Sisterhood Unfulfilled: A Story of Unspeakable Loss

This blog post is the first of a three part series written by: Abby Tseggai

Almost everyone knows a woman who has brought a baby into the world- and how expecting families share a similar joy, full of optimism and big dreams as they anxiously wait to hold their little baby. It is easy to forget in all the excitement that the possibility of an unfathomable reality—the death of a child—can actually occur.

I want to share with you a very personal story of girl named Fana, from Eritrea. At the tender age of seven years old, she and her family experienced a tragedy that was only the beginning of decades of havoc to follow. Fana’s little sister, died unexpectedly at just five years old from an illness unknown. The emotional trauma Fana experienced stemmed in part from losing her baby sister – but mostly, it came from having to witness her mother grieve for most of her life.

Her mother’s pain and depression was so severe that she struggled to be mentally and emotionally present for her surviving children. She couldn’t move past the loss – her mind simply could not release the intense grief. She fought her hardest to manage it daily for Fana and her older brother who was 2 years older than her. Sometimes, Fana’s mom neglected their needs, falling short on being the stable adult every child needs. What Fana did not know at the time was that this was her mom’s second such loss; a year-old son who died from an unknown illness, before Fana was even born. She knew Fana was too young to understand the magnitude of having to bury her sister too, so she sheltered Fana from that tragedy, hoping to preserve her daughter’s innocence.

As the years began to pass, Fana’s sweet memories of her litter sister were becoming more and more faint. Fana would desperately pray every night to have a little sister again. It was not until 6 years later that she was able to see her mother smile genuinely, when she told Fana she was pregnant and they were expecting a baby.  Fana was now 13 years old and able to remember every detail of hopefulness and fear she felt waiting to hold the new baby. She just knew in her heart it would be a baby girl and not a boy.

The day had finally come; Fana was waiting outside a hut made of clay. She could hear her mother screaming during labor. This was the first time she heard anything like it but luckily her mother prepared her for what to expect. After 4 hours of waiting patiently trying to ignore what sounded like a nightmare, the screams turned into desperate prayers and now included more than three people screaming and crying. Her father rushed out of the hut, picked her up and ran fast while screaming “No…No…NO!”  She begged for him to tell her what was going on because she was so confused. It was indeed a little girl her mother brought to term, however she was not breathing. No one could believe it – the baby was a stillborn. Fana’s family would now be grieving the loss of another child.

Fana’s family experienced the deaths of three children- one stillbirth and two from unknown causes. Although the stillborn mortality rate has gotten better over the decades, women and communities still suffer from the psychological, social and economic impacts of stillbirth. Africa still accounts for 2.7 million stillbirths a year. And 5.9 million don’t live to meet their fifth birthday, due to diseases that are mostly preventable. The lack of qualified midwives and health workers and the shortage of hospitals throughout the continent are still heartbreaking. Many of the deaths occurring are unnecessary. All lives deserve the same chance!

Read more about stillbirths in The Lancet Series: Ending Preventable Stillbirths.

Cover Photo Credit: United Nations, Flickr Creative Commons

Note: Cover photo is not connected to the above story. 






WHO Bulletin features Youth Editorial on the Global Strategy

The May 2016 issue of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization was published today.  The Volume 94, Number 5, May 309 – 404 journal has a special theme devoted to  the health of women, adolescents and children, focused on the implementation of the Global Strategy (2016 – 2030).

South African social justice writer and Girls Globe blogger, Zanele Mabaso’s article is featured amongst the high-level editorial publications, which ascribes the inclusion of adolescent outcomes in the global strategy to young people’s participation titled “Young people’s contribution to the Global Strategy for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health (2016 – 2030)”   with contributions from co-authors Temitayo Erogbogbo and Kadidiatou Toure.

The issue additionally features young medical doctor from Benin, Dr Joannie Bewa sharing how campaigns for sex education and free contraception are changing reproductive health prospects for young people in Benin.

The Youth Editorial on Young people’s contribution on the Global Strategy for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health (2016 – 2030) can be found here.

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The One-Child Policy: How Ending It Affects Sex Imbalance in China

By Beverly Hill, Founder & President of the Gendercide Awareness Project

By terminating the one-child-only policy, China enacted one of two measures needed to correct its most acute women’s problem — the strong preference for male offspring that has led to highly abnormal sex ratios. The second measure — committing resources to boost the status of women and enforce anti-discrimination laws — has yet to be implemented. Without this second plank, China’s sex ratio will improve but almost certainly fail to normalize. Earlier this month, China hosted a United Nations summit to improve the status of women worldwide, indicating its desire to lead in women’s rights. Hopefully, China will honor its rhetoric with strong support for women at home.

