For activists working to advance women’s reproductive health and rights, this is a big year. It marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the landmark meeting in Cairo in which 179 governments adopted the Programme of Action, a new recognition that women’s reproductive and sexual health and rights are central elements to population and development.
Of course, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of the International Women’s Health Coalition, founded in 1984 in response to an American political climate that was increasingly hostile to abortion rights.
So it was fitting for us to both look back and look ahead with a panel discussion with three young women activists to assess the progress we’ve made and address the challenges that lie ahead for women’s rights.
Moderated by Erin Burnett, host of “Erin Burnett OutFront” on CNN, the discussion featured three outstanding IWHC partners: Sheena Hadi, director of Aahung, based in Karachi, Pakistan; Fadekemi Akinfaderin, co-founder and executive director of Education as a Vaccine (EVA), one of Nigeria’s leading nonprofit organizations; and Yvette Kathurima, head of advocacy of FEMNET, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, a pan-African network of civil society organizations based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Noting that Africa, and Nigeria especially, has captured the world’s attention recently following Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls from Chibok and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that followed, Burnett wondered if and how the attention has changed their work. “The country is outraged,” Akinfaderin said. “The government hasn’t done enough to bring them back.”
But, Akinfaderin said, while they keep the pressure on the government to do more to bring the girls back home, they’re also examining the root cause: “Why did this happen in the first place? It’s based on the way we value women, and the way we value girls. We are seeing girls as commodities, as the benefits of war that you can just pick up and go. Otherwise, if people valued the lives of women and girls, they wouldn’t have been abducted.”
Akinfaderin says the incident has ignited conversations about girls’ education, gender equality, and what the government can do to prevent further incidents like this. In addition to their coalition work with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, EVA is using the momentum to advocate for the passage of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill, which would address gender-based violence in Nigeria, including domestic violence, rape, child marriage, and female genital mutilation.
In light of this year’s ICPD anniversary and next year’s 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Kathurima noted “movement fatigue” among the African women’s movement. “For FEMNET, we’ve been standing on the shoulders of giants. The African women’s movement was very vibrant at a key given time, when we were advocating for a lot of things, including the Maputo Protocol,” which Kathurima called “the African women’s bible” because it promoted gender equality, established women’s reproductive rights, called for an end to female genital mutilation, and secured other critical rights for women.
But since then, energy behind the movement has flagged. “The vibrant nature of the African women’s movement is slowly dying out,” Kathurima said. “It’s almost 20 years after Beijing, and we’re still fighting the same battles. We’re still arguing that women have to have access to land and resources such as water, and now, technology. We’re still arguing that girls should have the same rights as boys to inherit. We’re still arguing that sexual and reproductive health and rights is something you’re born with—it’s an innate right. The sisters that were in the movement before are fatigued…and they’re getting upset because they’re seeing patriarchy winning. The systems that are oppressing women and girls are winning the battle.”
Hadi pointed to a similar backslide in terms of addressing women’s reproductive health on a global scale. “What we’re seeing is also a step back, in that women’s bodies are starting to become statistics again,” Hadi said, noting that governments and large NGOs are less focused on women’s rights to health and more focused on the numbers, such as rates of maternal mortality and infant mortality. “I think that’s a very slippery slope,” she says, “Because where we were a decade ago is talking about women’s bodies within the rights language, which is that women have the right to information, and services, and choices, and when you give them those rights, they will make better decisions for themselves—we’ve seen that the world over.”
Both Hadi and Kathurima noted that IWHC’s support has been critical for tackling both problems. To address movement fatigue in Africa, IWHC is supporting FEMNET’s development and implementation of an African women’s strategy for the Post-2015 Development Agenda negotiations at the UN. And at the local, grassroots level, IWHC is supporting Aahung’s outreach work to advance a rights-based agenda in communities. “What’s critical is that [IWHC recognizes] that local organizations who have dialogue and trust with the community are much more able to affect that change, as opposed to large organizations that, again, are sort of looking at the statistics as the more critical point of success,” said Hadi.
After nearly 50 minutes, the panel was opened to questions and comments from the audience. Adenike Esiet, co-founder of Action Health Incorporated in Nigeria, another IWHC partner, stood up. “I’m very, very proud of you,” she said to the young women. “When you say that the older generation is getting weary, I think we can go to bed if we have more women like you.”
Photo: ©Sean Sime