Impunity around girls and women must end!

Opinion by Nyambura Gathumbi, June 30, 2017

Working for Gender Equality and Women Empowerment (GEWE) is one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done. This is especially so when progress (no matter how little) is made towards uplifting women and girls. However, this work can be depressing sometimes because GEWE happens to be one of the topics that are very easily trivialized and demeaned. Just when you think progress has been attained, you are bombarded with the most retrogressive thinking which makes it very difficult to realize change.

As I write this, Iam still recovering from the rude shock that we got last week when one of the leaders in the East African region decided to make a tasteless joke of a very serious issue. Teenage preganancy.In what he thought was a popular/brave way to protect cultural values, the Tanzanian President made careless remarks and recommendations that teenage mothers should not be allowed to go back to school after child birth. If these recommendations were to be implemented, it would continue to confine a huge percentage of girls and women to perpetual poverty. 

This scenario took me back to a period where this was a huge advocacy issue in Kenya. Even though it is now possible for girls in Kenya to go back to school after child birth, there are still challenges mostly associated with attitudes and cultural beliefs which end up stigmatizing girls and making it difficult for them to fit in. This seems to be a problem also with our neighboring country Tanzania. In my view, it is unacceptable that such sentiments should come from a head of state.

By making such remarks H.E. the President of the Republic of Tanzania sent a clear message that he views teenage pregnancy as an option that girls take after an array of choices is presented to them. Hence his recommendation that these girls should be left to go enjoy the life that they so cherish after becoming child mothers. Unfortunately, he is not alone. As he made these remarks publicly in a forum, he seemed to be getting cheers and jeers from the audience.Iam not sure the audience understood what they were cheering or they were doing it because they must cheer a leader. But on a serious note we need to get critical about some of these things. Everyone needs to understand and treat teenage pregnancy as a problem that it is.

Teenage pregnancy is one of the major barriers to girl’s education and women empowerment generally. Teenage pregnancies happen because adolescent girls/female youth continue to be disproportionately affected by lack of Sexual and Reproductive Health services (including Comprehensive Sexuality Education) and discrimination in access to these services which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and bad influence.This is compounded by the general perception (in the wider society) that providing sex education to our children and contraceptives incites them into early sex and immorality. Reasearch indicates otherwise; educating adolescents on safe sexual behavior, contraception, HIV and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) prevention has proved effective in reducing unintended consequences such as unwanted pregnancies and early rates of STD infection including HIV(Gaesler, et al, 1995).In our case where children are struggling with unprecedented levels of media and technological influences it is impossible to hide children from sexual influences. It is also imprudent to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that children are not engaging in sex.This therefore makes it even more critical for us to teach and make factual information available as opposed to being silent and expose our children to risks that come with ignorance. But how do we teach children if our leaders (who are supposed to set a good example) are so ignorant and closed minded. How can a national leader even contemplate openly speaking in support of teenage marriage? This is like publicly endorsing child marriage. It is careless and irresponsible to say the least! By the way we have not even looked at who is responsible for some of the teenage pregnancies.Often times it is adults (old enough to be these girls parents) who get them preganant.That said, school is one of the best child protection mechanisms.

When children are in school, they don’t only learn but also get protection from some of the risks associated with being idle and unsupervised. More so education makes it possible for children to make informed choices. This is more so for adolescents especially girls who happen to be a vulnerable group. Education empowers girls and young women by increasing their chances of getting jobs, staying healthy and being active members of the society. Girls who have gone to school are in turn able to take care of their children and giving them better opportunities in life. Education develops talents and capabilities and opens up a myriad of opportunities in other sectors leading to independence in one’s social economic and political aspects of their lives.

On a more practical note, education is important in helping one understand certain cultural orientations and practices and thus differentiate between what is necessary and what is harmful. For women and girls who have to contend with a myriad of negative cultural practices, education plays an important role in helping them reconcile with this difficult reality. As such, it remains extremely important to ensure that girls are adequately educated if they are to break free from poverty, marginalization and discrimination, the three things that have dogged them for decades making it almost impossible for them to attain any form of independence. This is nothing new. It is a very common narrative that has been repeated over and over by people who care about the welfare of women and girls. These facts are undeniable and have been published in reports and policy documents over time. Can somebody remind President Magufuli of this? Why do we continue to tolerate such impunity on issues affecting women and girls?