August 2, 2021

In sub-Saharan Africa, women’s rights to freely dispose of their bodies are “threatened”

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A woman does her hair on the terrace of her home in Dakar, Senegal, in October 2020.

There is still a long way to go before African women and girls obtain full respect for their fundamental rights. Free and informed contraception, legal and safe abortion, access to comprehensive information and health care without discrimination, equality with men, fight against domestic and sexual violence: on all these subjects, the challenges are still looming. larger than before the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is one of the lessons that emerges from the report of the Jean-Jaurès Foundation and the Terra Nova think tank, entitled “For the freedom to dispose of your body” (available here) and published on June 24 with the aim of providing insight and recommendations to the various actors of the Generation Equality Forum, which is to be held from Wednesday June 30 to Friday July 2 in Paris.

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The document describes the situation of five sub-Saharan countries – Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – among the most hampered in this long march towards equality. “In these states, the rights of young girls and women to freely dispose of their bodies are fragile, threatened and even violated. However, these are inalienable rights of women which are essential to their empowerment ”, warn in the preamble the authors, who interviewed more than 40 personalities in the field.

In this region of the world, however relatively spared from the pandemic in terms of the number of deaths, the consequences of confinements are disastrous. According to UN global projections, the health crisis has jeopardized thirty years of “Remarkable progress” in maternal and child health. In all, “47 million women could lose access to contraception, resulting in 7 million unintended pregnancies.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, Unesco also warned in October 2020, teenage pregnancies could prevent 1 million girls from returning to school. And health measures have sent women back into the domestic sphere, exposing them to such an extent to violence that the South African Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, director of the UN Women agency, did not hesitate to describe the situation as “Shadow pandemic”.

Little-known laws

Twenty-six years after the Beijing conference in 1995, which marked a crucial turning point in the global agenda for gender equality, the Generation Equality Forum – postponed for a year, Covid-19 requires – wants to mark the ‘time. After a first round in Mexico City in March, all the stakeholders meet again around the discussion table in Paris. At the invitation of the UN Women, States, governments, private sector, civil societies, NGOs and associations will exchange feedback and analyzes to arrive at financial commitments and future programs.

The report by the Jean-Jaurès and Terra Nova Foundation is therefore above all conceived as a plea to call on donors, first and foremost France, to be up to the challenges and feminist discourse. The authors are based on feedback from associations such as the Pananetugri Initiative for the Well-being of Women (IPBF) in Burkina Faso, the Network of Young Feminists in West Africa (RJFAO), the Niger cell of young girls leaders, the Congolese office of the NGO Ipas or the Siggil Jigéen Network in Senegal, but also the hearings of political and institutional figures from these countries. While national situations are very varied and complex, the recommendations of activists and decision-makers overlap.

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First and foremost, it is recommended that progress be made in applying the Maputo Protocol, adopted in 2003 by the African Union (AU) to defend the rights of women on the continent. “It is one of the essential documents used in Africa”, says Irmine Ayihounton, RJFAO member in Benin. However, this pan-African legislative framework, which opens access to unrestricted contraception and authorizes conditional abortion, is still poorly understood by politicians, health and judicial institutions and citizens themselves. “The protocol is one of the keys to success”, explains Amandine Clavaud, responsible for gender equality at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation and one of the authors of the report: “National laws, which enshrine these ‘new’ rights in their legislation over the years, are still too heterogeneous. On arrival, this results in the deaths of mothers and children. “

Because abortion is practiced on the continent as elsewhere in the world and, failing to authorize it within a reasonable period of time and under good conditions, women risk their future and often their lives. In the DRC alone, in 2016, two out of five pregnancies ended in an abortion in the capital, making clandestine abortion the second cause of maternal mortality in the country, according to a study carried out by the School of Public Health of Kinshasa and the Guttmacher Institute.

Continuum of care

To put an end to cultural resistance and “Get out of obscurantist systems and harmful traditional practices”, pleads the Malian Oumou Salif Touré, of the RJFAO, “We must focus on the new generation, who must be at the heart of awareness-raising projects”. “Social networks are the new channels of information, knowledge, help and the dissemination of testimonies of women’s resilience, she continues. Young people are not mere recipients of programs, but the primary actors. “

But who says youth says school, which remains the place where education in sexual and reproductive health can be taught correctly and considered in a global and no longer segmented way. “It is the entire chain of intervention, from the teacher to the health system and staff, that must be strengthened and trained”, explains Wendyam Micheline Kaboré, director of IPBF in Burkina Faso and West Africa. A “Continuum of care” Dear to the authors of the report: “It is not a question of taking sectoral measures”, analysis Marc-Olivier Padis, director of studies at Terra Nova: “A whole set of crucial issues must be taken into account if equality is to be achieved. “School, but especially keeping girls in school, is the keystone”, bid Amandine Clavaud.

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Communities, customary authorities and religious representatives appear to be essential relays in defending women’s rights and enabling programs to be set up at the local level, including in the most remote places. As such, the Ouagadougou Partnership has largely proven its worth. Launched in 2011 by the nine French-speaking West African countries, it has made it possible to accelerate (excluding Covid-19) family planning in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Togo by focusing on all components of the communities.


The authors of the report and the interviewees plead for the simplification of access to funds for small local feminist structures, very agile in the field but little equipped to respond to calls for tenders designed for large NGOs. They also insist on the need for financial partners to make a long-term commitment. “The concern is very strong on this subject, raises Amandine Clavaud. Sespecially with the health crisis, which has seen funds redirected to deal with the pandemic. “

An ambition that can only be achieved if international donors significantly increase their contributions. France, co-chair of the Generation Equality Forum, is primarily concerned. The authors acknowledge ” some efforts “ and a broader political vision for almost ten years, amplified by President Emmanuel Macron, who made equality a “Great cause of his five-year term”. But they also denounce the lack of clarity of official development assistance (ODA) and the downward trend in allocations.

Strong announcements on the extension of financial commitments are therefore expected during the forum, in particular with the French Muskoka Fund, the Ouagadougou Partnership and the Support Fund for Feminist Organizations, the latest in French feminist diplomacy created. in 2020 for three years. “It is the credibility of France’s commitment that is at stake”, does not hesitate to conclude Marc-Olivier Padis.