This week’s SoroptiVoice blog comes from SI Assistant Programme Director Anusha Santhirasthipam. She has just returned from the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development Conference, which concluded on June 22nd. Whilst the events of last week are still fresh in her mind, she reflects on why sexual and reproductive health care is considered to be an essential part of sustainable development, as well as covering some of the other major developments.
In answer to the title, the answer women’s groups at the Rio+20 conference was “Everything”, because we know how closely linked reproductive health is to issues ranging from maternal health, poverty and food security to climate change and beyond. This message was precisely what women’s organisations brought to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
Currently, there are more than 7 billion people on the planet, and the United Nations predicts that number will reach 9.3 billion by midcentury. Much of the population growth will be in developing countries where reproductive rights are sorely lacking, which also happen to be areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change. An unstable climate coupled with a lack of reproductive rights threatens future generations and puts countless lives at stake.
According to the U.N. Population Fund, around 215 million women, or one in six women of reproductive age, want to delay or cease having children yet do not have access to safe, effective and affordable contraception. Subsequently, about 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned. The UN suggest that if all women had access to effective contraception, one in three deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth could be prevented.
“The only way to respond to increasing human numbers and dwindling resources is through the empowerment of women,” said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and former director-general of the World Health Organisation. “It is through giving women access to education, knowledge, to paid income, independence and of course access to reproductive health services, reproductive rights, access to family planning…”.
Women leaders have been sending a powerful message to the world at large that sustainable development is not just about deforestation, climate change and carbon emissions. Equally as important to sustainable development are gender equality and human rights, which include reproductive rights and healthcare.
But the reality is that globally, 215 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using effective methods of contraception. More than two out of five pregnancies are unplanned. Many countries in the world still do not ensure that women have access to full reproductive rights and health.
SISWP Federation Project “Birthing in the Pacific” which has since been embraced by SI as the SI President’s December 10th Appeal was rolled out in response to the dire need for safe birthing and maternal health in Papua New Guinea. There are several other countries in Asia and Africa with high statistics for mortality of mothers and babies due to lack of reproductive healthcare.
Twenty years ago, the Rio earth summit saw unanimous agreement that sustainable development cannot be realised without gender equality. Yet, the Rio+20 outcome document agreed upon by all Governments saw severe compromises, with references to women’s reproductive rights and gender equality being scrapped.
The Rio+20 outcome document did affirm women’s rights and gender equality in several key sections. For example, green economy, food security and sustainable production, just to name a few. However, in several other areas, we saw backsliding. The declaration has many weaknesses, but there are key passages on women as central partners in decision-making. This is better than what was attained in Rio twenty years ago.
It’s clear that reproductive rights are essential to improve health outcomes and to allow for the full participation of women in our economies. Furthermore, women’s vital role in sustainable development has long been recognized. The 1992 Rio Declaration, coming out of the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, acknowledged the need for the inclusion of women to meet the sustainable development goals. Principle 20 of the declaration states:
“Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.”
Likewise, in 1995 the Beijing Declaration from the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women underscored that economic development and social development that empowers women and environmental protection are “interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development.”
Another area of major discontent was regarding women’s rights to ownership of land, property and inheritance. Instead of the earlier language that would ensure “rights to own property, inheritance, credit, and to financial and extension services,” which came from the Beijing forum, the Rio+20 outcome text only calls for legislation to include “access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, credit, inheritance, natural resources, and appropriate new technology.” Legally speaking, there is a significant difference between rights to own property, inheritance, and credit and the granting of rights to have access to these resources.
Land rights for women are of critical significance for sustainable development. If women had the same access to resources, farm yields could increase from 20 percent to 30 percent, which would feed 100 million to 150 million people. At the moment, only 10 - 20 percent of women in developing countries have land rights. In addition, women hold fewer assets and face more barriers attaining credit. Women’s empowerment is critical in transitioning to sustainable agricultural practices that can manage the sector’s large greenhouse gas contributions and ensure food security.
Women’s equality is integral to success. Policymakers at Rio had an opportunity to steer the future toward a more inclusive and prosperous economy for all but left Rio with the glass “half full”.
Although it is too late for any Government or stakeholder group to ask for the text to be reopened or revised or tweaked, women’s organisations, like Soroptimist International can do much in the aftermath of Rio+20 to educate, empower and enable women and girls to pursue their rights for sustainable living.
Women heads of state and government gathered at the Rio+20 women leader’s summit remained undaunted, and placated women’s organisations in attendance by pledging that the document they signed would not be lost in the “forest of declarations on gender issues”. They urged governments, civil society and the private sector to prioritise gender equality and women’s empowerment in their sustainable development efforts.
