19 November 2012

Kenya: The African Women Leaders Network to Take the Goverment to Task


Jane Kiragu is a human rights lawyer and a member of the African Women Leaders Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. She spoke to our Star Reporter Lydia Matata.

As a member of the African Women Leaders Network dealing with family planning and reproductive health, what does your work entail?

It is a network of 35 members drawn from different parts of the continent. We were formed because there was a feeling and a sense that advocacy around sexual and reproductive health did not receive sufficient attention vis a vis political presentation.

Yet family health, particularly maternal death is something that has complete control of all African women and has not received sufficient political attention.

The issue of reproductive health is often considered just family planning. Family planning is about the comprehensive access of the woman and man's health although we are doing advocacy specifically for women's sexual and reproductive health.

Does this also tie in with access to family planning services for all women regardless of social status?

I think that is the big problem, that access to family planning facilities has been considered a modern or urban need, yet we know women in the rural areas really do need quality service and information.

I am certain, although I do not have the statistics that many rural women die of breast cancer and cervical cancer just because they do not have access to health facilities.

Of course the biggest concern for us as a network is why are women dying during childbirth? And the numbers are continuing to increase.

We saw in the 2008 - 09 Demographic Health Survey that the rate of child mortality has gone down but the number of women who are dying while giving birth are going up.

Why? That is the big question. It is because of lack of attention. And you see in Kenya, we have the disparities of regions so you find the national figures 488 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, if we go to North Eastern you find 1,200 women dying out of 100,000.

Women in these areas are dying from, for example, excessive bleeding. You will find that the cost of the tablet used to stop bleeding is so minuscule.

Why don't all the centres have them? Then you find a situation where you go to a clinic when in labour and nurses make insensitive remarks like 'we weren't there when you were making love'. I just don't understand why clinics are not women friendly.

How and when did you become a member of AWLN.

Like I said this is a network. So we have different members from around the continent. Some of them are high profile like the President of Malawi and the former Prime Minister of Burundi.

The network was formed in 2010. Since it is difficult to bring all 35 women from different countries together we do our work through on-line intervention.

We have co-coordinating secretaries. One based here in Kenya and the other in Accra, Ghana to look for opportunities where our members can articulate these issues.

I am also a human rights lawyer and was once the director of the Federation of Women Lawyers . So I have done a number of things for women's rights in this country.

What are the goals of your organisation?

First of all making sure that maternal deaths becomes a priority issue for the government. This means that we want to have increased funding.

Increased budget allocation in terms of training and services available for women especially those who are pregnant. The second thing is to reposition the family planning dialogue.

Family planning is not just about population control or numbers, it is about what is the quality of life and what is the ability for women to make choices.

We know that if women are not able to make choices about the number of children they want to have or about the spacing, they put themselves at risk of many things.

These include gender violence, HIV transmission and maternal deaths. For those who have the opportunity to study, it limits their educational opportunities.

And you and I know that when you have had successive pregnancies and you go back to work you will find reasons why the employment environment will not be very friendly.

All those things, we want them to be in the policy space for conversation. In advocacy if you want to see change you have to put in money.

So that next year when the Demographic health survey is done, we see a decrease in the number of deaths in North Eastern and all the disparities are being reduced.

What are the programs that you have put in place to ensure women in Kenya and the other countries you work in have access to family planning and reproductive health facilities?

No, as a network we do not have programs. We are not implementers. We are advocates.

The Planning Minister Wycliffe Oparanya appealed to Kenyans to have only as many children as they can afford. Do you agree with the minister's sentiments?

You know women are not vehicles of production first and fore most. And how does a woman choose to give birth? Often times they do not have a choice.

Why are people having many children in reality? I don't think it is a numbers' issue, I think it is the level of awareness, the availability of choice and the quality of life that people have.

Because if I do know that having successive pregnancies puts me at risk. That it limits my economic opportunities. That it will limit the quality of life my children have such that they become stunted, then they are malnulrished and they will continue the vicious cycle of poverty.

If I don't understand that and the government tells me don't have more children. I don't think they are addressing my problem. My problem is more intense and I think that that's why inequality in this country is such a big problem.

The social pressure of continuing the family name is so high. So a woman is not able to do the opportunity cost of having many children. She cannot say, oh I think this is not good for my health I want to plan this.