The new initiatives invite an assessment of China’s efforts to reduce its sex imbalance. In 2011, the United Nations Population Fund reported that ten percent of the female population in China is demographically “missing,” and that fourteen percent of girls aged zero to twenty are missing. This news came in the context of a determination that, globally, 117 million women are missing from the world population due to severe social and economic discrimination.

The figures regarding China came as no surprise. In 2004, China teetered on the brink of a demographic crisis, with a sex ratio at birth (SRB) of 121 male births per 100 female births — a dangerous deviation from an expected norm of 106. Today, China’s gender imbalance persists, but China has moved one third of the way toward normalizing its SRB. The SRB currently stands at 115.7 (unpublished data from Professor Li below) – still dangerous and still the highest in the world (with the possible exception of Azerbaijan), but certainly an improvement.

The policies that drove progress emanate from a program called Care for Girls, the brainchild of Professor Li Shuzhuo. Li continues to direct Care for Girls in the framework of two large centers that he now directs — the Institute for Population and Development Studies and the Center for Population and Social Policy Research, both at Xi’an Jiaotong University.

Progress has not come easily. In the 1990’s, declining and low fertility combined with newly available sex-scanning technology to create a surge in male births. Li, then a young professor of Demography, noted the rapidly rising SRB and sounded the alarm, working assiduously to bring the problem to the attention of China’s governing authorities. When he eventually succeeded, he was put in charge of an advisory group for the Care for Girls program, which he and his team engineered and evaluated. To this day, Care for Girls uses legislation, education, and economic incentives to encourage couples to keep their daughters. In rural areas, parents with daughters are given low-interest loans, social security payments and special consideration for land allocation.

Li Shuzhuo, Beverly Hill and supporting Grad Student Photo Credit: Beverly Hill
Li Shuzhuo, Beverly Hill and supporting Grad Student
Photo Credit: Beverly Hill

Last summer, I interviewed Professor Li in his office at Xi’an Jiaotong University. He spoke guardedly about the recent improvement, noting that the SRB becomes “sticky” when it drops to 115, meaning it responds less to government measures and financial inducements. Li believes that to push the SRB below 115, China will have to devote considerable resources to improving the status of women. Already, legislative measures, introduced in the earliest phase of Care for Girls, ban discrimination against females in accessing education, in securing jobs and promotions, and in participating in the political process. However, these measures are hard to enforce, and the weight of tradition hinders women’s advancement.

Gender imbalance comes with a hefty social price tag for both women and men, making its resolution a matter of urgency. The widespread demand for women has resulted in the importing of brides, bride trafficking, increased prostitution, sex trafficking, and the spread of STD’s, including HIV/AIDS. Some villages have noted increases in sexual assault.

Gender imbalance has been equally unkind to surplus males. These low wage earners suffer from higher rates of depression, loneliness, alcoholism, and suicide. Professor Li reports that their life expectancy is markedly shorter – just 68 years, as opposed to 75 years for the average Chinese male. A simulation run in 2011 by three demographers — Jiang Quanbao, Li Shuzhuo, and Marcus Feldman, demonstrates that if China continues on its present course, involuntary bachelors will constitute 20% of China’s male population by the year 2025.

China must also consider the demographic consequences of gender imbalance. Gender imbalance shifts the age distribution of the population. A deficit of women leads to fewer births, with the elderly becoming a larger proportion of the population, and the burden of supporting them falling to a smaller number of working age people. China’s falling fertility rate only exacerbates the problem. Because fertility rates in China have remained below the replacement rate for 20 years now, Li Shuzhuo and other demographic experts believe that the one-child-only policy has accomplished its goals and can be safely phased out. That said, if Chinese couples have more children but continue to choose boys over girls, China will still have to deal with the consequences of a masculinized population. Hence the need for policies to bolster women.

With son preference in China so deeply rooted, normalizing the SRB remains a tough challenge. Let’s celebrate the improvement over the last decade, and let’s recognize that two thirds of China’s journey still lies ahead. As Professor Li sets goals for 2020, the world waits to see if China will reach them. Strong support from Beijing could make a critical difference at this very critical moment.

Beverly Hill is Founder & President of the Gendercide Awareness Project.  She interviewed Professor Li at Xi’an Jiaotong University in July, 2015. She may be contacted at

Li Shuzhuo is Professor of Population and Social Policy and Director of the Institute for Population and Development Studies and the Center for Population and Social Policy Research at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China. He confirmed all figures and statistics reported in this article.

