Everyone Counts!

By Mtisunge Kachingwe, YWCA of Malawi.

Mtisunge Kachingwe and Yvonne Chaka Chaka, UNICEF Good Will Ambassador

The Partnership for Maternal, New-born & Child Health (PMNCH) is a partnership of 625 organisations from across seven constituencies: governments, multilateral organisations, donors and foundations, non-governmental organisations, healthcare professional associations, academic, research and training institutions and the private sector. Hosted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and launched in 2005, the vision of the Partnership is the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with women and children enabled to realise their right to the highest attainable standard of health in the year to 2015 and beyond.

Going into the forum I didn’t not know what to expect as it has been not only an opportunity to learn but one to advocate for the adolescent girl and it has left me inspired to act. Amongst all the leaders present there was unity of thought and it had one common goal – to create a better and healthier world for mothers and new-borns around the world particularly for those who are vulnerable and impoverished.

With approximately 500 days left to reach the targets set by the MDG’s, we must go further – with more decisiveness, more strength and more passion – to accelerate progress in this last push and achieve a better future. It was really inspiring to hear various leaders acknowledge that though the MDG’s set the global development agenda there have been successes but gaps still remains, efforts have been insufficient and unequal.

Currently more than 92% of all the world’s maternal deaths, new-born deaths and stillbirths occur within low and middle income countries. Despite substantial progress towards MDGs 4 and 5, 287,000 women died in 2010 of pregnancy related causes. Of these, about 70,000 were adolescents. Approximately, 16 million adolescent girls aged 15-19 and 1 million girls aged 10-14 give birth every year, accounting for 11% of births worldwide. In low- and middle-income countries, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 years. For every young woman who dies in childbirth, WHO estimates that, 30-50 others are left with injury, infection or disease. Three and a half million adolescents undergo unsafe abortions every year.Adolescent pregnancy is also closely linked to new-born health. Stillbirths and new-born deaths are 50% higher among infants of adolescent mothers than among infants of women aged 20-29 years and infants of adolescent mothers are more likely to have low birth weight.

Today young people under the age of 30 make up a staggering 40% of the world’s population. As the world continues to deliberate on what happens after the MDG’s one must ask “have young people been involved? And further to this have leaders engaged with youth? Has this been enough?” This year, unlike other years, young people were a part of the discussions and contributions fostered by the forum. The messages I took home with me were; we need to do more as young people to push our governments at a national level so that when member states convene to discuss the post 2015 development agenda our county representatives are carrying our views

As young leaders we need to hold our governments accountable for their commitments launch impressive communications campaigns for sexual and reproductive health and rights and implement projects in our communities. I believe that all community members including young people should be involved in policy, from the ground up. After that first step the process can then expand to involve donors. Let’s all stand up today and say No to the infringement of people’s rights, No to inequity, No to discrimination, No to exploitation, and Yes to a more just and equitable world, built by each and every one of us. Because after all everyone counts.

 

 

Beijing+ who? And 2015 what?

By Kgothatso Mokoena, YWCA of South Africa.

My engagement with the African Union Summit

2014 has been a hectic time, for development activists, with all current development frameworks ending in 2015, noting the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and celebrating 20 years of implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. Similarly the international community now is focused on UN mechanisms, Post 2015 development framework and while the African Union (AU) is encouraging member states to align with Agenda 2063 aspirations.

Kgothatso Mokoena

Kgothatso Mokoena

The world is now at the cusp of progress, accountability and inclusion. The tapestry of development language is weaved with the language of human rights. But practice…is NOT! My observations at the African Union and the Gender is My Agenda Campaign (GIMAC) consultation Forum has caused me to be concerned that although we have such good frameworks, our leaders are still hesitant to get their feet wet.

As individuals, communities and countries begin to understand what human rights means to them, it becomes vital to place women and girls at the very heart of all these processes. Twenty years ago at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), member states committed to support sexual and reproductive health rights of all women and girls. The result was a definitive programme of action that would compel countries, for the next two decades to focus on equality, empowerment of women, reproductive health, sustainable development and growth.

