NGUGI: After the talks, photos and per diems, get down to work and give us results

Thursday November 28 2019

Delegates for the International Conference on Population and Development. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Delegates from different parts of the world queue outside City hall on November 12, 2019 as they wait to be accredited to attend the International Conference on Population and Development. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Between November 12 and 14, the second International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) was held in Nairobi. The first one was held in Cairo in 1994. The conference addressed maternal health, reproductive rights and other issues that affect women. Its goals, if achieved, would be the missing pieces in Africa’s development puzzle. There is only one problem: These goals will not be achieved, at least not in the next 50 to 100 years.

As in other conferences, symposia or forums organised by the UN, its member states or NGOs, commitment and substance are overtaken by posture and formalism. The real fight to win against these problems is replaced by good-natured shadow boxing.

These events have become well-choreographed fashion and social events. They provide good optics for selfies which are quickly uploaded on social media platforms with captions such as: “Attended ICPD in Nairobi”. With that done, the guilt of meals and pampering at 5-star hotels is eliminated.


In Cairo in 1994, delegates discussed FGM, child marriage and gender violence among other issues. Twenty-five years later, no significant dent has been made in any one of them. In Kenya today, hundreds of girls are rescued from early marriages every year. Gender violence has taken a gruesome turn with a spike in cases of femicide, and infants and grandmothers are now increasingly victims of sexual violence.

In Sierra Leone, rape and sexual violence have been declared national emergencies. South Africa today has the dubious distinction of being the ‘rape capital’ of the world. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege narrated poignantly in his Nobel acceptance speech, rape is used as a weapon of war. In Africa and parts of the Muslim world, FGM continues to cripple girls mentally and physically.


In India, gang rape of women has reached crisis proportions. Many reports today indicate that the worst places for women and girls to live in are in Africa, Asia and the Arab world. But even in the developed world, women suffer sexual assault as the “Me Too” movement revealed. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of women are trafficked every year for sexual exploitation. This is progress?

The ICPD goals, as with the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals, will not be achieved in most countries because we refuse to look ourselves in the mirror and say enough of hypocrisy, enough of NGO-speak, enough of equating conferences with progress.


The problem with platforms such as ICPD is that they refuse to do two things. First, recognise that social and economic problems are symptomatic of a crisis of governance. Women continue to be sexually brutalised in eastern Congo because successive governments in Kinshasa have failed to extend the rule of law and development to that region. High maternal and infant mortality rates continue in Africa because funding that could have gone into provision of comprehensive healthcare has been looted by ruling elites. For example, according to some reports, a staggering Ksh4.2 trillion was “lost, not spent well or not accounted for” in Kenya over the last six years. That amount of money could have eradicated maternal and infant deaths and left a huge chunk to build and equip numerous schools and road infrastructure. There is a reason why our ruling elites fly to Europe for treatment.

Second, confront cultural and religious beliefs that underpin the treatment of women. FGM and early marriages are rampant because communities justify them on cultural and religious grounds. But we tiptoe around these traditional and religious beliefs, afraid of being labelled this or that. But what, pray, is culturally sacrosanct about marrying off a 10-year-old child to a 60-year-old man? The writer Nducu Ngugi argues that this practice should be called by its proper name: “Child abduction.”

Therefore, if we want to eradicate FGM, child abductions and femicide, we must also tackle the cultural and religious beliefs that underpin them. When witchdoctors in South Africa, for instance, claim that Aids can be cured by raping an infant, it is criminal to pretend to be ‘culturally’ sensitive to that claim.

When women are killed to preserve the ‘honour’ of their families as happens in the Muslim world, we must say that is a perverted concept of honour and a criminal act. Until we are honest at these conferences, they will remain talking shops and photo opportunities.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.