What Motherhood Means To Female Street Vendors

Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states;

“Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children…shall enjoy the same social protection.”

Other supporting International conventions include;

  • Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • Article 11 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

However these conventions are standard, assuming some sort of equality. Labor laws in Kenya adequately protect the family setting as well, but mostly in the context of formal employment. Family welfare of casual workers is largely ignored.  As some women enjoy spending time with their newborns on paid maternity leave,[1] others have no option but to bring their three month old babies to the streets. While babies are learning to walk in the comfort of their homes during the day, others are slowly learning how to tactfully run from city askaris. These are just a few observations from the analysis of a particular group of mothers in Nairobi.

Lack of a better alternative

A conspicuous occurrence in the city of Nairobi is that most female street vendors go to work with their babies. They are less than three years old. You will see them playing along dusty streets during the day or asleep on their mothers’ backs. Trade continues until night hours.

At around 5 p.m one afternoon, I stride along Tom Mboya Street, one of the city streets notorious for hawking. After purchasing a pack of twenty oranges at KES 200 (2USD), the vendor agrees to answer my queries. Her name is Betty, twenty five years old.  The baby on her lap is eight months old while the one playing with the oranges next to her is three years old. She tells me that she is a single mother living in a slum in Kariobangi, one of the informal settlement areas of Nairobi. She brings her two children to work in the streets because she does not have anywhere or anyone else to leave them. They are not old enough to go to school and yet are too young to be left alone. She carries them to the market at 7 a.m. in the morning and stays with them in the streets until she heads back home at 10 p.m. in the night.

No sooner am I finished with Betty than I abruptly see the women pack their products in a hurry. Somebody has yelled ‘Kanjo! Kanjo!,’ the local lingo for the city county askaris, who are mandated to arrest traders hawking illegally. Hawking is illegal in some streets according to the Nairobi city county by-laws. Suddenly the trading vicinity is replaced by a chaotic scene. Oranges, onions and tomatoes are flying everywhere. Babies are screaming from the backs of their mothers who are running for safety in all directions. Some women are trying to use their babies to shield themselves from the askaris. Two of the women are not lucky enough. I watch sadly as they are forcefully lugged into the kanjo vehicle without any regard for the toddlers they are holding. I do not even want to imagine how they will spend the rest of the night in a brutal cell.

After engaging with the women for several days, I gather;

  • Most are single mothers.
  • They feel bad exposing their children in the streets.
  • They wish they had a better alternative.

Minimum welfare conditions

Unlike these female hawkers in the streets, a majority of women in formal employment can afford to hire nannies to take care of their babies when they go to work.

It is certainly impossible for women to achieve equal economic status and treat motherhood equally. However it is possible to ensure some minimum welfare conditions that should at least ease motherhood for all mothers and provide a safe environment for their babies to grow. Services such as health care and basic education are provided by the government free of charge or at subsidized costs in informal settlements. Likewise, it would be noble to have free day care services in the same settlements, where casual workers can safely leave their children when they go to work. A trade union specialized for the welfare of such working mothers could also help to articulate their grievances and enforce their rights in a more pugnacious manner.

In order to uphold the universal right to family and best interests of the child, there is certainly need to safeguard the rights and interests of all mothers without discrimination.


Askaris: The Swahili word commonly used to refer to policemen in Kenya

[1] Section 29 of the Kenya Employment Act 2007 states; “A female employee shall be entitled to 3 months maternity leave with full pay.”

Keep Women and Girls in Nepal Safe


Last October, I began a journey through the remote Langtang Mountain range in Nepal. The purpose of my visit was to experience how women of all ages are rallying their communities against the issue of trafficking. Historically, in this area of Nepal, trafficking is the main source of income for many families. In fact, in many communities, there are no girls over the age of twelve. They have all been sold to brothels in India and taken to other areas in Nepal. It is difficult to imagine young girls being used and traded as commodities rather than valued as worthy human beings. I began to understand the issue more as I realized the history of the Tamang people. The Tamang people in Nepal have not  been valued for generations. Tamang are not allowed to hold government jobs and are treated as lower-class citizens. From an anthropological perspective, this gave me a clearer understanding as to why slavery has been the only economic option for those living in these remote regions. When I visited this community last year, I found the promise of hope. A locally-led goat farming program was providing young girls with the opportunity to raise and sell goats rather than the girls being sold themselves. As a result, the health and well-being of many of these young girls and their families increased dramatically. Health and safety for young girls was provided through a relatively low-cost economic alternative.