As I followed the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and Post 2015 Agenda negotiations, I am frustrated to see governments still arguing without logic that eradication of poverty and unemployment programmes are not constrained by negative reproductive health outcomes. I simply can not comprehend why any country would believe that a population, with a high level of teenage pregnancies and young women and girls who are forced to marry early and are unhealthy or neglected in terms of access to health facilitates would not be considered a major sustainable development issue.

Today, we no longer look at poverty as we did 20 years ago. It’s not just an income figure but a view that any circumstance which deprives one of health, education, and living conditions is poverty. That’s right; health is actually a condition that determines poverty!! In the African region, 3900 child brides live in this dire situation.

Group Photo

YWCA AU Delegation

The post 2015 development agenda must be based on human rights framework; it should commit to the gender equality goal as a standalone and must include clear commitments to young women and girls. This is a non-negotiable for us and billions of women around the world. Indeed women’s agency, voice and leadership are crucial and core to meeting the aspirations of development as stated in the AU Agenda 2063.

In the words of my good friend and youth advocate Ramya Kudekallu, “We want sexual and reproductive health rights to be considered as life itself, because the origin of all human life is (shockingly) sex. The point countless community and health workers, researchers, doctors, activists and civil society organisations are trying to get at is that every aspect of sexual health and well being is deeply connected with a nations’ well being. Sexual and reproductive health rights is allowing people, man or woman, young or old, or any race or any creed to better engage in decisions concerning their bodies, gender and relationships.”

So Beijing+ who? Beijing+20, you! MGD…who? Post 2015 Agenda…..about you! Engage now!

CP who? My engagement with the Conference on Population and Development

By Ramya Kudekallu, YWCA of India. Ramya recently attended the  UN 47th Commission on Population and Development at the UN in New York and shares her views.

2014 has been the snow balling time frame for development as we all quickly rush towards milestone years in 2015, such as the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and Beijing Platform for Action.

With these fast approaching, and a need in the international community to be fully involved all eyes are now set on UN mechanisms and the post 2015 development framework.

ramya

Ramya Kudekallu

The world is now at the new cusp of progress, accountability and inclusion. The tapestry of development is weaved with the language of human rights. Except…its NOT! As ideal as all the above sounds, my observations at the conference on population and development has lead me to be concerned that although we may have come far, our leaders are still hesitant to get their feet wet.

And as individuals, communities and countries begin to understand what human rights means to them, it becomes vital for them to be placed at the very heart of it. 20 years ago, as an indication of commitment to the issues of sexual and reproductive rights, nations agreed that the key is women and girls. The result was a definitive programme of action that would compel countries, for the next 20 years to focus on equality, empowerment of women, reproductive health, sustainable development and growth.

As I follow the CPD negotiations, it frustrated me to see governments still arguing that eradication of poverty and unemployment are not tied into aspects of reproductive health so time is being wasted on such ‘priorities’. I simply can not comprehend why any country would believe that a population, that is unhealthy, uninformed or neglected in terms of access to health facilitates would be any kind of happy cog leading to profit.

Today, we no longer look at poverty as we did 20 years ago. It’s not just an income figure but a view that any circumstance which is deprived of health, education, and living conditions is poverty. That’s right; health is actually a condition that determines poverty!! In the Asia Pacific Region, close to a billion people live in this situation.

To consider sexual reproductive health and rights is to consider life itself, because the origin of all human life is (shockingly) sex. The point countless community and health workers, researchers, doctors, activists and civil society organisations are trying to get at is that every aspect of sexual health and well being is deeply connected with a nations’ well being. Sexual reproductive health and rights is allowing people, man or woman, young or old, or any race or any creed to better engage in decisions concerning their bodies, gender and relationships. It is also about combating discrimination or every kind be it against someone living with HIV and AIDS, someone of a different sexual orientation or even (again shockingly) for being born a woman.

