For Francis Oko Armah, when you take a stand for young girls and women, you take a stand for everyone.
“People should know that standing and defending the human rights of girls and young women is standing for everyone,” he said. “Once we’re able to realise the inequalities and injustices that our girls and young women face, we stand for their human rights, and it means that we stand for the human rights of everyone else.”
Armah is a youth activist in Accra, Ghana, where he engages young people, especially women and girls, to learn more about reproductive health and demand access to health solutions. He does this in a variety of ways including using social media, traditional media, through work in schools and even hosting discussions for young people in community halls. He does this in rural locations throughout northern Ghana.
Education key to empowerment
Armah saw that many young girls and women faced gaps of knowledge in terms of sexual and reproductive health, which lead to early pregnancies and complications. He realized better informed girls and young women was key to claim their human rights to control their own bodies, their health and their education.
However, entering the conversation as a young man advocate in what is perceived as a female-owned dialogue, Armah encountered some resistance. It took time for him to build trust, with the girls and young women – many of whom wondered “what a man knew about menstruation?” He also had to battle against stereotypes from other men, who wondered if he was “man enough” to talk to them about things like safe sex and condoms.
The key to winning over both groups was communication, he said. For young people he was seen as someone who would listen to their problems and concerns – many for the first time. And he provides a space for them ask questions and get information.
“One of the strategies that worked for me … I organized some debates … between the boys and the girls about sexual health and … rights,” he said “And as the boys and girls argue their points, it moves from a discussion with just me to a discussion amongst themselves about the issue.”
Armah’s quest to improve better access to sexual and reproductive health and gender information brought him to the Human Rights Council in 2017, where he took part in a panel looking into improving access to this kind of information. In Geneva, he learned how to better advocate tactically for change.
“I learned about the different dimensions in different countries and different tactics used all for the same issue,” he said. “Since I have been back, I have tried to employ some of these lessons in my approach and delivery of my work and the challenges I face.”
Realizing his role as a human rights defender
Despite his championing for the rights of young people to have better access to and better types of sexual and reproductive health education, and pushing for the ability for young girls and women in particular to have greater say over their own bodies, Armah only recently realized that he was a human rights defender.
It was during one of the lively back and forth discussions he hosts, where youth discussed different types of sexual exploitation and abuse cases. A young girl approached him at the end of the meeting, to reveal to him that she was being abused, but no one believed her. She wanted her abuser to be stopped or for her community to know what he was doing. Armah helped the girl to find counselling and through those services report the abuse. She told Armah she spoke to him because, despite him being a man, she saw how he stood up for girls. No man in her life had stood up for her.
“I realized that I didn’t just listen to people’s stories, we act,” he said. “So that was the moment that I realized that what I was doing was defending people’s human rights.”
“Education in particular sexual and reproductive health education is an important human right to stand for because it empowers young people in particular young girls and women to have a full body autonomy and to learn about their health and rights. It also encourages young men and boys to engage in positive masculinity to help create a more equal world,” Armah said.
8 February 2019