By Amina Mohammed, United Nations Deputy Secretay- General
After flying into the city of Bolin in the Republic of Chad, over the lush fields and receding lakes; Amina Mohammed, the United Nations’ Deputy Secretary-General landed to a rapturous welcome from traditional rulers and local women. Their faces reflected a hope and dignity slipping away under the harsh reality of poverty and insecurity. The women, smiling at them as they disembarked, showed the same resilience she had seen in women in countless contexts: an ability to survive, even in the face of multiple forms of violence and insecurity at home, in public or from political conflict.
She visited Chad the past summer as part of a three-country mission that included South Sudan and Niger, leading a delegation of senior women from the United Nations and the African Union. In Niger and Chad, they were joined by Margot Wallstrom, the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden. The country has pioneered the idea of a feminist foreign policy and given prominence to the dynamic between women’s status in society; and international peace and security during the country’s two years on the Security Council.
Throughout the mission, she could not shake what we have come to know that women, and their rights, are the first to suffer in times of crisis. And that this often compounds already high levels of inequality and violence.
She met Halima, a young girl whose life had not been her own. Against her will she was forced into marriage. Her husband then, a member of Boko Haram, indoctrinated her with promises of a better afterlife. Halima strapped on a suicide belt, yet never made it to what they were told was a target, as the belts of two other girls went off as they stopped to pray. Halima lost both her legs. Her future seemed grim, she had a measure of hope as she spoke and is working as a paralegal in her community to empower other women.
In Niger, at a centre for fistula survivors, they met girls as young as 12 and 13. Mere children forced into marriage and then raped by their husbands, without any agency or voice over their futures, their bodies, their lives.
Over 75% of girls in Chad and Niger get married before they are 18. They drop out of school and many become pregnant soon after and due to young age and resultant complications during pregnancy, these countries record some of the highest maternal mortality rates globally. Faced with dire poverty and often conflict, families believe they have no choice. They cannot feed their children, but hope maybe a husband can.
During the then commemoration of 16 days of activism to end violence and harmful practices against women and girls, it was important to acknowledge the multiple forms of violence women and girls face, and the consequences they have from individuals, families, communities, and shared agendas for development-the 2030 Agenda and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.
From early forced marriage to femicide, from trafficking to sexual harassment, from sexual violence to harmful traditional practices; violence in all its forms is a global impediment to sustainable development, peace and prosperity. It prevents women from fully engaging in society, scars successive generations, and costs countries millions in health expenses, job days lost, and long-term impacts.
The United Nations, together with partners, national governments and civil society, is leading efforts to end all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030. There are existing efforts to build on. During their trip, they met traditional leaders, in particular men, who are taking actions in their own communities to stop early marriage. They talked to fisherwoman on Lake Chad who have taken over a traditionally male occupation, so as to provide for their families and who are engaged in sustainable resource management, income generation and empowerment.
And across a number of countries in Africa, they are implementing a new effort with the European Union-the Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls. The approximately $300 million investment in Africa will target all forms of gender-based violence, with a particular focus on child marriages, female genital mutilation and the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls. She finished her travel with a great sense of urgency and hope. The visit reinforced her conviction that we need to implement our global agenda on sustainable development-the 2030 Agenda-with urgency, and gender equality is at the very heart of it. She is inspired and hopeful because of women like Halima, like the survivors of marriages they never chose, like the girls who were forced into sex and pregnancy long before their bodies were ready. They survived. They are telling their story, and they are determined to have a better future, not only for themselves, but also for their sisters.
The efforts put in by the United Nations to fight retrogressive practices such as early marriages and female genital mutilation is a step in the right direction. Sustainable development can only be achieved by granting girls and women equal rights. Gender based violence and abuse of women and girls should be fought and completely wiped out of the African societies. Empowering women and girls, and providing them with support to enable them pursue their dreams, is a move that is long overdue. These steps will go a long way in liberating the women from the shackles of historical social-economic deprivation.
In the words of the late Kofi Annan, “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.
This article is reprinted by The Youth Cafe courtesy of AminaMohammed and United Nations Africa Renewal. Additional input by Martin Mutai