Women in Rural Zimbabwe are Being Left Behind

Being a young woman living in a rural or remote community can be very daunting. You have to fight tirelessly to loosen yourself from the grip of sociocultural stigmatization to have any sense of autonomy over your sexuality.

The situation is worsened by the absence of easy access to modern family planning methods. The problem lies in the fact that when coming up with sexual and reproductive interventions for women and adolescents, our governments still rely on ‘a one size fits all’ approach.

But women in rural areas have different lifestyles and challenges than women living in urban communities.

When it comes to sexual and reproductive health, one size fits all really makes no sense. One size fits all isn’t good enough.

In Zimbabwe, the fact that young women and adolescents in rural and remote communities are still struggling to access modern family planning methods – or even comprehensive sex education – is overlooked. These issues are still regarded as taboo, and in my community you can’t talk openly about them.

It’s a different scenario for women and adolescents in urban communities within Zimbabwe. In urban areas, it’s possible to access both information and services through youth friendly centres, Non Governmental Organisations and other diverse forums.

I believe that women can only enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights if they have access to relevant services and supplies – including access to contraceptives and accurate information on how to use them – regardless of geographical area or socioeconomic status.

The government of Zimbabwe is committed to ensuring improved availability of and access to quality integrated family planning services for all women irrespective of age, marital status and their geographical location by the year 2020.

A sizeable number of interventions have been made. For example, we now have an ambassador for Family Planning to advocate for family planning. This is a great initiative, but in rural areas this ambassador is not visible, and so issues are misrepresented! This type of intervention is relative – it primarily benefits the adolescents and young women in urban areas the brand ambassador is engaging with – which makes it an unfit approach for women collectively.

I believe that this kind of intervention leaves a lot of women behind. 

A large percentage of Zimbabwean women are in rural communities. Adolescents and young women in rural areas need interventions they can relate to – services that resonate with their particular reality and their existing level of understanding.

As much as there have been family planning and contraceptive outreach services, it is still absurd that in rural areas adolescents and young women continue to have unwanted pregnancies and new cases of HIV infections. The reason behind this is a lack of positive and affirmative approaches towards women’s sexuality.

From my experience in a rural area, the healthcare service providers are not youth friendly and they tend to have a negative perception of young women trying to access family planning. As a result, adolescents and young women shy away from these health centres as they don’t trust the service providers.

This is very disturbing, as trust should be one of the core values health service providers should strive to uphold at all times. I believe that it would be a great idea for genuinely youth friendly centres to be established in rural and remote areas. This would encourage adolescents and young women to seek out sexual education and feel comfortable asking questions about the family planning methods that will work best for them. It would also help conservative rural communities to recognize family planning as not only a priority, but also a right.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and adolescents in rural communities should be prioritized in Zimbabwe, and the government must be held accountable for delivering meaningful and diverse approaches in tackling the family planning challenges our country faces. Without this, achieving the FP2020 targets will not be possible.

If truth be told, rural women and adolescents have had enough of being left behind.

CSW62 Offers Hope for Rural Women & Girls

Last week, women’s rights organizations around Africa convened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a regional meeting. The aim was to agree on priorities within issues that affect women and girls in rural areas of Africa.

The meeting (CSWAfrica) was hosted by the Africa Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) together with Africa’s steering committee and delegates, and the purpose was to set the agenda ahead of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62) being held in March 2018. The theme of CSWAfrica – ‘Securing African Rural Women’s Footprint at CSW62 & Beyond’ – was in line with this year’s CSW priority theme: ‘Challenges and Opportunities in Achieving Gender Equality and Empowerment of Rural Girls and Women’.

The strategic meeting called upon African rural women to share their realities to influence policies that could lead to gender equality.

It’s important to note that rural women constitute more than a quarter of the world’s population. Rural women are leaders, producers and service providers. Their contribution is vital to the well-being of families, communities, economies and the overall achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2063.

Moreover, rural women account for a significant proportion of the agricultural labour force and produce the majority of food grown in the world, and still perform most of the unpaid care work. Yet their rights and contributions have largely been overlooked.

Rural women continue to experience unequal opportunities within healthcare, education, infrastructure, food security, nutrition, technology and general access to information. They can be disproportionately affected by gender based violence, sexual exploitation, harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), child and forced marriages and are often subsequently denied access to justice.

Rural women can face more difficulties than men in accessing public services, social protection, employment and markets due to cultural norms, security issues and the formidable lack of identification documents. Women without identification cards cannot access healthcare, education, pensions, applications for property title or deeds and other social services. They are also unable to exercise their right to vote.

Additionally, while women have equal property ownership and inheritance rights, gender disparities in land holdings persist worldwide.

Even where governments have put legislations and policies in place to protect the rights of rural women and girls, their realization still remains a pipedream due to lack of awareness. Continued gender imbalances with our patriarchal society jeopardize the realization of existing laws and policies.

