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Fulfil the Rights of Afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Viewpoint by Natalia Kanem

Following are extensive extracts from the Statement by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at the High-level Meeting on “Accelerating global action for the fulfilment of rights for Afro-descendant people in Latin America and the Caribbean”, San José, Costa Rica, in October 2019.

NEW YORK (IDN-INPS) – Leave no one behind – that is the global community’s ambitious pledge. And the Sustainable Development Goals call on us to reach those furthest behind first.

How do we accelerate global action to fulfil the rights of Afro-descendants, who are often among those furthest behind in Latin America and the Caribbean?

How do we combat discrimination, inequalities and the root causes of exclusion?

It is true that we have made important progress. We’ve seen gains in poverty reduction. There is greater recognition of the challenges to be overcome. We hear more and stronger voices calling for change. Yet, we still see structural barriers preventing full social and economic inclusion. It’s clear much more needs to be done.

One in four Latin Americans identifies as an Afro-descendant. That’s more than 130 million people.

In Latin America and around the world, Afro-descendants have made outstanding contributions throughout history. Even in the face of tremendous adversity, people of African descent are leaders in all walks of life, from art to business, politics to philanthropy, sport to statesmanship, music and literature to the sciences. This is something to be celebrated.

Yet the recognition and appreciation of our heritage and cultures has been very limited.

The International Decade for People of Africa Descent is a chance to redress this.  Indeed, the theme for the year is “Recognition, Justice and Development”.

The international community has recognised that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected.

For centuries, Afro-descendants have faced inequalities, discrimination and segregation deeply rooted in colonialism and slavery.  And this legacy continues. Despite all we have experienced and learned over the years, racism, structural discrimination, marginalisation, hate speech, and hate crimes remain virulent and widespread. 

Migrants and refugees from Africa are among today’s most vulnerable people. They face intersecting discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin, social and economic status, and citizenship.

Women and girls of African descent also face multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination and exclusion.  Inequalities in access to health, invisibility in data collection, and a disproportionate incidence of violence against them – these are just some of the challenges that continue to hamper their empowerment, participation and the full realisation and exercise of their rights.

Today, we stand at the midpoint of the International Decade.  Let us use the solid framework it provides to join together and take action in the spirit of recognition, justice and development.

Together, let us seize this opportunity for focused, concerted, accelerated action to fight racism and racial discrimination, and to work towards the full enjoyment of human rights by all.

The statistics illustrate why upholding the rights of Afro-descendants is so important.

In Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Uruguay combined, Afro-descendants account for 38% of the total population but represent almost half of those living in extreme poverty. Indeed, they are 2.5 times more likely to live in chronic poverty than people of non-African descent.

Historically, people of African descent have been segregated geographically, relegated to those areas with the lowest levels of development and the least access to public services. They are more likely to live in overcrowded conditions with limited access to education and employment and greater exposure to pollution, crime, violence and natural disasters.

Hardest hit: girls and women.

To accelerate progress, we need to prioritise meeting their needs and upholding their rights. 

At UNFPA, we believe that the success of the Sustainable Development Goals depends on the investments we make in today’s adolescent girls as they begin their journey to adulthood.

By 2030, today’s girls will be young women. How do we change their destiny, particularly the destiny of our Afro-descendant girls? That has to be our goal.

Imagine a 10-year-old girl, on the cusp of adolescence, standing at a fork in the road.

If she is able to stay in school, she’s on a path of health and wellbeing throughout her life. Her children will have better health outcomes too. Education, particularly for girls, can break the cycle of poverty.

If, on the other hand, she becomes pregnant while still a child herself…if she is forced to marry and drop out of school… she faces a cascade of challenges throughout her life, jeopardising her health and well-being and that of the next generation.

As I speak, somewhere along the coast of this beautiful isthmus bridging South and North, perhaps in Limón or Bluefields or anywhere, really, since it will happen 20,000 times around the world today, a girl sits terrified and alone. For weeks, she has felt tired and mildly nauseous. Now, her cycle is late. Her much older boyfriend – a man actually – had told her not to worry. That he loved her. Why let a condom get in the way?

Today, she learns why…. She’s pregnant . . . she’s 15.

