By Maniraguha Ferdinand
This week, Rwanda was announced as the first African country to host the International Women Deliver Conference, a platform that deals with problems such as gender equality, women’s access to finance and reproductive health services among others.
It is an imperative move for Africa, a continent which lags behind when it comes to gender equality. According to African Development Bank, African women spend way too much time at unproductive work, such as fetching water and wood. They work 50% longer hours than men, but it doesn’t tighten the gap when it comes to economic gains.
Pan African Visions Magazine held an exclusive interview with Kathleen Sherwin, Interim President & CEO of Women Deliver where she explained in details what she finds useful for Africa to bridge gender gap.
PAV: Why was Rwanda chosen as the first African host of the 2023 Women Deliver Conference?
Kathleen Sherwin: To begin with, the Rwandan parliament comprises of 60% women in leadership. This is far more notable than any other country in Africa and the country serves as a case study for many African and global nations.
The country’s new constitution, passed in 2003, decreed that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women. The government also pledged that girls’ education would be encouraged. That women would be appointed to leadership roles, like government ministers and police chiefs.
In the 2003 election, 48 percent of parliamentary seats went to women. In the next election 64 percent.
Today Rwandan politics is cited as a model of gender inclusiveness and a reflection of the importance of ensuring that SDG 5, Gender Equality, and women and girls’ empowerment is achieved towards the sustainable development of Africa. A key enabler of this has been strategic policies that have been implemented by the government and a friendly political environment.
PAV: The conference comes when the world is still battling COVID-19 What are the outcomes one can expect from the conference that benefit women?
Kathleen Sherwin: The pandemic has further exacerbated gender inequalities for girls and women. For example, it has hampered access to essential sexual and reproductive health services, and led to an increase in unintended pregnancies, maternal deaths, and unsafe abortion, particularly in low-and-middle income countries (LMICs).
Evidence collected by UNFPA and partners from 115 LMICs in early 2021 suggests an estimated 12 million women may have been unable to access family planning services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with disruption of supplies and services lasting an average of 3.6 months.
As a result of these disruptions, as many as 1.4 million unintended pregnancies may have occurred before women were able to resume use of family planning services.
Moreover, the effects of the pandemic are not impacting everyone equally, including for SRHR. Those in LMICs and girls, women, and underrepresented populations, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA+ people, and other traditionally excluded populations, are facing outsized challenges to realizing their SRHR.
As the world looks to build back better from COVID-19, we need implementation and funding that are rooted in equity, that reach those furthest behind first, that build up resilient health systems, and that are gender-responsive, filling the gaps that have widened during the pandemic and recognizing that SRH services are essential, not optional.
WD2023 will focus on COVID-19 response and recovery, centering the implications of the pandemic on girls, women, and gender equality progress and developing solutions to address some of the major setbacks the pandemic has caused.
PAV: Some African countries still have laws which suppress women’rights. What do you think should be done so that gender related SDGS can be achieved on time?
Kathleen Sherwin: To meet gender-related SDGs by 2030, we need to see bold real accountability in the commitments made to women, though appropriate budgets and strengthened national gender networks from our governments and our private corporations.
PAV: Women mostly in third world lack inclusive and sexual and reproductive rights such as safe abortion, access to contraceptives among others. Which measures do you think are appropriate to uproot this?
Kathleen Sherwin: We, at Women Deliver, firmly believe that good health and the full realization of sexual and reproductive health are fundamental rights.
A report by the Guttmacher.org highlights the strain that the COVID-19 pandemic imposes on health systems will undoubtedly impact the sexual and reproductive health of individuals living in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs); however, sexual and reproductive health will also be affected by societal responses to the pandemic, such as local or national lockdowns that force health services to shut down if they are not deemed essential, as well as the consequences of physical distancing, travel restrictions and economic slowdowns.
The COVID-19 pandemic is already having adverse effects on the supply chain for contraceptive commodities by disrupting the manufacture of key pharmaceutical components of contraceptive methods or the manufacture of the methods themselves (e.g., condoms), and by delaying transportation of contraceptive commodities.
In addition, equipment and staff involved in provision of sexual and reproductive health services may be diverted to fulfill other needs, clinics may close, and people may be reluctant to go to health facilities for sexual and reproductive health services.
Many governments are restricting people’s movements to stem the spread of the virus, and providers are being forced to suspend some sexual and reproductive health services that are not classified as essential, such as abortion care, thus denying people this time-sensitive and potentially life-saving service.
For example, the country lockdowns in Nepal and India have forced clinics operated by Marie Stopes International—the largest provider of family planning services in India outside of the public sector—to close.
Without concerted action, access to essential sexual and reproductive health services, and the quality of any care that is provided, will likely decline.
Previous public health emergencies have shown that the impact of an epidemic on sexual and reproductive health often goes unrecognized, because the effects are often not the direct result of the infection, but instead the indirect consequences of strained health care systems, disruptions in care and redirected resources. Moreover, responses to epidemics further exacerbate gender-based and other health disparities.
When girls and women have access to reproductive health services, they are more likely to stay in school, join the workforce, become economically independent, and live their full potential. It is a virtuous cycle and benefits individuals, communities, and countries.
It takes diverse stakeholders to deliver on these fundamental rights and hence it is absolutely vital to strengthen the collective health for all movement, inclusive and promotive of SRHR.
PAV: Do you think Africa is ready to shift for an inclusive development where women voices are heard and counted?
Kathleen Sherwin: When girls and women have the right to control their own bodies, sexuality, and fertility, it transforms gender relations and increases their ability to live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.
A world without fear, stigma, or discrimination is a prerequisite for gender equality, as is girls’ and women’s ability to live according to their sexual health and rights. In order to realize these rights, governments and civil society partners need to adopt comprehensive approaches to protect and uphold them while empowering individuals to claim their rights, including strong legal and policy frameworks; access to information and comprehensive sexuality education; protecting the rights of marginalized groups; ensuring accountability; and involving men and boys in national efforts to respect, protect, and fulfill sexual rights.