Activating a bold, progressive, cross-border feminist movement on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

” The fight for reproductive rights shall remain the center of feminist movement. If we do not have right over our bodies, we don’t have any right at all.” ~ Bell Hooks

25 years after the unanimous adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA) by 189 countries, there have been enormous improvements in the lives of women and girls but also many unfulfilled promises especially in the area of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).

Despite the wins, women are still faced with challenges like criminalization as a tool to infringe upon their rights to make decisions concerning their reproductive health. Abortion, for instance, is banned in 10 out of 55 African countries. 

In a bid to activate and deploy a bold and progressive cross-border feminist movement on SRHR, we organized a four-week virtual Advocacy training on SRHR for qualified alumnae of her African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI). The training was convened with support from the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF)

In this process, we looked to build the capacities of professionals already working in the SRHR space by widening their understanding of the issues on the continent and strengthening their ability to advocate and influence policy and practice while centering marginalized SRHR issues in their work.

 The training consisted of 25 participants from 9 countries across Africa including Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, Gambia, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Liberia.

Unlike other AWLI experiences, this was virtual, the first for many women in the space. It was a laudable feat then that the training stayed true to the AWLI’s mandate of shaping young women into fierce feminist and confident leaders to individually and collaboratively discover opportunities, address challenges and effectively advocate for women’s rights. 

The training covered a wide range of modules including SRHR from a feminist perspective, the status of SRHR in Africa, SRHR and the economy, understanding SRHR advocacy, SRHR legal frameworks and policy environment in Africa, allies and opposition, and advocacy application.

These were facilitated by expert faculty from across the continent who included Saoyo Tabitha Griffith-a lawyer specialising in SRHR programs targeted at addressing unsafe  abortion, sexual violence, forced sterilization and teen pregnancies, Maria Alesi- a development practitioner, feminist, and social justice activist, and Judicaelle Irakoze- a recognized organizer and thought leader on women’s rights and feminist movement building, Sofia Rajab-Leteipan- Managing Partner of Leteipan & Associates Advocates, and Solome Nakaweesi, a Pan-African feminist activist, active participant and analyst. 

At the opening of the training, Leah Eryenyu, AMwA’s Research, Advocacy and Movement Building Manager emphasized the relevance of intersectional advocacy in the area of SRHR calling it the ‘cornerstone of human rights’. “If a human being is unable to have autonomy over the vessel that carries their very being, it is impossible to claim rights anywhere else,” she said, adding that the control of women’s sexual and reproductive rights is about control of their productive and reproductive labor.

During a session on SRHR from a feminist perspective, Judicaelle Irakoze, a recognized organizer and feminist advocate stressed the need for women to learn how to use feminism as a method of thought to examine power dynamics and analyze systems. 

Judicaelle delved into an analysis of power and the ways in which oppression is intertwined in systems in that it denies and suppresses women’s control over their own bodies, dictates gender roles in relation to care and work, and demands reproduction regardless of the woman’s choice. 

“The patriarchy gags your voice, controls your body and controls your resources.”

Solome Nakaweesi Kimbugwe, a Pan-African Feminist and International Development Consultant lit a fire in the bellies of the trainees with a slew of eye-opening statistics in her session on the status of SRHR in Africa.

“Did you know that in many countries, adolescent boys and girls are more likely to justify violence against women and girls more than adult women and men? And that each year, 12 Million Girls in Africa marry before the age of 18?” She noted, setting the stage for an in-depth conversation on the visible and invisible ways in which SRHR are violated in Africa.

The dialogue enabled a contextual feminist analysis of the prevailing SRHR issues in Africa including contraception, abortion, Adolescent and Youth SRHR, child and forced marriage, comprehensive sexuality education and sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, sex work, disability and sexuality, and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. Her session unpacked the structural issues & ideology challenging universal access to SRHR such as internal opposition citing Uganda’s Pornography Control Committee, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and other emerging external challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and the accelerating climate change; which are shifting attention away from SRHR. 

Tabitha Saoyo Griffith, a lawyer with years of experience navigating the policy, human rights, and health governance spaces in East Africa with a special bias on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, then led a rousing session designed to translate the feedback from the in-depth conversation on the visible and invisible ways in which SRHR are violated in Africa, into actionable change.

She provided a  practical guide to implementing collaborative SRHR advocacy centered on wholesome litigation and policy change. In the spirit of conscious unlearning, participants underwent an interrogation of their belief systems that reminded us that feminism is a spectrum featuring a diversity of opinions and values that must be incorporated in our work.

Sofia Rajab Leteipan, an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a feminist human rights lawyer stressed that nothing can happen without activism & emphasized the need for African women to engage in and dominate policy conversations in her session on SRHR Legal Frameworks and Policy Environment in Africa.”If we are not in these spaces, how will we contribute to the discourse?” She asked, sharing a simplified yet extremely informative presentation on binding and non-binding international human rights obligations and human rights principles centered on the relationship between the right holders (citizens) and the primary duty bearer (the state).

From the training, participants gained an understanding of the transformative role they have to play in achieving universal access to sexual and reproductive health for women and girls, re-affirming that it is essential not only to achieve sustainable development but also as a basis for the enjoyment of other human rights.