Naana Otoo-Oyortey is the Executive Director of the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development (FORWARD), an African Diaspora women’s support and campaign organisation working in the UK and Africa on female genital mutilation, child marriage and obstetric fistula. Naana has worked with government, INGO on policies and programmes pertaining to gender based violence and sexual rights Naana was a founding member of the UK based Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls- a network that helped place child marriage on the international global development agenda. Her publications include “Early Marriage and Poverty” and “Ending Child Marriage a Guide for global policy action”. She is a trustee of Widow’s Rights International and Women’s Dignity, a Tanzania Non- governmental organisation that addresses obstetric fistula. Naana holds an MPhil in Development Studies from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. Naana was awarded an MBE in 2009 for her work on women’s human rights.
What are the most pressing issues for women in Africa? and what are the primary actions to take in response to those issues?
In my view some of the most pressing concerns for women and girls in Africa relate to gender disparities and gender-based discrimination. Just as an illustration: we know that over 42 % of girls are married before they attain 18 years, about 50% of women are subjected to gender based violence; 140 million are affected by female genital mutilation, women and girls comprise 60% of all Africans living with HIV; women own a mere 1% of agricultural land despite providing 70% of its labour and maternal mortality rates are as high as 640 per every 100,000 births compared to 12 in the UK.
This adversely affects the social, civil, political and economic lives of girls and women and manifests in discriminatory and conflicting civil and customary laws and policies, lack of choices in sexual matters; marriage and reproduction and ultimately poverty. Many women and girls lack access to basic entitlements as citizens; particularly access to resources, health services, information on their rights and means to seek justice. This is further compounded by lack of political will and accountability to women and girls, including representation in decision making spaces. Girls and women in rural communities of Africa are often worst affected. Today millions of girls are forced to marry while still children, some as early as 9 years often to older men, making them mothers who are ill prepared and poorly equipped to shape the future of Africa. This increases the risks of maternal mortality, unsafe abortions and maternal morbidity. Social attitudes on domestic violence and sexual abuse and female genital mutilation need to shift to enable women and girls attain their potential and contribute to national economic and social development.
In my view some of the primary actions needed to tackle these challenges, should centre on strategies to shift discriminatory social norms to value girls and women and provide an enabling environment that safeguards their health and rights. We need to make a case to invest in girls before they become women, providing them the skills, education, choices and confidence for them to contribute to society as equal citizens and have the capacity and agency to achieve. There is need for political will to enact and enforce protective laws and policies; provide access to legal justice and health services especially in rural areas. Building leadership skills; strengthening collaboration and engagement and creating platforms for public accountability and dialogue are key actions which have not been adequately explored in Africa. Finally there is need for stronger voices for social change.
What do you think has been achieved in relation to Female Genital Mutilation on the continent?
FORWARD’s primary focus has been on responding to female genital mutilation in the UK and being real optimists we have seen progress on the legal front. Today over 21 countries have some legal provision that is applicable to FGM. However, female genital mutilation, which requires the removal of healthy female genitalia to satisfy socio- cultural norms in many societies, continues to evoke passions among those who are for and those against the practice. This issue has featured in high level international, regional and human rights conferences, meetings and debates. However, progress in ending this human rights violation in the continent is still slow and patchy. New data shows marked reductions among the younger generation in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’ Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya. In countries where majority of the population practice FGM, the decline has been slower. Similarly in communities where FGM is part of secret society requirements and governed by traditional leaders, it has been more difficult to mobilise communities against the practice.
We have also seen worrying developments including citing FGM as a religion duty and changes in the terminology as well some calling this as “sunnah”. Within FORWARD we continue to use the term female genital mutilation and recognise this as part of our advocacy work that the practice violates the dignity and rights of women and girls.
The other dimension of this practice is that it has migrated into Europe, North America and other parts of the world and created numerous challenges for receiving countries. Many statutory agencies do not have the skills to respond effectively to FGM and fail to identify girls at risk. In the UK the government approach to FGM has been adhoc and inconsistent In my view this is becasue affected communities are mainly refugees, asylum seekers and migrants and often not adequately protected by existing laws and policies on FGM. There has also been little attention put on building bridges between African communities in Europe and those in Africa as part of a holistic approach.
