Thursday, September 11, 2008

Advocating for Women: Stories from the Field

Thank you for joining us today to hear first hand about our experiences in Madagascar, Mexico and Nepal. We look forward to hearing your questions, comments, and your own personal experiences from visits to low income countries. Make your comments below or ask a question in the Post a Comment section below. You'll find out responses there as well!

From Rita Henley Jensen

As I write this, I have around my neck a string of beads and cloth sent to me by the women staying in Ethiopia's Tattered Rose, a resting place for women waiting to undergo fistula surgery. The founder, Rebekah Kiser, has been named a Leader for the 21st Century by Women's eNews. An independent sales consultant for Mary Kay. Rebekah founded Tattered Rose after a trip to Ethiopia. Women’s eNews heard about her and wanted to share the story with a much broader audience.

As Editor in Chief of Women’s eNews my job is to keep asking questions and supplying the answers about the issues women around the world face on a daily basis and the solutions to those challenges. I am delighted to participate in this on-line forum—which will introduce you to three women who change their own communities everyday. I welcome your thoughts and questions.




Jesse Laymon, Dang Valley, Nepal

For a newbie world traveler like me, Dang Valley, Nepal was a series of firsts: first flight on Buddha Air (tiny plane), first ride in a UN jeep along the bumpy roads of a rural outpost, and then, to my utter shock, first ceremonial welcome… Aasmani is an impressive woman by anyone’s standards. Only a few years older than me, 15 years ago she began organizing small groups of Tharu women to pool their money and save it. For years she was resisted by the men in the community, by the local rebel leaders, and even by some of the women themselves. ...READ MORE AND WATCH VIDEOS



Tanitra Partivit, Oaxaca, Mexico

Having travelled frequently to around the world it struck me as strange that before this summer, I had never gone to Mexico. Right across the border, perhaps I always thought that it was too close and not exotic enough…María del Carmen Elu Cayado is a famous social anthropologist who, early in her career, stumbled upon the high maternal mortality rate in Mexico. She has spent the last 40 years getting the Mexican government to include safe motherhood programs in their national health policies…We went to the village of Tlahuitoltepec, which is about three hours into the Sierre Madre mountains. The driver seemed to have our van confused with a Fiat. There was no slowing this man down. ...READ MORE AND WATCH VIDEOS



Joanne Zurcher, Tana, Madagascar


Though I’ve seen the animated movie one too many times with my four-year-old son, I had never thought seriously about visiting Madagascar. But I found myself on my way to visit this African nation and meet Dr. Mathilde Rabary… I was six months pregnant on this trip so this was particularly interesting to me. We toured both a rural health center and a UNFPA-funded hospital in the capital Tana… Dr. Rabary has a powerful presence about her, yet she is extremely humble. In the week that we spent with her, I developed such a regard for her that it was particularly gratifying for me to attend an event where she receiving recognition and support for her programs from various other non-government organizations and elected officials from around Madagascar. ...READ MORE AND WATCH MOVIES

44 comments:

Jesse said...

Jesse here:
I hope you all found my story interesting; if you've got questions or thoughts you'd like to share, I'm here to discuss.

Joanne said...

Hi there, looking forward to answering your questions

Rita Henley Jensen said...

Joanne--What was the first thing you noticed when you landed that illustrated the difference in resources that you have and that the women you visited have?

Rita Henley Jensen said...

Jesse: What books were the little girls reading in Nepal? Did they have a message and if so, what was it?

Rita Henley Jensen said...

Joanne: You were six months pregnant when you were there and had a four year old. You talked about the bond you had with the mothers in Madagascar. How has the trip changed your own mothering?

Jesse said...

Rita-
Regarding the girls reading material I saw in Nepal, I'm afraid I don't have a great answer. The girls I saw were each in literacy programs - their books were the simple sort of language workbooks (with the alphabet, or short sentences) you'd expect to find in first-grade classes here.

I know that the girls were each learning two languages - Nepali and English. One that I spoke to said that English was the hardest subject in school.

Without knowing the message of the books themselves, I can tell you that the girls expressed interest in becoming literate for the purpose of opening up career options beyond the local agricultural and family work.

Jessica Hollis said...

Jesse,

I am always utterly amazed at the resourcefulness of women in "remote"areas such as the one in Nepal, particularly since the power structures in place seem to provide them with no protection or "outside" resources. Could you say more about how these Aasmani and these other women managed to resist pressure from the men in their community, especially how they are able to control the money that comes into the group effort.

Rita Henley Jensen said...

Jessica--Great question.

Jesse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jesse said...