In a few months she’ll likely be tossed out of school. Her prospects of resuming her education, dim. No one will ask questions of the boy. He won’t be ejected from school. On the other hand, her opportunities to find decent work and fulfil her potential, diminished. Her future, uncertain. Her boyfriend, nowhere to be found.

Latin America and the Caribbean has the second highest adolescent pregnancy rate in the world, after Africa. The poorest girls and girls from Afro-descendant communities are disproportionately affected.

They get pregnant earlier in almost all countries in the region with available data and face much higher risk of death in pregnancy and childbirth. They also have less access to modern contraceptives.

Being born to parents of African descent significantly increases the likelihood of a child being poor, giving these girls and boys an unfair start in life. Many never overcome it.

In Brazil, Afro-descendant girls experience a level of poverty around two times higher than their non-Afro-descendant peers. In Ecuador and Peru, it’s approximately 50 percent higher.

And the legacy of poverty and social exclusion is transmitted from generation to generation, with opportunities for social mobility elusive.

The region’s unparalleled levels of inequality are rooted in deep gender disparities, which are especially serious when it comes to adolescent girls, for whom race, gender and poverty conspire to exacerbate their disadvantages.

Yet in spite of these tremendous challenges, Afro-descendant women have led the way in the quest for recognition, justice and equality.

UNFPA has stood and continues to stand with them, working to strengthen networks of Afro-descendant women and young people and supporting their participation in regional and global forums.

We meet at a historic time. Not only is this the midpoint of the International Decade for People of African Descent. 2019 is also the 50th anniversary of UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, and the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. It was there, in 1994, that world governments declared the right to sexual and reproductive health.

Yet, despite States’ commitment to universal sexual and reproductive health and the realisation of reproductive rights, as stated in the Sustainable Development Goals, women and girls continue to lack access to services, and their rights continue to be violated. This is particularly true for women and girls of African descent.

We need an ambitious plan to move this agenda forward. 

Under the auspices of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, with significant support of UNFPA, the Montevideo Consensus on Population and Development, adopted in 2014, calls for actions to address pressing population issues. These include sexual and reproductive health, the equal inclusion of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, and the fight against racism and racial discrimination.

The review of implementation last year showed uneven progress in the recognition and protection of the rights of Afro-descendants.

So, too, do the UN Secretary-General’s annual progress reports to the General Assembly on the implementation of the Decade’s programme of activities.

The 2017 report focused in particular on Afro-descendant women and girls. It documented the stereotyping and inequalities they face – from inequalities in access to health, to the disproportionate incidence of violence against them, to their invisibility in data collection.

The experiences of Afro-descendant women often get subsumed under data on women in general. This hides patterns of inequality and may seem to indicate that the situation of all women has improved, when often this is not the case.

UNFPA is passionate about addressing these issues, especially providing support to governments to produce disaggregated data and develop inclusive policies that target the needs of Afro-descendant communities, particularly women and girls.

We are partnering with leading global advocates, including H.E. Epsy Campbell Barr, [Vice President of the Republic of Costa Rica, a prominent Afro-Costan leader and human rights activist on issues related to women and indigenous and Afro-descent people, among others], and with academics, civil society networks, communities, faith-based organisations, and governments to advocate for social justice, equity and the rights of Afro-descendant women and girls, especially their right to sexual and reproductive health.

In this historic year, we are working with our partners to reignite the movement that began in Cairo 25 years ago. The Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 being convened in November by UNFPA, together with the Governments of Kenya and Denmark, is an opportunity to renew the call for rights and choices for all.

It is an opportunity to share lessons learned, forge new partnerships and signal new commitments to bring the promise of Cairo and Montevideo to everyone, leaving no one behind.

I urge all of us to think about the girls growing up in Limón, Costa Rica; in Esmeraldas, Ecuador; in El Carmen, Peru; in Bilwi or Bluefields in Nicaragua; in Salvador Bahia, in the Caribbean, but also in San José, in Lima, and in many of the large capitals of the region.

Together with them, let’s make this region a more dignified and fairer place to live. Recognition, justice and development for all. Nothing less will do. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 November 2019]

Photo: Afro-Latinos. Source: World Bank.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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