Twenty-six years after the World Conference on Women’s Rights in Beijing, the Generation Equality Forum marks a crucial new stage in governments’ commitment to gender equality. The fight for gender equality remains an open issue at the international level. In a quarter of a century, there have been no new international texts to back up the previous commitments. Worse, the defence of women’s rights is hampered in many international forums by motley coalitions of governments that deny, for various reasons, the discrimination suffered by women. In cultural, social and religious contexts, women are denied control over their own bodies.
At the same time, the understanding of the mechanisms of discrimination against women has increased. The freedom to have control of one’s own body is often narrowly understood as the choice to procreate. But it is really about a wider set of rights, that are independent of each other, without which there is no autonomous choice or real equality: access to education and information, access to health care systems, access to contraceptive methods, access to legal and safe abortion, protection against sexual violence, such as rape, female genital mutilation, of child marriage, forced marriage, etc.
These rights form a continuum now referred to as Sexual and Reproductive and Health Rights (SRHR). The promotion of these rights, which faces many obstacles in the multilateral international framework, is the subject of particular mobilization by a broad coalition of governments, of which France is a member. In Paris, France, which is co-chairing the Generation Equality Forum with Mexico, will be particularly involved in the coalition on « Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights ». This commitment, consistent with the affirmation of feminist diplomacy over the past several years, has raised substantial expectations on the part of many civil society organizations and partner countries involved in gender equality. To be fully mobilizing, this French commitment must be translated into a specific financial effort within the framework of official development assistance. Budgetary choices, from this point of view, have fallen short of the message’s objectives.
A strengthening of the French commitment is all the more necessary as the health and security contexts are deteriorating in the regions where it counts. Women’s and girls’ rights are particularly vulnerable to the security, political, economic and cultural vagaries of societies experienced in sub-Saharan African countries on a daily basis. We have observed that, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, advances in sexual and reproductive health and rights are difficult to achieve and their decline is particularly severe when access to the school system is made impossible, when the health care system is disorganized, when local associations no longer have the resources to carry out their actions, or when such rights are even directly hindered by certain social forces or by political or religious leaders. The resulting gender inequalities perpetuate and reinforce violence against women and girls.
However, if women and adolescent girls are denied the right to take control of their bodies, the repercussions are not limited to the loss of bodily autonomy. It is their entire emancipation journey that is at stake, with multiple impacts that concern their entire lives. These barriers threaten their future and the possibility of aspiring to a full education and economic independence, and deprive them of rights as basic as the right to health and security. In short, they deprive them of a fundamental universal right, their freedom and their right to choose.
It is therefore essential that societies and policy makers are made aware of the importance of promoting access to SRHR for women and girls and that funding in this area continues and is increased. This is why France’s official development assistance for SRHR in sub-Saharan Africa is essential to bring about tangible and continuous change on the ground with a view to guaranteeing these rights.
This report gives a voice to actors in the field who are developing concrete programmes to promote SRHR in five sub-Saharan African countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal). Thanks to numerous interviews with political and institutional leaders, representatives of local NGOs based in the five countries studied and French feminist associations, the work group identified several levers for action that still need to be developed to enable women to assert their rights.
The report makes six recommendations to the French government regarding funding for sexual and reproductive health and rights in sub-Saharan Africa:
1. Increase French funding for SRHR
2. Cover the full range of SRHR issues to meet needs on the ground: a priority for respecting women’s and girls’ fundamental rights
3. Simplify the process of identifying and accounting for funding for SRHR
4. Favour the funding of projects with a long timeframe
5. Adapt funding eligibility procedures for local and feminist NGOs
6. Invest in the potential of youth.