Trump and Pompeo’s Parting Blow Rolls Back Women’s Rights in Africa and Beyond

When Polish lawmakers announced a near-blanket ban on abortion last month, many Poles were caught off guard. But it was no surprise to Trump’s administration – or to hardline religious leaders across Africa and the Middle East.

That same day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled The Geneva Consensus Declaration, signed by 32 countries, over half of which are in Africa. Valerie Huber of the US Health Department called it an historic event, and she was right. It’s the first time the US, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Egypt, Bahrain, Uganda and Poland have all described themselves as reaching a consensus on women’s roles and rights. 

In theory, the Declaration is intended to improve women’s healthcare and legal standing. But in speeches made at the event, co-sponsors the US, Uganda and Brazil spoke only of ending abortion – even when this directly threatens the lives of women.

Dr Jane Ruth Aceng Ocero, Uganda’s Minister for Health, described how her country struggled with high death rates resulting from teenage pregnancies and abortions, but said that international actors must respect the Uganda’s way of handling these tragedies, rather than pressuring them to take action “contrary to our values”.

Representatives from Djibouti, Cameroon, Niger and the DRC also issued comments stating that their priorities were either to limit access to safe abortion, conserve traditional family values or ensure women remain in the domestic sphere. Zambia and Indonesia were the only countries to emphasise their commitment to equal rights and opportunities for women.

Meanwhile, in a chilling speech that echoed The Handmaid’s Tale, Hungary’s Family Minister Katalin Novak went even further. She called for a complete return to “traditional family values”: a world in which women are content with the privileges of motherhood and the “blessings of having children” – and no longer try to “compete” with men. Hungary’s pro-family policies, she said, have led to a 20% increase in the fertility rate since 2011. Blessed be the fruit.

“It’s not only about abortion. It’s also about how to make family the main thing in society,” said Mozn Hassan, an Egyptian human rights defender and founder of the Nazra organization for Feminist Studies. “And it’s not only an attack on women. It’s also about gender and sexuality. This is the representation of a conservative attitude towards these questions – and saying the UN is not something we want to invest in.”

For Trump, the stunt seemed a desperate attempt to win over the American religious right in the run-up to the US election. But it will have lasting consequences for women in signatory countries, 42% of which the Women, Peace and Security Index says are among the worst 30 to be a woman. This includes 10 of the 17 of the African nations to sign the declaration. Several of the signatory countries are also suffering epidemics of rape, domestic violence, forced or child marriage, trafficking and modern-day slavery – meaning that women urgently in need of reliable reproductive healthcare, family planning support and protection from sexual assault are highly unlikely to get it.

Worse, many of the signatories and sponsors of the declaration clearly see this as a long-term route to resisting the efforts of international organisations that champion women’s rights. Both Ocero and Hala Zaid, Egypt’s minister for Health and Population, called for other African nations to join the cause, to form a united front against the WHO and the UN. Trump may have lost the presidential election, but for state abusers of women, his legacy is a clear win.  

Which African Countries Signed the Geneva Consensus Declaration?

Let’s take a brief look at the status of women’s rights in the 17 African countries that signed the Geneva Declaration Consensus.

1.     South Sudan

5th worst place in the world to be a woman

Around 47% of women in South Sudan have been subjected to intimate partner violence, and women are often seen as their husband’s property once the “bride price” has been paid. 90% of women have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). South Sudan is also a Tier 3 country for human trafficking, meaning that trafficking and slavery (including forced prostitution) are serious, unaddressed issues.

2.     DRC

7th worst place in the world to be a woman

There were 1409 cases of conflict-related sexual violence in 2019 – up 34% from 2018 – and 200,000 women and girls were raped between 1998 and 2008. Indeed, multiple women have come forward to say they became pregnant after being raped by WHO aid workers during the Ebola crisis. The US has also rated DRC Tier 3 for human trafficking, so it’s not doing much to eliminate forced prostitution either.

3.     Libya

10th worst place in the world to be a woman

Domestic violence is not a crime and rapists can avoid prosecution if they marry their victims. Extramarital sex is punishable by flogging and prison sentences of up to five years. Men who murder female family members can receive reduced sentences if they believed the woman’s chastity to be in doubt. Libya is on a Tier 2 watchlist, having failed to provide any evidence of efforts to combat its human trafficking crisis.

4.     Sudan

11th worst place in the world to be a woman.

In 2019, laws restricting women’s movement, dress and right to work and study  were repealed, but there are still no laws against FGM. The legal system remains pitted against women, and there have been cases of mass rapes by soldiers and  violent street harassment of women by street mobs – including a notorious attack on a popular singer. Sudan is also on the US State Department’s Tier 2 Watchlist for human trafficking.

5.     Niger

13th worst place in the world to be a woman

More than three-quarters of girls are married before they reach adulthood, adolescent pregnancy rates are extremely high and less than half of women are able to access the family planning resources they need. Niger is rated as Tier 2, i.e. a high risk country for human trafficking.