IMG_0190Women, girls and children are considered among the most vulnerable populations in the world. They experience some of the most extreme health risks and the promise of safety is rarely an option. When I woke up on the morning of April 25th and learned the news about the earthquake in Nepal my heart sank. My mind immediately went to these young girls and their families. When a crisis such as war, disease, famine or a natural disaster occurs, the risks for women and children increases significantly. The Langtang Mountain region in Nepal was severely affected by the earthquake. Personal stories and accounts from colleagues revealed most homes and villages were destroyed in the region where only a few months ago I experienced such positive hope and change. This area is so remote it has been difficult for any help to reach the Tamang people living in the mountains.

The media frenzy surrounding the crisis in Nepal has made it difficult to know exactly what is happening and how we can work to empower women and girls in this country. We need to ask the question: In post-crisis, how can we continue to keep women and girls in Nepal safe? This is a multi-layered question and requires an integrated response both locally and globally. As an international community, I believe there are ways we can respond which are both empowering and will bring about lasting change for the health and well-being of women and girls.

Understand Increased Risks

When a crisis or natural disaster occurs, women, girls and children face increased risks to their health and safety. The earthquake in Nepal, left tens of thousands of pregnant women without medical care and exposed to the harsh elements. Similarly, according to the International Justice Mission, there is a heightened risk for displaced young women and children to be trafficked across the Nepal/India border. We must understand the increased risks in order to know how to mitigate those risks.

Empower Locally Led Solutions

While in Nepal, I, also, had the opportunity to lead a blogging workshop for one of Girls’ Globe’s featured organizations Women LEAD Nepal’s young leaders. I am inspired by their courage and strength through the crisis in Nepal. These young women are leading the way through providing locally-led solutions to surrounding communities. They have worked to empower young people and children through local partnerships building temporary learning centers for children living in some of the most severely affected areas. These amazing young women were featured in the Kathmandu Post as their relief efforts have also entailed education focused kits which include school books, calculators, pens and more to young people who have been working to prepare for exams in the midst of crisis. Locally-led solutions can bring lasting and sustainable change to improve the health and safety of women, girls and children living in post-crisis situations.

Use Your Voice for Change

When a natural disaster or crisis occurs in another country we can not always drop everything and physically go to help, nor is that always the best way to help either. Many who would like to help often think going is the first and only solution. While relief is an important part of the response it is not the only response. I believe one of the most powerful ways you can create change and keep women and girls in Nepal healthy and safe is through using your voice. The media buzz around the crisis in Nepal will eventually fade. Whether you are passionate about writing or enjoy sharing well informed posts through social media let’s continue to use our voices to keep the health and rights of women, girls and children in Nepal at the forefront of the conversation.

It Takes A Village: Let’s Commit to End Child Marriage

By: Felogene Anumo, Advocacy Programme Associate. The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), @Felogene on Twitter

Last week, I joined thousands of maternal and child health advocates at the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH) Partners’ Forum in Johannesburg, South Africa. The gathering and robust discussions breathed life into the African Proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” The various stakeholders present called for ambitious and transformative commitments to realize the potential to be the ‘village’ that ends early, forced and child marriages in one generation, as this contributes to preventable newborn deaths and maternal mortality.

Until Death Do Us Apart: Facts and Figures

  • One in three girls in the developing world will be married by their eighteenth birthday. This can end their chance of completing an education and puts them at greater risk of isolation and violence.
  • One in seven girls in the developing world will be married before they are 15, some as young as five years old.
  • Every year, 70,000 girls die in labour because their young bodies just are not ready for childbirth. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Pregnancy is consistently among the leading causes of death for girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide.
  • Child brides face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience. Girls ages 15 – 19 are two to six times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa.

Pledge to End Early, Forced and Child Marriage

To achieve a truly transformational post-2015 development agenda, governments and nations must commit to end early and forced marriage which contributes to driving girls into a cycle of poverty and powerlessness. It demands partnerships across government, communities, cultural leaders and the civil society. It calls upon the various stakeholders to commit to playing their part in ending child marriage. This will happen by increasing public awareness on the crucial role that child marriage prevention and support to child brides plays in improving the health of millions of women and girls. This commitment must be followed by concerted political action at all levels. The world must not squander this opportunity!

It is simple.

If we want to improve the health of millions of women and children worldwide, we must prevent child marriage and support girls who are already married. Mrs. Graca Machel sums it up perfectly by stating, “Traditions are man-made, and traditions can change. More importantly, harmful traditions like child marriage MUST change.”

Watch: Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel speak out against #childmarriage

Read: 5 Reasons why ending child marriage can improve millions of women and girls’ health, Girls Not Brides

Cover Photo Credit: United Nations/Tobin Jones, Flickr Creative Commons