When a population begins to gain control over unwanted pregnancies, prevent sexually transmitted diseases and have the means to make decisions on the number of children to have at the greater purpose of development is achieved and sustainable so. To add, practices such as marrying young girls and making unhealthy and often dead mothers out of them only means fewer girls will be able to get an education, acquire employment and contribute their economies.

Allowing women to decide whether or not they are ready to be mothers, to be should not be a question of faith or religion but a question of humanity. No higher power or Creator finds redemption or good in a girl of 10 dying from childbirth or a family not having enough resources to educate, feed or provide a healthy wholesome upbringing for their children.

There is lots of valuable research around the inter-linkages of SRHR and economic growth, proving only; to governments like above how crucial it is for them to bring SRHR to the forefront.

I suppose it is easy enough to be critical and apocalyptic, but the truth is, now more than ever, as individuals we need to engage in systems that are making choices for us. CPD is about this engagement. Outside the heated negotiating rooms of geo political tugging and talk of finance and agendas, you will find the real people on the ground dealing with the everyday realities. You may not be able to break past the regions, the cultures, the races, the appearances, the positions, the creeds and even the genders but that’s the point! In spite of all these factors I saw that more and more and more individuals decided that they would not stand for violation of rights or diluting the value of life.

So CP who? CP, you! MGD…who? MDG, you! Engage now!

Celebrating Cairo & Going Beyond

By Nelly Lukale, YWCA of Kenya. Nelly recently attended the  UN 47th Commission on Population and Development at the UN in New York and shares her views about her experience.

Finally it is here!! My dream to attend the United Nations Commission on Population and Development (CPD) in New York has finally come!! I sang, danced and said a thanksgiving prayer as I got ready for one of the biggest events in the World. I was privileged to attend CPD at the UN Headquarters in New York that was held from 7 to 11 April, 2014. This was the 47th session of the Commission on Population and Development. The commission is an annual conference that monitors, reviews and assesses the implementation of the agreements made at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt. These agreements are set out in the Programme of Action (PoA), which is a rights-based development framework. The theme of this year’s CPD session was ‘Assessment of the status of implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development’. Basically, this means not only evaluating on what happened so far, but also looking forward. Twenty years on, it is again time to review how far the international community has come with implementing of the Programme of Action.

Nelly Lukale

Nelly Lukale

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) every year 85 million unintended pregnancies occur. More than half of these unintended pregnancies lead to an abortion; a quarter of which are unsafe abortions. WHO research shows unsafe abortion results in 47,000 deaths and 5 million women are left with a disability every year. If only governments implemented what they had signed for and committed in 1994, then this could have been prevented. Many unintended pregnancies would not have occurred when people, especially young women are able to receive comprehensive sexuality education and have access to effective contraception, and are able to use it. We need to understand that criminalising or restricting legal access to abortion does not decrease the need for abortion. In contrast, it is likely to increase the number of women seeking illegal and unsafe abortions, leading to increased mortality and morbidity.

The highlight of my CPD participation was attending a side event with the theme “Celebrating Cairo & Going Beyond”. This was an event organised by the High Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and co-hosted by several governments, including Argentina, Brazil, Finland, Germany, Liberia, Mexico, Mozambique, Slovenia and South Africa. It featured remarks from U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA. Navi Pillay asked the audience to envision a world where all women and girls have easy and equal access to health care, where women can choose when and how many children to have, and where every woman and girl can participate in decision-making processes for her country. To realise this world, we must fully realise the sexual and reproductive health and rights around the world. She also stressed that “at CPD this week, we are working with governments and civil society organisations to ensure that these rights are realised moving forward, both in the CPD outcome document and in the larger post-2015 development agenda. We must be strong enough not to lose ground on the ICPD Programme of Action. We must be courageous by continuing to fight for important women’s health issues, such as safe and legal abortion. And we must think creatively to come up with innovative ways for women and girls to easily access life-saving reproductive health services”.

