1. In recent times I have come across many different comments in various quarters about the ongoing peace initiatives and momentous events unfolding in our region. The vast majority have been extremely positive, highly excited, and generally optimistic. At the same time, however, some others have expressed deep reservations and significant concerns about the recent events and the speed with which they are taking place.
Of course, this should hardly come as a surprise since, as with everything else in life, there are few things that will please everyone. As well, one can certainly understand some of the anxieties and concerns raised, at least to a certain degree. However, it is also very difficult to argue against the peace initiatives and changes, especially when one recalls the thousands of soldiers who have served diligently, and continue to do so. They have all given and lost so much. Further, it is difficult to claim change is occurring “too fast” in light of the millions across the region, particularly the youth, who, with a renewed sense of optimism and hope, can now begin to genuinely look ahead to the future with great excitement and enthusiasm, instead of being weighed down or greatly burdened by a dark past.
At this stage, it should be abundantly clear for all to see that genuine progress in our region is simply impossible without change. The countries of our region want to grow, improve, develop, and provide better lives for their people. The gap between where we are and where we want to be is huge. Genuine, lasting peace in the region is one of the fundamental requirements to transforming our lofty aims into realities. The alternative has only led to great despair, unfulfilled potential, and extreme hardship. As put by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, during his recent address at the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), “All against all ends up to everyone’s detriment.”
We all should genuinely welcome peace, closer ties, solidarity, and cooperation among the countries of the Horn of Africa. Economic partnership and integration, in particular, promise numerous and significant benefits for the region, including, but not restricted to: the improved availability of and a wider selection of goods and services that will significantly help promote economic growth and resilience and greatly reduce poverty; the creation of more employment opportunities, so critical for our youth, through economic diversification and larger markets; the development and renovation of regional infrastructure, including roads, ports, and airports; the boosting of agricultural productivity and food security; the improved access to essential services; considerable efficiency gains that can lead to greater purchasing power and reduced costs for both consumers and producers; enhanced technology sharing and cross-border investment flows; and stronger political cooperation, which can help resolve challenges and conflicts peacefully and lead to greater security and stability.
Importantly, it is also worth bearing in mind that while the journey to this point has been long, arduous, and considerably complicated, much work still lay ahead. In many ways, the work is just beginning. And, it should certainly be expected that the journey we are embarking upon toward change will inevitably be accompanied by numerous obstacles, various challenges, and possibly even setbacks. In fact, many issues have been readily apparent, even at this early juncture. However, this does not mean that we should resist or reject change. Rather, we ought to embrace it, while being fully prepared to shape it in positive directions to craft a future that is more just, inclusive, and sustainable for the Horn of Africa.
As an African and an Eritrean, it is quite difficult not to be touched or moved by the momentous events of the past several months. History weighs heavily on Africa. “If we journey backwards to the hour of African independence…we may summon from remote corners of our collective memory, perspectives and visions of radically different content” (Young 1996: 2). For too long across the continent, our countries have been synonymous with conflict and war. We have often acted like crabs in a bucket, pulling each other down and ensuring our collective demise, rather than working cooperatively to raise ourselves up collectively. In few areas of the continent has this unfortunate mentality been more tragically apparent than the Horn of Africa, where relations between the various countries have been characterized by stalemate, bitter rivalry, antagonism, tension, and conflict.
Today, however, the dark clouds are finally receding and the skies are beginning to clear. The events of recent months are highly promising and very encouraging. Working together and cooperatively, with tolerance, openness, understanding, and genuine respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, will be most conducive to establishing lasting security, stability, peace, and prosperity for the Horn of Africa.
2. During the past week, several official annual international days have been celebrated around the world. These days, which are observed and recognized by the United Nations (UN), in collaboration with its various agencies (e.g. the WHO, UNAIDS, UNICEF, etc.), are meant to raise awareness for global problems and collective issues, to remember and commemorate past events, and to celebrate culture, nature, world heritage, and other topics. Generally, on many of the international days, activities and celebrations take place around the world.
On 21 September, the International Day of Peace (also sometimes referred to as World Peace Day) was recognized. According to the UN, this day is devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. Of note, while reflecting on International Day of Peace, Leymah Gbowee, a 2011 Nobel Peace laureate, posted a message on Twitter dedicated to Eritrea and Ethiopia in recognition of their recent initiatives toward peace and friendship. Specifically, she stated: “As we celebrate world peace day, it is my prayer that our world will continue to move one step closer to global peace. This day must be dedicated to Ethiopia and Eritrea, for putting their political differences aside and daring to invite peace back into their midst.”
Overall, a positive statement and a great gesture.
Less than a week later, on September 26, World Contraception Day (WCD) was observed globally. Internationally recognized for nearly a decade, WCD seeks to improve knowledge and awareness of contraception, while enabling and empowering people (particularly women) to make informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health.
Reflecting on Eritrea, it is highly encouraging that knowledge of family planning and contraceptive methods is quite high among both women and men, and within both rural and urban areas. In particular, the pill, male condoms, and injectables are generally the most widely known modern methods. As well, the majority of women and men who utilize contraception make the decision jointly with their partners or spouses, offering a positive indication of the acceptability of family planning. Reflective of the importance of education and equitable access for females, women’s level of education is positively associated with joint decisions; specifically, the higher the level of a woman’s education, the higher the frequency of joint decisions being made.
Although access to and use of contraception and family planning in Eritrea have improved in recent years (for all methods), there is still a considerable unmet need that represents an important opportunity to expand access and support. Family planning should be affordable, easy to understand, access, and utilize, and free of any stigma, discrimination, or harmful myths. Importantly, this will help protect and promote reproductive health and reproductive rights. Furthermore, for Eritrea, a low-income, developing country, family planning and contraception may represent investments with key benefits. For example, by helping women and couples avoid unwanted pregnancies through expanded access to family planning and contraception, the country can greatly reduce costs of providing healthcare and offset other challenges. By comparison, globally, it is estimated that if all women wanting to avoid a pregnancy used modern contraception, the resulting decline in unintended pregnancies would considerably reduce the costs of providing care from $10.5 billion to $2.7 billion (UAP 2016).
Ultimately, Eritrea and its various partners (including various UN agencies and international health and development organizations) should continue to promote reproductive health and rights throughout the country. Expanded access to and adoption of family planning and contraception in Eritrea will not only support the realization of key gender-based and health rights (thus encouraging autonomy and allowing women to manage their fertility and lives), it will also save the lives and considerably improve the health of many women and girls, and ultimately play a key role in promoting broader socio-economic growth and sustainable development.