LONGREAD: “Equality will not happen by chance…” Bience Gawanas – UN Under Secretary General & Special Adviser on Africa

We all yearn for equality, but it will be achieved only through deliberate interventions including changes in mindsets

In this wide-ranging thought-leader piece, Bience Gawanas  guides us through the world of social justice, social development and policy. She argues that while equality is about access to power, resources and opportunities, human dignity is key to achieving a better, more humane world.

I am fortunate to have worked at the national, continental and now global level in various capacities, focusing on social justice, discrimination and inequality issues. In my view, inequalities arise in our communities and countries because of the way in which our economic, political and social spaces are structured. Fundamentally, it is about access to power, to resources and to opportunities and the issue of exclusion and vulnerability. This is more evident when one looks at the issue of gender inequality and women’s status and position in society.

However, equality means that everyone – irrespective of their social or economic status – must have a decent standard of living and respect for their human dignity.

For example, Africa has one of the highest maternal mortality and morbidity rates in the world, and the concern is why this continues to be the case. African countries have maternal health promotion enshrined in different national and international instruments as a basic right. Maternal mortality and morbidity are also totally avoidable.

We all yearn for equality, but I believe that equality will not happen by chance. It will be achieved only through deliberate interventions including changes in mindsets. And my view is that poverty and exclusion should not be the determinant factors between life and death for a woman.

As a woman and based on my experience as a lifelong fighter for gender equality, I have my own perspectives on equality issues and indeed sadly, although women’s rights are enshrined in most constitutions and an agreed international legal framework, the achievement of women’s rights remains a mirage.

Even though women took part in liberation struggles and gained independence for their countries, which adopted constitutions that guarantee equality, as women and poor people we achieved equality in law and not in practice. And therefore, unless much more than lip-service is paid to the issues, addressing the root causes of inequality, we will never achieve equality in our lifetime.

Doing right things

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim at addressing inequality as a global challenge – whether it is between countries or within countries. The SDGs also differ from the MDGs in various ways in terms of approaches, processes and outcomes: the MDGs were mostly the preserve of governments as the major players in driving the development agenda and have basically been standalone goals.

On the other hand, the SDGs were developed through a very consultative process involving a wide range of stakeholders and not just governments alone. The 17 goals are also very interdependent, people-focused, and put the human being at the centre of development. And as such, the achievement of one goal is dependent on the achievement of another.

With the SDGs, the message is: we are all in this together, governments, the private sector, civil society and everyone else including ordinary people – and no-one should feel left out. For me that is critical, because why would people want to be part of a process or believe in its outcomes if they are not included in the design.

Because of this participatory process engaging the voices of different stakeholders, the SDGs are addressing the concerns of ordinary people by speaking to their humanity and putting them at the centre of the development agenda.

For a long time now, discussions on development have centred on the belief that there has to be economic growth first, before we can really talk about social development and improvement in people’s lives. Similarly, the argument is that we must first achieve peace and stability before development can take place.

Today, we are changing this narrative by recognising that social development is as important as economic development and growth. And not subservient to it. After all, it is healthy and productive people that drive development and not machines. And peace is not the absence of war alone, but of poverty, marginalisation, exclusion as well as many other ills.

We therefore need to address challenges we are faced with in a holistic manner and from a nexus perspective of accepting that peace, development and human rights are interdependent.

A great example, considering how the SDGs are cohesively layered, is gender equality. You cannot just look at SDG5 as a standalone goal but how it relates to the other goals of poverty, education, health, access to clean water, sanitation.

In other words, how is gender affected by all other goals and how does it in turn impact on them? Thus, if all the 17 goals are implemented and achieved, that will lead to bettering the status of women in our societies in all areas of human endeavour.

Commitment and passion

I personally draw my passion and drive for social development from a deep belief in humanity, because of my experience growing up under apartheid. When you are told as an aspiring law student that your intelligence is lower for studying the subject than a white girl’s, either you believe that, or you become a fighter for justice and equality. I wanted to prove the system wrong. I also lived in exile for many years and experienced the life in refugee camps. All these experiences shaped my passion for social justice, and I remain an optimist that a better world can be achieved. And the SDGs are crucial to that.

The African mandate

Although the Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA), which I head as Under Secretary General and Special Adviser, is the only office with a specific Africa mandate, almost all UN entities work in Africa.

The challenge remains that of the fragmentation of UN interventions and the need for coordinating across sectors and entities to break down silos, which UN reform aims to address. The OSAA on its part contributes to building synergies across the UN system in support of Africa’s priorities. It promotes African views and perspectives and fosters an understanding of Africa’s experiences on peace and development.

In this regard, the 2030 and 2063 agendas are pertinent in bringing about coherence, as well as the UN-AU Partnership Frameworks on peace and on development. We continue to strengthen and leverage partnerships such as with academia, and think tanks, to ensure that the African narrative remains relevant.

Looking back

I joined the AU in 2003 as a Commissioner during the transition from the OAU to the AU and we therefore had to set the context of what the AU Commission was going to look like going forward. And therefore, it was very important that the social development policies and plans that we developed were in conformity with the ideals that the AU set for its development agenda.

Therefore, as the AU Commissioner for Social Affairs (2003–2012), I ensured that we looked at social issues through a human rights lens, so that social development was not seen as a charitable act, but as a fundamental tenet of social justice – which is about the people’s right to be included in matters affecting their lives and to live a dignified life.

