Yvette Kathurima is the Head of Advocacy at FEMNET, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network,a Pan-African membership- based organization working to advance women’s rights. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, FEMNET coordinates advocacy and communication activities that promote gender equality and social justice and works to build the women’s movement in Africa. Before joining FEMNET, Yvette worked for the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF)– Africa Region Office, where she coordinated the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning (AWLN).

You majored in international relations and have a master’s in development studies. How did you first become interested in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) issues?

Initially, I was primarily focused on sexuality issues, HIV and AIDS, and gender analysis and women’s empowerment, more generally.  But after I joined IPPF, I became more involved with reproductive health and family planning issues through the network, AWLN, that I coordinated. I am now passionate about issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights as key components of development and women’s empowerment.

What do you think are the particular challenges to achieving sexual and reproductive health and rights in Africa?

It’s a mix of things. There’s the religious and cultural fundamentalism where even mentioning sex is a taboo.  So that impacts our advocacy, especially if you are dealing with what is seen as controversial: issues of reproductive rights, sexual rights for young women, especially issues of comprehensive sexuality education.  So whenever the word “sex” is used, sometimes it’s frowned upon because it’s seen that a young woman shouldn’t be discussing those issues.

When I was at IPPF, we had a publication called Happy, Healthy and Hot geared towards young people living with HIV. Government officials accused us of trying to teach young people how to have sex and encouraging promiscuity among people living with HIV.  But they missed the point of the publication: to help young people understand their rights and lead healthy and safe lives. I try to explain comprehensive sexuality education to policymakers in a simplistic way: we already teach young people about rape, so why can’t comprehensive sexuality education be instituted in the curriculum?  Sexuality education actually builds confidence in young people so they can make informed decisions about their health and lives.

So I think that’s something that can be worked on further in terms of how we communicate to our policymakers so that they understand what we are trying to say even as we advocate at the global and regional level.

Is it also a matter of doing more public awareness, and making sure that their constituents know these issues and that they demand these kinds of services and information? 

Most definitely.  FEMNET is running a project right now that is targeting cultural leaders in one of the counties in Kenya called Meru. The Ameru have a Council of Elders known as the Njuuri Ncheke, reputed to be very strong-headed men with patriarchal values and very strong ideologies.  But after engaging them in dialogues, it actually turns out that they are against some of the things that are being practiced in the community like female genital mutilation (FGM).  So this project is important for public awareness. At the community level, we’re able to impact these beliefs that are passed down from one generation to the next. In terms of public awareness, most especially in our African countries, I do agree that there is a lot more work to do.

And what about for you personally? What do you think is the priority issue in Africa?

Of course I have a bias to family planning because I have been working a lot on it, and you know the savings we can make on other development factors once we focus on family planning.  It empowers a woman once she’s able to control and space her kids to do other things in terms of education, in terms of development.  But I also feel like in Africa we are going back in terms of our agreements.  Like at the recently held regional review on ICPD, where we still had African policymakers debating on the principle of nondiscrimination, which is as old as 1948.

So at the end of the day, for SRHR, we need to make sure our policymakers are at the same level as we are. Because right now, we are arguing terms while they are arguing principle. There is no point of connection — we are moving in different directions.  We are arguing that women need to be empowered on their sexual and reproductive health.  And they don’t even see the importance of that in the first place. They say: “This is not African; this is not in our culture.” It’s like they’re going back to the beginning.

How do you get back on the right path so policymakers see that nondiscrimination and human rights are issues that they need to be on board with, and that they’ve made commitments to in the past?  How do you get them to refocus on that? 

It’s a huge undertaking.  Right now we are just thinking of ways we can work with the policymakers we already know so that they can influence other policymakers.  But in terms of what we can do so far is to continue our consultations.  So far we’ve been speaking to civil society because it’s within our sphere of influence and control.  Working with governments, of course, has its own complex challenges.

Is it a matter of connecting economic development issues with family planning and maternal health issues?  Is it making it important to policymakers by connecting them? 

One argument that has been gathering momentum among some policymakers is climate change and the impact a large population has on the environment and social services like health and education.  Especially when you show that one dollar invested in family planning can save even more in government spending on health and education.  They see the fiscal sense in that.

But as women’s rights advocates, that’s not the only argument we want them to have.  It’s a woman’s right to be able to choose how many children she has and how to space them, because at the end of the day, it impacts her development.

This is about a woman’s right to autonomy.  It’s about her decision that she doesn’t have to consult her husband when she wants to take a family planning method, because ultimately she’s the one to bear the pregnancy and then take care of the child.

What do you hope for the future?  What your vision for a better world or a better Africa? 

That’s a nice question.  Sometimes it feels like when you take two steps forward, you’re taking five steps back. My vision is a world where equality is respected regardless of gender, regardless of age, regardless of race—all these intersectionalities that impact a person’s development. My vision is that all these inequalities would be erased and we have equality between men and women.  Because that’s the oldest, if I could say, fight that we’ve had in development: it’s how to ensure that men and women feel that they have equal opportunities.  They feel that they have equal space to pursue those opportunities from throughout their household to as big as making decisions on behalf of the state.

So if I take that down to Africa, we see more African women presidents, more women in decision-making roles.  My vision is one where girls are inspired and motivated to pursue education and to deliver the best of their abilities.

Follow Yvette on Twitter @wamburay and FEMNET @FEMNETProg.