In December last year I went to see a doctor. I had been feeling tired and wanted to check whether my haemoglobin levels had dropped, given that I am prone to anaemia. I also asked to be prescribed the emergency morning-after contraceptive pill. The doctor sent me off for my lab tests and said I could pick up my prescriptions from the nurse at reception. When I did so, I realised that he had not issued me a script for the next-day pill, so I went back to see him. He ummed and ahed awkwardly and eventually said something along the lines of, “I don’t believe in giving prescriptions to stop pregnancy. You can get it over the counter.” I was stunned into silence for a few seconds and then I said, “I can get anything over the counter in Ghana. I came to the hospital for a reason. I need you to do your job and give me a prescription.” He refused. I explained to him that I also needed the prescription so that my medical insurance would reimburse me. He shook his head and said no.
When we think about the future of sex in Africa, we need to think about our current reality. Women continue to have limited access to comprehensive reproductive health, and even in situations where the law gives us access, ‘cash and carry’ health-care systems, stigma and a growing religious fundamentalism prevent us from fully accessing a range of reproductive health services.
Women continue to have limited access to comprehensive reproductive health, even in situations where the law gives us access.
At the 2016 African Feminist Forum (AFF) held in Zimbabwe, two Angolan women connected in person for the first time. They had previously known each other virtually, and only met in person when they attended the feminist gathering in Harare, with over 150 other activists. When Sizaltina Cutaia and Âurea Mouzinho returned home, they decided to start Ondjango Feminista. They wanted to create a space for feminist women in Angola and for women to raise their consciousness on feminist issues. Earlier this year in Angola, the government attempted to pass a Bill banning abortions, no matter the circumstances. It didn’t matter whether you needed an abortion because you had been raped, or if the life of the mother was in danger if the pregnancy continued – this was a blanket ban.
Ondjango Feminista worked to resist the passing of this law. They were involved in direct action to lobby parliamentarians not to pass the Bill and they organised a march to demonstrate visibly against the law. They got support from some high-profile women, including Isabella dos Santos – which was a struggle for them because of political and ideological differences. The day before their scheduled march, the government announced that the Bill had been postponed. They still went on to march, and the Bill was subsequently re-introduced to parliament but in a very different form to what had initially been proposed. This is another example of the fact that one aspect of the challenge that African feminists face (and I think this is also a global challenge) is constantly fighting to hold the line, and not to lose rights that have already been hard won.
The role of religious fundamentalism
Today, the biggest challenge around sexual rights on the continent comes from an increasing alliance between religious fundamentalists of all stripes. The Association for Women’s Rights in Development and the Observatory on the Universality of Rights has a new report, titled ‘Rights at Risk’, which shows how a range of Christian, Muslim and civil society fundamentalist actors, including states such as the Vatican, work together to resist the idea that human rights are universal and something that everyone, no matter where they are in the world, are entitled to.
The biggest danger from this alliance of the far right has come from the exporting from the United States to different parts of our continent of what is described as the ‘culture war’ or ‘culture conflict’. This refers to the conflict between traditionalist or conservative values and progressive or liberal values and it is the reason we have had US evangelists working with Ugandan politicians to attempt to pass the ‘kill the gays’ Bill. It is visible in how US-based anti-rights groups organise huge conferences where they provide training to their participants on how they can pursue their anti-rights agenda in multi-lateral spaces like the UN. The repercussions of these conferences are felt not only in these international policy spaces, but also in the various countries on the African continent.
Part of the challenge that African feminists face is constantly fighting to hold the line, and not to lose rights that have already been hard won.
All these factors contribute to a dire picture when one considers the landscape of sexual rights on the continent. Countries like South Africa, which on paper has some of the most progressive laws around LGBTQI rights, suffers from an epidemic of violence against women in general terms, and in particular the horrendous violence – including so-called ‘corrective rape’ – that LGBTQI people face.
However, this dire picture has been responded to by inspired activism. Recently the African feminist movement lost one of its most inspired activists, Prudence Mabele, a founder of the Positive Women’s Network. A leading activist who was living positively, she was one of the first women in South Africa to declare her HIV-positive status publicly in South Africa. Prudence and numerous other women tackled head on the stigma of living with HIV, creating support networks for women to live positively and to be in the driving seat of work around HIV and Aids activism.
Women are speaking out
There are other glimmers of hope. There are an increasing number of feminist activists creating space to talk about sex, sexuality, sexual rights and everything in between. I fall into this category. Since 2009, alongside my co-blogger Malaka Grant and a collective of contributors, I have curated the blog Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women as a space where African women can share their own stories about sex and sexuality. I often meet women who give me direct feedback about what the blog has meant to them personally and how it has enabled them to have conversations with partners that might otherwise have been difficult to have, or even to just learn about sex from other women. These are things that are near impossible to do in contexts where there is little to no sex education.
There are blogs, like HOLA Africa, that provide space and visibility to queer African women – something that, in my view, radically responds to the false notion that homosexuality is ‘unAfrican’. There are feminist organisations such as the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) that have fought stigma and discrimination for years and finally achieved NGO expert status in spaces such as the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. This was achieved despite the objections of such people as Mohamed Bechir Khalfallah, Vice Chair of that commission in 2015, who gave a speech in which he rejected CAL’s application, stating, “These people are an imported virus that will spread across Africa and have no place in this human rights body.”
There are many more activists and movements that recognise the centrality of sexual rights and bodily integrity: Freedom and Roam Uganda. None on Record. The African Feminist Forum and the various National Forums. Artivists such as Zanele Muholi and her Faces and Phases Project. Radical academics such as Stella Nyanzi and Pumla Gqola. Funding organisations such as the African Women’s Development Fund. These activists and activist organisations are amongst those that are holding the line, and pushing for women and people everywhere to be able to access their full range of bodily, sexual, health and reproductive rights.