African Womens Reproductive Rights under Threat: Global Pushback Puts Lives at Risk

  • Opinion by Dorothy Akongo – Flata Mwale – Vivian Mugarisi (kampala/lusaka/harare)
  • Inter Press Service

In an unprecedented moment of collective action, Heads of State adopted a revolutionary Programme of Action and called for women’s reproductive health and rights to take center stage in national and global development efforts.

This summer, in another first, the Women Deliver Conference had its annual meeting in Kigali, Rwanda. The Women Deliver Conference, which was the largest gender equality conference in the world and had 6,000 delegates in person and another 200,000 participants remotely, was an important symbol of Africa’s commitment towards the rights of girls and women.

Despite the fact that the world is currently facing a backlash against the reproductive justice movement, and decades of progress in sexual and reproductive rights and health (SRHR), it was disappointing to see how the assault continues. The Hungarian president drew criticism for promoting her ‘pro family’ ideals at the opening ceremony. This was in stark contrast to the goal that many of the present delegates had come together with. Katalin Novak is a leader in the opposition to women’s rights and girls’ access to abortion. She has stated that Hungarian woman “shouldn’t compete with men”, or expect equal pay. She stated that she wanted her daughter to be able to have a large number of children. “Even 10 children, if she wants to”. As part of a delegation of 40 women from the Women in Global Health Network, we witnessed the conflict first-hand. As African health professionals, we are committed to sustaining progress in Africa. Benin’s parliament voted in November 2021 to legalize abortion under most circumstances. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was the first Francophone country to expand access to abortion services and endorse guidelines for implementing the directives of the African Protocol on the Rights of Women. Sierra Leone modernized its outdated abortion laws in July 2022 after decades of advocacy from the women’s movements and government officials.

Despite the advances made, Africa continues to have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality and morbidity in the world. This is especially true for women and adolescents. Stalling progress is a matter of life and death to many women and girls, as they lack access to modern contraceptive techniques and safe, legal and high-quality abortions. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the failure of many countries to integrate gender-responsive approaches in their national health systems regarding SRHR. SRHR services weren’t always deemed necessary and were often sidelined during the emergency response. This led to an increase in gender-based violence and unintended pregnancy, as well as unsafe abortions.

Accessibility to contraception and reproductive healthcare, which are fundamental in determining how many and when to have children, as well as with whom and when, is still a problem for many young girls and women. It is everyone’s right to receive quality, safe abortion treatment. Restrictions on abortion do not eliminate abortion; they only eliminate safe abortions, resulting in women’s deaths.

According to global estimates up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides in the next decade as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports indicate that, while all women and children face discrimination, the majority of it is experienced by women and girls living in Africa. This includes discrimination based on laws, social norms, and practices. Women health workers are grossly unrepresented in leadership roles in health and this is a major factor in the current pushback on SRHR. Women make up the majority of health workers, accounting for 70 percent of all global staff and 90 percent frontline staff. Yet, they only occupy 25 percent leadership positions.

For low- and middle-income countries, such as Africa the percentage of female leaders is only five percent. Women health workers are the majority of frontline healthcare professionals and therefore have a better understanding of health needs in their communities, including SRHR. This power imbalance at decision-making tables excludes their valuable experiences and expertise to shape policies and programs that adequately address the health needs of women and girls.

Compounding this, 70% of women in Africa are said to be excluded financially, with an estimated gap of $42 billion between men and women. Around six million women are underpaid or unpaid in key roles within the health system, which effectively subsidizes global health. Health and care are important employment sectors for females and can unlock gender transformative lessons to the rest of the economic system by addressing the systemic biases which hinder women’s empowerment. The majority of health workers are women. Investing in them is a good investment that can have positive effects on health systems, economic growth, and social change. Women health workers are usually trained to counsel and support girls and women in obtaining modern contraceptives, and dealing with unwanted or high-risk pregnancy. They brave harassment and violence from anti-rights demonstrators at safe, quality abortion facilities. When they express their views in support of SRHR and safe abortion, they are subjected to online abuse. As a platform, Women Deliver Conference gave gender advocates and Civil Society Organizations an opportunity to intensify efforts in promoting gender-responsive agendas among policy makers and government leaders. While many countries have signed human rights declarations, there has not been enough done to make gender equality a real thing.

Women’s movements and their supporters are crucial in mobilizing political will to make progress on SRHR. We, as members of Women in Global Health – a movement that challenges power and privilege to promote gender equity in healthcare – call on leaders in politics and global health to implement the following:

1. As members of Women in Global Health, a movement challenging power and privilege for gender equity in health, we are calling on political and global health leaders to establish the following:

2. Gender Transformative Leadership – Gender Equality and diversity in Global Health. It gives women equal opportunity to be leaders in the health sector and to contribute to the development of gender-responsive health systems and policies. It is essential if we want to achieve health for everyone.
3. We are calling for the continuation of essential health services, including SRHR, and that protection of health workers be central in these political agreements. We are calling for continuation of essential health services, including SRHR, and the protection of health workers to be central in these political agreements.

Movements such as ours are pivotal in building allyship between health workers and national leaders in the delivery of SRHR while also safeguarding health outcomes for future generations. In Africa, the reduction of maternal mortality and health inequalities are of paramount importance.

African nations have an opportunity to build a foundation for a just society and good health for everyone. We must now stand firm and resist the global pushback against reproductive rights, and keep the promises we made to girls and women. This article was written by members of the African Women in Global Health Network:

Dorothy Akongo

, Research and Advocacy Manager, Busoga Health Forum and Coordinator, Uganda Chapter;

Flata Mwale

, Global Health Professional and Deputy Country Lead, Zambia Chapter;

Vivian Mugarisi

, Public Health Communications Specialist, Zimbabwe Chapter.

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Original source: Inter Press Service

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