With ICPD PoA coming to an end in few months, many questions still remain unanswered in my mind; do the countries of the world move beyond sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights; will they include the sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) terminology? And can we get recognition for young people as people with their own sexual and reproductive health needs? Still with high hopes of all these being answered in the CPD outcome document that we are all anxiously waiting for.

Throughout the week of CPD plenary sessions, it was clear that Member States are emphasising their national progress in achieving the so-called “sexual and reproductive health and rights” over progress achieved in protecting the family unit, proper sanitation, access to clean water, and basic healthcare for all, including reproductive health and maternal health. What was more amazing at this year’s CPD is how civil society organisations (CSOs) worked extremely hard to make text suggestions to strengthen the first draft document. Many of them reached out to their ministries and country delegation, and asked attention for sexual and reproductive health and rights issues.

Late Nights, Heavy Heart – ICPD 2014

By Hendrica Okondo, World YWCA Global Programme  Manager for Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights and HIV. Hendrica recently led the World YWCA delegation at  the UN 47th Commission on Population and Development at the UN in New York and shares her views about the commission.

We had a hectic, exhausting and interesting week as we stayed at the United Nations Headquarters daily beyond midnight; the chair frequently broke up the negotiations because there were too many civil society organisations (CSOs) in delegations and threw out all the experts on the two last days. Saba Haile, General Secretary of the YWCA of Kenya and Vanessa Hoyti, from the YWCA of Tanzania who were in the negotiation room said the Holy See representative was even joking about having to have the usual objections on the usual paragraphs.

Hendrica Okondo

Hendrica Okondo

The week started on Friday April 4th, 2014 with the High Level Interactive Debate, where member states outdid themselves giving very positive statements and commitment to stand by their regional outcome documents. Former Egyptian ambassador Ms. Mervat El-Tallawy, stated that the democratic government is back and proud to promote and protect the spirit of Cairo and “will not let the women who came out in great numbers in Cairo down”, she stressed that they would support the Addis Ababa Declaration and that all rights including sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) would be protected. Mrs Viola Onwuliri, Nigerian Minister of Trade and Investment, strongly supported the Addis Ababa Declaration and elaborated all the policies Nigeria has implemented such as robust SRH policy and its commitment to the Maputo Protocal and Maputo Plan. Joaquim Chissano, former President of Mozambique, spoke of the importance of nondiscrimination and nonviolence and access to SRH services. Mr Chissano stressed that there is no culture or religion which allows for killing of humans on the basis of their sexuality.Norway and Sweden spoke about the importance implementing ICPD POA and respecting of regional outcome documents.

Later that afternoon, I went to the UNFPA CSO Advisory meeting where we conducted a political mapping of the member states. As regions the EU and North America seemed to have a strategy of introducing difficult issues at the beginning to derail the process.  Russia and Malta were not happy with this position. The Africa Group was not united and would react negatively. The Asia Pacific Group were said to be united on the Asia Pacific Population Conference outcome document. The Latin America Group was cohesive and supportive of the Montevideo Consensus document which is progressive. Caribbean was supportive although Jamaica was very conservative at the Princeton training. ACP group and Group of 77 broke as Bolivia the representative of the group was pushing language most of the group did not agree with.

The next day part of our World YWCA delegation went to the youth caucus and the NGO strategy meeting. I, Saba and Vanessa went to the Africa member state meeting, where UNFPA, the African Union and ministers from Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia explained the importance of supporting the language in the Addis Ababa Declaration and the Africa common position paper on 2015. Most of the delegates were in agreement but Cameroon the spokesperson for the group insisted that the context of national laws must be taken into consideration thus setting the trend for the week long negotiation.

On Monday the 7th of April, we were surprised with the new rule of issuing limited tickets for CSOs only for the overflow room, with one ticket for plenary floor reserved for the head of delegation. Deborah Thomas-Austin, World YWCA President was able to get three tickets for our delegation. The opening ceremony started in a very positive note with UNFPA sharing the outcome of the Global review report, identifying the progress made in implementing the ICPD PoA and the gaps which member states had noted in their country reports. All the states who spoke on day one where very supportive of the first draft of the PoA report, except some of the African member states raised concerns over language addressing family and SRH rights. The negotiations started on a sour note with Cameroon strongly objecting to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) language and use of SRHR, Egypt was also very vocal on the need to include as per national laws on all issues referring to rights.