“We know from research that advancing gender equality is not just good for women, it is good for all of us. When women enjoy equal rights and opportunities, poverty, hunger and poor health decline and economic growth rises,” said Michelle Bachelet, executive director of U.N. Women.
The author of this week’s blog is Jackie Paling, SIGBI Assistant Programme Director for Violence and Conflict Resolution. Jackie has travelled extensively around the world and says that her experiences have provided her with a truly excellent education. A regular visitor to Afghanistan, Jackie takes out humanitarian aid and supports various projects out there. A retired engineer, she often uses her creative skills to help Afghan women with their handicrafts.
I am now back in Afghanistan and visiting the women’s “safe house” mentioned in my previous blog “The worst place in the world to be a woman?” (http://www.soroptimistinternational.org/blog/post/171-the-worst-place-in-the-world-to-be-a-woman)
The women are very pleased to see me, and graciously thank me for the gifts of knitting and crochet needles, wool and other items. But I notice once more the sadness in their eyes. The violence that these women have experienced is not just physical violence, but also psychological violence. No wonder they feel worthless. What is their future? What are their dreams?. Indeed this is a question I ask many Afghan women I meet.
Yesterday I was in a different women’s safe house. However, the atmosphere was the same, a mixture of sadness, resignation, acceptance and boredom. The days seem endless again. The women here feel both hopeless and helpless. I hope that by helping such women with handicrafts, I can build up a little of their self-esteem, getting them to try out new things and achieve them. I listen to their stories and try having a conversation with them about other issues affecting Afghan women, and I tell them that many other women round the world, including organisations like Soroptimist International, are working to help them. Women’s rights are alien to most of them. In this country, there are stories everyday of violence against women. There was a recent case of a young wife who was murdered by her husband just for bearing a girl child.
After more than 30 years of conflict, Afghanistan has been left with one of the worst records in the world for education and literacy. Under the current Afghan Constitution, all children have the right to free and compulsory education up to a certain grade. Great efforts have been made by International and Afghan organisations to ensure that Afghan children may enjoy this right. Much progress has been made in the reconstruction of the education system and provision of schools. However many problems still exist. Although literacy rates among women and girls have improved (and the rates do vary depending on the source), they only reach a maximum of about 18%, and much less in many parts of the country. Traditional attitudes mean that many Afghan girls are being denied an education.
This has not been helped by the recent attacks on girls’ schools. In the past two months, those opposed to educating girls have been closing schools with intimidating security threats. Perhaps the most insidious acts have been the poisoning of girls and staff in a number of schools around the country. Many of the victims had to be hospitalised. No conclusive evidence has been released yet but it is thought that either chemical substances were sprayed into the classrooms or used to contaminate the school wells. That is a violation of international humanitarian law and the right to education. If this continues, we may yet see a resurgence of home-based schools.
In March this year, the Ulema Council, a tribunal of religious leaders, along with extremist groups made the following declaration: “Men are fundamental and women are secondary.” They also added that women should avoid mingling with strange men in various social activities such as education, in bazaars, in offices and in other aspects of life.
This caused much consternation for human rights activists and organisations working to secure the rights of Afghan women. The worry is that the hard-earned progress made since the fall of the Taliban ten years ago is now at risk.
Last October saw the 10th Anniversary of western intervention in Afghanistan. To mark the date, an International Conference was held in Bonn, Germany, where Ministers and Special Representatives from 100 countries discussed their commitment to Afghanistan in terms of aid and military involvement for the next 10 years. At the first Bonn Conference 10 years ago, promises were made also about the protection of women’s rights. The Afghan Women’s Network, a large network of women’s organisations use green scarves to symbolize their strength and unity. The Green Scarf Campaign was launched last October in the run up to the main Bonn Conference, to show solidarity with these women and to call on world leaders to ensure that any political settlement would guarantee Afghan women’s rights, and a role for women in the peace process. Photo-wall petitions were initiated, and in the UK, Soroptimists attending their Federation Conference in Brighton had their photos taken with green scarves. These photos accompanied the UK Foreign Minister to Bonn.
Two weeks ago, NATO held its latest summit in Chicago, attended by representatives from 50 countries. At the summit, leaders signed a pact to officially end the war in Afghanistan in 2014. However nothing was mentioned about what will happen to Afghan women after troop withdrawal. Advocates for Afghan women’s rights sprang into action. Amnesty International organised a “Shadow Summit” which ran alongside the NATO one. Prominent Afghan women, including Afifi Azim, Director and Co-Founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, spoke about the role of women during the transition process and the conversations NATO should be having about Afghan Women’s rights. Were any Soroptimists in attendance? I would love to know!