Jessica-
Going into Nepal, that issue in particular was one that interested me: how do they manage to overcome or at least avoid the male-dominant power structure and build up capital themselves?

I think the answer, in one word, is persistence. They haven't always avoided these issues successfully - Aasmani told me stories about how the local men initially mocked and belittled her to try and prevent their wives and sisters from working with her, and she told me about one microfinance group that allowed men only to see the men steal all the money.

But she's been at this for 15 years and the success has simply grown out of never giving up - eventually the men tired of trying to stop Aasmani and let her try whatever she wanted. And I think the overall poverty of the region was actually a help in this regard, as the men I encountered now seemed to think that anything that improved the quality of life in the community (even if it was through female empowerment) couldn't be too bad.

Joanne said...

Rita,
Thanks for your questions. I think the first thing that I noticed when I got to Madagascar was that the necessity to focus on safe deliveries and help women who have complications during childbirth. In the U.S., the focus is on first assuring that as soon as one gets pregnant they have some pre-natal care to prevent complications later. I felt blessed to have the health care access I do thanks to my job.

abhigyna said...

Hi! Jesse I am also from Nepal. I am pursuing my Master’s degree in Sociology in the University of Central Missouri. It’s so exciting to watch Aasmani working for women’s empowerment, especially the issue of reproductive health. I think it is one of the main concern regarding women in Nepal. How long you have been there??

Joanne said...

As for your other question, I think was has changed most for me as Mom, is that I am a greater advocate for global health care and have rededicated myself to raising a son and future child to globally aware of the disparities that exist for women around the world.

Ruth Ann said...

Coming into this a bit late but wanted to toss in a few cents worth. Last November I was part of a group that went to Ethiopia to participate in a conference on Population, Health and Environment and to visit development projects in and around Addis Ababa. As we were from Sierra Club and Audubon, it had been our thinking it would be about environment, primariy. In a way it was. Without all groups coming together to support the work of UNFPA, it won't make a lot of difference what we do to protect our environment, the human impact will undo any good with the destruction to habitat.It was my great fortune to learn, while there in Ethiopis we met many women who were facing a life without any education who were working to change that very thing. When I go to make a presentation to community groups about my trip, I carry with me UNFPA fistula information as well as helping poeple to understand the need to OUR country to step up to the plate and do EVERY thing we can to make your jobs easier. We all win that way.

Jesse said...

Abhigyna-
You're absolutely right about reproductive health being a particular concern in Nepal. Nepal is an impoverished country by most measures, but its struggles with maternal mortality and uterine prolapse may be its most significant challenges. It is, simply put, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be pregnant.

I was only able to visit Nepal and Aasmani's program for about a week, but one thing I learned is that for women to have better chances of safe and healthy deliveries, they need to have local support structures of other women, like the ones Aasmani has created. This is because so much of the country is so remote, so detached from modern medical resources, and since travel is so impractical much of the year, the knowledge and skills necessary to treat pregnancy-related emergencies must be spread far and wide. Hopefully the end of the civil war and the success of programs like Aasmani's will begin to address this enormous challenge.

Rita Henley Jensen said...

Hurrah for Ruth Ann. How great it is when folks connect the dots between women's health and the health of the environment. What kind of pushback do you get Ruth Ann?

Susie said...

Hey Joanne,

Can you tell me about some of the strategies used in Madasgascar to educate women about their rights? Are they similar to things we are doing in the US?

Lisa said...

Tanitra -

You said you hadn't been interested in Mexico priot to this trip. Now that you've been off the beaten path in Mexico, what do you think of it?

Anonymous said...

Tanitra,

I enjoyed reading about your experience in Mexico. How does maria Carmen address the conflicts which sometimes arise between cultural traditions surrounding birth (like burying the placenta)and modern medcial practices that help safeguard mothers and children?

-Monica

Ruth Ann said...

Rita,
Forgot to mention had also been in DC this summer to ask for more money for UNFPA. It was actually quite a wonderful surprise to hear the positive response to our pleas. People are very responsive, in the positive to things and information I have shared, depaite my A) emtional response to it and B) my need for more education. Once people who don't actually understand what UNFPA does have it explained to them they are, in the main, very positive. If there is one issue that, in this country anyway, needs clarification, it is that you do not provide or support or encourage "forced" birth control. If we as a country do no take more responsibilty for resource management we will soon find oursevles in a sort of global Biafra situation.

Did mean to ask if there was something more that this peson can do to help.

Joanne said...

