#13 – Midwives Providing Safe Birth in Humanitarian Settings


“(Midwives) give support to women whether they are in labour or not, they are social solidarity players in the local communities, not only the providers of health services for women & newborns.” – Mohamed Afifi, UNFPA

Welcome back to The Mom Pod! In this episode Julia Wiklander connects us with midwives and advocates about maternal and newborn health in humanitarian settings, at the 31st ICM Triennial Congress in Toronto, Canada. The midwives that we meet work in Mexico, Somalia and Afghanistan and share experiences from their work and talk about the challenges they face to deliver care.

With a world in constant political change and with the largest number of displaced people in history, ensuring that every mother and every child has access to a midwife during pregnancy and birth, is a difficult promise to keep. The world needs more midwives.

“They’re not refugees, they are not citizens – they are migrants. We need to start to name this as a public health issue.” – Cristina Alonso, Midwife working in Mexico

Our conversation is also broadened by UNFPA Reproductive Health Specialist for the Arab States, Mohammed Afifi, who tells us that in the region, midwives is the cadre of health professionals that are committing to delivering care, despite conflicts that push away many of their colleagues.

Safe Birth Even Here is a Campaign run by UNFPA to raise awareness of the high rate of maternal deaths in emergency situations and increase support for services to protect the rights of the women and girls living in humanitarian and fragile settings. Johnson & Johnson is one of the partners supporting the campaign, and has committed to supporting health professionals at the frontlines of care. We speak to Joy Marini at Johnson & Johnson about why the company is investing in the health of women & children in humanitarian settings and what they are doing to ensure that midwives receive support in their important work. 

In this episode, Young Midwife Leader, Massoma Jafari from Afghanistan, interviews Jane Philpott, the Canadian Minister of Health and asks her what action Canada is taking to support midwives in Afghanistan. Philpott gives the young midwife advice and promises new connections. A meeting that hopefully sparks further engagement by the Canadian government to invest in midwives. 

Listen to the full episode here.

During the ICM Congress, Johnson & Johnson launched their new initative – the GenH Challenge. This exciting opportunity hopes to encourage midwives to see themselves as innovators with the power to help to create the healthiest generation in human history – “GenH”. The GenH Challenge is looking to discover brand new ideas from the front lines of care that can change the trajectory of health. If this sounds daunting, don’t worry! The competition welcomes ideas in their earliest stages, and it welcomes small ideas that have the potential to create great impact. You can apply any time until 4 October 2017. Full guidelines are available at www.genhchallenge.com.

See all of the Girls’ Globe LIVE coverage from the 31st ICM Triennial Congress in Toronto, Canada here

Gender Based Violence and the Refugee Crisis

In the last few years, we have heard the term ‘refugee crisis’ so often, it has practically lost it’s meaning for us. The examples are countless: from recent conflicts, like the Syrian war, age-old economic asylum, as seen on the US-Mexico border or the flow of migrants from Indonesia to Australia, the powerful surge in refugees to Europe now making international headlines, or myriad smaller crisis between smaller neighbouring nations and with the internally displaced.

“The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit group, estimates that about 60 million people are displaced around the world right now, a figure higher than the estimated 50 million people left displaced at the conclusion of World War II.”

Peter Dizikes, MIT

It is difficult not to grow numb to the plight of refugees, when it seems there are so many, in every corner of the world. Added to which, language and cultural barriers make it difficult to connect with those living in circumstances that are already impossible to imagine, much less understand.

Yet, refugee crises are one of the great tragedies of the modern era. Despite our advanced technology, increased connectedness and greater emphasis on global cooperation, we haven’t figured out how to grapple with the millions who find themselves displaced, disadvantaged and prone to exploitation or abuse.

Women caught in refugee crises are particularly vulnerable to gender based violence. A mass exodus of people in fragile psychological states, without basic resources or any guarantee of safety inevitably leads to a breakdown in societal structure. And, as in many cases, the brunt of this is borne by women and girls.

Women are at risk of being trafficked, coerced into survival sex, and subject to the sexual violence that seems entrenched in most humanitarian disasters. And, tragically, though it isn’t the norm, some perpetrators may be the very workers they are relying on for help.

For women, danger doesn’t only come from outside their communities.
Intimate partner violence increases. A women’s lowered status in society means she may be given more dangerous labour; one researcher highlighted women being sent to find firewood outside their camps because women were risking “only rape”, whereas men were considered more likely to be killed.

