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The Acceptance of Full Sexual Rights for Women Faces Many Barriers in Africa


Most people are uncomfortable with the term “sexual rights.” This is not surprising given the fact that the issue of sex and sexuality is a taboo subject in many parts of the world. While such discomfort often stems from religious and cultural mores that are difficult to overcome, the need to respect women’s sexual rights is increasingly understood as a key to achieving women’s rights.

Earlier this month, close to 200 people from the region and around the world converged in Johannesburg, South Africa to attend the African Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Conference from February 4 – 7.

Hosted by the African Partnership for Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Women and Girls (AMANITARE), the conference was the first in the region to address these sensitive issues. The goal was to help create a coordinated agenda on sexual and reproductive health and rights for the region.

AMANITARE is a nonprofit organization with 43 partners in 16 different countries. They advocate for regional policy reform and the implementation of sexual and reproductive health and rights that are encapsulated in international agreements.

Sexual rights for women were first recognized on the international agenda during the UN Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) held in Beijing in 1995. To be exact, governments recognized that women had a right to control and make decisions regarding their sexuality, including their sexual and reproductive health, and that these decisions should be made free of coercion, discrimination and violence. They also recognized that women and men should be equal in sexual relations and that there should be mutual consent in regards to and responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences, as well as a respect for integrity of the person.

Although the articulation of sexual rights is a more recent phenomenon, it is not considered a new set of rights. Rather, it builds upon existing international human rights by extending them into the area of sexuality.

These ideas were reaffirmed at a follow-up conference to the FWCW in 2000, known as Beijing +5, and taken one step further at the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS in 2001. At this meeting, world governments made a commitment to support the empowerment of women to gain control of their sexuality.

Sexual rights advocates are also working towards the recognition of a women’s right to sexual pleasure. Sexual rights, if respected, would provide women and girls with protection from many of the widespread abuses that they face today such as unwanted sexual relations, unwanted or coerced pregnancy, sexual harassment and intimidation, sexual exploitation, rape, coercive or unsafe contraceptives, coercive or unsafe abortions, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, discrimination based on sexual orientation, and sexually transmitted diseases.

While the need to understand and respect the sexual rights of women is an important goal in its own right, the positive correlation between increasing women’s rights and social and economic development makes the task more crucial. However, the fact that a lack of sexual rights leaves women more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and violence makes it an urgent necessity.

This point resonates particularly strongly in Africa, which has been devastated by an unparalleled HIV/AIDS epidemic and numerous armed conflicts. It comes as no surprise, then, that the women’s movement in Africa has made sexual rights a priority on their agenda.

African women and sexual rights

Many human rights violations perpetrated against women in the region can be classified as sexual rights violations.

In situations of armed conflict, women are often extremely vulnerable to sexual abuse. In Northern Uganda and Sierra Leone, women and girls have been abducted by rebels and forced to act as “wives” for rebel soldiers.

Within marriage, cultural beliefs often do not allow women to refuse a sexual proposal from their husband and women’s economic dependence on men can play a major role in sexual relations both within and outside marriage.

Last year, it was discovered that humanitarian workers in refugee camps in West Africa were offering food to refugee women and girls in exchange for sexual favors. In a survey of school-aged girls in the Manzini and Lubombo regions of Swaziland, almost 30 percent believed that women engage in sexual relations with men for economic reasons and 13.9 percent believed that a girl could not refuse a sexual proposal made by a man.

Female genital mutilation is another sexual rights violation perpetrated against women in Africa. One of the main reasons this risky procedure is undertaken is to prevent female sexual enjoyment.

Last but not least are the negative health effects that result from women’s unequal sexual relations with men. In such scenarios, women are unlikely to have the power to demand that their partner use a condom, one of the most effective methods to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

Yet, despite such tangible examples of how an acknowledgment of women’s sexual rights could improve women’s lives, recognition of such rights for women, let alone the implementation of programs and policies, has been met with strong resistance.

Barriers to a better life for African women

Interestingly, while the concept of reproductive health and rights, and even sexual health, has been more broadly accepted, the idea of sexual rights for women has been difficult for many segments of society to accept. This is in spite of the fact that sexual rights lay the foundation upon which reproductive rights exist.

Religious and cultural understandings of women and their bodies have been identified as the main culprits in impeding progress in achieving sexual rights for women. Of particular concern are the fundamentalist tendencies that exist in all religions.

In Africa, where poverty is high and national and communal identities are forged in the face of globalization and nationalization, fundamentalism is increasing. The result is that national and communal identities are increasingly formed around women’s bodies.

