Culture of life means respect for the nature and protection of God's work of creation. In a special way, it means respect for human life from the first moment of conception until its natural end. -Blessed John Paul II

After writing my open letter to Melinda Gates, I have been asked if I speak for every African woman. My answer: Yes and No.

(First published on blog - Little Catholic Bubble and edited by Leila Miller)

Yes. I speak for every woman living in the (sub-Saharan) African context, not as if I can read their minds, but as if I can read their living situations.

This is a bold statement to make, but I would dare to make it because I understand the African society, the African cultural ethics and universal values -- given that I was born and raised within that culture. Africa is of course comprised of many many tribes and tongues and creeds (Catholic, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Islam and African Traditional religion); however across state lines, borders and languages we share the universal values of the Culture of Life. This is why abortion advocates have found it very difficult (if not impossible) to sell legal abortion to any of these countries. There is a unanimous rejection of the Culture of Death, a philosophy which is very much framed by the right to kill the defenceless child in the womb.

As for the acceptance and use of artificial contraception, we have artificial contraceptives in Africa. In the last two decades, the UN has been on a mission to reduce the birth rate in Africa. To that end, they have flooded our hospitals with it, campaigning in urban and rural communities alike. But yet surprise, surprise! Most people still refuse to accept it because they perceive it as 'anti-life’. And besides, most African women know how to avoid or delay pregnancy without resorting to chemicals. They might be poor but they are neither slow nor stupid.

There is a combination of reasons why the African women have a high birth rate, the first being a high desired fertility rate (i.e. how many babies a woman desires to have). This desire exists because the older women in our communities are revered, respected and even rated in accordance to how many adult children she has raised. So, my own mum who raised six adult children commands even more respect than her friends who have much more wealth than she does but fewer children. And one of her friends who has nine adult children is even more respected than my mum -- even my mum reveres this lady for being able to raise nine children (one of whom is a dear friend of mine by the way). For Melinda Gates' birth-reduction programme to take root in our society, she has to completely uproot this sort of value-system where wealth is never placed above children. Put differently, our system is such that our children are our treasure and dollars, euros, rands, and pounds are only our legal tender.

A second reason for our high birth rate is that due to our poor medical facilities, poor societal infrastructure, poor nutrition, etc., our death rate is quite high (for both men and women). The life expectancy of every person living in sub-saharan Africa is around half that of Europe. If the culture does not encourage or celebrate births, well we'd be extinct before too long!

Another reason is lack of education. Because we do not have free education as in Europe and the US, it is rather difficult for the poor (which accounts for more than 65% of the population) to send their daughters to secondary school or even primary school in some cases. As a consequence, girls get married at a very early age; anyone can see that if you start to have children at age 14, then by the time you get to 35 you would have more children than if you had been sent to school and thus married at age 20 or so.

Now I know people would suggest that these under-aged brides be protected and saved by giving them contraceptives to delay conception; however, to live in the African society and be seen as infertile is never good for the woman -- especially where Christianity is not widely accepted and many men take second wives. So among the poor, a wife, in order to ensure her 'place' as the sole wife of her husband -- will want to have more than 3 or 4 children. Among the educated the mind-set is different because most educated wives will not willingly choose polygamy.

For this reason, I appeal for donations in African to be channelled to education of girls (and boys) rather than to providing contraceptives. People would never wish their daughters married off at 12 or 13 years old if they were offered the opportunity of education and no girl would want to marry that young if she could get an education first. I do not know very many African girls who would refuse a higher education (university, nursing school, teacher training college). Once a woman living in the African context gets her higher education she is exponentially empowered! She could get a sustainable job with her skills, and when she marries she is so much more ennobled not just in the eyes of her husband but very importantly among his family (our family structure is usually strongly connected to the husband’s extended family).

