The writer is UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women
Women receive food rations at a food distribution site in Herat, Afghanistan. Credit: UNICEF/Sayed Bidel
NEW YORK, Aug 15 2022 (IPS) – In the year that has passed since the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan we have seen daily and continuous deterioration in the situation of Afghan women and girls. This has spanned every aspect of their human rights, from living standards to social and political status.
It has been a year of increasing disrespect for their right to live free and equal lives, denying them opportunity to livelihoods, access to health care and education, and escape from situations of violence.
The Taliban’s meticulously constructed policies of inequality set Afghanistan apart. It is the only country in the world where girls are banned from going to high school. There are no women in the Taliban’s cabinet, no Ministry of Women’s Affairs, thereby effectively removing women’s right to political participation.
Women are, for the most part, also restricted from working outside the home, and are required to cover their faces in public and to have a male chaperone when they travel. Furthermore, they continue to be subjected to multiple forms of Gender Based Violence.
This deliberate slew of measures of discrimination against Afghanistan’s women and girls is also a terrible act of self-sabotage for a country experiencing huge challenges including from climate-related and natural disasters to exposure to global economic headwinds that leave some 25 million Afghan people in poverty and many hungry.
The exclusion of women from all aspects of life robs the people of Afghanistan of half their talent and energies. It prevents women from leading efforts to build resilient communities and shrinks Afghanistan’s ability to recover from crisis.
There is a clear lesson from humanity’s all too extensive experience of crisis. Without the full participation of women and girls in all aspects of public life there is little chance of achieving lasting peace, stability and economic development.
That is why we urge the de facto authorities to open schools for all girls, to remove constraints on women’s employment and their participation in the politics of their nation, and to revoke all decisions and policies that strip women of their rights. We call for ending all forms of violence against women and girls.
We urge the de facto authorities to ensure that women journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society actors enjoy freedom of expression, have access to information and can work freely and independently, without fear of reprisal or attack.
The international community’s support for women’s rights and its investment in women themselves are more important than ever: in services for women, in jobs and women-led businesses, and in women leaders and women’s organizations.
This includes not only support to the provision of humanitarian assistance but also continued and unceasing efforts at the political level to bring about change.
UN Women has remained in country throughout this crisis and will continue to do so. We are steadfast in our support to Afghan women and girls alongside our partners and donors.
We are scaling up the provision of life-saving services for women, by women, to meet overwhelming needs. We are supporting women-led businesses and employment opportunities across all sectors to help lift the country out of poverty.
We are also investing in women-led civil society organizations to support the rebuilding of the women’s movement. As everywhere in the world, civil society is a key driver of progress and accountability on women’s rights and gender equality.
Every day, we advocate for restoring, protecting, and promoting the full spectrum of women’s and girls’ rights. We are also creating spaces for Afghan women themselves to advocate for their right to live free and equal lives.
One year on, with women’s visibility so diminished and rights so severely impacted, it is vital to direct targeted, substantial, and systematic funding to address and reverse this situation and to facilitate women’s meaningful participation in all stakeholder engagement on Afghanistan, including in delegations that meet with Taliban officials.
Decades of progress on gender equality and women’s rights have been wiped out in mere months. We must continue to act together, united in our insistence on guarantees of respect for the full spectrum of women’s rights, including to education, work, and participation in public and political life.
We must continue to make a collective and continuous call on the Taliban leadership to fully comply with the binding obligations under international treaties to which Afghanistan is a party.
And we must continue to elevate the voices of Afghan women and girls who are fighting every day for their right to live free and equal lives. Their fight is our fight. What happens to women and girls in Afghanistan is our global responsibility.
Every other Tuesday, a working group of Mayan women meets to review the organization and progress of their food saving and production project in Uayma, in the state of Yucatán in southeastern Mexico. CREDIT: Courtesy of the Ko’ox Tani Foundation
UAYMA, Mexico , Apr 26 2022 (IPS) – Every other Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. sharp, a group of 26 Mexican women meet for an hour to discuss the progress of their work and immediate tasks. Anyone who arrives late must pay a fine of about 25 cents on the dollar.
The collective has organized in the municipality of Uayma (which means “Not here” in the Mayan language) to learn agroecological practices, as well as how to save money and produce food for family consumption and the sale of surpluses.
“We have to be responsible. With savings we can do a little more,” María Petul, a married Mayan indigenous mother of two and a member of the group “Lool beh” (“Flower of the road” in Mayan), told IPS in this municipality of just over 4,000 inhabitants, 1,470 kilometers southeast of Mexico City in the state of Yucatán, on the Yucatán peninsula.