What needs to be done and how women around the continent are to be aware of their rights and the fact that these rights are violated in so many aspects?
Interventions to promote awareness of rights should also include strategies to improve the agency of girls and women to exercise their rights and to seek justice when their rights have been violated. Schools can play a valuable role in this agenda on rights and should form part of citizenship education. But firstly teacher training institutions should be targeted and supported to enable them have skills and information to promote gender equality and rights within schools. In many parts of Africa schools fail girls because they perpetuate gender inequality. We often hear of countless stories of girls being sexually abused by teachers and where girls lack voice and mentoring opportunities in schools. Investing in spaces for girls to learn about their rights and share with other girls makes economic sense and governments need to take this more seriously. School policies on teenage pregnancy and child mothers are often very punitive and fail to protect and safeguard rights of girls.
There is a huge role for women’s civil society organisations to facilitate the process of women’s rights education; we need to build women’s leadership and networking skills to enable women create a critical movement to realise rights and basic entitlements. Why have we not collectively stood up against women dying just to give birth in Africa; we need to hold policy makers accountable not only during election time, but need to ensure that we have more women in policy making positions – Rwanda has set good example for Africa and we all need to learn from them. Unfortunately we so often see poor collaboration, partnership and joint working among women’s organisations, which is again very problematic. Many women’s national machineries in Africa seem to be in competition with women’s civil society organisations, which does not help; there is urgent need to shift the power base to ensure more collaboration and synergy.
Do you think there is enough will from African governments to push a/the gender agenda in Africa?
On paper there seems to be political will. According to the new UN report on “Progress of the World’s Women 2011-12”, African countries have made progress in provision of laws on inheritance; family and 21 African countries now have new laws on domestic violence. Additionally, we have a woman President in Liberia who has recently been re-elected, and seen tremendous progress in women’s representation in parliament in Rwanda, with 51 percent representation this is the highest in the world. 31 countries have ratified the Maputo Women’s Protocol.
However, political will is measured through commitment of resources to enforce laws; gender equity in budgetary allocation and improved access to services including access to justice, particularly for the most vulnerable and marginalised. The sad reality in most African communities is that rural and poorer women and girls have least access to services, have no representation in decision making processes and worst off in terms of gender inequalities and discriminatory practices.
The AU launched the AWD in October 2010, an entire decade dedicated to women and girls in Africa. What are your impressions and what changes could this decade bring to women and girls in Africa?
We African women in the Diaspora were extremely excited about the launch of the AWD and see this as a good opportunity to galvanise support for action. The global women’s movement got a huge boost with the 1995 Beijing women’s conference, this was a major platform for action and turning point for women’s human rights and it is possible for African women to use this agenda for change and hold governments to commit on women’s human rights. Similarly the AWD should be used by Africans globally as a spring board for action. We have limited time to make this vision a reality and what is really needed is a movement to make this change shift minds and bodies. As a Diaspora African woman in Europe, I see a huge role that we can play in mobilizing action among African women and girls in the Diaspora to be part of this change and FORWARD initiated a consultation in December to start to engage African young women in the UK on gender and rights issues pertaining to girls in Africa. The changes for women can only be realised if people are engaged with the process. I am positive that African women in the Diaspora can be mobilized to play a crucial role in the attainment of the ADW agenda and this is really a challenge for us at FORWARD.
Many young women find it difficult to make their voice heard in the women's rights movement, what is their place in this movement and what can be done to make sure young women are better empowered to be the leaders of tomorrow?
At FORWARD we made the strategic shift to engage young women about eight years ago and feel confident that we have made some gains in building leadership skills of African young women. In the past three years we have supported the establishment of three young women led organisations in Ethiopia, Ghana and Liberia. In the UK we have served as a catalyst for action for young African women nurturing young women to be leaders and agents of change. FORWARD’s most recent programme on Diaspora
African Women’s Programme includes a specific focus on mobilising young African women in the UK on gender and rights of girls and young women. There are some new initiatives targeting young women which need to be scaled up in Africa and creating spaces for girls and young women to learn skills, practice leadership skills and know more about their rights is one way forward. But more importantly it is important that there is affirmative action to ensure representation and voices of young women in key decision making processes at national level. We have a role to play to nurture, mentor and support leadership development of young women as part of our legacy for change.
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