While we continued to build on the social development/policy frameworks and strategies that were already in existence, we also developed new policy frameworks, and my main takeaway was those related to health, particularly on maternal and child health. I remain passionate about these issues because right now, women are still dying while giving life.

And although a lot of emphasis is placed on HIV and malaria and TB, which without doubt are major disease burdens, so many women have also been dying in Africa while giving birth. It was clear that something needed to be done to bring about change.

Therefore at the AU, we wanted to show that behind the statistics there were human beings, women, and we had to understand who these women were and who was being affected the most and why, and what we were doing about it.

We came to understand that this was not only a health issue calling for health interventions but that it was a gender issue, requiring societal interventions.

Solutions came down to addressing issues of poverty, inequality and the low status women occupy in societies. We therefore had to shine the spotlight on maternal mortality and highlight that it was a silent killer.

So the next thing was to find solutions and take action. And as the AU Commissioner, my view was that the actions against the scourge should be within our control as Africans, without the need for millions of dollars. And that is how the Campaign on Accelerated Reduction on Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA) was born 10 years ago, and has became a key policy innovation which has made a difference.

Political will

And in discussing social development issues, including questions of inclusion and equality, the argument is that we need money and financing to invest in social development, including reducing maternal mortality. Yes, money is important, and we need it to build infrastructure such as schools, health facilities, roads, buy medical equipment, medicine, train health workers and so on. But I believe that the progress of a country should not only be measured by its GDP growth, but by the health status of its women and children.

I am glad that in 2015, the Global Financing Facility was set up, focusing on the continuum of care during pregnancy, childbirth, early years and adolescents.

See Also

But I have learnt from my experience with CARMMA and generally, from working in social policy and development for many years, that many of the interventions did not need money or large amounts thereof.

Therefore, even where there are no adequate funds or financing, we should invest in people and prevent women from dying while giving life. Political will, our cultures and attitudes and habits also have a big role to play.

Some of the interventions need investments in the form of time, commitment, passion, skill and the changing of mindsets and society’s views of women.

This involves educating men and boys to realise and accept that they have a role in enhancing gender equality and by making our cultures respect women. Everyone in society should understand that addressing gender inequality is also important in reducing maternal mortality because it is only women who give birth.

Since the launch of CARMMA we have witnessed an increase in interventions made by governments such as the provision of mobile maternity clinics, free health care for pregnant women, lactating mothers and children below 5 years.

A good example is Sierra Leone, going through post-conflict reconstruction, where the government has committed itself in tackling the issue. So sometimes it takes political will and preventative solutions – even where there is a limited budget.

Uncomfortable truths

And as I stated, limited budgets should not prevent us from saving lives. What is vital is dealing with the uncomfortable truths when discussing sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to change mindsets by addressing patriarchal practices.

People talk about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as if this is just about sex and therefore is about the so-called taboo subjects. This should not be the case because there is nothing controversial or taboo about sexual and reproductive health and rights, they are about keeping women alive, giving them control over their bodies, and choices about whether and when to have children. They are fundamentally about gender equality and women’s empowerment.

It’s about respecting a girl-child enough to make sure that she goes to school and remains there, rather than forcing her to get married early and have children before she is ready to be a mother.

These cannot be taboo subjects because they are about the lives of women and men, boys and girls. And it is also important for girls and women to be empowered not to accept what is happening to them but to challenge and confront those who perpetuate inequalities – even within family settings.

Strengthening multilateral institutions The current political and economic global order has brought challenges to multilateralism and is leading to increasing inequality between countries. How are we going to deal with the new challenges that the new world order is throwing into our paths? We need to continue strengthening multilateral institutions globally and continentally. The AU remains a very critical role-player in the global arena and the adoption of Agenda 2063 and the ACFTA is putting the world on notice that Africa is open for business on mutually beneficial terms.

The UNGA is an important platform and an opportunity for the world to take stock and listen to each other on all issues affecting the world and its people today. This year, UNGA gives us a chance to reset the clock as we discuss action for climate change, SDGs and financing for development and many other issues.

Moving forward

Having said all this, we must stay optimistic, and personally, given both my background and my current position, I remain hopeful that we shall achieve what the global goals have set out to do. Why? Because the SDGs and Africa’s own Agenda 2063 are both inspirational and aspirational. And with the synergies between the two, I don’t see how we cannot be optimistic that we are moving forward.

And when you look at what has been done so far through the SDGs, leveraging partnerships is becoming of growing importance. Because the SDGs also promote inclusive dialogue, everyone has a place at the table. The private sector, think tanks, academics, philanthropists, civil society, persons with disabilities, the youth, women, children, governments are bound together in the human spirit of the SDGs.

Today many organisations, private foundations and the private sectors are at the table in supporting the global goals. And many countries have aligned their national development plans with the SDGs. It is important that the discussions and the reporting are frank and honest, to assess whether we are on track, and so we can ask ourselves, what is it that we are doing right? What is it we can do better? Only then can we move further forward with collective action and implementation of the global goals and reduce poverty and inequality, in a way that no one will be left behind.

**This article was first Published in this New African Special Report produced and Guest- Edited by our Editor reGina Jane Jere

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