The home garden “gives me enough to eat and sell, it helps me out,” said Petul as she walked through her small garden where she grows habanero peppers (Capsicum chinense, traditional in the area), radishes and tomatoes, surrounded by a few trees, including a banana tree whose fruit will ripen in a few weeks and some chickens that roam around the earthen courtyard.
The face of Norma Tzuc, who is also married with two daughters, lights up with enthusiasm when she talks about the project. “I am very happy. We now have an income. It’s exciting to be able to help my family. Other groups already have experience and tell us about what they’ve been doing,” Tzuc told IPS.
The two women and the rest of their companions, whose mother tongue is Mayan, participate in the project “Women saving to address climate change”, run by the non-governmental Ko’ox Tani Foundation (“Let’s Go Ahead”, in Mayan), dedicated to community development and social inclusion, based in Merida, the state capital.
This phase of the project is endowed with some 100,000 dollars from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), the non-binding environmental arm of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), formed in 1994 by Canada, the United States and Mexico and replaced in 2020 by another trilateral agreement.
The initiative got off the ground in February and will last two years, with the aim of training some 250 people living in extreme poverty, mostly women, in six locations in the state of Yucatán.
The maximum savings for each woman in the group is about 12 dollars every two weeks and the minimum is 2.50 dollars, and they can withdraw the accumulated savings to invest in inputs or animals, or for emergencies, with the agreement of the group. Through the project, the women will receive seeds, agricultural inputs and poultry, so that they can install vegetable gardens and chicken coops on their land.
The women write down the quotas in a white notebook and deposit the savings in a gray box, kept in the house of the group’s president.
José Torre, project director of the Ko’ox Tani Foundation, explained that the main areas of entrepreneurship are: community development, food security, livelihoods and human development.
“What we have seen over time is that the savings meetings become a space for human development, in which they find support and solidarity from their peers, make friends and build trust,” he told IPS during a tour of the homes of some of the savings group participants in Uayma.
The basis for the new initiative in this locality is a similar program implemented between 2018 and 2021 in other Yucatecan municipalities, in which the organization worked with 1400 families.
María Petul, a Mayan indigenous woman, plants chili peppers, tomatoes, radishes and medicinal herbs in the vegetable garden in the courtyard of her home in Uayma, in the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS
Yucatan, a region home to 2.28 million people, suffers from a high degree of social backwardness, with 34 percent of the population living in moderate poverty, 33 percent suffering unmet needs, 5.5 percent experiencing income vulnerability and almost seven percent living in extreme poverty.
The COVID-19 pandemic that hit this Latin American country in February 2020 exacerbated these conditions in a state that depends on agriculture, tourism and services, similar to the other two states that make up the Yucatán Peninsula: Campeche and Quintana Roo.
Inequality is also a huge problem in the state, although the Gini Index dropped from 0.51 in 2014 to 0.45, according to a 2018 government report, based on data from 2016 (the latest year available). The Gini coefficient, where 1 indicates the maximum inequality and 0 the greatest equality, is used to calculate income inequality.
The situation of indigenous women is worse, as they face marginalization, discrimination, violence, land dispossession and lack of access to public services.
More than one million indigenous people live in the state.
Women participating in a project funded by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation record their savings in a white notebook and deposit them in a gray box. Mayan indigenous woman Norma Tzuc belongs to a group taking part in the initiative in Uayma, in the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS
Climate crisis, yet another vulnerability
Itza Castañeda, director of equity at the non-governmental World Resources Institute (WRI), highlights the persistence of structural inequalities in the peninsula that exacerbate the effects of the climate crisis.
“In the three states there is greater inequality between men and women. This stands in the way of women’s participation and decision-making. Furthermore, the existing evidence shows that there are groups in conditions of greater vulnerability to climate impacts,” she told IPS from the city of Tepoztlán, near Mexico City.
She added that “climate change accentuates existing inequalities, but a differentiated impact assessment is lacking.”
Official data indicate that there are almost 17 million indigenous people in Mexico, representing 13 percent of the total population, of which six million are women.
Of indigenous households, almost a quarter are headed by women, while 65 percent of indigenous girls and women aged 12 and over perform unpaid work compared to 35 percent of indigenous men – a sign of the inequality in the system of domestic and care work.
To add to their hardships, the Yucatan region is highly vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, such as droughts, devastating storms and rising sea levels. In June 2021, tropical storm Cristobal caused the flooding of Uayma, where three women’s groups are operating under the savings system.
For that reason, the project includes a risk management and hurricane early warning system.
The Mexican government is building a National Care System, but the involvement of indigenous women and the benefits for them are still unclear.
