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Promoting women's sexual rights: a pan-African movement.

The year 2003 will surely go down in history as the year women's sexual and reproductive health and fights were put irrevocably onto the pan-African agenda. Early February saw the largest gathering so far of policy makers, researchers, health care providers, activists, academics, lawyers and advocates working on women's health and fights from 22 African countries. They came together in Johannesburg for a conference celebrating African women's fights to healthy bodies, minds and souls.

The African Women's Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights Conference: "Prosperity through Empowerment", was organised by AMANITARE, a pan-African partnership working towards the recognition of African women's and girls' sexual and reproductive health and fights as fundamental to their civil and human rights.


AMANITARE was launched in Uganda in 2000 and has three main focuses of work:

* Advocating for freedom from gender-based violence (coordinated by the Isis Women's International Cross-Cultural Exchange, Uganda);

* Integrating women's rights into health care delivery (coordinated by the Reproductive Health Research Unit, South Africa); and

* Reaching out to new generations (coordinated by Girl's Power Initiative, Nigeria).

The AMANITARE partnership is based on the principle that all women and girls, regardless of citizenship, class, age, culture, religion, marital status, ethnic identity, sexual orientation and physical and mental ability, have the right to:

* bodily integrity and sexual autonomy;

* sexual enjoyment and healthy reproduction;

* protection from the threat of death and disease as a result of their reproductive functions, and freedom from coercion, violence or punishment as a means of controlling sexuality and fertility.

Tribute to a great queen

The name AMANITARE was chosen to pay homage to a great queen among a ruling legacy of African queens known for their fighting spirit and strength in ancient Nubia. While they were the first women rulers in recorded history, their role and contribution to human civilisation has been historically underplayed until recently. South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe fittingly opened the sexual rights conference with a rousing praise poem to Amanitare and all women in Africa whose bodies have borne the brunt of sexual oppression and yet whose bodies have had the power and strength to bear, nurture and protect future generations.

The conference agenda reflected the broad spectrum of women's sexual and reproductive health and rights in the framework of international and regional agreements on health and women's rights. Among the many high ranking participants, Angela Melo, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa for the African Commission on Human & People's Rights, and Mary Maboreke, Director of the Women, Gender and Development Directorate of the African Union, supported and applauded the event.

While it is impossible to share the knowledge and inspiration of the many different sessions conducted during the four days of the conference, a few will be highlighted here. The session on "the role of Islam in enabling sexual and reproductive health and rights", moderated by Ayesha Imam of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, assessed alternative Islamic theological perspectives on women's rights, sexuality and identity and presented the work of progressive Muslim organisations to break taboos around women's sexuality.

Under the theme "Women's realities: Vulnerabilities, violations and violence, sessions focussed on expressions of gender based violence" including trafficking in women, female genital mutilation and domestic violence, and the development of integrated strategies to better address them, including changing male socialisation and sexual stereotypes. The importance of different systems of law, constitutional and customary, and their role in securing and protecting individual women's rights was considered in this context. Women's vulnerability to HIV and Aids due to gendered social and economic inequalities was a central issue, as was the need to combat the unacceptably high rates of maternal mortality in Africa resulting from unsafe abortion. It was stressed that we need to assess how gender affects health in order to improve women and men's health and promote their human rights

Sister Namibia participated in the panel "Sexual Rights: Reality or Fantasy?" with a presentation analysing nationalism, homophobia and the well-being of lesbian women. This was well received and participants agreed that the needs and rights of sexual minorities deserved greater attention from the sexual rights movement.

Saving women's lives from unsafe abortion

Just a month after the AMANITARE conference, more than 100 African leaders from 15 countries came together in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in early March to deliberate on the causes and effects of unsafe abortion, which results in the deaths of about 30,000 African women every year.

The "Action to Reduce Maternal Mortality in Africa" conference brought together health ministers, parliamentarians, health-care professionals, women's rights advocates, lawyers and femenist nuns. They shared a wealth of research on the extent and effects of unsafe abortion in their various countries and presented information on the latest technologies for safe abortion.

They called on African governments to uphold commitments under numerous international agreements to address unsafe abortion effectively, by increasing the availability of information and services to help prevent unwanted pregnancy and by making safe abortion available to the full extent of local and national laws.

Finding political will

"The primary interest of everyone involved in this conference is to save women's lives from unsafe abortion--something we know how to do but for which the global community has lacked political will," said Dr. Eunice Brookman-Amissah, a former Minister of Health of Ghana who now heads the Ipas Africa Alliance for Women's Reproductive Health and Rights.

Participants also called on African governments and the global community to oppose the Global Gag Rule imposed in January 2001 by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. This policy disqualifies nongovernmental organisations outside the United States from receiving U.S. family planning funding if they provide counseling on abortion, provide legal abortion services except in very narrow circumstances, or participate in political debate surrounding abortion.

"By reducing funds available for preventive family planning, the Global Gag Rule clearly impedes efforts to reduce unsafe abortion," said Brookman-Amissah. "Contrary to its stated intentions, the policy results in more unwanted pregnancies, more unsafe abortions, and more deaths of women and girls. We who have seen those effects first-hand can no longer tolerate silence about the gag rule's tragic effects."

Participants decried the lack of attention to reproductive health in general and to unsafe abortion in particular in programmes to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, which United Nations member nations adopted in 2000. "Maternal mortality cannot and will not be reduced by 75 percent by 2015, nor will goals related to poverty reduction and economic development be achieved, without attention to unsafe abortion," Brookman-Amissah said.

"We recognise that, worldwide, restrictive abortion laws and lack of safe abortion services are major factors contributing to the disproportionately high mortality of women from unsafe abortion. Most African countries operate under archaic abortion laws that were imposed by former colonial powers and which have long since been changed in those countries.

In most countries where abortion laws are liberalised, there are almost no deaths from unsafe abortions. We note that legislation in most African countries legally permits abortion in limited circumstances--such as in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman's life--but that the majority of women and health-care providers remain uninformed of their legal rights and obligations. We further recognise that many of the root causes of unsafe abortion are the same as those underlying the HIV/AIDS pandemic."

(From the Communique of the 'Action to reduce maternal mortality in Africa conference, adopted on 7 March in Addis Ababa.) See and for more information.
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Author:Frank, Liz
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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