It might be useful to point out at this juncture that the more educated African women almost always choose to have fewer children (but mostly by natural methods rather than artificial contraceptives). So rather than fill our defenceless under-aged brides with Depo-Provera -- which is more like a general anaesthesia that will numb them to the brutality of their reality -- we can better empower them by giving them an education, which becomes the lifeline by which they can climb out of poverty one girl at a time. Surely education is more expensive than the artificial contraceptive, but it can change the fate and face of Africa as far as poverty is concerned.
Obviously this is only addresses one part of the issue -- the cultural acceptance (or rejection) of artificial contraceptives. There is also the matter of the governance and politics of Africa. This is a major issue. Anyone who follows closely the news from the African continent would immediately be struck by the ease with which dictators, military commanders and criminal warlords pop-up across our continent. This is so hard for most Americans or Europeans to relate to, but we must bear in mind that most Africans have been and are still living under dictatorial governments that span decades. In our African reality, whoever is in charge wields a god-like power which cannot easily be challenged. And in my experience, most of these men who manage to climb into positions of power want wealth for themselves. They spend only a portion of the national wealth on the people, and then 'keep the change' for themselves.

One factor that gets in their way is the increased populations in the different countries. They have more people to feed and fund thanks to our relatively high birth rates, so in this way the natural female fertility becomes a stumbling block to them. I would take the liberty to bring China into this conversation (only as an example) so please pardon me. The Chinese leaders have always had both unspeakable power and unfathomable wealth, so the moment they perceived the women's fertility as problematic, they used what they had to achieve what they wanted. They launched a rather expensive but effective war against fertility, via state-sponsored forced abortions, forced sterilisations, and mandatory contraception -- all done with little to no consideration for human rights .

Now in Africa, the desire to cap national population is there among our governments, the power (to trample human rights) is there, but the money is not -- so women remain safe from this sort of violence at the moment. But this could very easily change by the time Melinda pulls into our territories, considering the incredible amounts of artificial contraceptives that she is campaigning for. (Her target is to supply enough for 120 million women! Most of whom are in Africa.). I can sadly imagine this in the hands of the African dictators who will be quick to 'weaponise' every single one of these contraceptives (pill, patch, implants or injectables). I understand that many people think it is a 'nice' thing to do to get this 'choice' of birth control to the African women, and I understand that they mean well. But are we willing to allow this extra edge of power to fall into the wrong hands ?

So from this point I speak for all African women who are only as safe as the authorities are disabled by limited supplies of artificial contraceptives.
For the societal acceptable sexual norms, I'm afraid I don't speak for all African women. However, by universal cultural standards, I do not know of one single African community that will accept or applaud 'free' sexual expressions, sex-outside-of-marriage, cohabitation, casual sex, domestic partnerships, friends with benefits, etc. (all of which I have seen as widely accepted in the European culture that I live in today). Not to say that people are not engaging in such lifestyles in Africa, but they are never validated or endorsed by the society. A mother can never proudly tell anyone that her daughter is living with her boyfriend, for example.

But in more recent years, thoughts and tendencies of the younger African women are informed and formed by a broad array of factors -- social class, wealth, education, degree of devotion to faith -- which in turn will determine her level of exposure to western cultural values, the impact of which can be huge. An African woman who has access to internet and cable TV spends more time than others watching American TV series [such as Mad Men!], which are more often than not highly sexualised. Over time, her perception and definition of love, sex and family life is inevitably shaped and formed away from African values. So, we see an emerging group of African girls (though not majority at all) gradually being "westernised" because they perceive the ‘whole package’ of the western life as the glamorous life, the modern life, the better life . In order to embrace and accept this life, they inadvertently let go of some or most of our African universal cultural standards. With this persistent pursuit of the 'better' life, many young Africans are now standing on the precipice beyond which lies the mirage of happiness and fulfilment promised by the new western norms of sexual expression. These women have the choice to either jump off that precipice leaving our own norms of morality, faith and family behind, or to stand back in the realisation and appreciation of the beauty and solidity of our own African Culture of Life.

I personally have chosen not to jump, and I know many, many other African women who have also chosen not to jump. And I pray that as my beloved African sisters come up one after the other to that precarious precipice, that they too would turn back and hold tight unto the beautiful Culture of Life which holds the firm promise of light, life and true love.

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