Petul looks excitedly at the crops planted on her land and dreams of a larger garden, with more plants and more chickens roaming around, and perhaps a pig to be fattened. She also thinks about the possibility of emulating women from previous groups who have set up small stores with their savings.
“They will lay eggs and we can eat them or sell them. With the savings we can also buy roosters, in the market chicks are expensive,” said Petul, brimming with hope, who in addition to taking care of her home and family sells vegetables.
Her neighbor Tzuc, who until now has been a homemaker, said that the women in her group have to take into account the effects of climate change. “It has been very hot, hotter than before, and there is drought. Fortunately, we have water, but we have to take care of it,” she said.
For his part, Torre underscored the results of the savings groups. The women “left extreme poverty behind. The pandemic hit hard, because there were families who had businesses and stopped selling. The organization gave them resilience,” he said.
In addition, a major achievement is that the households that have already completed the project continue to save, regularly attend meetings and have kept producing food.
The bill is built on the assumption that raising the age of marriage will eradicate the practice of child marriage. However, this rationale doesn’t have any prior evidence to support it, because even when the legal age was set at 18, child marriages continued to take place without any fear of the law. This begs the question: Can legislation alone possibly curb child marriage?
Prevalence of child marriage
In a patriarchal society such as India, girls are often raised with the ultimate goal of marriage. They are confined to the household and not educated or expected to enter the workforce. Thus, until they are married, they are seen as a financial burden by the families, and marrying them off early is not only consistent with tradition but also more economically feasible
Child marriage, according to UNICEF, is defined as “a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18, and refers to both formal marriages and informal unions in which children under the age of 18 live with a partner as if married”. It is a consequence of deep-rooted socio-cultural norms and entrenched gender inequalities, which end up disproportionately impacting girls.
In a patriarchal society such as India, girls are often raised with the ultimate goal of marriage. They are confined to the household and not educated or expected to enter the workforce. Thus, until they are married, they are seen as a financial burden by the families, and marrying them off early is not only consistent with tradition but also more economically feasible.
The risk of an extramarital pregnancy—which can endanger marriage prospects and make the girl a financial liability for an indefinite period—also makes child marriage seem to be a solution instead of a problem for many Indian communities.
Thus, even though they’re illegal, child marriages have wide societal sanction. This is evident from the recently released fifth round of the National Family Health Survey, according to which nearly one-fourth of women aged between 20 and 24 were reported to have been married before 18.
The decrease is marginal from the last round of the survey conducted in 2015–16, despite the fact that the existing child marriage law has been in place for over four decades. While there was an impressive drop in child marriages from 2005–06 and 2015–16, this might be attributable to better educational opportunities and other factors rather than the law.
Concerns about the proposed legislation
The proposed legislation to raise the legal marriage age for girls to 21 can have several harmful consequences.
1. Possible misuse of the law
According to a survey by Partners for Law in Development, 65 percent of the cases under the existing child marriage law were in response to elopement (not necessarily involving marriage) and were filed by disapproving parents or families.
These cases would be wrongfully filed to harass the couple, their age or legality of the marriage notwithstanding. Increasing the age to 21 will bring more consenting adults who choose to marry under the threat of such harassment, and could become a tool for people to oppose inter-religious and inter-caste marriages.
2. Disempowerment of women A 2008 Law Commission report on reforming family law recommended a uniform age of marriage for boys and girls at 18 years and not 21. The reason: If all citizens can vote, enter contracts, be guardians, tried as adults for crimes they commit at 18, why shouldn’t they be allowed to get married as well, regardless of their gender? The new law could curtail the freedom of choice of a greater number of women.
3. Possible increase in sex-selective practices The current socio-economic system makes people want to marry their daughters as soon as they can or choose not to have a daughter at all. Increasing the legal marriage age without changing patriarchal social norms can result in parents feeling even more ‘burdened’ by what they view as additional responsibility of the girl child, which in turn could lead to an increase in sex-selective practices.
There are several strategies that have worked globally in reducing the incidence of child marriages. Some solutions that might work in the Indian context are discussed below.
1. Bringing about parity in the legal age of marriage
We endorse the recommendation of the 2008 Law Commission to make the legal age of marriage for boys and girls uniform at 18 years and not 21. When individuals can vote at 18, they should also be allowed to choose their partners at this age.
2. Investing in girls’ education
There is clear evidence that allowing girls to complete their education delays marriage and provides them with the opportunity of being financially independent. According to the NFHS-4, the median age of marriage increases from 17.2 years for women with no schooling to 22.7 years for women with 12 or more years of schooling. Education enables them to fulfil their aspirations and live a life of dignity, and affords them the agency to uphold their sexual and reproductive rights in their choice to marry.
