their risks of early child-bearing, HIV, persistent poverty, and domestic violence. And over 4 million young people in Africa are living with HIV.

The African Conference on Sexual Health and Rights presents an opportunity to propose strategies to improve these negative health indicators and shift the culture of silence on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The conference theme was “Eliminating Girl’s and Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Vulnerabilities in Africa,” and included a special focus on harmful traditional practices. Panelists and conference participants agreed with Kate Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, who stated in her keynote address that “all ‘traditions’ that demean, dehumanize, and injure are human rights violations that must be actively opposed until they are ended,” whether these traditions be harmful practices like female genital mutilation and child marriage, or the use of cultural arguments to limit access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, especially for adolescent girls.

In addition to supporting the conference as a whole, IWHC cosponsored a panel on tackling the problem of child marriage in Africa with the Girls Not Brides network. Worldwide and in Africa, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the primary cause of death amongst girls aged 15-19.

Child marriage also curtails a girl’s education and her prospects for economic autonomy, and places her in a situation where she has little power to negotiate safe sex, and to escape domestic violence. Her own daughters are likely to face similar pressure to marry young, repeating the cycle of early pregnancy, illiteracy, poverty, and abuse. The practice of child marriage has major consequences for girls’ overall health, including their mental health, but it is particularly deadly when it comes to girls’ sexual and reproductive health. Girls and young women in Africa are up to six times more likely to become HIV-positive than boys their age.

The child marriage panel, moderated by Gladys Viban, WAA-Cameroon’s Chair of the Board, started off with a presentation by Friday Okonofua, a Program Officer with the Ford Foundation. Okonofua gave an overview of foundation’s recently published report: Mapping Early Marriage in West Africa: A Scan of Trends, Interventions, What Works, Best Practices and the Way Forward. The report provides recommendations to end child marriage on three levels – law and rights, policy and institutional frameworks, and programs, projects and actions. Okonofua also called for other donors to invest in research and documentation to add to the growing body of evidence of effective solutions to inform policy advocacy to end child marriage.

Aissa Doumara, from IWHC partner ALVF (Association for the Struggle Against Violence Against Women), spoke about her organization’s multilevel approach to ending child marriage in Cameroon. They work to reform the education system and enforce policies that make it more difficult for parents to marry off their young daughters. ALVF also works at the community level to shift gender norms and gain acceptance for women and girls’ rights, particularly the right to decide when and whom to marry. As a service provider, ALVF delivers sexuality education and girls’ leadership programs as part of its strategy to stem child marriage, and works directly with survivors of child marriage. For example, in 2001 ALVF helped a group of survivors of child marriage who received counselling at their center to form the group APAD (Association for the Promotion of the Independence and Rights of the Girl Child) to support each other and promote the empowerment of survivors of child marriage in the region. APAD became an independent organization in 2009 with a first-time grant from IWHC.

The panel also featured the Queens for Peace, an initiative of WAA-Cameroon that brings together the wives of traditional leaders from Cameroon’s 10 regions to influence their husbands to champion the rights of their community members, particularly on the issue of ending child marriage.

At the conference, we also had the opportunity to hear from another IWHC partner, FESADE (Women, Health & Development), which presented on a panel on comprehensive sexuality education. FESADE made the case for sexuality education as a response to the poor health indicators among adolescent girls in Cameroon and discussed their efforts to integrate their comprehensive sexuality education curriculum into Cameroon’s public school system. (Pictured above is FESADE staff at the conference with IWHC Program Officer Frederica Stines, second from left. From left to right: Josianne Mpot, Frederica Stines, Marthe R. Alima Ngoumou, Valerie Gystiane Tsemo, and Damaris Mounlom.)

Many of these issues remain highly taboo in the region, and the conference represents an important space for African activists to come together in solidarity and discuss new strategies and innovative practices to address these issues in their local contexts. This year’s conference was important for another reason: for the first time, it was held in a Francophone country, representing an enormous opportunity to bring the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls in French-speaking Africa to the attention of governments, international donors, and other stakeholders engaged in these issues in the region. And for that, it was a success. Our Cameroonian partners used the conference to meet and network with other advocates and activists working on similar issues throughout different regions in Africa and learn from their experiences and best practices to better educate and engage the public and government officials.

There is still much work to be done, but conferences like these motivate and inspire attendees to continue this important work.

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