A few months ago, a feminist writer and friend wrote an article explaining the crisis Africa is currently facing. A crisis that is robbing our adolescent girls of a bright future – teenage pregnancy. This, in addition to numerous reports we hear every day across the continent indicate that indeed this is a crisis. The question I ask myself is: why are we failing our teenage girls?
Central to feminist politics is reproductive justice, and this is, to put it simply, a core belief that every woman, regardless of age, class, education, ethnicity or sexual orientation, has the right to decide if and when she will have a baby or to decide if she will not have a baby. It is about women having full control over all aspects of their sexual and reproductive lives. It is about bodily autonomy. In 2003, thanks to advocacy efforts by feminist movements, some African countries signed the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, also known as the Maputo Protocol. Article 14 of the Protocol directs State Parties to ensure that the right to health of women, including sexual and reproductive health is respected and promoted.
So why is teenage pregnancy increasingly a death sentence to so many young women and girls? Today, countries in Africa have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world. Causes range from outdated patriarchal norms that believe girls should be married off very young to the politicization of our bodies which has become a battleground for old, male politicians. Early marriage is not a practice in Rwanda, but why do we have high rates of unwanted teen pregnancy? Last year alone more than 17,000 cases of pregnant teens were reported! So where have we gone wrong? What are we not doing right?
For one it’s sexuality education. Whether we like it or not young people are increasingly becoming sexually active, but African traditions still cling on chastity as a moral absolute, and having sex before marriage is an absolute no. Parents shy away from having honest and open discussions about sexuality when adolescence is a period of curiosity, discovery and hormones. It is also a period where one becomes more and more independent so what adolescent girls need is not protection but information. When we fail to have open communication with young people we are enabling an already dangerous culture of silence and secrecy around sex which lead to feelings of shame and inadequacy. Young people are eager to know how to have healthy sexual relationships with their peers, and if we want to change the narrative that patriarchy has fed us for years we need to approach things differently, teach young boys about full and active consent, healthy relationships and nonviolence. We need to teach girls about non subordination, sex, pleasure and healthy relationships. We also need to help girls understand, recognize and own their bodies, their sexuality and desires as their own and not for male pleasure, that they can engage in sexual relationships as a choice not an obligation.
Furthermore, ‘family planning’ services (I find the naming problematic) target largely married women and adolescent girls fall through the crack. I have spoken to so many young girls here in Rwanda who say they were asked to bring their husbands/partners to prove that they are not engaging in ‘promiscuity’ before marriage; or health practitioners who decided to pray for young women instead of providing a service they are entitled to.
Why do we allow our politicians to decide on behalf of adolescent girls, that they will not have access to contraceptives, to emergency pills, or condoms in schools because ‘it will make them have more sex’? Why do parents want to have the final say in the lives of their children when they fail to provide the appropriate guidance in the first place? Why do we allow African women, mostly between 15 and 24 years of age, to continue dying from unsafe abortion? Do their lives matter?
I am aware many young girls are sexually abused by older men, luring them to have sex in exchange for a dollar or less, but this is not my concern today, because I know most of the anti-teenage pregnancy campaigns on the continent are focusing on that. My concern today is that we continue to turn a blind eye on the potential and capacity of young people as individuals who are capable and eager to have healthy relationships with their peers.
Our fight for reproductive justice is not just about choice but access. I am increasingly aware of how the ‘choice’ language is reserved for women like me who can afford a range of services at a private clinic in Kigali, while those who are poor and vulnerable do not have the same luxury. In fact young poor women are held accountable for making similar choices than I do. So how do we then ensure laws protect all of us, that we all have access to what’s rightfully ours?
It’s high time that we brought feminist politics at the centre of policy discourse, where decisions that affect women and girls are made. It’s high time we listened to what young women have to say, it’s high time we dismantled the way sexuality is understood, as it is central to the women and girls’ liberation in Africa.