Child marriages are closely tied to low levels of education, poverty, and rural residence. The NFHS-4 reveals that girls living in rural areas with little or no education and belonging to the lowest wealth quintile are more likely to be married before they turn 18.
The government must address the barriers to girls’ education by providing a safe environment, improving the quality of education, and making girls’ education a more useful investment for parents.
3. Economic and social empowerment of girls
Investing in the capacity and skill building of adolescent girls is critical for them to realise their economic potential. Financial empowerment often gives individuals a greater say in their households and their own future. It can give girls the ability to say no to early marriage, and the family won’t see them as a liability. Greater attention to creating safe opportunities for paid work among women and girls is also required.
4. Targeted social and behaviour change communication (SBCC) campaigns
To end child marriage, we must make investments in targeted SBCC. Social norms that exclude girls and boys from marriage-related decision-making need to change.
Evaluation findings from the Population Foundation of India’s flagship SBCC initiative ‘Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon’ showed that reinforced messaging brought about increased awareness of the perils of child marriage and a positive shift in the attitude of girls and parents exposed to the programme.
We need more comprehensive SBCC initiatives that are supported by local leadership—including elected representatives, community, and religious leaders—to transform gender stereotypes of submissiveness and institutional discrimination that denies women agency.
5. Policies and programmes that reach the most marginalised
Marginalised communities are more vulnerable to early marriages. According to the NFHS-4, general category women tend to get married at a later age, with the median age of marriage for women aged 25–49 being 19.5 years. This figure is 18.5 years for women from other backward castes, 18.4 for scheduled tribes, and 18.1 for scheduled castes.
We need more policies and programmes that connect girls and young women, and their families, especially from marginalised communities, to financial institutions, education, information, health (including sexual, reproductive, and mental health), and nutrition services.
6. Ensuring registration of marriages
Despite a Supreme Court ruling making registration of marriages mandatory, state governments have done little to implement the verdict. The governments must develop a mechanism to ensure that all marriages (including civil, religious, and customary unions), births, and deaths are mandatorily registered through a system, as a means to track marriages and the age of marriage.
Moreover, action should be taken against those authorising and facilitating child marriages in rural areas.
Any approach to end child marriage needs to be geared towards securing the rights of girls, especially those vulnerable to early marriage. We have to think beyond punitive measures and legislations and transform the patriarchal socio-economic system that fosters child marriages.
Delegates take a group photo at the Young Leaders & Alumni Workshop at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver, Canada. Credit: Isabella Sarmiento
NEW YORK, Mar 18 2022 (IPS) – During this year’s sixty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW66), we are eager to see the global community pivot towards more inclusive approaches to advocacy. It’s imperative to put the spotlight on women’s rights and youth-led organizations in communities that are often left out of key discussions. By handing the mic over to advocates across all backgrounds and ages, we can shift to a model that enables all advocates to take a lead role in policy-making and ultimately translate promises and rhetoric into real impact and accountability.
Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ways that the global community works together to push for inclusive progress toward gender equality — progress that fully and effectively engages and equally benefits everyone — are fundamentally changing. Private conversations between the organizations and people with the resources and privilege to access the halls of power have given way to hybrid events and videoconferences that are open to a more diverse, intergenerational set of stakeholders than ever before. This significant shift began to open the doors to more inclusive partnerships.
Also, during these past two years, a global reckoning called on us all to meaningfully transform our advocacy, practices, and programs. International development organizations, including our own, took a long, overdue look in the mirror, and in some cases, began the deep learning and unlearning needed to acknowledge the persistent power imbalances that plague our sector at large. It’s a first step in living up to the values of equity and inclusion — not just on paper, but in practice.
As the world as we know it changed, we were hard at work changing, too. We began actively leveraging our power and influence more intentionally than ever before to center the work and expertise of women’s rights and youth-led organizations in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Now, we are digging deeper to find and use new tools that enable advocates to co-create and co-lead by themselves so that our work and the Women Deliver 2023 Conference (WD2023) is more inclusive, diverse, consultative, and accessible than ever before.
Young gender equality advocates kick off the Youth Zone at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver, Canada. Credit: This Is It Studios
In “calling us in” and championing our ability to foster more inclusive partnerships across all of our programs, we are taking action to effectively and authentically advocate for, with, and alongside girls and women everywhere, in all their intersecting identities, to catalyze lasting progress on gender equality.
Transforming ourselves is of course a continuous process. Each day, we are learning to do better and to be better. We hope that our key learnings, below, can support our development colleagues, wherever they find themselves on their journey.
