By Belinda Amankwah
“I remember when I was growing up, my mom told me I like to play too much and that I shouldn’t play with my brothers. She said I was to help her in the kitchen. So she would wake me up early in the morning whilst my brothers were still in bed to sweep the compound and do some other house chores. So I asked my mother why my brothers won’t join me to do the house chores and she said it is because I am a woman and that’s my job. This was when I realized that I was different and society had different expectations from what they had for men.” – ACSHR Participant
The 7th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights (ACSHR) was held at the Accra International Conference Center this month. AWDF and Curious Minds hosted a Young Women’s Pre-Conference on 9th February, 2016 to provide a safe space for feminist engagement and knowledge sharing on the topic of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).
According to the organizers, ACSHR’s vision is “part of a long-term process of building and fostering regional dialogue on sexual health and rights that leads to concrete actions and enhance stakeholders’ ability to influence policy and programming in favour of a sexually- healthy continent.”
The conference saw the gathering of many young women from different countries around the continent, mostly between the ages of 15- 30. The venue was almost filled to capacity by the time the conference started. The young women looked happy to be together, enthusiastic about the day and the atmosphere was very blissful. Many were striking an acquaintance with other young women and getting to understand the environment.
As a young women’s rights activist, it was a great experience attending this meeting. I met many intelligent and passionate young feminists, women’s rights activists and a few veterans in the African Feminist movement. The sessions were well delivered as the facilitators did not only present information but also made the experience very interactive. This gave young women the opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences freely – more so than they would have had the chance to in other spaces.
The first session focused on the foundations of African Feminism. The facilitator, Jessica Horn, Director of Programmes at AWDF and a feminist activist, spoke on the principles, theories and practice of feminism. She started by throwing this question to the audience: “When did you first know you were a woman and that you were different?” This exercise was done in small groups, giving us the opportunity to listen to some interesting stories and lessons. For me, what I heard most was that being a woman comes with a lot of expectations that sometimes do not allow women to develop themselves to their full desired potential, especially outside the home. However, being a woman surely has positive results, too.
Here is another story shared in my group:
“When it was time for me to go to college, my father paid my fees and provided me with everything I needed but when it was my brother’s turn to go to college, things got financially difficult and my brother had to work to pay his fees. My dad still continued to pay my fees. He said, a man is supposed to provide for himself and a woman is to be taken care of.”
I have a memory from my childhood. My brother and I are very close in age and we would fight over any and everything. Every time we fought, my mom would tell me I am too tough. She said women should be emotionally and physically soft and should not fight. So I kept on asking myself, “Why should I intentionally allow my brother to beat me when I am capable of fighting back?” I understood at an early age that this showed the world that I was a woman.
A highlight during the workshop for me was when Juliana Lunguzi, a woman MP from Malawi, was invited to share some motivating words. She told us about her struggles as a member of Parliament but also reminded us of the need to support girls throughout their education. She said, “UNICEF, Action Aid and other organisations are building schools but no one is paying the fees of these young girls to attend school, and for me, that is the most important thing. In our fight for the rights of women and equal opportunities, we should remember that it is through education that young women can occupy and share the spaces we are fighting to create for them.”
I enjoyed the session by Cecilia Senoo (Executive Director for Hope for Future Generations) on how Feminism intersects with SRHR. I particularly loved the interactive aspect as it led to some passionate discussion on issues such as virginity, violence against women, and harmful cultural practices, among other issues. From that conversation, here are some profound statements I would like to echo:
- Why is a woman’s virginity so important to men when many men sexually abuse girls and women? Does a woman check if a man is a virgin before she marries him? “IT’S MY BODY, I OWN IT, IT’S MINE” – our bodies do not belong to men for them to decide what to do with it.
- African peoples have some harmful cultural and community practices that directly affect women and can destroy us, physically and emotionally. What is a culture when it destroys its own people? A true culture protects its people and does not expose them, especially marginalised populations, to harm.
- How do we break the cycle of violence against women? We need to put systems in place and ensure that they work. We will fight for our rights as women because no one will fight for us if we don’t. We should remember that power is not given; it must be expressed from within.
A fiery passion to transform this world and demand respect for women’s rights was borne in me this day, attending the conference and meeting so many young and courageous Feminists. It is important for us to sustain the dialogue on women’s rights and build support networks between young women so that we don’t feel isolated. It is good to have sisters around who will encourage and keep you.
Belinda Amankwah works at AWDF as a Knowledge Management intern.