Hi Susie,
Great question. I was completely impressed when I learned how innovative Dr. Rabary has been getting the word out about her program. One of my favorite examples is that she uses cassette tapes with facts about women's rights in Madagascar and her program to get her message out. She does this by getting bus drivers and taxi drivers to play them while driving long distances between urban and rural communtiies during rush hour in Madagascar. People are able to hear about domestic violence programs and solutions to their problems while they commute long distances. Imagine being on the Amtrak train, and having an informative tape repeating over and over facts and eye opening statistics and having no choice but to listen. This would be huge for us in the U.S. (assuming we all lost our ipods). This is just one example of her amazing work, but I think it's definitely one everyone should know about.

Rita Henley Jensen said...

Yes that rumor about "forced birth control" is persistent--despite many attempts to set the record straight. We have certainly written about it, as have other news organizations. Has anyone asked McCain or Obama about their positions on UNFPA and the U.S. support?

Tanitra said...

Hi Lisa,

When I met Maria Carmen she emphasized that there are Dos Mexicos. On the one hand Mexico City is very developed, has a low maternal mortality and low birth rate. The rest of Mexico is quite different. The women there have many children and higher maternal mortality rates. More than half the population of Mexico lives in Mexico City because of this the data is skewed. When I went to Tlahuitoltepec I was surprised to the find that the woman to children ratio was enormous. Hordes of children were running around everywhere but there were no adults, especially men. I think that most of the indigenous Mexican women are largely ignore.

Ruth Ann said...

Rita,
Do not know but many of you do know that there was a congressional study done that clearly demonstrated there is no truth to that rumor and somehow that report disappeared. Wonder what either candidate would say about it, were it posited to them. Then would like to hear what they would say privately.
It is up to all of us to make sure it is brought to their attention and not allow the light of our concern to be diminished. Sorry, preaching to the choir there...

Deni Robey said...

Hi Rita -

I'm the VP for Public Affairs at Americans for UNFPA and I can answer your question. We sent questionairs to both Presidental candidates (acutally ALL of them over a year ago). Neither candidate has publicly stated their position on global women's health. It's not really on our national agenda and that's why we need a critical mass of Americans to stand up and say, we understand the importance of this issue and it matters to us.

Thanks to all of you for participating.

Jesse said...

Abhigyna and Rita-
I had one other experience that I think ties together the need to educate women in rural Nepal about reproductive health with Rita's original question about what the girls were reading.

One of the more surprising moments for me came during the meeting of the reproductive health group on the open hillside that you can see in the Nepal video and some of the photos. The UNFPA nurse was quizzing the group in Nepali about some of the things they had learned, and I was trying to follow along without understanding more than two words of Nepali. At one point she finished a question and hands flew up and she pointed at a young girl (I'd guess she was about 10 years old) in the front row and the girls said, in plain and clear English: "Condom."

I had to smile: here I was on a remote hillside off of the electric grid, with no running water for miles, and I had heard a girl (who was probably still learning to read and write) name without hesitation a common and effective form of birth control.

That demonstrates, I think, that in these circumstances our sometimes puritanical views about sex can't be bothered with: knowledge is too important.

Rita Henley Jensen said...

Tanitra: And when you got home? I mean you must have been pretty frightened on those mountain passes and more than a little surprised at the power of the alcoholic drink you were offered. Do you have second thoughts about the risks you took?

Tanitra P. said...

Hi Monica,

Maria Carmen absolutely adores the midwives. And she would probably train more midwives. The midwives understand the culture of these indigenous women. They don’t like to be touched when they are giving birth and also hospitals make them take off their clothes in exchange for hospital gowns. The women that I met are very shy and stoic. When I had lunch with them it was very quiet even though everyone was drinking little shots of mescal. In NYC I can only imagine what would happen to a room filled with women if several shots of mescal where drank. I was also shocked to find out that many times women die in the hospitals. And this is because by the time families decide to go the hospital it always too late. So there is a sense of mistrust amongst indigenous women and modern doctors.

It would help if modern doctors took culturally sensitive approaches with expecting mothers.

Rita Henley Jensen said...

Jesse: Wow--what a moment. I wonder, Joanne and Tanitra: Condom use in Madagascar and Mexico? is it freely discussed? Is that part of the education being done?

Anika Rahman said...

Hello, I am Anika Rahman, President of Americans for UNFPA. Thanks to all for participation, particularly Rita for moderating this discussion. For those of you logged on, I would like to pose a question. After watching these videos and chatting about our first hand experiences, has your views about global women's health and rights changed? What surprised you most?
Anika

Courtney said...

