I am only well if you are well: can the Utu-Ubuntu philosophy help drive the acceptance of sexual and reproductive rights in Africa? by Joan Njagi

In the face of growing resistance of religious and conservative groups on the African continent to the advancement of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), this article discusses the potential for African philosophy and theories to drive the acceptance of SRHR here and elsewhere. Utu-Ubuntu, a philosophy focusing on humanity and interconnectedness, may help to bridge divisions and advance SRHR for young people on the continent, writes Joan Njagi.

Two events that occurred in Nairobi toward the end of 2019 provided the backdrop for reflection on new ways of overcoming cleavages related to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in Africa. The first was the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) Conference in October and the second the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) +25 Nairobi Summit in November. As an African researcher working on SRHR, specifically those of young people, the events were meaningful to me for two reasons: the ASAA Conference highlighted the need for African scholarship to interrogate, unearth, and consequently contribute to addressing development challenges on the continent. The ICPD25 Nairobi Summit on the other hand was an important platform to take stock of progress on the landmark programme of action to advance SRHR, adopted by 179 countries across the world during the first ICPD Conference held in Cairo in 1994.

Important discussions and commitments aside, the ICPD +25 Nairobi Summit also brought to the fore the contestation of SRHR on the African continent. This contestation stems mostly from religious and conservative groups that have framed the SRHR agenda, specifically comprehensive sexuality education, abortion rights, and LGBTIQ rights, as a western imposition that poses a threat to the African family. These groups have been agitating for the need for African-developed solutions that uphold religious teachings and what they claim to be African culture including value for the unborn, sexual chastity for young people, sexual attraction and intimacy in heterosexual relationships only, as well as the patriarchal positioning of women as non-autonomous. These contestations continue despite evidence demonstrating the inaccuracies in such homogenized conceptualisations of African culture.

The contestation surrounding SRHR issues on the African continent as demonstrated by anti-SRHR and anti-rights protests during ICPD Summit brings me back to the ASAA Conference. One thing that struck a chord with me during the ASAA Conference is the need for African theories to drive the development agenda in Africa. I was particularly captivated by the Utu-Ubuntu philosophy in decolonising the understanding and conceptualisation of African cities, which was discussed in a keynote address titled “Rethinking the African Metropolis: From problem cities to Utu-Ubuntu cities of self-reliance and solidarity” delivered by Dr. Mary Kinyanjui, a Kenyan scholar, whose work focusses on gender and urban informal economies.

Utu and Ubuntu are East and Southern African concepts, respectively, which stem from the words mtu in Swahili and muntu in the Nguni Bantu languages, both of which mean human being. The underlying philosophy of Utu and Ubuntu is therefore of humanity and being humane. Utu-ubuntu espouses the values of interconnectedness and interdependence of our humanity, such that an individual cannot be self-sufficient or thrive on their own, hence the need for community. Utu-ubuntu is therefore based on the understanding that each person has a responsibility to accord others compassion, fairness, and respect, so that everyone can live in dignity. This involves embracing oneness and solidarity as well as sharing, generosity, and inclusiveness. It further requires adhering to basic norms of kindness, brotherhood, and sisterhood.

Prof. Micere Mugo, a literary critic and professor of literature at Syracuse University, who was forced into exile from Kenya for her political activism during Kenya’s second president Moi’s dictatorial regime, summed up the essence of Utu-Ubuntu perfectly during her keynote at the ASAA Conference when responding “I am only well if you are well” to a Shona greeting.

Since the ASAA conference, I have been thinking about what it would mean to apply the Utu-Ubuntu philosophy in my work as an SRHR researcher and a scholar working on adolescent SRHR. In my work, I have met teenage girls and young women who are pregnant and uncertain about their future and some whose dreams have been shattered by teenage pregnancy and early motherhood. The stigma and shame suffered as result of teenage pregnancy has resulted in insurmountable mental health challenges.

What has often irked me is how society has failed these girls and young women by depriving them of information due to the silences and taboos surrounding sexuality, as well as moralistic messages on sex and sexuality, driven by religious and conservative discourses around children’s sexuality. As a result, young people often have inadequate, inaccurate, and even misleading information about their bodies, relationships, sex, condoms, contraceptives, and abortion.

Rather than humanise young people as people who experience sexuality as part of being human, society has instead chosen to condemn their sexuality and expose them to confusion and vulnerability. Yet by condemning young people for having sex, for being human, we fail to espouse Utu-Ubuntu, and instead live out the western individualism that we often critique as un-African.

What if we instead humanised the way we approach young people’s sexuality and sought to ensure that they live a life of dignity and respect? What if we humanised knowledge beyond providing statistics to actually engage and understand issues from the perspectives of young people? What if we saw young people first as human beings with feelings, desires and the need to explore and therefore support them to do so safely? What if advocacy efforts centered on solidarity to advance young people’s wellbeing rather than advancing ideology that dehumanises young people?

The future of Africa depends on our ability to not only espouse the spirit of Utu-Ubuntu, but to practice it. This requires the understanding that Africa can only be well if her young people are also well, in all ways, including in their sexual health.

Image Credit: T-shirts of Mike

About the author:

Joan.jpgJoan Njagi is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), of Erasmus University, Rotterdam. Her research examines the role of ICTs and digital technologies in navigating the socio-cultural tensions that surround sexual and reproductive health and rights, and their role in reconceptualising sexual health interventions for 10-17 year old girls. She also consults on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the East and Southern Africa (ESA) region.

Email: wanjiranjagi@gmail.com

Twitter: @Kenyanfeminist

Reclaiming the space for feminism in development practice: the role of ‘femocrats’ by Clara Mi Young Park

In spite of international pledges to gender equality and development that leaves no one behind, the current wave of populism and autarchy is materializing in the form of resurging patriarchy, oppression and exclusion. This has spurred a counter movement of feminist activism across the globe. At this juncture, this article discusses the role of feminists in development organizations that can and must also do their part to promote change that is premised on gender and social justice.

