Prioritise women’s wellbeing to drive economic growth

Many of us are familiar with the United Nation’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), which work towards giving children a beautiful, healthy and prosperous world in which to live. The fifth goal, achieving gender equality, is especially important in a country like Kenya where the empowerment of women is essential to economic development.

Clause 5.6 of the SDGs calls for “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights,” and it is one we should all pay attention to.

It has noted variously that women are the backbone of the family and the gatekeepers of family health. They have a strong influence over family health not just for their children, but for generations to come. The power of this fact cannot be diminished.

In 2012, Kenya committed to the FP2020 initiative. The programme targets 69 countries worldwide where poverty is rampant, in an effort to improve the situation of women and girls and further push the economic development agenda.

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Nine years later and Kenya is one of only nine countries that has met its goal - we have even exceeded it. With a 60 per cent contraceptive use by unmarried women, we are already two per cent further than what was predicted in 2012, and we are a year ahead of the deadline.

This is no doubt a mean feat. Kenya’s women and girls can improve their full potential only if they get the support they deserve. This is where the government comes in.

Power of women

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In his address at the last week’s International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25) in Nairobi, President Uhuru Kenyatta underlined the aforesaid power of women in society, stating that “empowering women essentially empowers nations, societies and the world.”

He also renewed his commitment to ending female genital mutilation (FGM) by 2022. Currently, one in five girls undergoes FGM, even though it has been illegal since 2011. This number has halved since 1998, when around 38 per cent of girls were forced to undergo the procedure.

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A new agreement signed between Kenya and Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia and Ethiopia commits the nation to preventing cross-border FGM. Simultaneously, Uhuru signed an agreement with community elders and religious leaders to stop the practice.

This was a good move on his part, since studies by Washington DC think tank the Brookings Institute show that making the practice illegal can actually make the practice more risky for girls. This is because groups who continue to subject young girls to FGM will do it in less safe and hygienic conditions if forced to do it covertly.

Therefore, the move to consult community elders and religious leaders on the matter was the most prudent way to ensure that this primitive practice - which is psychologically and physically damaging - will be relegated to the annals of history. This is a cultural practice that the law, on its own, can not deal with.

Just because we are rapidly industrialising and modernising does not mean that our sociocultural history should be forgotten. It is possible to maintain traditions, while still improving the economy and fulfilling our modern destiny. Recent reports by Family Planing 2020, a global partnership that supports the rights of women and girls to decide, have shown that women in Africa are quickly embracing the use of contraceptives such as condoms, injectables and the pill. As the world becomes more interconnected, Africans are increasingly leading lives more similar to their peers in Asia and the West than ever before. As a result of the rapid increase in prophylactic use, more than 119 million unplanned pregnancies, 21 million unsafe abortions and 134,000 maternal deaths were prevented on the continent in 2018.

However, women’s healthcare remains underfunded in many of the 69 countries that have taken part in FP2020. Reason we should appreciate initiatives specifically meant for women like the Linda Mama programme, which aims to significantly reduce infant and maternal mortality rates. Much more remains to be done, but the intention is noble, and steps taken point to the right direction.

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- The writer is an architect and comments on topical issues

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Economic growthWowenSDGsGender equality