Later that day, as an organisation the World YWCA signed on to a letter by CSOs protesting the limited access to CSOs especially as all of us had received confirmation for attending from 7-11th April 2014. In the evening, UNFPA issued a letter confirming all CSOs will have access and those with ECOSOC states can get a temporary card for the whole week.

In the following days the World YWCA delegation was involved in intense lobby for all the key SRH issues to be included in the draft outcome documents, some through the youth caucus, and others through the NGO group and others through delegates in the negotiation room. The negotiations and debates went on until 3am most days but the draft document improved with most of the issues on comprehensive sexual education and access to SRH services by youth. The final document was agreed upon late Friday April 11th at 4.30 am!!

My World YWCA ITI Experience

By Leticia Mellonie Velasquez, YWCA of Belize. Leticia recently attended the World YWCA International Training Institute (ITI) on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and HIV, as a World YWCA Intern, held in Arusha, Tanzania and shares her views on her experience.

When I was first invited to participate in the Sexual and Reproductive health and Rights (SRHR) ITI in Tanzania, Africa, the first thing that came to mind was seeing the African women in their full attire of cultural clothing. I also thought about seeing zebras, giraffes and camels walking around. The only thing I was worried about was the lions and tigers. Lol.

Upon arrival and my first day there, I just couldn’t explain how amazing everything was. It was way beyond my expectations. I got to experience how our African sisters from different countries rejoiced in a harmonious way. I really felt the blessing of the Lord among us and his presence was warm and appreciating.

Leticia Mellonie Velasquez

Leticia Mellonie Velasquez

Just seeing how our common visions of spreading the education of SRHR came a long way over the years. Our voices are being heard, and a change is being made. Just our presence at a conference like this was a share example. It created an opportunity for women and young girls to have a better today and a knowledgeable hope for a bigger and brighter future for young women and girls.

Today, as I speak from my entire knowledge and experience on sexual and reproductive health rights and HIV, it allows me to realise that as women, there is a load of work still to do among the many improvements. There are still challenges being faced by many and in order for these challenges to be eradicated, we can’t give up. As women and girls we have to unite to make these changes, and successfully fight for comprehensive, age appropriate sexual education for everyone.

The challenges we face, put a pain in my heart. Knowing that nature embraces us as a gift to the world and carriers of life, a violation of any of our rights, gender inequality and inability to access essential basic needs such as electricity and water is just not right.

Why can’t we break from these barriers of faith and culture? It’s not that we want to forget who we are, but let us just be women and girls who enjoy the natural wonders of life. If the Lord is the only saviour that can judge us, and he does not condemn us, he only gives more and more blessings in life, and allows each of us to decide on how to live it, why can’t everyone?

My first experience as a World YWCA intern travelling to Africa

By Sharon Yendevenge, YWCA Papua New Guinea. Sharon recently attended her 1st ITI as an Intern with the World YWCA and she shares her views on her experience.

My journey to Africa started on the 16th of March 2014 from Geneva airport travelling to Arusha, Tanzania. It was a move to a completely different continent  with different peoplesharon web and yes there I was. The small Arusha airport stood alone approximately a 45mins from my destination Naura Springs Hotel. We arrived late at night and although I felt tired, I was looking forward for the morning to officially start my African experience and to meet other sisters around the world.

