ISLAM AND WOMEN’S REPRODUCTIVE AND SEXUAL HEALTH AND RIGHTS IN THE PRESENT CONTEXT OF SENEGALThe objectives of the study are to look at the relevance to African women at large of the principles of individual rights, self determination, bodily integrity and ownership of one�s body (so central to the feminist vision) in a society where clans and families have precedence over individuals, and where women are not only deprived of power, decision-making and access to material resources, but have internalized their submission and socialize their daughters as social inferiors. A second objective is to reflect on Islam as an obstacle to women�s reproductive and sexual rights, or as empowering women�s rights advocates with ways of means to promote women�s agency, particularly in the area of reproduction and sexuality
- Description of Research
- Research-in-Progress Documents
Codou Bop – Interview
Describe the challenges that you experienced during your research efforts.
The main challenge I experienced is linked to the sensitivity of my research topic that is sexual rights. Talking about sexuality is taboo, hence some respondents, in particular adolescent girls, felt shy and did not want to speak about their experiences. I spoke the local languages with my respondents and it is difficult to conceptualize rights (such as rights to bodily integrity) in local languages and get detailed answers.
What is the current status of your research?
The research is carried out with the collaboration of colleague activists in the same NGO as I work with. We have completed the focus groups and in-depth interviews. I am presently in the process of writing my report.
What are your future plans for the project or for work in the field of Human Rights?
I am already an activist for women�s human rights in Senegal. I will continue the same activities. And if I have an opportunity to continue university studies in the field of human rights, I will certainly seize it. I�d love to improve my theoretical knowledge of the topic and become an African expect on human rights.
Codou Bop – Description of Research
According to WHO data, 150,000 women die every year from pregnancy related illnesses in Africa. In Senegal itself, 510 women die every year because of the same causes. Poverty, lack of access to emergency obstetric services and to skilled attendants, distant health facilities, and structural adjustment policies indeed play an central role in contributing this high mortality rate. Equally important are gender discrimination, violence, non-enforcement of women�s reproductive and sexual rights by the state, and ignorance of women about their rights. In the plans of action of the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) and the 4th World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), women are recognized as possessing four basic rights:
- the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health;
- the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of coercion, discrimination, and violence;
- the right to decide freely on the number and spacing of children and the right to have information and means to do so;
- the right to have satisfying and safe sexual relations
Enforcement of these rights creates tensions as they are concerned with individual rights in a context within which sexuality and reproduction have important social dimensions involving the woman�s partners, families and clans, and community. Moreover they concern people (women) to whom society fails to accord the power of decision in matters related to reproduction and sexuality. In such a context, the principle of women�s self determination, autonomy, bodily integrity and ownership over one�s body– that are the core principles of women�s reproductive and sexual health and right (as recognized in the above mentioned plans of action)– could seem particularly irrelevant.
Up to now, the majority of Senegalese women still face too early and/or forced marriages, and too early and too many pregnancies under pressure of husband or in laws. A large number of Senegalese women are still subjected to female genital mutilation, and to other forms of violence. For years, intellectual women and men have challenged these practices, but mainly on the ground that they harm women�s health. It is since very recently, thanks to the advocacy efforts of feminist activists, that these practices are being regarded as violations of women�s human rights.
In Senegal, Islam, which is the most important religion, plays a central role in society. As in many Muslim countries, Islamist groups are developing and trying to influence society and its institutions. As for any religious fundamentalist group, women and their rights are among the main targets of their action.
The Senegalese state has recognized both health and sexual rights as social rights, but this acknowledgement has remained formal, because many provisions of the family law discriminate against women. In addition, the national program on reproductive health emphasizes intervention aimed reducing maternal and child mortality and hardly deals with reproductive and sexual rights.
In sum, the issue of women�s reproductive and sexual rights pertains to three important problems:
- The state�s slowness in enforcing women�s reproductive and sexual rights
- A conservative traditionalist and religious opposition from people who consider, on the one hand, that men and women have different roles and thus cannot be equal and, on the other hand, that individual choice as the core of reproductive and sexual rights and gender equality is a Western principle, contrary to Senegalese culture and/or to Islamic values.
- A women�s movement more concerned with economic rights than with reproductive and sexual rights.
With reference to this framework, the general objectives of this study are to contribute to increasing awareness about women�s reproductive and sexual rights in Senegal and to the enforcement of these rights. The first specific objective is to understand the opinions and attitude of Senegalese women about the current definitions for reproductive and sexual health and rights provided by the Plan of Action for the ICPD and the Beijing Conference, in particular principles of individual rights, self determination, bodily integrity and ownership of one�s body.
A second specific objective is to look at the religious construction of gender relations through the discourse by Islamic leaders and to find out whether Islam is an obstacle to women�s reproductive and sexual rights. If Islam is not an obstace, how might it provide women�s rights advocates with ways and means to promote women�s agency, particularly in the area of reproduction and sexuality.
The first section of the paper will outline the socio-economic and legal context of women�s reproductive and sexual health in Senegal. The second section will present the positions of women, of religious leaders and community key informants. This analysis will draw on in-depth interviews, focus-groups, and content analysis of radio and television programs run by Islamic fundamentalists, on the topic of women�s rights, particularly women�s reproductive and sexual health. In a third and last section, these positions will be discussed under the light of human rights standards, and recommendations will be offered.
Codou Bop – Research-in-Progress Documents
1. Presentation – Islam and Women’s Reproductive and Sexual Rights in Senegal
Download in MS Word format.
Codou Bop – Development/Training/Networking
My initial proposal focused more on religious issues than on strategies to use a human rights approach in matters related to women’s reproductive and sexual rights. Attendance in courses on human rights by Dr An Nai’m and Dr Davis, helped me improve my knowledge on human rights standards, and to address questions with reference to principles of the universality, indivisibility, and individuality of human rights. The courses, talks, and debates with Dr An Nai’m also helped me to perceive and focus on tensions between state policies and programs, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, populations’ perceptions and attitudes on women’s rights. Such talks also helped me challenge some previous perceptions and attitudes based on my experience as an activist in Senegal.
I audited the following classes, which broadened my vision of feminism and gave me the opportunity to strengthen my skills in research methods.
- Global Black Feminism at the Women’s Studies Department. The course was taught by Dr Beverly Guy-Sheftal
- Research Design, Department of History. Course taught by Dr Edna Bay
- Research Methods in Anthropology, taught by Dr Donald
Another contribution of the program has been to provide access to research publications and documents I would not have been able to access otherwise.
In 1995, I received training in advocacy from UNFPA. I also received training in organizing campaigns to promote women’s human rights from the Solidarity Network on Women Living under Muslim Laws. The women’s group I coordinate in Senegal is a member of the network. The human rights courses I attended in Emory have been of great value for my work as an activist.
The goal of the Senegalese women’s group I work with is to advance women’s rights, to work for women’s empowerment, and to support women whose rights are threatened on religious grounds. Hence we network with many groups at the local as well as the regional and international level. At the level of the continent, we network with the Association of African Women for Research and Development. At the international level, with the Association of Women’s Rights in Development, with the Center for Reproductive Laws and Policy, and with the International Solidarity Network for Women Living Under Muslim Laws.
I am planning on organizing an international conference on HIV/AIDS and African Women and women from the Diaspora. The issue of the rights of women — as persons living with the virus, or as caregivers — and power issues will be important topics in the conference.