1. Accessibility and inclusion must lead the way — in-person and virtually.
According to expert studies, organizations and individuals from LMICs are often under-represented at global health convenings. From day one, it’s urgent to intentionally engage those who have historically been excluded. In planning WD2023, we have leveraged the lessons of the past two years and from prior Women Deliver Conferences. We used an open application to select one-third of our Conference Advisory Group — a diverse panel with a balance of technical expertise. Our advisors represent 30 organizations — 10 individuals are from youth or youth-led organizations and 35 are from LMICs. We have done this to ensure that the Conference is co-created from the start by organizations and individuals representing the intersectional identities of the girls and women we work with and for.
In planning how to shape the dialogue, foster collaboration, and drive collective action before, during, and after the Conference, we’re working with our partners to ensure that all Conference advocacy spaces, be they digital or physical, are accessible to all. This includes low-bandwidth options, closed captioning, interpretation in multiple languages, and International Sign Language. On-site, we will also provide trauma-informed specialists, breastfeeding/nursing stations, child safeguarding support, and mental health specialists.
Mme Safiétou Diop, President of Réseau Siggil Jigeen speaking at a press conference during the launch of the Deliver for Good Senegal Campaign in Dakar, Senegal in 2019.
2. Move from meaningful youth engagement to co-leadership and intergenerational action.
We created the 14-person Young Leaders Program Alumni Committee, with an honorarium for their valuable expertise, to advise us on strategy and implementation of the Young Leaders Program and ideate youth co-creation opportunities. This committee provides invaluable guidance to ensure the Young Leaders Program models meaningful youth engagement and co-leadership, and effectively meets the needs of Young Leaders on the ground.
Women Deliver also hosts Multi-Country Workshops to foster capacity strengthening, knowledge sharing, and coordinated advocacy on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and gender equality. Starting in 2021, these workshops are now designed and led by a Young Leader Planning Committee representing the regions where the workshops take place. They are in the driver’s seat as they craft workshop content and programming, while Women Deliver provides logistical support and the virtual space to gather. This co-created process has led to more targeted — and impactful — workshops that cater to Young Leaders’ specific needs and build capacity in the issue areas where it’s most needed.
Delegates taking a group photo on stage at the Deliver for Good Campaign side event “Leveraging National Movements for Global Change” at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver, Canada.
3. Elevate diverse voices and support organizations working on the ground.
Incusion and participation have to be integrated into the mission of development work, not a one-off tactic or strategy. Diverse, resilient feminist and women’s rights organizations and movements are – and must always be positioned as – the key drivers of change for gender equality and women’s rights across the globe.
Over the past two years, we have stepped back to shift power across every aspect of our organization’s activities, policies, programs, and behaviors, into the hands of the youth and women’s rights groups most impacted by our work. For example, in 2020, in partnership with Girl Effect, as well as with young people themselves, we worked to understand how youth in India, Malawi, and Rwanda use digital platforms to learn about their sexual and reproductive health (SRHR). This project was designed and executed by more than 160 adolescent girls and young women, who worked hand in hand with researchers on the ground in India, Malawi, and Rwanda to conduct interviews within their own communities, as well as to design questions, discuss results, and generate recommendations. Moving forward, we must involve girls and women in all aspects of data collection and evidence generation that impacts them. This will ensure that the local knowledge and skills needed to drive sustainable change in their own communities, regions, and countries are an integral part of effective advocacy and decision-making.
We’re now handing the pen directly to Young Leaders and spotlighting the work of youth-led organizations during key advocacy moments. Last year, the Deliver for Good Campaign organized its first ever Continental Conversation — an idea conceived by partners in Kenya and Senegal — as a way to work together towards gender equality in the region. What was first envisioned as a one-off peer-to-peer sharing opportunity via videoconference became understood as a vital, first-of-its-kind Continental Conversation to bridge divides — some of which had never been crossed. Together, the Campaign’s country partners shared their own experiences, lessons, challenges, and successes in advancing gender equality, laying the groundwork for a cross-regional peer-to-peer learning model with the power to accelerate progress on girls’ and women’s health and rights in Kenya, in Senegal, and around the world.
Over the past year, we have also co-convened multi-sectoral coalitions with diverse partners representing the intersectional identities of girls and women. For example, as part of the SRHR & Climate Justice Coalition, we’re working on collective action and coordinated advocacy in partnership with more than 60 representatives from a wide range of civil society organizations. The Coalition is working to advance SRHR and gender equality in the context of climate change from an intersectional and climate justice approach.