Farah-InfographicGender-based violence in conflict isn’t limited to sexual violence, though that is often an assumption. As UNICEF explains, women are victimized in a myriad of ways, some as damaging as sexual violence, though less discussed.

As in all situations, gender based violence can cause profound psychological and physiological damage. Internally, sexual trauma breeds self-hatred and shame (often drawing ostracizion from a girl’s community as well).

Denying a woman of the ability to be economically independent robs her of autonomy, and makes her dependent on family, partners or those in positions of power, a breeding ground for poverty and abuse. For women who have children, this can be a particularly devastating situation.

Physiologically, the risk of sexually trasmitted diseases, fistula, infections or unwanted pregnancies can destroy her social standing or cripple her to the point where she can no longer work. It is a devastating problem which has ramifications far beyond the life of the individual.

There are numerous obstacles to tackling the issue of gender-based violence in refugee situations. These range from the smallest measures, like ensuring locks on doors and sex-segregated bathrooms, to the slower and less straightforward work of education and shifting cultural attitudes, to the logistical challenges of providing safety and security. Government services and humanitarian organizations, however, are stretched thin, and sometimes are simply unable to effect change under their circumstances. (For example, while working, one researcher found that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there was only one worker investigating sex crimes in the eastern part of the country.)

These are not easy tasks in a world short on resources, and require hefty financial effort and political will. Its perennial presence in the news may have made investing in efforts against the cause seem fruitless.  But for millions of faceless refugees, the assistance of an aid worker, a safe place to sleep, access to food or basic education for their children – all the things we take for granted – are life-saving differences.

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Cover photo credit: Oxfam International, Flickr Creative Commons

Education Combats Gender Based Violence

Amidst today’s global turmoil, let us not overlook the ongoing gender based violence impacting women and girls on a daily basis.  One-third of women in the world have been beaten, forced into sex, or abused.  One in five will become a victim of rape or attempted rape.  In conflict zones, gender based violence is epidemic.

Myanmar is not exempt from this impact on basic human rights.  The country has been immersed in civil wars and conflict since the 1960’s. At that time the military junta enacted the Four Cuts policy, consisting of “attacking villages, forcing ethnic villagers to move into heavily controlled relocation sites, destroying their homes and crops, and planting landmines in their former villages and farms to prevent their return”.

Thousands of children have been displaced by ongoing conflict in Myanmar, limiting their access to education, psycho-social support, and protection.  Impacts to these children are severe, especially for girls who are at high risk of sexual assault.

The story of Chang Chang is, unfortunately, too familiar.  She was attacked and raped in her village, along with four of her friends, by a group of Burmese military soldiers. News spread quickly, and she was punished for bringing shame to her family, school and community. Her teacher caned her in front of the entire school, and then expelled her.  Later, she was expelled from her community. Left without support from her community or the opportunity of education, she was arrested by the police for “defaming” the same soldiers that raped her. The official charge for which she was sentenced to one year in prison was prostitution.

Simultaneously, Burmese women continue to be victims of domestic violence.  Under Myanmar’s penal code, marital rape is only criminalized if the wife is younger than 14 years old. No specific laws exist to prohibit domestic violence, and women’s shelters and centers are rare.  The most commonly reported internal coping strategy for women in dealing with abuse is to ‘stay silent’.

Patriarchy is embedded in their lives.  Women are not considered capable of leadership and are frequently described as “useless”, using a Burmese phrase that describes inability and incompetence.  It is not surprising to hear the Burmese proverb – “if you beat your wife until her bones are broken, she will love you more”.

NOW the timing for change in Myanmar is optimal.  The country opened to the world in 2012. On November 8th, 2015, Myanmar conducted its first democratic election in 25 years.  Senior citizens and young activists waited in lines for hours to vote for the first time in their lives.

When Parliament convenes in January, 11% of the seats will be held by women.  An increased number of women in Parliament provides a voice for women’s issues and the power to affect change and implement applicable laws.

Women’s activist and electorate Cheery Zahau believes that empowering women is the first step towards a truly developed society.  Cho Cho Aye, Yangon electorate, hopes that more female representation in parliament will help address domestic violence across the country.

