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Scale up sexuality education to address maternal hitches

By Irungu Houghton | November 16th 2019

Exaggeration is the lazy tool of advocates attached to a cause. With it, dies truth and the possibility of common ground. This week’s International Conference on Population and Development attracted its share of half-truths, manipulated facts and lies. What is its significance for the next decade?

Seven thousand delegates attended this week’s conference to reflect how far the world has changed since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, 25 years ago. Rallied by the United Nations Population Fund, 179 governments placed women’s empowerment at the centre of poverty reduction and population control strategies for the first time. Women must have the right to choose the number and timing of their children was part of the quantum leap achieved in 1994. Rather than states controlling women’s fertility, signatories committed to providing universal education, broadening the range of reproductive and sexual health services and reducing infant and maternal mortality and female genital mutilation (FGM). 

The Cairo conference was also controversial. The Catholic Holy Sea strongly resisted any language on abortion, “artificial” contraception or any family that wasn’t the traditional Christian family. They opposed safe abortion, condoms or any other form of contraceptives outright. They also blocked out any acceptance of single parent households, polygamous relationships, cohabiting or gay couples with children. In 1994, this was more than 60 per cent of the world’s families. 

Over the last 25 years, the use of contraceptives increased 25 per cent. Child and mother deaths dropped by 58 and 40 per cent respectively. More governments are enforcing bans on FGM and child marriage. However, while delegates met over three days, 2,400 women died in child-birth, 99,000 were forced into child marriages, 33,000 endured FGM and 205,000 died or were disabled by an unsafe abortion in our world. Most of these instances occur in countries with ineffective health systems, restrictive abortion laws, gross gender inequalities and where women have lost control over their sexuality. Many African women and children have yet to see the benefits of the last 25 years of the Cairo Plan of Action.

Based on current statistical trends, 3,000 Kenyan girls between the age of 10 and 19 had unprotected sex while the ICPD was going on. One hundred and five of them dropped out of school and three died in pregnancy related complications. A total of 3,600 women and girls had abortions and 45 per cent of them were girls between the ages of 10 and 19. Nine people were raped and 45 were defiled. Less than ten of these cases will lead to convictions. This conference mattered to Kenya and President Kenyatta’s opening speech said as much.

It also matters to Celestine Atieno, 35, who went into premature labour, was neglected by a nurse, self-delivered her baby who tragically died and then spent the next three days begging the hospital to release her body to her. It matters to Mercyline Ongachi, 20, who gave birth to premature twins on the hospital floor and watched the babies put in a carton. Alive. It matters to Halima, who was detained with her baby for 103 days after she could not pay the initial hospital bill of Sh60,000. 

This week, conference critics claimed their faith and families were under foreign attack and their children would be forced to masturbate in school. Some Governments misheard a call for abortion on demand and the promotion of “gayism” in the conference agenda. Those arguing the ICPD was overly influenced by foreigners found themselves on the same side with a US Government who has policy of withholding funds to any country or UN agency who provide access to safe abortion.

Twelve agreements were adopted this week. They include new commitments to accelerate funding to eliminate any unmet needs for sexual and reproductive health services and stop gender-based discrimination, violence and harmful practices. Countries agreed to prioritise a broad range of interventions including comprehensive and age-responsive sex education, safe abortion to the full extent of their laws and to create inclusive societies that do not discriminate even on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.

We will have to act and see whether increased sexuality education, effective contraception and safe abortion services will eliminate the deaths and despair caused by poor maternal health services, sexuality ignorance and unsafe abortions. What is clear, is that people who are pregnant are best placed to make decisions about their pregnancy and States must support them with the full range of services they need.

The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director.
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