The Coalition emerged from the need to break down silos between the SRHR and Climate Justice organizations and movements, facilitate knowledge sharing, jointly mobilize, and amplify the voices and priorities of grassroots organizations. These organizations are led by girls and women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and Indigenous people from LMICs, particularly those most affected by climate change and without continuous access to high-quality SRH services. The Coalition is currently raising awareness of the interlinkages of SRHR and climate change in order to ensure SRHR is a key part of climate change conversations and action strategies ahead of key policy moments, such as CSW66 and COP27.
4. Collect and present data that accurately represents the diverse needs of all girls and women.
Sustainable progress — and lasting change — will take all of us. Over the past two years, we’ve focused on connecting advocates working across different issue areas and collecting gender-disaggregated data. The data is broken down into the many factors that shape people’s lives, including race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, and socioeconomic class in order to drive collective action, the mainstay of transformative change. We also need to engage with data scientists from regions most impacted by this research.
As Women Deliver evolves and grows, we will continue to call upon our partners and funders, including in the private sector, to ensure that the international development world champions and secures robust, feminist funding and resources for women’s rights organizations, youth, and other marginalized communities. We hope you will join us in leveraging the changes set into motion during the pandemic and the global reckoning in our sector. Let’s work together to bridge existing divides and form inclusive partnerships — between countries, sectors, and generations.
The authors are Kathleen Sherwin (CEO/President), Divya Mathew (Director, Policy & Advocacy), Julia Fan (Senior Manager, Youth Engagement), Gretchen Gasteier (Manager, Conference), Rachel Elliott (Senior Associate, Communications) of Women Deliver
Youth activists Peace Umanah, from Nigeria and Aurelia Naa Adjeley Sowah-Mensah from Ghana ensure that young people are made aware of their Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights. Credit: ICFP
Nairobi, Kenya, Mar 16 2022 (IPS) – Travelling in northern Nigeria, Peace Umanah noticed teenage girls with multiple children – they would be walking with one strapped to their back, holding another by hand and with a protruding belly.
“These were worrisome sights that got me thinking about whether these young girls knew about contraceptive choices or if they were not given information to make beneficial decisions.”
The same question weighed heavily on young Aurelia Naa Adjeley Sowah-Mensah from Ghana, who grew up in a community where teenage pregnancies are common – mirroring the situation in many developing countries.
These questions set the young women on a trailblazing path to change the trajectory of adolescent and teenage pregnancies in their countries.
The pair have joined forces with other young people, world leaders and actors in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) to give young people in every corner of the world much-needed tools to navigate their sexuality. They hope to remove SRHR-related challenges to enable young women to benefit from socio-economic growth and development opportunities.
Other award winners include Tanaka Chirombo from Malawi, Alison Hoover from Atlanta, USA, and Muhammad Sarim (Saro) Imram from Pakistan.
Awardees are from countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, selected from a pool of more than 300 youth worldwide who applied for the Youth Trailblazer Award. The award recognises youth leadership and innovation in family planning and SRHR.
“Selected youth demonstrated strong ideas and commitment, creative thinking that pushed the field forward and challenged norms, and successfully conveyed a clear and powerful message,” says Rimon II.
Youth Trailblazer Award winners will be integrated throughout the ICFP, the world’s largest scientific conference on family planning and reproductive health, to amplify and highlight the voices of young leaders globally, he adds.
“Awardees will actively participate in planning activities for the ICFP, including integral participation on the ICFP subcommittee(s) of their choice, engagement as speakers and moderators at sessions, as well as other conference engagement opportunities that will magnify the voices, perspectives, and experiences of the youth.”
Youth participation will bring to life ICFP’s stance that countries’ universal health coverage packages should include youth-friendly family planning and SRH products and services.
“As of 2021, the modern contraceptive prevalence rate shows only 17 percent of all women of reproductive age in Nigeria use contraceptives,” Umanah says.
In the absence of youth-friendly services, myths and misconceptions influence young people’s understanding of contraceptives. She says they sometimes use lime, soda, antibiotics, and salt to prevent unplanned pregnancies.
Adolescent and teenage pregnancies are the most pressing issues. Consequences include life-threatening health complications and the risk of missing out on lifelong learning and earning opportunities.
According to government statistics, one in every five girls in Kenya between the ages of 15 to 19 is either pregnant or already a mother. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls in this East African nation.
As a youth champion engaging adolescents and young people, Umanah says the cohort needs safe spaces free of stigma and judgment, where they can find answers and solutions to their SRHR needs.
“For young women and girls, being able to speak up and be heard is critical. Social media tools, such as 9ja Girls Now, gives girls a platform to get connected across distances,” Umanah observes.