And remember the whole thing about population is a political issue. We want to get numbers because of a belief we operate as groups of tribes not groups of individuals. Yes so you see it becomes so complicated.

I do not understand why we place such a large burden on women. What about the man? I know that Oparanya was addressing families.

But in families who is the decision maker. We do not have sufficient levels of empowerment for women to negotiate this power.

So if I was a government minister my intervention will not be in numbers. It would be making sure that every Kenyan understands, what it means to reproduce and how does it burdens the family.

I think targeting social norms, practices and behaviour will ultimately improve the deliverables of the Vision 2030. Let us invest in the family.

Let us start at the community level and eventually this will translate into numbers. If we deal with the root cause it will be more sustainable and there will be less resistance.

Personally I think yes, we do have this population bubble that is going to burst, but I don't think that the solution is telling people that this is the number of children that you are going to have. I think it is including their quality of life and giving them information so that at least it is equal.

The government has various policies to control population growth, and the for the first time the constitution guarantees the right to health care including reproductive health, yet it continues to violate the sexual and reproductive rights of women. How then can we ensure that these policies are effectively implemented?

What I can advice the government to do is to focus a bit more on the dialogue around county budgetary allocation. Because it is those county budgetary allocations that tell us whether the government keen on implementing the constitution.

The government will say the Abuja Deceleration says we have to do give this percentage for health so we have given this percentage. But what part of health? Is it health consultancy which is often given to men?

Or are we being specific and saying we want to have maternity clinics, children's clinics. We want things to be segregated so that needs are met according to specific problems and not in bulk.

I am not comfortable saying the government is in violation because they cannot implement everything immediately. But we need to monitor the steps.

The Ministry of Health I know are developing a health gender policy because gender equality has became a constitutional principal so we want to make sure that things are being taken care of.

For example like in the case of Malaria prevention, you find government with other development partners are going to give mosquito nets pregnant women and indicate that they have contributed.

But if you look at the time schedule of that pregnant woman. She wakes up at 4.30 or 5.00 am there are mosquitoes present, what happens?

Or sometimes she will be removed from the net and told to sleep elsewhere. So instead of ticking a box we should be doing comprehensive intervention.

We have 47 counties, everything can't be done at once. We can choose and select a pilot model. Like we use the gender violence and recovery centre at the Nairobi Women's Hospital to show that this is the minimum standard of how a health facility responding to violence against women and men should look like then we replicate it. This means we do not have to do a lot of homework or a lot of consultancy we are just copying and pasting.

Many women in Kenya do not have a voice when it comes to decision making over their health and sexuality. How can we ensure their participation in this discussion on family, community and national level?

I could say, lets have more women in decision making and that would be the solution, but it is only part of the solution. We are products of how we are brought up.

We are socialised that there is a certain etiquette for girls and for boys, for women and for men. That etiquette is what undermines our potential. What do they say? That women are to be seen and not heard.

I think the solution is we have to think through very strongly about how can we reorder our social relations. How do I see you not as a woman but as a human being.

The same way we do our peace work. We are saying I do not want to see you as this tribe I want to see you as a Kenyan. It makes the most sense.

The minute we begin to appreciate each other as human beings not that I am a woman or that I am a man. I think once we understand that then we will be able to see that it is unacceptable that this half of the population is excluded.

Because we talk about democracy, we talk about freedom, we want equity, we want fairness. How do you become fair when all decision makers are men?

Sometimes when I am holding workshops I tell the story of the upside down world where the world has women leaders and decision makers at 95 per cent.

They find it hard to imagine women presidents. I think it has a lot to do with our socialisation and it is not going to change tomorrow.

It is an incremental process. I wish that it will happen in my lifetime that we are going to have equality of women and men, but I don't think it will. But we have started the journey. We have it as a constitutional principle.

Young men also tend to take a backseat when it comes to issues to do with family planning methods, how can we ensure that participation of both genders are on an equal level?

That is why the gender policy is not only about women. It is about women and men being able to have a voice, resources and power almost at par.

So that we can be able to negotiate. So when family planning programmes, HIV and Aids programmes fail to target men, actually what they are doing is reinforcing their exclusion.

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