NAIROBI, Kenya - Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya was supposed to be married at 12. Instead, Ntaiya managed to survive arranged marriage, the harmful traditional practice of female genital mutilation, and became the first woman from her community to go to university in the United States. 

Now the young activist founded Kakenya’s Dream , an organization providing education and empowerment to women in rural communities across Kenya while challenging harmful practices. Kakenya told attendants at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Nairobi that a long-term, holistic approach to stamp out gender-based violence and practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) is needed. 

“There are no roads to change this FGM, we have to take off our shoes and walk through the mud to get rid of this.” 

A diverse set of actors with multifaceted approaches are present and needed to reach the three key goals of the Nairobi Summit, namely: zero maternal mortality, zero tolerance towards gender-based violence and zero unmet needs for family planning. 

With over 8,300* participants attending the conference, one demographic stands out in comparison to other international conferences: the ICPD is youth-driven. 

“We are youth with the knowledge,” announced Mavis Naa Korley Aryee radio host for “Curious Minds” a youth-led radio programme in Ghana, “the ICPD and the Sustainable Development Goals is about us […] we have the numbers that should call attention.” 

Nearly one in five women and girls aged 15 years or older worldwide have been subjected to physical, sexual or psychological violence by a current or former partner in the past 12 months.

While laws and policies may exist to counter these trends in Kenya, Ntaiya says, these same laws don’t reach the village. “Instead of simply condemning culture, education is the answer.”

This education applies to everyone. Ahmad Alhendawi, a former UN Youth Envoy, is now the Secretary General of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, comprising 52 million members. Alhendawi provides peer education to boys and girls in sexual and reproductive health issues, to allow youth to form better informed decisions.“In many classrooms the formal education system is very resistant,” he said. “So this is a space for a peer education approach, we are trying to leverage discussions about these situations, increasing the borders of the classrooms.” 

Educating communities about sexual and reproductive health issues can also occur on the sports pitch. James Kennedy is the owner and founder of Rugby United New York and sets up rugby youth programmes and supports the ICPD plan of action. Now some of his athletes are actually speaking out about these issues, reaching audiences that would not normally attain such exposure. “It’s about starting conversations and encouraging conversations,” Kennedy said. One of Kennedy’s coaches is female Rugby star, former US Eagles Captain in the 2017 World Cup, Tiffany Fa’ae'e. “Through sports we want women to feel empowered, to feel that they can make their own decisions – other women [athletes] stood up for me, our responsibility is for the next generation,” said Fa’ae’e. 

While some members of the faith-based community opposed the Nairobi Summit in Kenya, many others from diverse faiths are actively supporting efforts to fulfill the ICPD goals. Sheikh Saliou Mbacke, President of the Religious Groups on Health and Development in Senegal, works with religious leaders, youth groups and sets up debates to counter misinformation on health matters. “The theme is very important to us as a faith leader back home, we need to sensitize people. Family planning is important in our communities because the maternal and child mortality rate is very high in my country.” 

Rev. Dr. Lydia Mwaniki is the Director for Gender, Women and Youth at the All Africa Conference of Churches, a Christian Fellowship representing 41 different African countries, reaches out and collaborates with religious leaders to address the three goals of the ICPD conference.“We have scriptures which can help us deal with these issues,” Rev. Mwaniki said.“We all need to address issues of human rights, including reproductive health.” 

It is clear that the way forward to reach the ambitions outlined in the ICPD Programme of Action by 2030 will take various actors who can work across common ground. “Today, still around 830 women die every day from preventable causes. That is too high,” said Danish Ambassador Ib Petersen. “Everyone agrees that you shouldn’t die while giving life.” 

© AFP-Services

* Updated December 2019