March 8, 2015: Amref Health Africa calls for elimination of sexual and gender-based violence as the world marks International Women’s Day.
On this International Women’s Day, Amref Health Africa joins the rest of the world in celebrating the strengths and achievements of women at family, community, national and regional levels in Africa. We believe that sustainable development will only come to Africa if women are at the centre of it. It is for this reason that Amref Health Africa has prioritized the health of women and children as an entry point to lasting health change in Africa.
As we celebrate this day, we are cognizant of the laws, policies, practices, cultures and traditions that pose a serious risk to the health of women, thereby compromising their health, the stability of families and economic development of communities. At the core of this is sexual and gender-based violence, a set of practices that lead to physical, psychological and sexual harm and that are meted out on women more than men due to the mere fact of their being female.
While global data shows that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime, the figures are much higher in Africa. In Kenya, for example, 43 per cent of ever-partnered women aged 15 – 49 years have experienced some form of violence; in rural Ethiopia, 49 per cent of women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner, rising to 59 per cent ever experiencing sexual violence; while in rural Tanzania, 47 per cent of ever-partnered women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner, with 31 percent having experienced sexual violence. Overall, nearly 50 per cent of all African women have experienced sexual and gender-based violence at one point or another in their lifetime.
Sexual and gender-based violence is a major cause of ill health among women characterized by death and disability due to injuries as well as an increased vulnerability to a range of physical and mental health problems. Survivors of sexual violence are more likely than other women to have unintended pregnancies, report symptoms of reproductive tract infections and have multiple partners. They are less likely to use condoms and other contraceptives. Violence and the fear of violence severely limit women’s contribution to social and economic development, thereby hindering achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and other national and international development goals.
In addition, female genital mutilation (FGM) continues to be practiced in various parts of the world. It is a culturally and socially sanctioned gender subjugation effort that also undermines the health of women. Currently, between 100 - 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to FGM. It is estimated that 91.5 million girls and women above nine years old in Africa are currently living with the consequences of FGM, with another three million at risk of undergoing the harmful rite every year. One worrying trend in Africa is the dramatic increase in the proportion of FGM operations carried out by trained health care personnel. Today, 94 per cent of families in Egypt as well as 65 per cent in Mauritania, 48 per cent in Côte d’Ivoire and 46 per cent in Kenyan communities that practice FGM arrange for their daughters to undergo this “medicalized” form of FGM. Yet irrespective of where or how it is done, FGM undermines the human rights of women and legitimizes gender subjugation, in addition to the medical problems it may cause.
Another cultural practice that undermines the health and rights of women is widow inheritance, a practice that is prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. Sex rituals are part of this practice and are known to expose women to HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as unwanted pregnancies. Forced sex and physical violence are prevalent where women resist inheritance. The practice is perpetuated by stigmatizing and isolating the widowed woman, denying her rights to property and curtailing her right of association – thus stopping her from effectively participating in development.
On a more medical side, obstetricfistula remains a public health problem in Africa. Obstetric fistula is the development of a gap between the birth canal and either the bladder (commonly) or the rectum. It leads to uncontrollable leakage of urine and/or stool through the birth canal. Women who experience obstetric fistula suffer constant incontinence, shame, social segregation and persistent reproductive health problems. Due to social isolation they are unable to participate in economic activities and sink deep into poverty. It is estimated that more than two million young women live with untreated obstetric fistula in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Each year between 50,000 to 100,000 women worldwide are affected by obstetric fistula. The development of obstetric fistula is directly linked to poor and delayed management of obstructed labour. It is the bane of a non-functional reproductive healthcare for women and equates to denial of rights to health. On the other hand, it is totally preventable where the health system functions optimally.
In line with the theme for this year’s Women’s Day celebration of “Make it Happen”, Amref Health Africa calls upon governments, development agencies and communities to double their efforts to prevent and eliminate sexual and gender-based violence, FGM, widow inheritance and obstetric fistula as a first step to realizing the full potential of women’s participation in development.
Through a number of innovative programmes across Africa, Amref Health Africa has influenced policy change, supported governments to implement programmes and partnered with communities to reduce sexual and gender-based violence, eliminate FGM, treat and rehabilitate women suffering from fistula and to uphold the rights of women. The organization offers itself to partner with like-minded players in realizing this goal by providing technical support in its areas of expertise and providing linkages with communities where support is most needed in Africa.