zineb(JollofNews)—March 8th, 2015 is observed throughout the World as International Women’s Day. It is an occasion not only to celebrate the social, economic and political achievements of women, but to also reflect on and highlight the continued challenges faced by women.

I wish to thank you all in joining me to celebrate the accomplishments of women.

The internationally recognised achievements of Gambian women have inspired this year’s theme which is, and I quote “Vision 2016, Gambian Women Can Make It Happen! I believe the theme of the Vision focus on 2016 is not only appropriate but achievable.
The reasons for its achievability is that in recognition of the significant contribution of women towards the goal of Vision 2016 has been recognized by His Excellency, the President in dedicating his prestigious award from the FAO on Hunger Reduction, to Gambian Women. I wish to congratulate each and every Gambian Woman, for her role in responding to His Excellency’s call to the land and his appeal to ‘Grow What We Eat, and Eat What We Grow’.
The declarations and recommendations from the review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action At the 59th Session of Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) offer us an exceptional prospect to meaningfully contribute to gender equality, empowerment and the realisation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls throughout our life cycle.
The 2015 priority area for the Organisation of African First Ladies Against HIV and AIDS (OAFLA) and High Level Task Force on Women (HLTF) is to work towards “ending AIDS by 2030 as well as improving the Sexual reproductive health and rights of women and young girls which complements the African Union’s priority area of 2015 namely the “ Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”.
This is the time to remind our selves that women and girls still continue to suffer disproportionately from poor health and limited access to education. Many girls and young women in Africa still do not have access to education or have higher dropout rates. Particularly adolescent girls are forced to leave school because of marriage at an early age and as a result are victims of gender-based violence, early pregnancies, sexual exploitation, unsafe abortion and the resulting risks for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Their future is therefore disadvantaged in many ways, which remains a major challenge in achieving higher education levels and economic development in Africa.zineb
Evidence shows that support to women leads to improved health status and increased income levels in both households and communities resulting in economic development. The fact that our governments and communities are facing challenges to address gender-based violence is undermining African and global development goals for girl child education; HIV/AIDS and cervical cancer control, improving sexual reproductive health, improving maternal and child health as well as mental health of women and undermining women’s economic empowerment, political representation, and overall poverty reduction.
African First Ladies are members of the Organisation of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS (OAFLA), work jointly with the High Level Task Force on Women, Girls, Gender Equality and on HIV, have shown a strong commitment towards the achievement of gender equality and Women empowerment in all spheres.
I would like to highlight the four challenges that women and children face in our continent that need the urgent attention of our people, governments, and the regional and international development communities.
Ending AIDS By 2030
In 2013, almost 60 per cent of new HIV infections among young people (15–24 years) occurred among adolescent girls and young women. Every hour, 50 young women are newly infected with HIV predominantly through sexual transmission. The end of AIDS will only happen if we focus on transformative and innovative interventions for young women and girls.
In the Gambia, there are major challenges related to resources, cultural practices as well as negative social responses directed at those living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. Cultural practices like wife inheritance are still issues that need to be discussed. According to the 2013 Demographic Health Survey (DHS, 2013), HIV prevalence among widows is 13 per cent, far more than the 1.9 per cent for the general population. Despite this alarming situation, wife inheritance remains deeply rooted in Gambian society. Stigma and discrimination remains a formidable challenge in the response to HIV and AIDS. According to the Stigma Index Study conducted in 2012, people living with HIV perceived high levels of stigma and discrimination including gossip, social rejections, and divorce upon suspicion or disclosure of HIV status. The donor funding gap is a predominant challenge as the Global Fund remains the only key partner supporting Government in this regard. As such, there is a huge funding gap and this continues to pose challenges in bringing comprehensive HIV services to the doorsteps of all Gambians.
Elimination Of Mother To Child Transmission Of HIV
In 2013, Sub-Saharan Africa had 2.9 million children living with HIV, 2 million of them in Eastern and Southern Africa. Out of the 210,000 new infections among children in Sub Saharan Africa, 120,000 children were in Eastern and Southern Africa. That notwithstanding, the concerted efforts on a global, regional and national scale, has led Africa to a tremendous decrease in new infections among babies from 2005 and seems to be on the right trajectory to reach the elimination targets for 2015. However, to completely eliminate new infections among babies by 2030, we still need to ensure all HIV positive mothers have access to health care services including Treatment for HIV and AIDS.
There is a national and global drive to stem new HIV infections, particularly through the Prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV (PMTCT). The Gambia continues to register progress in PMTCT. In 2013 for instance, 50,251 pregnant women were tested and received their post-test HIV results. Out of the 50,251, 773 tested positive of which 729 were provided with PMTCT ARV prophylaxis to prevent the transmission of HIV to their babies. Although remarkable progress is made on PMTCT, the situation indicates that a lot more needs to be done, particularly with regards to male involvement, adherence to treatment, resource mobilisation, stigma, discrimination and geographical coverage.
Cervical Cancer
Women living with HIV face a heightened risk of cervical cancer – the 4th commonest cancer. Majority of the global burden (around 85 per cent) occurs in resource poor settings. East Africa 43 per cent, Southern Africa 32 per cent, Middle/Central Africa 31 per cent and West Africa 29 per cent. Women living with HIV face a heightened risk of cervical cancer. According to data from the Gambia Population-Based Cancer Registry, cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer among women in the Gambia, accounting for 34 per cent of all registered female cancers. Liver cancer and breast cancer are also prevalent in the country with 20 per cent and 10 per cent respectively of all registered cases. Within the rural area, the prevalence of cervical cancer amongst women of reproductive age was found to be 7 per cent and for HPV, the rate of infection was 13 per cent. HPV 16 sero-type was the most prevalent and is mostly associated with cervical cancer.