6.     Egypt (co-sponsor of the declaration)

17th worst place in the world to be a woman.

A number of women and girls have been arrested under charges of breaching public morals for posting photos or videos of themselves on social media, including a 17 year girl who was jailed for talking about a violent rape and beating she had been subjected to. FGM is common and Egypt is rated Tier 2 for human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

7.     Congo

19th worst place in the world to be a woman.

Rape is extremely prevalent; a 2013 report found that in one year alone 15,000 women and girls were raped (half of them children) and nearly 4 in 10 female students in higher education had been subjected to “forced sexual relations”, leading 29% to drop out. It’s also on a Tier 2 watchlist as a major risk country for human trafficking.

8.     Cameroon

20th worst place in the world to be a woman.

Rape is commonly used as a weapon of war. A 2004 study found that 13% of all women had been raped under physical constraint. Girls are often held responsible for any effects of their pubescent bodies might have on men: 1 in 4 adolescent girls and half of girls who started developing early (i.e. from the age of 9) were subjected to “breast ironing”, a form of violence intended to slow their physical development. Cameroon is also a Tier 2 for human trafficking.

9.     Djibouti

23rd worst place to be a woman.

Economic and educational inequality makes women in Djibouti especially vulnerable – and dependent on their husbands. Fewer than 1 in 5 women are employed, over 60% are illiterate and women who seek divorces must give up their financial rights and potentially pay damages, whereas men can request a divorce without evidence. It is one of the top 5 countries for female genital mutilation and a Tier 2 country for human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

10.  Eswatini (Swaziland)

28th worst place in the world to be a woman.

Eswatini has made concerted efforts to improve the legal status of women over the past two years, but deep inequality persists and cultural norms dictate that women are subservient to husbands. The country has the fourth-highest rates of reported rapes in the world and has the highest prevalence of HIV and AIDS. Sexual violence is one of the primary causes of new infections. Eswatini is also a Tier 2 country for human trafficking.

11.  Burkina Faso

33rd worst place in the world to be a woman.

Amnesty International describes women in Burkina Faso as “Second Class Citizens”. FGM is common and few women have access to contraception – certainly not without their husband’s approval. Forced and child marriage is rife, with the majority of girls are married off between the ages of 10 and 19. The resulting early pregnancies combined with poor access to healthcare means 1 in every 22 women dies in childbirth. It’s a Tier 2 country for human trafficking.

12.  The Gambia

43rd worst place in the world to be a woman.

Gambia is a Tier 3 country for human trafficking and sexual slavery, meaning that it is not only facing a serious crisis but is doing little to address it. Multiple women have come forward to accuse the former president of kidnap, rape and sexual enslavement. After a recent report revealed a number of discriminatory laws and loopholes in the legal framework, the government committed to addressing gender inequality in the law by 2030.

13.  Benin

53rd worst place in the world to be a woman.

Forced marriage is common, with a quarter of girls married off before they turn 18 and 7% before they reach 15. Benin is rated Tier 2 for human trafficking, with many rural women and children trafficked and sexually exploited in the urban south of the country, or overseas.  

14.  Senegal

54th worst place in the world to be a woman.

Gender-based and sexual violence are both highly prevalent in Senegal, and the country is rated Tier 2 for human trafficking. However, Senegal has made significant strides toward more equal political representation since 2010’s Gender Parity Law came into force.  

15.  Uganda (co-sponsor of the declaration)

60th worst place in the world to be a woman.

Half of all Ugandan women will suffer physical or sexual abuse by their partners of the course of their lives. Homosexuality is illegal. Draconian anti-abortion laws force women and girls to undergo dangerous, often deadly practices and have led to the arrests of doctors and nurses who provide post-abortion care to dying women. FGM is now outlawed, but last year, armed gangs subjected to over 400 women to forced mutilation. Uganda is a Tier 2 country for human trafficking.

16.  Zambia

61st worst place in the world to be a woman.

Zambia’s National Gender Policy was created to strengthen women’s legal and economic rights, while countering gender-based violence, human trafficking and poor access to women’s healthcare – but it faces an uphill battle. Legally, Zambian women have equal rights to land and inheritance, but in customary law, land use requests are granted to the head of the household, i.e. men. 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence and half physical violence. Zambia has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. It’s also a Tier 2 country for human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

17.  Kenya

70th worst place in the world to be a woman

Kenyan women battle myriad common threats and challenges, including gender-based violence, rape, sexual harassment, early and child marriage and FGM. Polygamy also weakens women’s economic empowerment and legal standing, and only 1% of women own any land in their own name. Kenya is a Tier 2-rated country for human trafficking and modern-day slavery, with a forced prostitution crisis at home and abroad. Child prostitution has also soared during the pandemic.

Lead photo by Andrew Itaga on Unsplash