The World YWCA first International training Institute for the year  brought together many different people from varying countries to participate.  The participants were mainly from different parts of Africa, but there were also representatives from  Caribbean, Europe, and the Asia Pacific region.  The first day began with   presentations from partner organisations such as DSW, IPAS, ARROW and FERMET, and this was followed by heavy discussions from participants within their regional groups on various SRHR topics. One of the objectives of the ITI was to come up with a regional briefs for the regions represented. From the discussions, I noticed that regardless of  government signing with the different treaty bodies to integrate SRHR in their countries, problems still exist in regards to  poor health services, lack of information, information being too complex for persons to understand, less sensitivity training. In my regional group Asia and Pacific, it was observed that the Governments needs to increase  health services and introduce  mobile clinics for cases of emergencies, 24 hours hotline for Violence against women, train more health workers on SRHR services and also  provide adequate health services for persons in  rural areas. The availability and the use of contraceptives was another thing that was observed to be lacking. There needed to be greater access for women as it has been seen that many women don’t really know about using contraceptives other than the male condom.  It was clearly seen that  people are very often too shy to purchase condoms in public places because of stigma and discrimination that surrounds it. Other important issues such as abortion not been legalised in many countries and high maternal mortality rates were also discussed.

The day two ended with a very exciting cultural dinner, It showcased, dancing and singing from the various cultures and African tribes present.

I woke up the next day sunlight beaming through my bedroom and couldn’t help but smile as I knew this would be another adventurous day.  I had the privilege to visit the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The United Nations had built this court in Arusha, Tanzania especially to hear genocide cases.  It was interesting to hear from the young African women on how the fights have affected them.  In one way or the other, their parents, brothers and sisters, and relatives have experienced a great devastation in their lives, fleeing from war and enemies and ending up in neighbouring countries not knowing where they were going. Still today there are  yet many  untold stories as it can be painful to retell these stories. .

Heading back to the hotel I was so disturbed by the thoughts of innocent lives of women and children and even the men been killed. These bad memories were soon erased as the bus  went off to a snake farm. The excitement I felt to get an opportunity to see the African snakes I often watch on television live in person couldn’t be explained. What made my day even more interesting was that it was also my first opportunity to ride on a camel.  It was so interesting to see how the camel had to get up from the ground and then land. From up on top, I am  sure I heard myself really screaming especially when the camel started to stand up.  It was indeed a  great experience for me and so the third day ended and the fourth day begun with a journey to DSW Centre in Arusha for another day of activities.

Overall, my ITI experience was magnificent and my time in Tanzania, Africa couldn’t have been better.

CSW: Why do we fight?

By Julia Diprose  fromYWCA of Australia. Julia is currently attending the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

Since I found out I was coming to the Commission on the Status of Women #CSW (and bragging about it on Facebook) people have invariably reacted to the news with combinations of “That’s amazing! So, what is it exactly?”

To my chagrin (I am after all a communications professional) I have found answering this question rather difficult. It is only here in New York, deprived of real caffeine and sleep, and spending 16 hour days at the UN, that I have found myself able to answer the most basic of questions – what am I doing here?

julia2

Julia Diprose

The CSW Commission on the Status of Women is an international forum attended by delegations from 45 UN member states at United Nations Headquarters in New York. The Commission is the ultimate policy-making body on gender equality and the advancement of women. It meets annually to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide. The theme for the 58th Commission is: “Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls.”

Ok, great. Now what does that mean?

At the end of the CSW a document of Agreed Conclusions is produced – it contains commitments that governments around the world make to ensure that the world tomorrow is a equal place for women. The Millenium Development Goals expire in 2015 and we are here to talk about what comes next.

The world’s not so bad, you think. I’m a clever, capable woman. I take care of myself and the idea that I can’t is fundamentally offensive. Beyonce exists. Tina Fey is killing it. We got this.

We forget, in our selfishness, in our loneliness that there is no better time in the world to be a woman than today. That’s true and it should be celebrated.

But.

A girl is born to a family with four children. There is no access to contraceptives and her mother cannot afford to feed four hungry mouths let alone one more No matter. She is born.

I won’t tell you what country she is from because she could be from anywhere. 222 million women around the world have no access to contraception. In the words of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka,  Executive Director of UN Women: When women have unwanted pregnancies they sign a contract with poverty.