“9ja Girls is a Facebook platform and a safe space where girls learn and ask questions about love, life and health and find answers.”
Sowah-Mensah is an SRHR mentor of adolescent girls and young women under the Girl Boss initiative with the Youth Action Movement (YAM) of the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana.
Without support, Sowah-Mensah says, “some girls exchange sex for food or money, ending up in unplanned pregnancies. To avoid stigma, they turn to unsafe ways (to terminate the pregnancy), such as grinding and consuming glass bottles or drinking a mixture of sugar and alcohol. Some lose their lives.”
A dedicated ICFP Youth Pre-conference will take place November 11-13 to support youth leaders and their programmatic work, advocacy, and research.
Rimon II says youth involvement is the “best way to ensure diverse voices are heard and strategies are developed that are sustainable, inclusive, culturally competent and representative of sexual and reproductive health and rights at the global level.”
SRHR youth experts such as Sowah-Mensah and Umanah agree.
Sowah-Mensah says young people are the demographic majority and a powerful instrument for development because they have many innovative ideas.
“But a large percentage of our leaders are not young and are thus unable to address young people’s most pressing needs for SRHR services. You have one generation making bodily autonomy decisions on behalf of a totally different generation,” she says.
The awardees assert that the status quo must change to achieve a desirable outcome. Umanah says, “In designing solutions to challenges that face adolescent girls and young women, their concerns and voices should be the loudest. They should lead conversations towards desired solutions.”
ICFP is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins University and more than two dozen other public, private, and non-profit sponsors, including the World Health Organization and United Nations Population Fund.
Peruvian farmer Hilda Roca, 37, stands in her agro-ecological garden in Cusipata, a town located at more than 3,300 meters above sea level in the highlands of Cuzco, where she grows vegetables for her family and sells the surplus with the support of her adolescent daughter and son. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS
LIMA, Mar 7 2022 (IPS) – “Pachamama (Mother Earth) is upset with all the damage we are doing to her,” says Hilda Roca, an indigenous Peruvian farmer from Cusipata, in the Andes highlands of the department of Cuzco, referring to climate change and the havoc it is wreaking on her life and her environment.
From her town, more than 3,300 meters above sea level, she told IPS that if women were in power equally with men, measures in favor of nature that would alleviate the climate chaos would have been approved long ago. “But we need to fight sexism so that we are not discriminated against and so our rights are respected,” said the Quechua-speaking farmer.
The aim is to “make visible how the climate crisis is a problem that is closely related to inequality, and in particular to gender inequality, which is expressed in an unequal distribution of power, resources, wealth, work and time between women and men,” Ana Güezmes, director of the Gender Affairs Division of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), told IPS.
Latin America is highly vulnerable to the climate crisis despite the fact that it emits less than 10 percent of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.
In addition, climate injustice has a female face in the region: lower-income population groups, where the proportion of women is higher, are more exposed to climate effects due to their limited access to opportunities, despite the fact that they are less responsible for emissions.
The extreme poverty rate in the region increased from 13.1 percent to 13.8 percent of the population – from 81 to 86 million people – between 2020 and 2021, according to data released by ECLAC in January. Women between 25 and 59 years of age are the most affected compared to their male counterparts. This situation is worse among indigenous and rural populations, who depend on nature for their livelihoods.
And it is women who are mainly responsible for feeding their families, fetching water and firewood, and taking care of the vegetable garden and animals.
“That is why we maintain that the post-pandemic recovery must be transformative in terms of sustainability and equality,” Güezmes emphasized from ECLAC headquarters in Santiago, Chile.
To this end, she said, this recovery “must untie the four structural knots of gender inequality that affect the region so much: socioeconomic inequality and poverty; the sexual division of labor and the unjust organization of caregiving; the concentration of power and patriarchal, discriminatory and violent cultural patterns; and the predominance of the culture of privilege.”
Luz Mery Panche, an indigenous leader of the Nasa people of Colombia. : Courtesy of Luz Mery Panche
Reconciling with Mother Earth
Luz Mery Panche, an indigenous leader of the Nasa people, discussed the need to incorporate a gender perspective into the climate crisis. She talked to IPS from San Vicente del Caguán, in the department of Caquetá, in the Amazon region of Colombia, a country facing violent attacks on defenders of land and the environment.
For her, more than sustainable, “it is about moving towards a sustainable future.”
“We need to change the conditions that have generated war and chaos in the country, which is due to the hijacking of political and economic power by an elite that has been in the decision-making spaces since the country emerged 200 years ago,” she said.
