By Hunter Kessous
On July 30th, the United Nations Fund for Populations Activities (UNFPA) hosted a virtual event to launch the 2020 State of the World Population Report. UNFPA is the sexual and reproductive health agency of the United Nations. This year’s report titled, Against My Will, focused on three of nineteen harmful practices girls and women face: child marriage, female genital cutting (FGC), and son preference. Son preference is a symptom of gender inequality that results in harmful practices such as gender-biased sex selection and neglect of female children.
Speakers included Chrissy Houlahan, U.S. Representative; Sarah Craven, UNFPA; Sarah Hillware, Women in Global Health; Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya, Kakenya’s Dream; Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih Justice Center; and moderator Seema Jalan; UN.
First to speak was U.S. Representative Houlahan who introduced the Support UNFPA Funding Act, a bill of which she is the lead author. Currently, the U.S. is withholding funding from the UNFPA for the fourth consecutive year. Houlahan calls on organizations to endorse her bill and on fellow Congress members to co-sponsor the bill in order to provide funding to the UNFPA.
Following Houlahan’s important message, Sarah Craven introduced the Against My Will report. Craven summarized the report as demanding respect for the autonomy of women and girls; demanding protection of women and girls by enacting laws and changing societal norms; and stating governments must fulfill their obligations under human rights treaties.
Panelists Hillware, Ntaiya, and Smoot spoke on the importance of this report in the era of COVID-19. The attention of the media and policymakers is elsewhere as we grapple with the pandemic and the growing issues of police brutality. However, the virus has also increased the marginalization and vulnerability of girls and women. Reports such as this refocus attention on gender-based violence and empower us with tools to continue fighting these harmful practices.
In response to the growing conversation about institutional racism, the panelists remarked on their organizations’ action steps. Smoot highlighted the importance of fighting all forms of oppression in order to abolish gender-based violence. Hillware calls on activists to work both internally and externally, meaning organizations should work toward intersectionality within their own staff.
Ntaiya was asked how she walks the line of abandoning FGC in Kenya while still showing respect for the parents of the girls with whom she works. Ntaiya made an important point that FGC elimination requires all people within the community to be on board. Teaching the harms of FGC to girls in school won’t be effective if they are going home to a community that preaches an opposite viewpoint. For this reason, she works to educate parents, chiefs, health system workers, elders, and more. Ntaiya notes the need for a more holistic system for ending FGC. She provided the example that the chief may want to enforce anti-FGC laws, but lack the resources to do so such as a car to rescue girls, a hospital to take them to, etc. In addition to education for the community, we must implement other systems to make ending FGC possible.