OPINION: Reproductive health in a man’s world
I do digital storytelling and new media social justice campaigns.
Two years ago, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet Secretariat) commissioned me to preside over a Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) online advocacy assignment in six African countries dubbed #SRHRDialogues.
The countries were Zambia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Liberia and Guinea-Conakry. The findings shocked me.
Men & reproductive health
You see, as a single African young man, I barely worry about accessibility to sanitary pads or what goes on in maternal clinics or the ravages of teenage pregnancy.
The only time I get to think about my reproductive health is when I’m calculating the vectors of approaching a pharmacy to buy condoms: the math of ensuring there’s no one else at the counter.
Just me and the attendant, and I don’t look them in the eye when ordering the merchandise.
But that’s not the case for African women; in particular, poor African women– who constitute majority of the continent’s population.
Child marriage; FGM; limited or no access to contraception; intimate partner violence and unplanned pregnancies are but a few health insecurity complexities that poor African women grapple with.
These entanglements were prevalent in all the six African countries, and which I imagined represented a larger scope of the stark reality eating the continent.
Family planning is personal and the personal is political, feminist and writer Carol Hanisch said in an essay that appeared in the anthology Notes From the Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970.
Poor African women slave their bodies hours on end to reach ill-equipped health centres hoping to find help but their social status ensures that this doesn’t happen.
Privilege & politics
Male biology (read privilege) offers me immunity from having to spend sleepless nights soiling my bed with blood that time of the month.
It also offers me immunity from having to take Morning After pills (P2) or having to subscribe to a lifetime of other artificial methods to keep myself from getting pregnant.
Which explains why, globally, low funding for sexual and reproductive health and rights is nearly normal. You just have to look at who runs governments.
It brings me to another finding. One of the biggest barriers to access of reproductive health for African women are their husbands.
I can’t count the number of times I heard stories from these countries: women recounting how their husbands renounced contraception and if they were found doing so, it resulted in a beating.
Their husbands wanted many children because it signified pride, even if large families were unsustainable. Beyond it being a cultural problem, it is also deeply religious, and inevitably economic.
I know a lot of online male discourse grumbles over why everything has to be about gender. Because it is.
This is about half the population of a whole continent’s survival. We cannot ignore it no matter how hard we try. It’ll always haunt. Always knock. Always howl, until we listen. Then act. And act accordingly.
Role of organized religion
The biggest religious institution on earth, the Catholic Church, is against artificial contraception. Yet dating back in time; Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek and Roman texts discuss well-known contraceptive practices ranging from the withdrawal method to the use of crocodile dung, dates and honey to block or kill semen.
There also existed traditional African contraceptive methods but about 95% of them were implemented on women’s bodies.
I do not even know where to start with abortion rights.
You see, organized religion has its nuances. Out of its patriarchal nature, households are systematically designed to depend on the man for survival.
Everyone has to live by his ideals, catering to his grievances, graces and grimace. Which is rather unsustainable if you asked me.
And since the man does not have any personal experience exposed to the treacherous health risks a woman endures daily, it does not count to him as a matter of dire attention.
Since he’s separate from it. It’s easy to abuse that which you separate yourself from.
Since the man runs the church and the state, both rich and poor–in musical exchanges– he blinds himself from humanizing the woman because he’s drunk with his dancing power.
The church here in the context of (and representing) the larger religious socio-political violent establishments claiming to speak for deity.
If a person could control your idea of heaven and hell, and your idea of God, they can well control your body because they already control your mind. Your mind carries your body and your body carries your mind.
The question of autonomy
Alan Watts said: “Space is completely basic to everything.”
Your personal space taken away from you by force, and for a lengthy time, makes you begin to believe you deserve no space.
James Baldwin added: “What the world does to you effectively long enough, you start doing to yourself.’’
So now we preach to women to love their natural hair, not to bleach their skins, not to sell their bodies, not to do anything that makes them feel free, yet the male gaze–orchestrated by archaic and rigid ideals, whatever its stimulants–deliberately choreographed to systematically fade women away from their nature.
Here’s the point I meant to make on this writ: we shamed a woman for giving birth to eight kids she can’t feed, calling her all sorts of names including ignorant, little knowing we’re in the same trap for the same reasons.
Men don’t think working their bodies out everyday selling their time, energy and precious intellect in toxic uncompromising capitalistic and dehumanizing jobs is also a form of prostitution. I mean you’re selling your body to survive.
You’re putting yourself through extremely harsh and unfavorable conditions to earn your next meal, hopping from job to job, even changing identities conforming to your situation. Isn’t that whoring?
Call to action
Next time you think you’re better than someone you point fingers at, pause to ask what barriers they may be battling to get to where you think you are, instead of shaming them.
You might just devise a solution to liberate both of you.
Onyango Otieno is a poet, writer, mental health advocate and digital storytelling consultant. This article was first published on Words & Soul