Panche is a member of the National Ethnic Peace Coordination committee (Cenpaz) and in that capacity is part of the special high-level body with ethnic peoples for the implementation of the peace agreement in her country. She is a human rights activist and a defender of the Amazon rainforest.
She argued that to achieve a sustainable future “we must reconcile with Mother Earth and move towards the happy, joyful way of life that we deserve as human beings.”
This, she said, starts by changing the economic model violently imposed on many areas without taking into account the use of the soil, its capacities and benefits; by changing concepts of economy and the educational model; and by organizing local economies and focusing on a future of respect, solidarity and fraternity.
Panche said that in order to move towards this model, women “must have informed participation regarding the effects of climate change.
“Although we prefer to call Mother Earth’s fever ‘global warming’. And it is up to us to remember to make decisions that put us back on the ancestral path of harmony and balance, what we call returning to the origin, to the womb, to improve coexistence and the sense of humanity,” she said.
Uruguayan ecofeminist Lilian Celiberti carries a banner reading “Our body, our territory” in the streets of Tarapoto, a city in the central Peruvian jungle, during an edition of the Pan-Amazon Social Forum. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS
Changing times: another kind of coexistence with nature and equality
Lilian Celiberti, Uruguayan ecofeminist and founder of the non-governmental Cotidiano Mujer and Colectivo Dafnias, told IPS from Montevideo that governments have the tools to work on gender equality today in order to have a sustainable future tomorrow, as this year’s Mar. 8 slogan states.
But against this, she said, there are economic interests at play that maintain a development proposal based on growth and extreme exploitation of nature.
She called for boosting local economies and agroecology among other community alternatives in the Latin American region that run counter to the dominant government approach.
“But I believe that we are at a very complex crossroads and that only social participation will be able to find paths of multiple, diverse participation and collective sustainability that incorporate care policies and awareness of the eco-dependence of human society,” she said.
Celiberti said “we are on a planet of finite resources and we have to generate a new relationship with nature, but I see that governments are far from this kind of thinking.”
ECLAC’s Güezmes emphasized that social movements, especially those led by young indigenous and non-indigenous women in the region, have exposed the multiple asymmetries and inequalities that exist.
Ana Güezmes is director of the Gender Division of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. CREDIT: ECLAC
“We have an intergenerational debt, where young women have put at the center of the debate the unsustainability of the current development style that has direct impacts on our future at a global level and direct impacts on their livelihoods, territories and communities,” said Güezmes, who is from Spain and has worked for years within the United Nations in several Latin American countries.
She recognized the contribution of feminist movements that focus on a redistribution of power, resources and time to move towards an egalitarian model that includes the reduction of violence.
And she warned that from a climate perspective, the window of opportunity for action is closing, so we must act quickly, creating synergies between gender equality and climate change responses.
Güezmes said that “we are looking at a change of era” with global challenges that require a profound transformation that recognizes how the economy, society and the environment are interrelated. “To leave no one behind and no woman out, we must advance synergistically among these three dimensions of development: economic, social and environmental,” she remarked.
The expert cited gender equality as a central element of sustainable development because women need to be at the center of the responses. To this end, ECLAC plans to promote affirmative actions that bolster comprehensive care systems, decent work and the full and effective participation of women in strategic sectors of the economy.
She also raised the need to build “a renewed global pact” to strengthen multilateralism and achieve greater solidarity with middle-income countries on issues central to inclusive growth, sustainable development and gender equality.
“We have reiterated the urgent need to advance new political, social and fiscal pacts focused on structural change for equality,” Güezmes stressed.
She stated that in this perspective, the participation of women in all their diversity in decision-making processes is very important, particularly with regard to climate change.
To this end, she remarked, it is necessary to monitor their degree of intervention at the local, national and international levels – where asymmetry persists – and to provide women’s organizations, especially grassroots ones, with the necessary resources to become involved in such spaces.
“It involves strengthening financial flows so that they reach women who are at the forefront of responses to climate change and who are familiar with the situation in their communities, and boosting their capacities so that women from indigenous, native and Afro-descendant peoples participate in decision-making spaces related to the environment to promote the exchange of their ancestral knowledge on adaptation and mitigation measures,” she said.
Güezmes highlighted the contribution of women environmental activists and defenders to democracy, peace and sustainable development. It is necessary to “recognize their contribution to the protection of biodiversity and to development, despite doing so in conditions of fragility and exploitation and having less access to land, productive resources and their control,” she said.
For her part, Roca, who like other local women in the Peruvian Andes highlands practices agroecology to adapt to climate change and reconcile with Pachamama, calls for their voices to be heard.
“We have ideas and proposals and they need to be taken into account to improve the climate and our lives,” the indigenous farmer said.