August is the month to empower women. Well, women, the most empowering thing you can do for yourself is to own your body. In this article, we'll take you through the main struggles in the search for a just system of Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR).
Women face an unnecessary amount of adversity, and yet they have prevailed throughout history. The role of women in society as the providers of future generations has never been doubted and has even been made out to seem a task women must comply with. Sexual reproductive health services have been unequally accessible to women of different countries and communities. In the Southern African context, women struggle in the acquisition of contraception, safe abortion procedures, sexual encounters –conceptual and otherwise— maternal morbidity, and the health issues that arise from unsafe sexual activity.
Before you continue, please leave all prejudice behind. Embrace the role of every woman despite her age and/or situation.
Research shows that health care providers in Southern Africa have demonstrated a judgmental attitude when providing contraceptives to women who are sexually active at a young age. This is a problem because if one is not comfortable going to their health care provider for this service, one is more likely to discontinue the use of them. It is often true that young women discontinue the use of contraceptives shortly after acquiring them despite having a late start on the use of these. The use of condoms is not very common for pregnancy prevention among women not living with HIV. Although the use of hormonal contraceptives is an efficient way of avoiding unintentional pregnancies, it is important that women understand the full context of taking care of one’s body. And for that, we continue:
Between 46 and 61 percent of pregnancies are reportedly unintentional in the Southern African region. Abortion should not be restricted to socioeconomic status nor age. However, it is found that abortion provisions tend to be centralized to areas with more economic opportunity. Opposition from service providers tends to elongate the process of abortion, leaving women with no other option than to resort to unsafe abortion clinics simply for practicality. Although abortion rates increased after the first few months of its legal introduction to the medical system, rates have dropped in recent years. The main reasons for the low search for the abortion service is the stigma associated with it, the low personnel trained in it, lack of knowledge about the laws that protect abortion as a service, and the refusal of providers to assist young women.
Most women in Southern Africa encounter violence in their first sexual experience. Daily, 150 incidents of rape are reported to authorities in South Africa alone. Of these 150 reports of rape, only 30 are investigated and only 10 end up convicted. Women experience different levels of sexual abuse from very young ages contributing to the high numbers of child rape. After child rape, these young women often face forced marriages to men often much older than themselves, increasing the chance of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, sexual violence does not end once these girls are married; many women have reported being raped by their husbands, which the state does not take as a textbook definition of “rape”. Rape, abductions and forced marriages plague the female community of south-central Africa, as several countries have yet to establish child marriage and domestic violence laws. It is important to eradicate negative sexual encounters from the lives of women as these can bring about psychological damage for years, out of an experience that should not be painful, but enjoyed.
Zimbabwe and South Africa have been successful in eradicating the tax on feminine hygiene products; however, Zambia still lags in creating a more affordable price for sanitary ware. With the current prices of feminine hygiene products being inaccessible to women, they often resort to unsanitary forms of taking care of their health necessities. For young women, one of the most ardent problems is having to miss school for several days in a month in order to take care of a health aspect that could be dealt with from any place with a bathroom available. The most important part of accessibility to these products is not the price, but the blatant inequality experienced by women of rural areas, as this ultimately takes a toll on their health and their education. In South Africa women can access sanitary items with their health care providers, but it is evident that these products should be available at schools, for the aim of attending school is to better one’s quality of life, and it is unacceptable to think that women cannot receive the same level of education for something they really have no control over.
Every area of sexual reproductive health rights impacts people regardless of gender. Sexual health involves everything from education about safe sex, to accessibility to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s). Early and proper education about safe sex can hold a significant impact in the behaviors adopted by young people, however it is difficult to participate in safe sex when the means to do so are not readily available. Some STDs do not hold life-long effects. The problem is that as these small infections enter one’s body and the infection goes away without much treatment, people get used to engaging in unsafe sexual relations, increasing the chances of disregarding the use of condoms in sexual intercourse. Diseases such as Human Papillomavirus (HPV) can hold lifelong health effects on people and can lead to a weakening of the immune system, often bringing about cervical cancer for women. As for men, cancer usually shows itself in the prostate; breast cancer, however, can display itself on both men and women. This, too, forms part of taking care of one’s sexual reproductive health.
One of the strongest fights we have yet to win, is the fight against AIDS and HIV. Both diseases break down the ability of the immune system to defend itself from viral and bacterial attacks, often causing organs to not perform their regular functions at full capacity. In other words, your body loses the ability to keep you healthy, causing a decrease in life expectancy ranging from ten to fifteen years. Although we usually speak of the body by different parts and systems, it is important that one realizes that the body is one. Whatever your main concern is regarding sexual health, it is vital to protect yourself from harm, because it is your right. If you are a person living with sexually related infirmities, seek out your health provider, as they are under the obligation to present you with your right to health.
Deficiencies in the health care system will always exist as diseases evolve and are discovered. It is the duty of the state to respond to the needs of the people. It is the duty of the people to claim for the services they need. You woman, you man, you reader: it is your duty to step out and demand that your sexual reproductive rights be respected. It is nonsensical to say that pregnancy prevention is only the responsibility of the woman when pregnancy cannot occur without the counterpart. Love yourself. Love your body. Love your life. You are in a position of power to decide what you want for yourself. Look out for your health, do not disregard the use of condoms during sexual intercourse even if you are taking hormonal contraceptives, diseases spread and may lead to further health deterioration. It is natural to partake in sexual activities, and this report does not intend to deprive you of your freedom of choice. The point of this report is to ask you not to forget about your body and about your community during a moment which requires as much responsibility as it requires enjoyment. To love yourself is to love your body. There is no excuse to not give yourself the treatments you require. You have the right to these services, it is up to you to demand them. Live the quality of life you want to live.
To the young woman: You are powerful. You are independent. You are within your rights. Health care providers cannot turn you away because of your age. It does not matter whether a person behind a desk will think you are too young to participate in sexual activities or not. What matters is that you do not have to shorten your life or your options because of infirmities which will follow you throughout your entire life. What matters is that you have the right to decide, and that only you can have an opinion about your actions.
To all: Break stigma. Another’s choice of a sexual partner does not involve anybody but those two people, regardless of gender. A woman’s choice of giving birth or choosing not to does not involve anybody else but her –regardless of age—and potentially, her partner. A young woman’s choice to become sexually active is hers. It is never wrong to look out for your personal wellbeing. It is never okay to assume that others need to conform to your mentality and way of thinking.
Let today be the day you take hold of your fate. Let your actions define you; not as a gender, but as a person. Let the absence of judgements unite you with those who are just like you. Let the acceptance of yourself become the acceptance of others.
Women, I celebrate you for your undefeatable courage and your unstoppable drive. Women are the bearers of history: past, present, and future. We are one.