EDITORIAL: African Journal of Reproductive Health at 20: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Friday Okonofua, Akhere Omonkhua


The African Journal of Reproductive Health (AJRH) was first published in 19971, and is 20 years old this year (2017). The journal was founded by the Women‘s Health and Action Research Centre (WHARC), a leading Nigerian non-governmental and non-profit organization. WHARC itself was established in 1995 with the mission to promote the health and social well-being of women through research, evidence-based advocacy, capacity building and high-quality service delivery. WHARC‘s founding was inspired by the International Conference on Population and Development which took place in Cairo, Egypt in 1994 and the Fourth World Conference on Women which was held in Beijing, China in 1995. From these two global conferences, it was evident that concerns for women‘s social development were set to occupy centre stage in global development in subsequent years. With Africa, being the continent with the most severe situations of social disempowerment of women, it was evident that much of the new thinking and interventions relating to women‘s empowerment was going to focus on the region. It was within this context that WHARC conceived and established the journal to serve as a forum for Africans and those working on development in Africa to discuss the implications of their research findings and interventions on women‘s health and social development. We believed that such a process of documentation and discussion would provide impetus for developing global consensus, and engaging stakeholders, policymakers and development partners to focus on issues that relate to Africa‘s development with specific emphasis on the health and the social development of women. The Ford Foundation, New York provided the first funding support for establishing WHARC and founding the AJRH. Indeed, the program officer based at the Ford Foundation‘s West African Office at the time, Dr Natalia Kanem, now Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director (Programme) at the UNFPA, was the major catalyst that helped the founding of WHARC and the establishment of the AJRH. To date, her support to both institutions has remained unwavering and firm. Subsequent officers at the Ford Foundation, notably Dr. Babatunde Ahonsi, Dr. Adhiambo Odaga, Mr. Innocent Chukwuma and Professor Paul Nwulu have continued to support WHARC and the journal, due largely to the continued commitment of both institutions in focusing on the social development of women, youth and the girl child in the African region. The journal has also received tremendous advisory and funding support from several organizations including Ipas (through Barbara Crane, Charlotte Hord and Janie Benson), the Consortium on Research on Unsafe Abortion in Africa, the MacArthur Foundation (through Dr Kole Shettima), the Guttmacher Institute and the Population Council.
The initial issues of the journal were published in collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health, and printed in Boston, USA. Dr. Rachel Snow, then an Associate Professor at Harvard University co-edited the journal with Professor Friday Okonofua between 1997 and 2003, after which all tasks of the journal were transferred to the Nigerian office. Some notable international scholars who gave tremendous impetus and support to the founding of the journal included Professor Kelsey Harrison, foremost obstetrician and gynaecologist, then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt; Professor Allan Rosenfield now of blessed memory, an internationally renowned advocate for women‘s health, and the then Dean at the Columbia University School of Public Health; and Professor Mahmoud Fathalla, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Assiut University in Egypt and the then President of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO). They not only provided groundbreaking editorials at the inception of the journal2-4, but also played advisory and functional roles at various stages of the journal‘s evolution. Other key scientists who have played key roles as consistent reviewers, advisers and promoters of the journal at different stages include Professor emeritus Femi Olatunbosun, a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and past chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada; the late Professor John Caldwell of the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia; Dr. Lindsay Edouard, a retired obstetrician and gynaecologist, then at the UNFPA in New York; Professor Andrew Onokerhorhaye, Professor of Geography and Population Studies, then Vice-Chancellor at the University of Benin; Professor John Cleland, an internationally acclaimed medical demographer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Dr. Grace Wyshak at the Harvard School of Public Health; and Professor Wole Akande, a retired obstetrician and gynaecologist, then at the World Health Organization in Geneva. Without such eminent individuals of goodwill, AJRH would have suffered a stillbirth or possibly a neonatal death. We remain eternally grateful to all of them. At 20, the journal has definitely come of age, and we can confidently aver that much of the journal‘s mission is being substantially achieved. Significantly, we have published the journal three times a year initially (1997 to 2004) and since 2005 four times a year consistently without a break. Thus, we have published 21 volumes, 72 issues, and up to 1,080 articles without any interruption. Surely, this is a great achievement, and is a heartening departure from the experiences of similar journals in the region that tend to have high rates of ―under-five mortality‖. To date, the journal has one of the highest citations among all journals in Africa; it is indexed in several international databases including the PubMed/Medline; and was assessed among nearly 138 journals by the National Universities Commission of Nigeria as the best journal in Nigeria in 2005 ―that meets international standards‖5, 6, 7. To date, the AJRH is one of a few journals published from sub-Saharan Africa that focuses exclusively on the reproductive health and related social development with a focus on women and youth. Gender inequity and inequality being unresolved concerns in the region, there can be no doubt that the journal remains pivotal and significant to development planning efforts not only in Africa, but also globally.

One of the principal objectives of the AJRH is to provide resource materials for undergraduate and postgraduate training in reproductive health, public health, and related fields on issues related to Africa, so as to provide a forum for consolidating the fields of reproductive health and public health in the region, and to mentor subsequent generations of students and practitioners in these disciplines. Evidently, this objective has also been achieved as the AJRH is now a respected academic reference and is a recommended reading for undergraduate, Masters‘ and PhD students across many universities in the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and several other countries. Universities such as Harvard, Cape Town, California (Berkeley), Yale, Botswana, Johns Hopkins, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and KwaZulu-Natal are leading subscribers to the journal – and have made substantial contributions to generating awareness about the journal among their staff and students.
Going forward, the African Journal of Reproductive Health remains unfinished business, and will strive to attain even higher standards of scholarship and wider circulation in years to come. To a large extent, women‘s social development remains a major concern in many parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. While the journal has successfully raised awareness about the nature and dimensions of the problem and proffered evidence-based solutions, sadly much of the social inequity affecting women remain including in many parts of Africa. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) launched in 2015, devotes four of the 17 goals to issues related to reproductive health, gender equality and social equity8 and testifies to the worldwide recognition that many matters relating to the low status of women remain unsolved, especially in Africa.
The journal has also recognized that its primary focus on health has not helped the process of gaining priority policy attention on women‘s social development. Yet, we now know that much of the poor health status of women in Africa is attributable to the poor social development of women. In view of this recognition, AJRH will in the future prioritize the documentation of the background and related social, economic and cultural factors associated with women‘s and youth‘s poor reproductive health outcomes. We will encourage the submission and publication of original research papers, systematic reviews and intervention research that document the social, cultural and economic factors that place women and girls at comparative risk of social instability and inequity. In particular, we will give attention to publishing articles that provide examples of how gender equality and equity can be promoted and integrated into all aspects of development planning, especially studies that demonstrate the connections between the social development of women and the improvement of reproductive health indicators in the continent.

In conclusion, the African Journal of Reproductive Health is proud of its unbroken record in documenting essential research and programming outcomes on women‘s reproductive health and social development in Africa. We are extremely grateful to all our benefactors, mentors and well-wishers who have supported and encouraged us over the past two decades and who continue to play key roles in consolidating the journal. We can only promise that the AJRH will remain rigorous and will pursue deeper frontiers in its mission to promote equity and social justice for women, youth and the girl child in sub-Saharan Africa.

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