Because food is tight and her brothers are prized, the girl grows up hungry. Her mother falls pregnant twice more and means get even more scarce. The costs of school uniforms is such that only two of the six children can be sent to school. The boys go.

It is difficult to make certain claims about womanhood, about sexuality, about feminism. Being a woman today is tremendously complicated and capturing the nuances of our experiences is fraught. Making generalities about men, about culture, about patriarchy and tradition is equally problematic. Everywhere good men stand with us.

But I want to state this explicitly.

Around the world today, women are prized as playthings. Their virginity defines them. Do not doubt that the idea that women could or should enjoy their own body is offensive to many. The plague of female genital mutilation is testament to that. The power and ownership of others continues to define women.

This little girl won’t go to school – won’t learn how to spell or how to count or how to play.

How can she develop the ability and wherewithal to flourish?

I look at my boyfriend’s nieces – teeny, lovely little things who have the utter confidence that comes from only ever being loved. Their beauty and innocence and shining promise is a delight.

How many little girls have never had that love?

And this little girl . She will not be taught about her own body. About what she deserves, about how it should be treated. About how it should be touched. Or not. About respect. All these things will make her vulnerable to abuse in the future.

Can there be a better argument for age appropriate sex education? To save one little girl trauma and invasion and violation.

And this little girl. Will she be subjected to violating and degrading practices? Will her sexuality be controlled by others? Will she be free of harm?

1 in 3 women around the world experience violence – being raped. Being beaten.

Every minute a young woman is newly infected with HIV.  An estimated 150 million young women and girls under 18 years suffered some form of sexual violence in a given year.

So this little girl gets her period at age 12 – a frightening and confusing experience for her as she has never been taught about her body.

And now she is a woman.

She is married – to a man ten, twenty, forty years older than her. A man not of her choosing. A man who sees her as property.

I write this and I cannot begin to fathom the terror of that first night. Maybe of every night.

She falls pregnant. A lifetime of malnourishment means that she has acute anaemia. A lifetime of hunger means that her growth has been stunted, her hips too slim.

She is a child. In no way equipped to support a pregnancy. There is no medical support. There is no support from family.

Giving birth is an excruciating process.

I am terrified of giving birth in the best medical facilities and with the best care money can buy. I cannot begin to fathom what these girls go through.

If she survives the pregnancy, and the birth, if she does not develop an obstetric fistula and the baby survives – the cycle will be perpetuated. We are letting girls and women slip through the cracks.

We are not doing enough, not nearly enough, for girls. For women.

I tell this story conscious of perpetuating a narrative that suggests violence against women is something that happens elsewhere – to other women in an other place.

Violence against women happens everywhere. 35% of girls and women around the world have experienced it. It is insidious. For some, it is having their genitals cut. For some, being burnt and beaten and whipped in the home. For some its the terror of a volatile, controlling partner. For some it’s a life of slavery – slavery that we thought we had eradicated.

Trafficking is in the top three most profitable industries in the world. Buying people is flourishing.

We cannot capture all their voices. But for all of those who cannot, or did not speak, I stand and weep with you. And I fight for you.

A document cannot ensure the end of violence. Only people can. But this document, that holds governments accountable to do more, is a part of something bigger. One piece in a vast puzzle.

I want to be a champion for women and girls at home and around the world.

And that’s why I’m here.

Where Religion and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Meet.

By: Hendrica Okondo, Global Programme Manager SRHR and HIV and AIDS- Focal Point: AfricaImage

Although religious beliefs are a barrier for women to claim their rights, there are opportunities to work with religious leaders as not all religious groups are restrictive. There are some who are listening and meeting women in the difficult situations they live in. One way of working with religious groups is by looking at their values, especially with Christian groups. By looking at their Christian values we can address SRHR through the values of justice, compassion and love. There is also a way we can engage religious groups as there is a big gap between the rhetoric of the mainstream conservative groups and the realities within which the church operates and provides services so there is an element of compassion that can be used. Instead of profiling all faith communities as conservative and difficult to work with, we might want to think about engaging with them by having dialogues. Of course there are those that are inflexible and won’t change because it is within their hierarchal structures and traditional beliefs, but even within that there are common areas of engaging around women and children’s health. So as women’s rights activist and feminists we really need to start the dialogue.

