Heri a class 2 dropout, a mother of two, the third and last wife (for the time being) of a man twenty years older than her stood under the only cashew nut tree left in her husband’s farm.
Her eyes wandered around the farm, surveying her work for the day and how far she still had, to go. She thought of a better, easier and faster way to toil the barren piece of land that caters for the miserably large family her husband Kenga had put together.
Just as she was about to decide, she saw her drunk husband muttering insults as he staggered his way into the compound through an opening in the hedge. She sighed, feeling stuck between the rock and a hard place. Would she spend the rest of her life stuck with a lazy drunkard and toiling on barren land?
Seven out of ten poor people in Kenya are women like Heri. Despite their poverty handicap, their husbands, children and society as a whole still expect a lot from them. These expectations often undermine their Sexual, reproductive health and rights (SRHR) which cover four areas: sexual health, sexual rights, reproductive health, and reproductive rights. These are rights, conditions and opportunities that enable men and women to enjoy their sexuality and their God given command to reproduce without coercion or discrimination.
For Heri, SRHR simply means that sex should not be a tedious, mandatory chore in the same league with the barren land that she tills day in, day out. Sadly for her, sex is even worse than that tilling because it is often demanded by her husband, which kills her mood completely. It doesn’t help matters that he is often done before she can count to thirty. She dreads sex yet she can’t say no. She loves the children that results from it but hates that he can’t take care of them.
In September 2015, I attended SRHR related training at the GoDown Art Centre in Nairobi. The UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in 1994 brought SRHR to global attention. ICPD transitioned into the UN Commission on Population and Development that recently played a critical role in developing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that touched on SRHR.
During the training on SRHR, participants were asked to review the goals one by one picking the goals that were connected to Sexual rights, Sexual health, Reproductive Health and reproductive rights. I attempted to draw a link between the environment and SRHR but this was met with blank stares.
However, Wangari Maathai had drawn this link a few years earlier when she noted that, ‘When I first started, it was really an innocent response to the needs of women in rural areas. When we started planting trees to meet their needs, there was nothing beyond that.’ I often wondered what link there was between tree planting and women’s needs but cases like Heri’s make this link clearer. A vibrant environment can empower women economically and help them to stand on their own two feet which will embolden them to say no when they don’t feel like it.
Indeed, women like Heri are the anchors, the very foundation of our communities. Although their holistic wellbeing was enshrined in the recently adopted 17 SDGs and their accompanying 169 targets, these good intentions must be enforced.
The fourteenth and fifteenth SDGs address the sustainability of marine and terrestrial ecosystems that women like Heri depend on. If she is left to carry the burden of the ecosystem that she depends on alone, both will crumble.
In Kilifi County where Heri comes from, many men behave like her husband. They spend most of their days sipping mnazi (local brew) as they engage in idle chatter.
When they finally stagger home at night, they have the nerve to refer to their unresponsive wives as “dead fish” or “overturned cockroaches.” Women are not romance ATMS – you can’t just key into them cold gestures and expect several doses of hot romance to tumble out!
Indeed, it is often said that “Women use all the four parts of their brains at all times” while men use only “one part at a time”. Therefore Women and men perceive risks and opportunity differently which begs the question, do we need different policies and implementation strategies, when it comes to matters of SRHR?
The world must meet women like Heri at the points of their needs. Because of the disconnect between SRHR policies and the ecosystems, they are often left languishing both on their farms and in their bedrooms.
Research shows that strenuous activities can result in premature births. In addition, it is impossible for a woman to get cosy and get romantic when she is tired to the bone. Even worse, women’s reproductive health has been known to suffer from unhealthy environments. For instance, contaminated water and surfaces can cause genital infections.
Although environmental hazards do not discriminate, women suffer more from them. This is why they must be protected and empowered from degenerating environments. If Heri is assisted to replenish the environment, her health and livelihood will be better of and this will boomerang back to the ecosystems that depend on her healing touch.