With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, the international community committed to transformational change that puts gender equality, human rights and leaving no one behind at the center of sustainable development.

At the same time, with the rise of populist, fundamentalist and extremist politics, not only has the space for democratic civic expression and engagement shrunk, but women human rights defenders are also increasingly the target of violence and oppression. The recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders highlights the rise of “misogynistic, sexist and homophobic speech by prominent political leaders in recent years, normalizing violence against women and gender non-conforming people”. Equally worrisome are the spread of “gender ideology” advanced by certain groups as a threat to morals, religious and family values, widespread militarization and use of violence and force, and globalization and neoliberal policies that disempower women and exacerbate power and social inequalities (United Nations General Assembly 2019, 7).

The current political scenario calls for an urgent action and convergence among those committed to social and gender justice. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action in 2020 with a gender equal world still a chimera, we need to step up our efforts and “push back against the push back” on women’s rights, as the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Gutierrez said in opening the 63rd Committee on the Status of Women in March this year.[1] Testament to that is the new wave of feminist activism that is spreading across the globe. Feminists working in development can and must also play their part.

The role of feminists who embrace gender as a profession in development bureaucracies – referred to as ‘femocrats’ (Goetz 2004, 137) – has not always been fully appreciated by feminist activists and academics, although there have also been genuine attempts to recognize the contribution of and the hardship faced by femocrats (Goetz, 2004). In the past, this divide reflected critical feminist reflections on the heels of the gender mainstreaming project. On the one hand, gender equality had become an integral part of the development agenda and sustainability discourse, opening the door for feminists to engage in high level political fora and processes (True 2003). On the other hand, by coming to mainstream, gender lost “its political and analytical bite”, sometimes leading to simplification and essentialization of the feminist project (Cornwall 2007, 69).

This juncture, however, requires alliance building and bridging rather than dividing. For those like myself who navigate multiple positionalities, as feminists, gender and development professionals, women and men from different cultural, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, the question is: How can our work make a difference while being apparently more acquiescent to different interests, including of bureaucracies that are slow and/or reluctant to change?

Despite the challenges, the present moment is ripe with opportunities. While not perfect, Agenda 2030 opens the way to tackling a broad range of structural gender inequalities, including violence against women and girls, unpaid care work, sexual and reproductive health and rights, access to productive resources, and women’s access to decision making (Razavi, 2016). Increasingly in development, the call is for feminist and gender-transformative action. Action that transforms and subverts the traditional structures that perpetuate gender, social, power hierarchies and, injustices – be it in environmental, agricultural and rural development or climate change policy and praxis. Such transformation implies moving beyond technical and technocratic approaches and fixes to addressing gender inequalities. It implies grounding the design of development action on a thorough understanding of the power and social dynamics at play in a specific context. It calls for recognizing the intersectional and compounding nature of inequality and oppression.

Within this context, femocrats can advocate for stronger political commitment and for policies and programmes that take the Agenda 2030 pledges seriously and address the structural barriers to gender equality and the realization of women and girls’ human rights. Femocrats can also push for increased accountability towards international instruments and conventions. Importantly, femocrats can expedite the promotion of a re-politicized understanding of gender and the positioning of intersectional gender justice on the agenda of global policy fora, where social justice-based approaches are easier to take forward. Finally, femocrats can play a unique role in opening doors while facilitating dialogue among parties and actors.

It is thus the special duty of any femocrat to fight from inside the system while creating alliances with likeminded people from different backgrounds. For example, femocrats can promote dialogue and create formal spaces and terms of engagement[2] of women’s groups, LGBTQI groups, social movements, farmers’ and fishers’ organizations and indigenous and minority groups with government actors, engaged researchers and other actors. This is needed to build the kind of sustainable coalitions that can bridge initiatives from below with initiatives from above, thus opening the space for more democratic participation and decision-making while advancing a vision of development grounded in gender and social justice.

[1] Opening remarks made at the opening session of CSW63, held in New York, 12 March 2019, which the author attended.

[2] As Jonathan Fox (2009: 489) notes, “balanced decision-making processes are especially difficult to construct, especially across cultural and organizational divides” but coalitions can become sustainable “when grounded in shared terms of engagement”.

Cornwall, Andrea. 2007. “Revisiting the ‘Gender Agenda.’” IDS Bulletin 38 (2): 69–78.
Goetz, Anne Marie. 2004. “Reinvigorating Autonomous Feminist Spaces.” IDS Bulletin 35 (4): 137–40. doi:10.1111/j.1759-5436.2004.tb00169.x.
Razavi, Shahra. 2016. “The 2030 Agenda: Challenges of Implementation to Attain Gender Equality and Women’s Rights.” Gender & Development 24 (1): 25–41. doi:10.1080/13552074.2016.1142229.
True, Jacqui. 2003. “Mainstreaming Gender in Global Public Policy.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 5 (3): 368–96. doi:10.1080/1461674032000122740.
United Nations General Assembly. 2019. “Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. Human Rights Council. Fortieth Session. 25 February-22 March 2019.” A/HRC/40/60. Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development. New York: United Nations.

Image Credit: Fibonacci Blue on Flickr

ClaraAbout the author:

Clara Mi Young Park is the Regional Gender, Rural and Social Development Officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Office for Asia- Pacific. She has recently earned her Doctoral Degree at the International Institute of Social Studies with a thesis on “Gender, generation and agrarian change: cased from Myanmar and Cambodia”. This piece is partially based on self-reflections about doing feminist research included in the doctoral thesis.