On a recent official visit to Eastern Sudan, I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and openness of the people I met in Al-Qadarif and Kassala. Unfortunately, I was appalled by the absence of the means for women and girls to lead a dignified life in two districts of the country.
While the world celebrates International Women’s Day with renewed calls for empowering women to exercise their human rights, I remember seeing how countless women in east Sudan and elsewhere in the Arab region and Africa are deprived of these rights.
Women face tremendous challenges throughout their lives. Many women's lives are a never-ending series of suffering and unfulfilled needs. They have almost no access to reproductive health services, and when they do it is often dangerous and painful. Such is the plight of pregnant women living in remote rural areas, who must travel long distances on unpaved roads to give birth at hospitals without midwives.
I talked to many young women in Sudan. I listened carefully to their amazing ideas, innovative thoughts and unlimited hopes. But their ambitions are still held captive by the fact that they feel so unequal to men in many aspects of life. Whether or not this will change along with recent political reforms in the country remains to be seen.
The situation of women and girls underscores the need for gender equality to be at the heart of development efforts. No matter how much assistance the international community provides, it will not be enough to make a real impact if women and girls are left behind. If we do, we are then letting them down.
Women are hurting in our regions and everywhere; they face increasing threats as a result of wars, immigration and internal displacement. These challenges require women to face multiple dangers and unbearable burdens. Not only that, but it extracts from them all the means and opportunities for power and influence.
While observing the International Women’s Day 2020, we should voice our support to end women’s silent suffering. There are countries where women's sorrow and humiliation remain the least concern on agendas. Women continue to account for two-thirds of illiterate people across the world. More than one-third of adults across the world, most of whom are women, do not have access to printed knowledge or new skills and techniques that can enhance the quality of their lives and help them shape, and adapt to, economic and social changes. Seventy percent of the 130 million children not registered in elementary schools are girls.
The importance of empowering women to realise their full potential cannot be understated. Gender equality is a human right. Women's empowerment is the only guarantee for strong, harmonious, and coherent societies to grow, develop and flourish.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) works closely with governments, local and international partners to end all practices that discriminate against women, including those related to reproductive and sexual health, and all kinds of gender-based violence, including child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).
Achieving women’s equality and empowerment requires real change in the mindset, policies and programming. Women should be a full party to decision-making across all levels.
The writer is regional director for Arab States at the UNFPA.