Mary Okioma is the vice president of the International Network of Women Against Tobacco (INWAT) which has been working to eliminate tobacco use and exposure among women around the world since 1990. She is also the Executive Director of Women for Justice in Africa and the co-ordinator of the African Women’s Alliance for Tobacco Control (AWATC). She talked with Unfairtobacco.org about the importance of tobacco control for human rights work.
Unfairtobacco: Which role is the African Women’s Alliance for Tobacco Control (AWATC) playing in tobacco control?
Okioma: AWATC promotes elimination of tobacco use and exposure among women by co-ordinating the sharing of information and strategies among women working for tobacco control in Africa through networking, communication, capacity building and advocacy at the national, sub-regional, regional and international levels. AWATC is the official Africa regional network of the International Network of Women Against Tobacco (INWAT). We are planning a campaign to have tobacco and gender adopted as a theme of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
In which ways does tobacco farming violate women´s rights?
Women provide most of the labour on tobacco farms in rural Africa. Nicotine from the tobacco plant causes them to suffer green tobacco illness all year round. It results in nausea, vomiting, dizziness, abdominal cramps, aching joints and an accelerated heart beat. In addition to these general symptoms, exposure to nicotine leads to serious reproductive health complications among women. Even when they are pregnant, women must still continue to work on the farms because the tobacco industry does not pay farmers enough to employ additional help. Both the women and their unborn children get exposed to strong and intoxicating pesticides. This compromises their right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.
Are children´s rights respected?
No. Families rely on children to tend the tobacco crop before and after school as well as during school holidays. From time to time, depending on the intensity of work on the farm, children are withdrawn from school to help with work on the farm. Working on tobacco farms exposes children to dangerous pesticides and nicotine from the tobacco plant which causes green tobacco illness. Tobacco farming deprives children of their childhood, potential and dignity and harms their physical and mental development.
Do you have any solutions for the problems caused by tobacco?
I have many solutions but I can summarise them in just one sentence – engender tobacco control and mainstream tobacco control in human rights work. Human rights advocates are working to advance human rights in a number of areas including health, education, policy formulation, sustainable environments and poverty eradication. Tobacco farming and use has negative implications on all these rights and they can not be achieved unless tobacco is addressed. Human rights advocates should mainstream tobacco control in their work. Development partners should allocate more resources for tobacco control work. The FCTC recommends gender specific tobacco control strategies. It is neccesary to understand the gender dimensions of tobacco uptake and use as well as exposure to tobacco smoke so as design interventions that are effective for both men and women.
What opportunities are there for advancing tobacco control within the global women and children rights framework?
The Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), International Covenant on Economic and Socio – cultural rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on Chilldren Rights all have reporting and monitoring mechanisms that advocates can employ to advance tobacco control and human rights in their respective countries. In addition to these mechanisms, The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) and the Human Rights Commission which happen annually in New York provide strategic avenues for assessing progress in advancing tobacco control and human rights.
What can people in the first world do to help advance tobacco control in Africa?
Stop Smoking! Then, they stop providing markets to tobacco products from the developing world. Governments can put in place neccesary policies and programs to reduce tobacco use. Further, they can implement the FCTC and support developing countries to do likewise. People should lobby their governments to include tobacco control among development projects implemented in the developing world and set aside funds for these interventions.