I do digital storytelling and new media social justice campaigns. In 2018, Femnet Secretariat commissioned me to preside over a Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) online advocacy assignment in 6 African countries tagged #SRHRDialogues.
The findings shocked me.
You see as an everyday 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. Further, for poor African women, who constitute majority of the continent’s population.
Child marriage, FGM, poor to 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 6 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, as Carol Hanish is credited to say.
Poor African women slave their bodies hours on end to reach ill-equipped health centres hoping to find help. But their social status ensures it doesn’t happen.
Male biology (read privilege) offers me immunity from spending a sleepless night soiling my bed with blood that time of the month, or having to rack morning after pills (P2), or subscribe to a lifetime of unwarranted drugs 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 their husbands renounced them from taking contraception, and if they were found, it came with 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 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.
The biggest religious institution on earth, the Catholic Church, is against artificial contraception. Well, and the larger Christian contingent for most parts. 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 existed traditional African contraceptive methods too. But about 95% of them are implemented on women’s bodies.
I do not even know where to start with abortion rights.
You see, organized religion has its nuances. Because 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.
Alan Watts said, ‘’space is completely basic to everything.’’
So if your personal space is taken away from you by force, and for a lengthy time, 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.
But this is the point I meant to make on this writ. We shame women for giving birth to many kids they can’t feed, calling them 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?
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 cultural designer ardent in maximizing the power of storytelling for healing and connection. Onyango believes in the potent spirit of humanity collectively creating safe spaces for interaction, development, business and movement, for a more cohesive world.