GlobalPOWER Women Network Africa Conference Opens in Harare

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwashs | iZiviso Global Editor At Large

HARARE, Zimbabwe – Women parliamentarians, leading African women entrepreneurs, civil society leaders, and development partners from Africa are meeting in Harare over the next two days for the inauguration and launch of the GlobalPOWER Women Network Africa.

Image

The conference, being attended by approximately 300 participants, is aimed at providing a strategic political platform to accelerate game changing approaches to HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health and rights responses for women and girls. The idea to create an Africa-specific GlobalPOWER Women Network stemmed fom a September 2010 meeting in Washington DC that saw prominent female decision makers come together alongside their US peers to discuss how to accelerate the implementation of the UNAIDS Agenda for Women and Girls.

Participants at the conference are expected to address the key issues affecting girls and women in Africa including eliminating new HIV infections among children, keeping mothers alive and maternal and child health. The meeting will result in the “Harare Call to Action” to advance women’s empowerment and gender equality through HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights responses.

President of the GlobalPOWER Women Network Africa and Zimbabwe Deputy Prime Minister, Thokozani Khupe said that women must take an active role in ensuring their empowerment.

“To achieve the vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths, it is critical to recognise women and girls as key agents in making this vision a reality – society has to invest in the health of women and girls,” Khupe said.

Addressing the conference, Zimbabwe President Robert Gabrial Mugabe said the launch of the network will take the issue of women’s emancipation and empowerment a step further.

Äfter the launch, the real work will begin and call for the same passion, unity of purpose and consistency in pursuing the goals which have characterized this Women’s Network thus far. Of particular note will be the challenge of giving unstinting support to women candidates of every hue and cry; of varying professional qualifications, driven by different talents and capabilities to realise their potential in the collaborative work of Global Power Women Network, the Africa Union and UNAIDS,”said Mugabe.

In Africa, women and girls carry a disproportionate burden of the HIV epidemic – they constitute 59 percent of all people living with the disease. To make matters worse, gender inequality compounded by gender-based vioence, increase women and girl’s risk of HIV infection.

Ëmpowering women and girls to protect themselves against HIV infection and gender-based violence is a non-negotiable in the AIDS response,”said UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe.

Advertisements

Girl Child Creativity Project Launched

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha

Harare, Zimbabwe – A new project, Girl Child Creativity, aimed at mitigating the under-representation and unbalanced participation of young females in the arts in Zimbabwe was launched last week in Harare.

The project which is a brainchild of  internationally acclaimed performance poet and writer, Mbizo Chirasha and veteran filmmaker and broadcaster, Agnes Gudza, is aimed at enhancing the ability of girl-children to develop themselves mentally and creatively.

“The aim of this project is to reduce the under-representation of young women in the creative industry. We want to teach the girls how to find opportunities with their talents and develop them. We want to avoid the syndrome in the country currently where people want to fly yet they can only crawl,” said Chirasha.

“We are going to have motivational, poetry and writing workshops. In future, we are going to have talent realization programmes where we going to have accomplished writers, musicians and promoters talking to the girls on how to identify and nurture their talents.”

Agnes Gudza, operations manager of the project and renowned filmmaker, said that the project was aimed at empowering the mental capacity of young girls so that they can become creative in all aspects of the arts and their lives.

She added that the purpose of the programme is to reach out to a lot of girls especially in the rural areas.

“We want the girl child to improve the state of their lives and livelihoods through the ability to be creative. We are also going to make a film on the importance of empowering the girl-child. The script for the film is already done and is currently being edited,” said Gudza.

Chirasha said GCC is working in collaboration with the US Public Affairs, the New Ambassador Hotel, the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe as well as Chiedza Childcare Centre to reach out to disadvantaged and marginalized girls in the country. He said that the first part of the programme will be rolled out in Harare before moving to Gweru, Masvingo and the rest of the country.

How Menstruation Curses Young Girls to the Margins

The natural process of menstruation comes as a big problem to women and girls in many parts of Africa, contributing to both disempowerment and health risks. For young girls, menstruation is an addition to the heap of gender disparities they have to face in life.

In order to stem the flow of monthly periods, the women and girls use anything from rags, tree leaves, old clothes, toilet paper, newspapers, cotton wool, cloths or literally anything that can do the job. Most girls from poor, rural communities do not use anything at all.

Menstruation is perhaps one of the most regular individual female experiences, but in sub-Saharan Africa, the experience impacts general society negatively due to the absence of products required by women and girls to cope with menstrual flow.

To state it bluntly, menstruation has become like a curse not only to the women and girls but to society in general on the continent. Because menstruation is largely a private act, the social damage is hidden and never makes the news headlines. Also, there are cultural and social attitudes that render discussion of menstruation almost impossible.

Affordable and hygienic sanitary protection is not available to many women and girls in Africa, and governments have done very little to address this reproductive health issue which has serious public health consequences.

In sub-Saharan Africa, millions of girls, in particular, that reach the age of puberty are highly disempowered due to the lack of access to sanitary wear. Many of the girls from poor families cannot afford to buy sanitary pads.

Hence they resort to the use of unhygienic rags and cloths which puts them at the risk of infections. Some of the girls engage in transactional sex so that they can raise the money required to buy sanitary pads, putting themselves at the risk of HIV and STI infection.

