By Moses Magadza
Women Members of Parliament from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) attending a two day conference organised by SADC PF and other partners in Mahé, Seychelles from 5 to 6 July 2017, have made strong recommendations for greater parliamentary involvement in the ratification and domestication of relevant international and continental instruments relating to women, girls, HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights.
In a bold declaration dubbed the Mahé Declaration, the Parliamentarians resolved to implement and to advocate for the implementation of United Nations Commission on the Status of women (UNCSW) Resolution 60/2 entitled: “Women, the Girl Child and HIV and AIDS”. This international instrument calls for attention to be paid to the high levels of new HIV infections among young women and adolescent girls and its root causes.
The Mahé Declaration was developed in the context of continued high prevalence of HIV, particularly among women and girls in the SADC Region, a situation which raises great public health and developmental concern. The Parliamentarians noted that HIV had the potential to undermine the SADC Region’s attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) whose end date is 2030.
As indicated in the declaration, Eastern and Southern Africa has less than 7% of the global population but it contributes close to 50% of new adult infections globally and it is home to more than 19 million people living with HIV, of which more than half are women. The prevalence of the epidemic continues to cause morbidity and mortality, as well as induce poverty and inequality both of which are an antithesis for sustainable development according to the Parliamentarians.
The Mahé Declaration therefore contains extensive recommendations to address the root causes of HIV prevalence among women and girls. These include taking rapid actions to reduce poverty, ensuring access to quality integrated and adolescents and youth friendly health services, information and education opportunities with a special focus on comprehensive sexuality education for in- and out-of-school youth while eradicating child marriage as defined in the SADC Model law on Eradicating Child Marriage and Protecting those already in marriage.
Going forward, the Parliamentarians committed to acquainting themselves with the legal and policy environment in their respective countries with regards to HIV and sexual and reproductive health rights. They said enhanced knowledge of the legal and policy environment would be critical in making informed assessments of the effectiveness thereof and where necessary, enactment of laws aiming at protecting the sexual and reproductive health rights of all, with a specific focus on the most vulnerable.
A solid commitment was also made by the Parliamentarians to review, revise, amend or repeal all laws, regulations and policies including cultural and religious practises and customs that have a discriminatory impact on youths, especially girls and young women.
Economic inequality and unequal power relations; discrimination in society and in the workplace; all forms of violence; inhumane and degrading treatment; sexual exploitation; women and child trafficking and harmful practises and norms including some cultural practices, disempower women and girls and further expose them to substantial risks of contracting HIV, the lawmakers noted.
The Parliamentarians further noted that existing inequalities among certain key populations such as sex workers, people living with disabilities, migrants, girls living in poverty and transgender persons are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS.
Among the concerns highlighted in the Mahé Declaration, HIV among female sex workers in SADC is significantly higher than it is among the general adult population. This same population group also faces violence, stigma and discrimination at the hands of family members, in communities, at the workplace and in health-care settings. Often their rights to dignity, health and education are denied.
The Parliamentarians therefore lament that these persistent structural barriers as well as male chauvinism and patriarchy often work to reinforce women’s unequal status in society and fuel HIV vulnerability among women and girls. Harmful social and cultural norms and practices also continually deny women and girls the opportunity to attend schools, further reinforce their vulnerability to violence and HIV while also denying them opportunities to economic independence.
The Mahé Declaration states that the prohibition of such practices and customs, can aptly be resolved by ensuring that provisions of domestic legislation conform more to international human rights laws and include protection from all harmful practices.
Additionally, the Parliamentarians pledged to enact laws aimed at improving inclusive access to education at all levels and provide for viable alternatives for the many young people. This would include paying particular attention to the participation of adolescent girls, who drop out of the formal education system, by facilitating re-entry, revamping informal education and training through standardized certification within and between African countries.
Various activities including the dissemination of information, training, sensitization workshops and the development of Model Laws relating to the various issues of HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights are some of the ways through which SADC PF can come on board to assist parliaments enact national laws based on international and regional instruments.
SADC PF was supported in hosting of this conference by Sweden and Norway. It got additional financial and technical support from development partners that include UN Agencies, the United Nations Development Programme, UNFPA and UN Women as well as from regionally based Civil Society Partners, ARASA and SAFAIDS.