Rather than understanding it as a way in which to decrease poverty and advance economic and social development, women’s sexual rights are often seen as a rebellion against national, ethnic or religious identity. One fear is that women’s sexual rights would undermine existing family relations that are usually dominated by men who act as heads of households. In other words, they threaten men’s position within the family and the community.

According to Serra Sippel, Senior Associate for International Programs at Catholics for a Free Choice who attended the AMANITARE conference, there was a consensus that while religion played a part in most people’s lives, the impact it had on women’s rights needed to be addressed. “When religion is acting politically, it is necessary to ensure that women’s rights are upheld,” proclaimed Sippel in an interview with the Digital Freedom Network.

For example, in a panel on the Catholic Church in Africa it became clear that the Church has been able to exert an enormous influence over many African governments. In Kenya, they have been able to influence government policy reproductive health and has been effective in removing sex education from the school curriculum. Their influence is disproportionate considering Catholics comprise only 20% of the Kenyan population.

The Church has also been very vocal in banning the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and according to Sippel, some priests at the parish level have spread the fallacy that condoms actually help spread HIV/AIDS.

Pinar Ilkkaracan, Coordinator of the Turkish-based Women for Women’s Human Rights -New Ways, presented at the conference on the role of Islam in enabling women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. She noted that in African countries where Muslims are a minority, their isolation and lack of access to information has helped to breed the type of fundamentalism that can restrict women’s sexual rights. The lack of an active network and discussion among Muslim communities has affected their access to information.

“In one Muslim community in Kenya girls are being removed from school as soon as they begin to develop breasts, a sign of sexual maturing,” explained Ilkkaracan in an interview with the Digital Freedom Network.

Another example is the confusion over abortion. In Islam, there is no prohibition against abortion, but there are differences in interpretations regarding which stages of pregnancy an abortion can be performed. While Muslim communities in Africa have an general awareness of this, their confusion over the different interpretations has led to a policy of avoiding abortion all together for fear of conducting the procedure at a prohibited time.

“The lack of access to information and networking capabilities keeps them from discussing these issues and making these connections,” explained Ilkkaracan. “In addition, women from these communities are more isolated and are therefore less likely to speak out because they feel more threatened.”

Tepid response to the problem

When the issue of sexual rights first came up at the FWCW, more than 60 countries objected to it automatically, and sexual rights advocates continue to face opposition at international conferences. In fact, sexual rights are still often ignored by donors, governments, and even those in the NGO community. The strong resistance to these ideas and their political implications undoubtedly play some factor in this neglect.

“The idea that women would have full rights to their bodies continues to threaten many elements within society,” clarified Ilkkaracan. In fact, current worldwide fundamentalism has made sexuality a hot potato that has led governments and political parties to refrain from addressing the issue for fear of resistance from local powers.

Of particular concern are the conservative policies of the US government under President George W. Bush. “There is also a lot of concern about Bush’s overall conservatism in relation to women’s issues and the restrictions he has imposed on US aid to developing countries,” remarked Ilkkaracan.

When he came into office in 2000, Bush instituted a policy of withholding aid to organizations that perform abortions while providing additional support to programs that preach abstinence, marriage, and fidelity. Women’s rights groups have been critical of such an approach because it does not recognize women’s current lack of sexual rights and their vulnerability to unwanted sexual relations.

“When arriving in Johannesburg for the conference, I was shocked to see all these abstinence campaigns,” exclaimed Ilkkaracan. “We know that Bush’s policies are behind them.”

Unfortunately, such policies have a devastating impact for women at the local level. The result is that women are unable to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS. In sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 30 million people are HIV positive, and the number of new infections continues to grow. According to the Soros Foundation Network News, women aged 15 to 19 in Africa are anywhere from two to six times more likely than their male counterparts to become infected with HIV/AIDS.

Despite the conservatism of international bodies and limited support from donors, a vibrant movement on sexual rights is emerging from the grassroots in Africa in reaction to growing fundamentalism in the region.

The AMANITARE conference was an important step in developing a coordinated agenda among various groups in Africa to promote sexual rights. They are also advocating for February 4 to be celebrated as African Women’s Health and Rights Day.

One group based in South Africa, the Women’s Health Project, has launched a national Sexual Rights Campaign and is currently in the process of drafting a Sexual Rights Charter for the region.

UN Secretary-general Kofi Annan said it best last week in his speech to the Franco-African Summit, “If you want to save Africa, you must save the African woman first.”

This article courtesy of the Digital Freedom Network.


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