Educational Empowerment believes the answer to ending gender based violence is education.   Education will change the existing mindset that women and girls are not deserving of equal rights.  Education will enable boys to better understand girls’ issues and encourage them to contribute to a gender equal society.  Education will empower girls with self-confidence and self-esteem. Education will change a society’s practice and reduce conflict.

This year’s theme for 16 Days of Activism Against GBV is “Make Education Safe For All”.  Let’s call for action on the part of global policy makers to honor and fulfill girls’ right to education, equality, and safety.  Encourage policymakers to:

  • implement primary and secondary school-wide curriculum on gender awareness, healthy relationships, sexual health and rights, and human rights
  • develop and implement guidelines for teachers and school counselors to recognize signs of child abuse
  • respond to children’s experiences of violence sensitively within and outside school, and utilize local authorities to remedy the actions.

You too can take immediate action:

  • Join Girls Globe conversation on Twitter @GirlsGlobe
  • Become a champion for girls’ and women’s rights.
  • Donate to Educational Empowerment at donate.
  • Let your voice be heard for girls worldwide!

Educational Empowerment was created by women and for women and girls. EE promotes literacy and education for children, families and communities severely affected by poverty and injustice in Myanmar. By empowering women and girls through education, we position women in Myanmar to attain their equal rights.

Please visit us at www.educationalempowerment.org & follow us on Facebook at EE, Twitter @EEmpower, and on Instagram.

SDG 16: Promoting Peace for All

The penultimate Goal of the new Sustainable Development Goals focuses on peace and justice, calling for the global community to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.

Targets that sit under the goal include significantly reducing all forms of violence and related death rates, ending exploitation and trafficking, promoting the rule of law at national and international levels and ensuring equal access to justice for all. There are also targets to reduce illicit arms flows, combat organised crime, and reduce corruption and bribery.

In the wake of recent global events, a world at peace may feel further from our reach than ever before. At the same time, striving for such a world has never felt so urgent. This month, a coordinated massacre unfolded throughout Paris and deadly bombs struck the streets of Beirut. This week,  Brussels remains on high alert due to a ‘serious and imminent’ terrorist threat. Today, more than 43 million people worldwide woke up forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, and civil war continues to tear through Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Somali and Yemeni, amongst many others. Violence appears to saturate our world, and so how can a more peaceful world by 2030 possibly become a reality?

It almost goes without saying that high levels of violence and insecurity have a catastrophic impact on a country’s development, affecting everything from economic growth to personal relationships between communities. Sexual violence, crime, exploitation and torture are all more prevalent where there is conflict or no rule of law, and economic and social structures quickly crumble under the weight of bribery and corruption. For the SDGs to succeed by 2030, global institutions, governments, NGOs and communities must work collaboratively to create long-term solutions to conflict and violence. The path to these solutions starts with strengthening the rule of law, providing access to justice for all and promoting universal human rights.

Unsurprisingly, this is easier said than done. Persisting gender inequalities mean in today’s world, women are often less able to access justice than men, putting the progress of Goal 16 in immediate jeopardy. At a recent international conference, Snežana Samardžić-Marković, Director General of Democracy for the Council of Europe, said: “Access to justice is not only a fundamental right in itself, but it is also a right that is instrumental to achieving other – equally fundamental – rights”. Until gender inequality is addressed, our judiciary systems will remain too weak at their very core to adequately support citizens within the peaceful and inclusive societies that SDG 16 aims to promote.

On Global Open Day for Women and Peace in Kabul, Afghan women peace activists voiced their concern about women’s security and access to justice. (Photo: UNIFEM)

Women’s access to justice needs to be increased from local to international levels. We need greater participation of women in the justice sector, and greater representation of women in court rooms. Informal justice systems should be analysed and reformed alongside institutional ones, and a more responsive system equipped to advance women’s equal rights and opportunities needs to be fostered.

In conflict zones in particular, there must be comprehensive justice and criminal accountability for sexual violence and crimes – women and girls are often systematically targeted in conflict and post-conflict countries through mass rape and mass sexual violence. The combination of violence and weakened societal protection structures is a devastating one, and  reparation for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence is critical for countries undergoing transition from a conflict zone.

The task of promoting peace and justice in a world so seemingly full of violence sounds at first like an incomprehensible one. The focus of the global community needs to hone in on practical steps that can be taken to make our societies more peaceful, more inclusive, and more just. Ensuring that women and girls have equal access to systems and processes to allow this to happen has to be a priority from the outset.

Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.