Diene Keita is the representative of United Nations Population Fund, UNPFA, in Benin Republic for the past seven years. UNFPA is the world’s largest multilateral source of population assistance, which has provided more than $6 billion in assistance since it became operational in 1969. Keita, who speaks six languages, is also a freelance translator in the United Kingdom. In this interview with Esther Onyegbula, she talks about the reproductive health and the challenges of the average African woman and other issues.
How has it been with UNFPA for seven years?
It has been excellent. It is a fantastic journey, working for women’s reproductive health and young people.
Compare the reproductive health of the average African woman and that of women Overseas
I think Africa has made a lot of progress. Maternal mortality has reduced by 40% in the entire continent. If you compare that to the rest of the world, a lot still needs to be done.
In Africa, we have a lot of countries where women are dying daily during childbirth. So we still have work to do and we are working to reduce maternal and child mortality.
Talking about reducing maternal and child mortality, would you say that UNPF has made progress in the last few years?
With an open mind, there have been tremendous progress these last years . The change of the executive director of UNPF made all the difference in the continent. I truly believe that when Professor Babatunde Osotimehin came on board, as the former Minister of Health of a major country in African (Nigeria), he had very specific views on how to tackle the issues affecting the region.
So we are now more pragmatic and systematic in ensuring that in every country that we work, we deliver all the services to women and ensure that they have access to healthcare services.
For someone that has been working with women for years, what do you think are the challenges of the Africa woman?
From my perspective, it is access to medical facilities. Most Africa women live far away from the urban areas and transportation is a huge problem. So majority of them find it difficult to access most of these medical facilities located in urban areas.
However, before that, making the decision to actually visit a healthcare facility, for most women, is difficult and that delays the process. So, I think that women need to be more assertive, know themselves and take care of themselves.
Does lack of education and poverty play a role in all these?
Definitely. Poverty and lack of education are central to all these. Women and the girl-child need education and it is never too late to start educating them.
They need to be encouraged and when they are in school, they need to be taken care of. Just putting them in school is not enough; making them stay in school is much more important.
What is UNPFA doing to help the African woman get education?
The fact remains that poverty is not about money alone because I have been to very remote communities where not much money is but women and children were happy because it was a clean environment.
It was a fisherman’s village and they had all they needed and were content with themselves. To fight poverty, women need to be more assertive and more confident in themselves. UNPFA is culturally sensitive in our approach, which is why we take care of every culture in the regions that we are. So we don’t address ethnic, religious and cultural group the same way. We respect that and it makes a whole lot of difference.
The way I work in Montana with Catholic groups, I don’t work the same way with Islamic group. The way I work with Christian groups in Benin is quite different from the way I work with Christian groups in Montana because they are majority somewhere and they are minority in other places. So they call for different approaches.
Also we really like to focus on young girls to make sure that they are taken care of and sensitive to their wellbeing at large, so that they can have self-confidence in themselves.
So how successful has this been?
So far, it has be quite successful. I think we are making tremendous progress because we are much more focused on family planning. Family planning is crucial. It doesn’t mean you don’t need kids. It means you need to plan your life to be successful.
Whatever you do, you need to do it in your own time. This is when your body is right for it. It gives the family whatever it needs to grow up.
Talking about family planning, there are some religious groups and some parts of Nigeria that refuse to engage in family planning and child immunisation. Is it the same in Benin?
This is exactly the problem that we tackle everyday. What you find in the northern part of your country and some religious groups refusing family planning is the same thing that you find in Benin. But this time, it is not the Muslims who don’t believe in family planning. It is the Catholics.
They say ‘no, we need our kids we are going to make, go away with your theories.’ In Montana I had UNPFA everywhere. In the mosque, religious leaders assisted in the advocacy of family planning and non-violence against women. That is why I said it is very difficult to work with certain religious groups or ethnic groups when they are the minority or majority.
For instance, in Benin, Muslim women are minority. So they are more proactive towards us, whereas Catholics are numerous and they believe they can get what they want.
But still young girls are dying. We have more than two million dying annually in Benin. That is too much. Something has to be done, and that is in planning their lives. They will reduce maternal death and have more time to make more kids if they need it.
Family planning is to take care of the woman herself and to have kids when she needs to have them, when the time is right. At a a young age, she will either die of get vesico virginal fistula and it is worse for her at that time because her life will be ruined.
What is your opinion about child marriage?
People need to be educated. They need to understand that the signs of their religion and religious books are complicated to understand for everyone. But the older you get, the more you understand religious books.
So education is a masterpiece for men and women. Because for women to be healthy, we need the men on board to learn what the woman is. And not to follow what he has seen at home being done. It might not be the right way for their generation.
Is the government doing much in terms of women reproductive rights?
They really need to put in place a system of sanction or reward for those doing it wrong or right. That is what is missing.
Laws and policies are nothing without implementation, especially for child abuse and violence against women. That is not happening. So government has all the laws but we need implementation.
Child abuse and violence against women seems to be on the increase. What do you think is responsible?
I think poverty is responsible for the increase in child abuse. In Benin, a young girl of about 10 years was abused by her own father. He was arrested and taken to the police station and unfortunately he was released because he was the sole bread winner of his family.
So she is in a foster family for the time being. Most times you find out that it is a poverty issue, and poverty needs to be tackled.
To sexually abuse one’s daughter must goes beyond poverty. Is it not a mind set problem?
Yes, it is a mindset issue that needs education. Everyone needs to play his own part. When these cases are reported in the police station, they claim they have no evidences.
The way they treat victims of sexual abuses is terrible and makes it much more difficult for victim to report their experiences. So the policemen need to be educated first.
The stigma associated with sexual abuses may contribute to some of these issues?
In our society, the stigma is terrible. Which is why most times victims of sexual abuses remain silent and act as if nothing has happened and the cycle continues.
Things needs to be done but they won’t change over night. The job we do is trying to protect these young people and educating them on their sexuality.
What is your educational background?
I studied Law Economy at the university in Paris and I have a Ph.D in law also in Paris.
French is my first language. I did my High School in Italy. So I speak Italian as well, and I learnt English and Spanish on my way.
So you speak how man language in all?
Fairly, I speak six languages. I am the eldest of eight kids.
What is the difference between your generation and mine?
I like your generation very much. Although life is more complex now, you have a lot of facilities to do your things; technology is every where. Your generation is much smarter than mine. My generation was much more protected by our parents.
When I see my young sister go out and my son, their inner strength is amazing. I admire their decisions and they are smart. Compared to yours, we were much more naive compared to the current generation because you know how to go there and fight for your right. And that is what African needs. And keeping the smile.
What has life taught you all these years?
Life has taught me humility. I was lucky enough to get to a leadership programme as one of the most youngest Africa to the UN and for that I have learnt a lot and I have met fantastic people, who have taught me so much.
That is why I try as much as I can to give back and when I give back, it is to the young people. This is because I have taken so much from all the old people around me. So for me life has taught me modesty, humility and trying hard to achieve and helping others.
What is your word to young people that would be reading your interview?
Don’t compete with anyone. Compete with yourself. Try to go beyond yourself, then you will be the best.