Alternatively, young girls are forced to skip school during the time they experience monthly periods to avoid both the cost of pads or use of cloths.

UNICEF estimates that one in 10 school-age African girls either skips school during menstruation or drops out entirely because of lack of sanitation.

“Less-privileged girls and women who represent substantial percentage in our contemporary Africa will continue to suffer resulting to school absenteeism and also compromising their right to health care,” says Fredrick W. Njuguna, Program Director of Familia Human Care Trust in Kenya.

A girl absent from school due to menstruation for 4 days in 28 days (a month) loses 13 learning days equivalent to 2 weeks of learning in every school term.

It is estimated that within the 4 years of high school the same girl loses 156 learning days equivalent to almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning in high school.

Consequently, a girl child potentially becomes a “school drop out” while she is still attending school. In addition, the girl child has to deal with emotional and psychological tension associated with the menstrual process.

To make matters worse, according to Familia Human Care Trust, many schools in underprivileged areas lack sufficient sanitation facilities which are vital not only during a girl’s period but at all times generally such as water, adequate toilet facilities and appropriate dumping facilities for sanitary wear.

As a result, menstruating girls opt to stay at home due to lack of facilities to help them manage their periods than go to school.

For orphaned girls, the prospect of coping with bodily changes can be a significant challenge because they have no-one to turn to for information or advice. In addition, due to the use of improper methods to contain their menstrual flow, young girls may develop bodily odors that will lead to social exclusion within peer groups thereby impacting negatively on the young girl’s confidence.

The need for affordable sanitary wear for women and girls in Africa is indeed a major public health issue that governments need to prioritize in their planning.

On the other hand, there is need for social innovation around this issue because the need for sanitary wear among girls and women will forever be there, at least in the long term future.

The bottom line is that no girl child must be disadvantaged by the natural process of menstruation, and governments, civil society organizations and other players need to work together to ensure that the appropriate services are made available.

As it is, menstruation has becomes the undeclared basis for the social exclusion of young girls. Sanitary protection is an urgent need among women and girls and needs to be made affordable so that poor and marginalized groups can have access.

Global alliances between women in the rich and poor worlds can be a key solution to the problem of access to sanitary wear. But governments also need to recognize that ensuring women and girl’s access to sanitary wear has positive public health implications.

Access to affordable, sanitary is human right but one that is never discussed in our male dominated world. Whatever the case, the fact remains: every woman should be able to have access to the right products which can enable them to happily experience menstruation.

No woman should be cursed to disempowerment by the natural act of monthly periods.

Women At War

Populations that are displaced as a result of conflict face reproductive health challenges that require existent service delivery models to be adapted to suit their needs, especially those of women and girls.    

In many parts of the world, women and girls in conflict zones find themselves victims of a silent war that infringes their sexual and human rights.

According to statistics, 80% of the approximately 37 million refugees and displaced persons globally are women and children, yet little funding and programming goes into addressing their requirements.   

A UN report titled – The Shame of War: Sexual violence against women and girls in conflict, released early 2007 – says that “of all the abuses committed in war, rape is one specifically inflicted against women”.    

“The brutality and viciousness of the sexual attacks that are reported from the current conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Iraq and Sudan, and the testimonies from past conflicts in Timor-Leste, the Balkans and Sierra Leone are heartbreaking,” writes Yakin Ertuk, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women in the foreword to the report.    

“Girls and women, old and young, are preyed upon by soldiers, militia, police and armed thugs wherever conflict rages and the parties to the conflict fail to protect civilian populations.”    

The victims are often afraid to report of their rape due to social stigma and shame, threat to personal security, or simply because there are no services available.    

As the report notes, women and girls lose their family and community after experiencing rape due to feelings of shame and discriminatory attitudes. Their only option may be further victimization through sexual exploitation.    

A major condition for the well-being and development of women and girls is their ability to exercise control over their sexual and reproductive lives.    

World Health Organization (WHO) describes sexual health as a state of physical, emotional, mental and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality; and not merely an absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. It implies pleasurable and safe sexual experiences that are free of coercion, discrimination and violence.    

For women and girls in conflict zones, the consequences of rape are many: sexually transmitted infections and reproductive health problems, unwanted pregnancy, fistulae, maternal mortality, and HIV/AIDS, says the report.    

Female sexual vulnerability poses a grave public health problem, during the conflict and post conflict period.    

Women and girls in conflict areas have a myriad of reproductive health needs that policymakers at national and international levels need to take into account in the design of programs.      

Programs may involve working with community leaders, men’s and women’s groups and the military to sensitize about the need to prevent the problem of sexual violence. Women and girls need to be empowered to be able to prevent themselves from becoming victims of sexual violence through economic empowerment and access to reproductive health services.    

As Theresa McGinn, 2001, succinctly puts it: “Understanding the ways in which refugee women’s reproductive health problems are both similar to, and different from, those of women in settled populations can help policy makers and programmers.”    

Women and girls in conflict zones must have access to medical treatment, including access to drugs that can prevent sexually transmitted infections, psychosocial and legal support and access to abortion services to terminate forced pregnancies.    

With conflicts popping up in every corner of the globe, there’s need for more public discussion about how to bring much needed reproductive health and psychosocial support services to women in conflict areas.