Conferences such as CSW provide a valuable platform for nations to focus on the acceleration and implementation of regional and global declarations geared towards the achievement of gender equality. CSW62 offers a perfect opportunity for building alliances to achieve gender equality and to empower rural women and girls.

“You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls.” – Barack Obama

My Attempts at Facilitating Change in Rural India

In my final year of medical school, as I was reading a chapter on Maternal and Child Health, I came across a table of mortality rates elaborating the health status of mothers and children of my country. They were dismal and though I could see that progress had been made, to my 20 year old brain, it seemed insufficient and too slow to be accepted. After all, these were lives and not just numbers! The rural-urban difference made the figures look worse. I was restless. How could I bridge this gap? I reasoned – a woman was the base of the society’s pyramid and if I could do something to strengthen her I could attempt to address this gap.

I was also convinced that since most of India’s population lived in rural areas, in order to make a significant impact, I should focus on rural areas. Though I had been reared in a city and had never seen what a village looked like, I was ready to learn along the way. Itching to materialise this dream, the month I passed my MD in Obstetrics and Gynecology, I moved to Bihar; a state with one of the worst reproductive and child health indicators.

img_20151128_074402

My first project there was to strengthen the quality of maternity services in the government hospitals through hands-on training of doctors and nurses. I knew things were in a bad shape, but nothing had prepared me for what I witnessed there.
I saw up close all the things that affected service delivery to mothers coming there from far-flung villages. They ranged from attitudinal apathy to infrastructural gaps to skill deficiencies, often leading to serious health consequences for women and their babies. Working on them was overwhelming and frustrating to start with, but we eventually succeeded in transforming the hospital dynamics. Significant gains were achieved in infrastructure, hygiene and skills. Our District Hospital later received the Prime Minister’s recognition for its radical transformation. It convinced my young heart that no matter how flawed, every system was capable of change.

My next project involved setting up a health center for women and children in a village which housed some of the poorest communities, was hard to reach and had poor means of transport. It is here that I witnessed firsthand the fate of women who never reached a government facility.

It was immensely humbling for me as a woman and as a doctor to see what happened to their childbirths, to their family planning needs and to their children battling with malnutrition and pneumonia. Maternal and Childhood malnutrition was rampant and with the nearby government health centre non-functional, most deliveries were aided at home by unskilled birth attendants. Women of the village had no access to contraception and one could easily find women with up to ten deliveries. Prenatal checkups were not considered important as pregnancy was seen as a natural event, not a ‘disease’ that needed a doctor.

wp_20160220_16_12_38_pro

I saw how quackery quickly proliferated in such places to fill the void created by a struggling government health system and how unscientific beliefs and taboos easily gripped such rural societies, vulnerable by poverty and ignorance. I also saw how the deep seated caste and gender divisions led to disempowerment of women and their children. A range of psychological issues and non-specific aches and pains in these women revealed to me their deeper emotional turmoil, isolation and loneliness, as a result of living most of their lives alone. The child bearing and the child rearing shared just with other women, while their husbands were away at better paying jobs in cities. I had to pinch myself when I saw young women being restricted to the confines of their homes due to fear of being seen by other men. With such ground realities, I had to reorient myself to move beyond providing safe childbirth and contraception to using healthcare as a tool, as a medium towards initiating deeper discussions with women, urging them to find their individuality.

I am glad I followed up on my dreams of medical school early enough. I feel happy that I am spending the most productive years of my life doing something that I find meaningful and worthwhile. Working for rural areas, its women and children, has given me my most precious moments as a doctor and as a woman.

Rural Women at CSW 56

The 56th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) started on Monday with Ambassador Marjon Kamara, Permanent Representative of Liberia to the United Nations as its Chair. The priority theme this year is “The empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges”. In the Secretary General’s report it is stated that:

“An estimated two thirds of the 400 million poor livestock keepers worldwide are women,” and

“About 1,000 women die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications around the world every day and 99 per cent of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries. Women giving birth in urban areas are twice as likely to be attended by skilled health workers as women in rural areas.”

So what can we do to empower rural women? And what role do rural women play in eradicating poverty and fighting hunger?

Watch UN Women‘s video about rural women and equal opportunities.

We are excited to follow the discussions at the CSW56 and look forward to the results of the panels, side events and discussions. You can also follow the action in New York on Twitter through #CSW56 and @UN_CSW and on Facebook. You can also follow the live webcast here.

Are you currently at the events? Let us know what you think about the discussions.

Get a taste of the action. Take a peak of the concert to End Female Genital Mutilation with Angelique Kidjo at the UN, which took place on Tuesday evening. Want to know more about female genital mutilation? Read our informative and inspirational blog posts.