Whatever the outcome after 2014, we as Soroptimists must not desert these women. We must do all we can to ensure that Afghan women’s voices are heard. And back in the safe house the women seem momentarily happy as they discuss different crochet patterns and help each other with their handicraft. I ask them how they feel about recent comments. One woman retorts - “Men are fundamental are they? We are just as fundamental! If it wasn’t for us, who do the men think would bear and care for their children?”
The May Monthly Focus has been looking at Women and Forced Sterlisation - a practice that is unfortunately not yet only found in the pages of history books.
“Many women rely on voluntary sterilisation to control their fertility. But for some women, sterilisation is not a choice. Women across the globe have been forced or coerced by medical personnel to submit to permanent and irreversible sterilization procedures. Despite condemnation from the United Nations, cases of forced and coerced sterilization have been reported in North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Women who are poor or stigmatised are most likely to be at risk - considered ‘unworthy’ of reproduction. Perpetrators are seldom held accountable and victims rarely obtain justice for this violent abuse of their rights.
Forced and coerced sterilization are a grave violation of human rights and medical ethics and can be described as acts of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Forcefully ending a woman’s reproductive capacity may lead to extreme social isolation, family discord or abandonment, fear of medical professionals, and lifelong grief.
Although sterilization may be carried out by individual health providers, it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to prevent such abuses from taking place. Governments must protect individuals from forced sterilization and guarantee all people’s right to the information and services they need to exercise full reproductive choice and autonomy.”
We have to thank Stop Torture in Health care for all the great resources they provide on this topic which we came across during the recent AWID conference in Istanbul - thank you for raising awareness of this issue and for the comprehensive resources you have produced.
You can find out more about Stop Torture in Healthcare here: http://ping.fm/9xyXa
To read more about how this issue ties in with the Soroptimist International focus on education and leadership, visit http://ping.fm/SB8hZ
This week’s SoroptiVoice Blog comes from Action on Armed Violence (previously Landmine Action) which started its field programming in Liberia in 2005, two years following the end of the civil war. Initially, the purpose of this programme was to conduct weapons and ammunition collection and destruction, but it quickly developed a human focus - particularly women. This week, their programme manager, Melissa Fuerth, describes the programme in more detail. Of course, there is a Soroptimist link - Kate Moore from SIGBI sits on their board.
AOAV wanted to investigate ways in which groups of ex-combatants and war-affected youth could be better reintegrated into society. Most of these groups continued to engage in war-economy modes, funding themselves through the illegal extraction of natural resources, and many were continuing to operate in war command structures. By facilitating reintegration among these groups, AOAV aimed to decrease their potential of engaging in violence and to improve the quality of lives among vulnerable groups and communities.
In response to the feasibility results, AOAV developed its Agricultural Training Programme, designed to provide beneficiaries with vocational livelihood skills, practical business skills and psychosocial counseling to enable them to socially and economically reintegrate into society in a sustainable way. AOAV now manages two large training centres with the capacity to house, feed and train 400 and 200 students respectively at any time. To date, this programme has provided agricultural vocational training to over 2,000 young men and women.
An impressive 87% of graduates are continuing to farm and are no longer engaging in illegal livelihood activities. A rigorous 2-year long evaluation of the programme conducted by Innovations for Poverty Action compared programme participants with similar individuals who didn’t participate. The study determined that graduates of AOAV’s programme:Spend reduced number of hours on illicit activities; Experience a sizeable increase in wealth; Demonstrate improvements in social engagement; Demonstrate qualities of citizenship and stability; Had less interest in, and recruitment links to, Ivory Coast violence in 2011.
Women comprise 11% of all programme graduates, giving them access to formal learning opportunities, creating sustainable livelihood opportunities, and improving food security. As observed in the programme evaluation, female graduates are more likely than their male counterparts to continue farming, and some earn additional income by working on another person’s farm. None of the women interviewed are in touch with their former commanders, compared with 11% of the men.
New Monthly Focus Action! Why not hold a film discussion evening on Hilma’s story http://ping.fm/Rn60t
5 extra days added to the final round of negotiations on the Rio+20 outcome document 29 May- 2 June Rio+20 UCSD http://tinyurl.com/bpcdjfn
Did you know SIE has a representative at the European Women’s Lobby? You can read Renate’s latest update here http://ping.fm/CGLy7 This is the first newsletter from Renate. She is very happy to receive comments, questions and suggestions on how SIE can be more actively involved in the EWL’s mission.