Editor's note: Niyi Ojuolape, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Resident Representative in Ghana, writes on the inhibitions of gender inequality, especially being a black girl in a developing country.
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Black girls are confronted with daunting and peculiar challenges as they negotiate their lives in a world that is increasingly witnessing an empathy deficit. While the experiences of black girls and women across the globe are by no means homogenous, they are connected by similar cultural and structural impediments. Being a black girl is hard. Being a black girl in the West is harder, as racism and gender inequality presents additional inhibitions. But even far more difficult, is being a black girl in the developing world, where there is very little interest by cultural or political authorities to build a society that safeguards their rights and is conducive for them to thrive.
These challenges, which are existential for women and girls globally, are amplified for the black girl in the developing world. In essence, the torch of the #MeTooMovement, which was lit by a black woman in America is just as connected to the #ArewaMeToo advocacy in northern Nigeria, spearheaded similarly by young black women. From all corners of the world, the black girl is signalling her frustration with sexual harassment, corporate glass ceilings, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and other related discriminative practices.
Given these realities, we are faced with several inevitable questions that can no longer be deferred. How do we respond, therefore, to the plight of the black girl who cannot make it to school because it is a taboo in her community to walk across the river leading to her place of learning? What do we say to women and girls who have to deal with sexual harassment in schools and universities? How do we respond to the plight of women and girls whose prospective employees insist on sexual gratification in exchange for a job? How do we react to black girls and women whose dreams and ambitions continue to be truncated by challenges they are forced to endure simply for their gender?
COVID-19 as a double pandemic for the black girl
The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted the black girl in several ways. For instance, it has stalled global efforts to end child marriages and FGM, which are relatively more common in Africa. Recent research predicted there could be an extra 13 million child marriages and another 2 million cases of FGM as a result. The coronavirus pandemic has also disrupted the availability of contraceptives for women and girls as the supply chain has faced repeated disruptions.
As a result, millions of women in low and middle-income countries could lose access to contraception. Recently, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director, Natalia Kanem, highlighted the fact that more women and girls now risk losing the ability to plan their families and protect their bodies and their health as a result of the pandemic. This fear is corroborated by a recent study conducted by John Hopkins University, which noted that 7 million unplanned pregnancies in African countries could take place if the lockdown restrictions persist for six months. More worrying is the inordinate increase in domestic violence cases since the pandemic outbreak.
According to data collected by the United Nations, 243 million women and girls between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine worldwide were subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner in the last twelve months. In a sense, girls and women have had to suffer a second pandemic, especially in developing countries where there are fewer laws protecting women and girls. Yet, in the face of these daunting and sometimes unsafe conditions, women have continued to contribute immensely to salvaging families and helping the world manage the global health crisis. As nurses, women make up the majority of frontline health professionals. As mothers, they take care of sick or unwell family members. It is therefore essential to keep track of the intensified cycle of gender-based violence and deepening inequalities that women suffer, as we conscientiously put in place the necessary remedies to stem the tide.
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Policymakers can play a huge role
When it comes to finding a sustainable solution to any complex social problem, there is often no substitute to reasoned and empathetic policymaking. One of the most effective ways of creating an equitable world for girls and women is through deliberate policies that favour women, thus, levelling the playing field. Such a system, when rigorously executed, can bring about gender inclusivity in spaces where women have been historically disadvantaged or excluded. The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Gutteres, has demonstrated how useful and practical this course of action can be. The healthy gender balance within the top management strata of the United Nations today is a clear indication of its efficacy.
Similarly, in UNFPA Ghana where I serve as the resident representative, we initiated the Youth Leaders Fellowship Programme (YoLe), where recent graduates from Ghanaian tertiary institutions apply for an opportunity for a one-year internship in the country office. It is a rigorous process where the best candidates emerge and go on to acquire lifelong skills on innovation, advocacy and community development. But among these entrants, two young female graduates are admitted for every young male graduate that is admitted.
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This has proven a veritable approach in achieving gender parity in our workplace where women were initially far too few. Other organisations in the private or public sector can adopt such a policy, but more can be done. Coherently initiated and implemented national policies can yield far-reaching results. I hold out hope that national governments across the developing world, and indeed across Africa will draw impetus from this year’s International Youth Day (IYD 2020) to initiate laws that grant women equitable rights and access to pursue their life goals.
Technology can make a difference
Technology is essential if we are to imagine an equitable world in the 21st century. Technology can democratise opportunities for participation for previously excluded groups. In today’s workplaces, where women consistently see their male counterparts promoted while they lag due to maternity leave, technology can help bridge this gap. With teleworking possibilities for nursing mothers or women who cannot be physically present at work, they can formally participate in training and meetings at their workplaces and not left behind. In the African setting or, many parts of the developing world, pregnant teenagers are forced to drop out of school, even as the teenage boys responsible for their pregnancies continue in school.
In this context, technology can help a young black girl affected in this way to attend school virtually. In other words, pregnancy will not be the end of her life because she can Skype or Zoom her way through school, escaping the cultural and physical constraints which her condition imposes. This teleconferencing tool will require targeted investment in technological infrastructure, especially in rural communities where they are often lacking or inadequate. It will also need remodelling of the educational system to accommodate online learning.
In this context, technology can be a solution to educate previously excluded or marginalised groups. These are the changes that will make it feasible for the 10-year-old black girl to climb the career ladder and become the next Martha Pobee, Hanna Tetteh, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, or whatever dream she sets her mind to. Technology will make it possible to imagine a world where a woman’s physiology will not threaten her career prospects as she will be able to effectively balance the demands of work and life across time and space. It is time for the world to stand in unison to support the black girl’s right for an equitable future. We will not only be helping the black girl; we will be setting the conditions for a better world.
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