Most Gambian women with cervical and breast cancer seek medical assistance often too late when the disease has already reached an advanced stage, thereby making it difficult to cure. Often women are tested in the context of opportunistic screening, which is ineffective in terms of population coverage. Women in the Gambia do not have access to routine screening services and their lack of knowledge about cervical and breast cancer prevention contributes to the high level of preventable deaths caused by this disease.
jammeh- zinebEven though the Government is making a lot of effort, major challenges faced in the fight against cancers affecting women include: Inadequate staff for screening, diagnosis and treatment, access to affordable services for screening and limited services for treatment in terms of equipment and anti-cancer drugs.
Given the fact that a lot needs to be done in the Gambia to fight against cervical and breast cancer, the Government wishes to reach out to its sister countries and partners to establish collaborative processes for the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of cervical and breast cancer. Furthermore, the Government has embarked upon a number of initiatives including the treatment of cancer that will help in order to make progress in terms of raising awareness, mobilizing resources for treatment and equipment, adopt screening procedures within the maternal health care program and provide training and immunisations for effective health care to all women and girls in the Gambia.
Gender-based Violence
In 2015, we are reminded of the fact that … 20 years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – for Gender Equality; 15 years of Millennium Development Goals; 10 years after the entering into force of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa; over 30 years in the HIV epidemic and; 5 years into the AU African Women’s Decade 2010-2020: Epidemic levels of violence against girls and women – the most stark, blatant, brutal, unambiguous and dis-empowering manifestation of gender inequality – has not been eradicated – but rather institutionalised, and profoundly entrenched across Africa. There is urgent need to address gender inequality, which is the root cause of gender based violence, bearing in mind that GBV is a cause and consequence of HIV as likewise, HIV is a cause and consequence of GBV.
The available evidence reveals that children and adolescents in the Gambia are extremely vulnerable to various child-protection risks, including a risk of abuse, neglect and violence. Many of the protection-related issues that Gambian children face (e.g. harmful forms of child labour, infant abandonment, early/forced marriage, sexual abuse, female genital mutilation) are heavily under-studied, and available evidence is predominantly anecdotal in nature. Nevertheless, the insights from our research confirm that child maltreatment is not uncommon, especially where there is a high level of poverty or other forms of family stress. Many work in agriculture, street hawking and domestic service, which can have detrimental effects on their physical wellbeing and possible education. Parents tend to justify such actions by blaming it on their economic and financial circumstances, and deem it necessary to find means of generating income for the family by using their children.
Poverty therefore, appears to be an important, although not the sole, reason for which some rights violations occur. Harmful traditional norms and practices, loss of family environment, dysfunctional families, lack of life skills to protect themselves, and lack of voice and agency are notable contributing factors. Children’s lack of voice in the family and community is very prevalent and deeply embedded in Gambian culture. As noted by one respondent, there is a general notion that “children are to be seen and not heard” particularly in the company of adults. This lack of agency often underlines their vulnerability to protection violations, particularly with regard to sexual abuse including commercial sexual exploitation, physical violence and early marriage.
Early Child Marriage
Over 67 million women (20-24 year old) in 2012 had been married as girls, one-fifth in Africa. In the next decade 14.2 million girls under 18 years will be married every year; that is, 39,000 girls married each day. 15 out of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in Africa. 39 per cent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before their 18th birthday; 13 per cent are married by their 15th birthday.
Gambian girls are highly vulnerable to early marriage and forced marriage is a long-standing tradition in The Gambia. Although research is scant, data from MICS 2010 finds that almost 9 per cent of girls are married under Sharia law before the age of 15, and 46.5 per cent before 18, with the poorest rural girls most vulnerable to the practice. Child marriage has been reported in all rural communities we interviewed, with girls ‘as young as 11 and 12 years of age being “given” away to older husbands against their will’. Although some respondents mentioned that rates of child marriage have been reducing over the years, prevailing cultural and economic factors keep the tradition alive.
There was some indication that economic shocks contribute to child marriage: for example, anecdotal reports state that child marriage rates rose during the severe crop failure in 2011/2012. Girls also typically lack bargaining power on this issue. Young females respondents in rural settings stressed that if they had a choice they would not marry young, as they prefer to stay at school. They also highlighted that resisting early marriage puts them at risk of being disowned by their family and community. The lack of adequate legal protection and systematic response to address the practice of child marriage adds another layer of challenges for girls. The practice can have many adverse effects, including diminished prospects for decent employment due to early removal from education. This in turn creates a cycle of dependency and powerlessness, with inter-generational consequences, underscoring the importance of a transformative social protection agenda with a focus on girls’ empowerment and social justice.
I would like to remind that ‘There is no THEM and US’. Let’s work together to meaningfully contribute to gender equality, the empowerment of women and girls and the realisation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls throughout our life cycle.
Each year in March, we celebrate our advancements as women and peacefully call attention to the issues affecting women in our countries and around the world. In this regard, I would like to remind that women’s equality and progress has made positive gains, but the world needs to focus more attention on areas requiring further action. We therefore need to urge our governments to recognize the necessity and fact that women and girls are important for brightening the future of this nation and are also important for global prosperity, and I believe that with the support of all women from across the country, Gambian women can indeed make it Happen’, in not only the agricultural sector, but for all areas of sustainable development. Lets continue to speak out, lets continue to seek togetherness and lets continue to fight against all forms of abuse, marginalization and discrimination as we are able partners in every household, in every society and in every country.
To the women of the Gambia I would like to say on this significant day, Thank you, Al Barakah, Jerreh Lain Jef, On Jarama, Ha Na Waarie, Njoko Jam And of course … Emiteh Eh Chamou
Zined Jammeh is the First Lady of the Gambia.