As World YWCA and ARROW are funded through NORAD to have these dialogues, we also need to engage to make sure that they happen. The ultra-conservative groups may not want to discuss. But they are not against education. On the whole religious groups do not object to education or health, universal health or gender equality because it is in the fundamental basis of all religions. Every religion believes that everyone is created equal in the image of God. But it is in the traditions and norms that there is a difference, and therefore a backlash around the whole sexual rights debate and also in terms of women’s agency. So in some religions there is the whole promotion of men as the decision-maker and that women should not have agency. That is a restrictive view of religious texts.

We will be working with a circle of feminist theologians who will be coming from a theological perspective and collaborate with ARROW and working with sisters of Islam who are going to be looking from the Islamic side while we look at the Christian side. At the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) the religion leaders told us that they do not have the skills, whereas UN reports tells us these groups are powerful and well-resourced so there are mechanisms for having dialogue.

Religion for many women is the point of contact; it is the faith based organisations that provide the social support, education, health and social protection. So we need to look at what they provide at the community level. We need to go to them with a positive approach. It is not that everyone who is religious is wrong, for us as the World YWCA we are in both worlds because of our work on rights and advocacy, but we are also comfortable in the faith-based aspect because that is where our members are.

Due to the support that faith-based organisations provide they have a lot more influence in communities. It is also down to member states signing up to declarations and not implementing and not being held accountable as duty bearers. There is an accountability failure and that gap is met by faith based organisations.

Let’s not be naïve, there are groups at the end of the spectrum who want to control women’s agency and there is a backlash. But what we’re saying is why we can’t recreate 1994 at the ICPD conference, there were much more conservative views then, but we were able to have dialogues.

A standalone gender equality goal must include SRHR. Gender has to be a priority over other categories race, disability etc because no matter what you are always worse off as a women. It is a gender and human rights issue.

The Gift of Education

By Mariam William John Bangafu, young woman from the YWCA of South Sudan.

My name is Mariam William John Bangafu and was born in Khartoum, Sudan in 1990. I finished my primary school there and completed my secondary education in Uganda. Now I am sitting the exam for the South Sudan School Certificate but I am finding it difficult to get to the school campus. This is mainly because I fell pregnant, which has really upset my family and they are very angry with me. That’s all I can say. I am now a member of the YWCA and it is helping me to achieve my dreams.

 Our Visit to Bangasu, South Sudan

mariam

Mariam William John Bangafu

My first trip to Bangasu Payma was to a village called Burezigbo. It was wonderful moment; we met with other YWCA women who had come from Tanzania and Switzerland. The purpose of the meeting was to share best practice, challenges and familiarise one another with eachother’s  work. In fact I learnt many different things such as how to develop confidence and be strong as a woman in front of the community and how to communicate and promote our messages. One of the main objectives of the YWCA is to build and develop women’s capacity as decision makers in the community. We also have a very clear focus on youth as a critical population group. If I have to go and help women at Burezigbo I would like to give them the best gift, the gift of education.

Nothing is so marvellous than to travel to different places and get to know the challenges and common threads faced by women and youth. We had the opportunity to visit Nzara County and the first person to welcome us was the Commissioner! He spoke to us and encouraged the women to be active members in the community at decision making levels and mobilise the young women to be independent.

The YWCA women in Nzara have various amazing activities such as having their own plot of land for agriculture and delivering awareness programmes on HIV and AIDS.

However, Nzara women of YWCA have their own challenges- no office for women to carry out their activities and no training space. Despite this, they still continue as best they can. What I found quite interesting was that young men in the village have begun to realise the importance of the empowerment of women and they are giving them support and seeing the positive impact of staying school to reduce poverty.

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