It made me realize how much I have in common with these women... and empowered me, as an American woman, to think about what I can do. It's not just about the challenges and tragedy which are often depicted in the media, but about what each of us can do as part of a greater community.

Rita Henley Jensen said...

As far as I am concerned, the reason I love producing Women's eNews every day is that I am constantly thrilled, depressed, amazed and moved by work that women are doing across the globe and the need that persists. Thank you for inviting me to moderate. It was a pleasure and an honor.

Tanitra said...

Hi Rita

I was surprised that the alcoholic drink came out of gasoline jug. It was funneled into a glass Jose Cuervo bottle. I felt a little tricked. One year I went to Thailand to celebrate the Thai New Year and I inadvertently drank the stagnant water surrounding the moat. During the New Year everyone sprays water at you and many times the water comes from dubious sources. In Mexico I drank the water and ate salads. Deni, my boss, was more careful but she still got sick. I'm convinced that you need to build yoru germ immunity. My boyfriend and I usually go for long motorcycle rides around mountain passes. At least this time I was in an enclosed vehicle. I never thought about the risks of any of these actions.

Jeff said...

These videos of course help give me a glimpse at amazing women that I don't think I'd otherwise get a chance to meet. I imagine it must be amazing to see their work first hand.

Rita -Have you ever had the chance to visit UNFPA field programs?

Jesse, Joanne, Tanitra- As advocates for UNFPA it's clear that you support global women's health, and have, for a long time. How did meeting these women change the way you do your job?

Joanne said...

Hi Rita,
Family Planning is widely discussed in Madagascar. Condoms have been recently been given free of charge through the government, but some hospitals charge a nominal fee so that the condoms are valued by the average person in Madagascar. Shockingly, family planning is even discussed during the their marriage civil ceremony (which all couples must do for their marriage to be legal). During the ceremony, the Mayor's representative, who performs the ceremony, asks each couple how many children they plan to have and reminds them to plan these births.

Jenn said...

Anika - Since I follow these issues, nothing particularly suprised me. But I really enjoyed hearing about the work in these three countries through the experiences of your staffers. Makes you think about our differences and our commonalities.

Anonymous said...

In response to your question, Anika, I'm continually surprised to learn that the existence of whole sections of populations, of people, are not acknowledged by their governments. However, I'm equally (and more pleasantly) surprised to learn of the will of many people to persist in their efforts to voice their needs and advocate for their rights. In small ways, just by showing up every day, as my mom likes to say we can succeed in acheiving a goal.

Thank you Tanitra, Joanne, and Jesse for sharing today and to the UNFPA for the work you do.

--Monica

Holly said...

Anika-
I loved hearing about Dr. Rabary's tapes in taxis and on the bus in Madagascar. What an impact that must make!

In the U.S. we sometimes hear :60 second radio ads, but rarely do we have a captive audience.

Thanks for the work you do. I've learned a lot. I'm looking forward to going back and reading the full blogs.

Joanne said...

Hi Jeff,
Thanks for your question. Meeting Dr. Rabary and seeing the field work of UNFPA has changed the way I lobby for UNFPA forever. I am now an eyewitness to the needs of the women of Madagascar. I can now state from my own experiences, not just from a fact sheet the need for fully funding UNFPA. In addition, it has made my own passion for this work intensify immensely.

Jesse said...

Jeff-
I'll take your question as a nice one for me to finish on (maybe Jo and Tanitra will as well).

Visiting these programs has continued for me a gradual evolution from viewing these issues in a theoretical way to a concrete way. For me, now, I am obsessed with working each day to do something - anything - that I can see having a direct effect on the status of women and their quality of life around the world.

I don't think too much about political or philosophical debates for and against women's rights or reproductive health - I worry about doing things which will make a difference.

Thanks to everyone for some great questions. Please check out the rest of our website and get involved however you can for the health and dignity of women.

Tanitra said...

In Mexico City we took a trip to MexFam, which is equivalent to Planned Parenthood. MexFam main office was located in a compound we several one story offices, a library, separate kitchen, and publication distribution center. We learned that MexFam has introduced a new campaign for teens – Sex for Pleasure. Ofelia who works at MexFam told us that men were averse to wearing a condom partly because their machismo ways. They wanted to introduce the idea that sex was not also for breeding but pleasure.

I was floored to see their library stocked like a sex shop on Christopher street – condoms in different colors and flavors, sex toys of all types, and books about sex. I’m not a shy person but I must admit I felt a little flustered standing there with my boss Deni and checking out all the wares. This would never happen in an American sex ed class or Planned Parenthood. Even though Mexico’s population is mostly catholic they seem to be less conservative sexually.

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