Last week was International Women’s Day. The very name is enough, for some men, to get their head raging and their tweeting fingers typing. ‘A day for women?! But when is International Men’s Day?’ they quip, hopelessly unaware of their male privilege (and also ignorant of the facts – it’s on the 19th November in case you were wondering).
But, aside from the fact that there is actually a parallel day for men, the more pertinent point is that they are questioning the need for a day for women – a day to celebrate the achievements of women the world over, and a day to campaign for so many still-unsolved women’s issues.
Why did millions of people mark a special day last week for women?
Even in 2016, hundreds of thousands of women and girls are at risk of FGM (female genital mutilation), women and girls are forced into unwanted marriages, and honor violence is rampant. And not just in what some may see as the ‘third world’, some far-away existence removed from their everyday lives. These issues – these affronts to the basic human rights of women – are happening right here in America and other countries.
Honor Diaries – a documentary film that highlights female activists tackling these issues, and that was launched two years ago on International Women’s Day 2014 – has released never-before-seen footage, and is calling on us to get men talking.
In the same way that the HeForShe campaign is based on the idea that gender equality is an issue that affects all people—socially, economically and politically—, men must also face up to the abuses against women taking place and highlighted in Honor Diaries.
And in the same way that HeForShe seeks to actively involve men in the gender equality movement (which has traditionally been dominated by women), the same must be done in the fight against FGM, honor violence and forced marriage. Only by engaging men, and ensuring that they don’t feel left out of the picture, can we tackle such important, and widespread, global issues.
Women have achieved so much on so many issues. Women are only half of the global population, and it is imperative that men get involved in the conversation, and join the brave women campaigning for change.
For women in Tanzania, accessing quality, maternal healthcare services is difficult. Affording the journey to a hospital, and paying for treatment, is impossible for many women. Poverty contributes to an elevated risk of acquiring a disability or injury during labor. It’s a bleak picture. Women who do develop a disability face many more obstacles, including severe social stigma, which leaves women isolated and hopeless. Cultural conventions often render these women voiceless to make decisions for their health, or the health of their unborn child.
For the past nine years, I have been the CEO of Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania (CCBRT), a Tanzanian NGO represented in the USA by Kupona Foundation, our 501(c)(3) non-profit. With the support of our donors and partners, CCBRT and Kupona work to actualize a vision of a Tanzania where people have access to quality disability services as well as safe maternal and newborn healthcare. I am honored to introduce our organizations to this dedicated network of advocates for the empowerment of women and girls around the world.
Inspired by Emma Watson’s gripping address to the United Nations this September, I became the 20th man in Tanzania to pledge support for UN Women’s ‘He for She’ campaign. ‘He for She’ represents everything CCBRT and Kupona embody. We believe that every individual deserves equal access to healthcare, education, and employment, enabling them to fulfill their potential. Ms.Watson’s message resonated with our own journey, particularly our efforts to challenge the status quo for Tanzanian women.
Every year in Tanzania, up to 3,000 women will develop obstetric fistula, a childbirth related injury that leads to chronic incontinence¹.
Why is obstetric fistula so devastating for women?
It is completely unnecessary.
It often results in abandonment by families and friends.
It causes incontinence.
In most cases it results in the loss of a baby.
At CCBRT and Kupona, we are doing everything we can to ensure that these women have access to the life changing treatment they need. As our friends at Global Citizen said recently, “There should be absolutely no reason why this is still a thing.” We’re using mobile technology to ensure that even the poorest woman can receive treatment by facilitating their transportation to the hospital. This video describes our TransportMyPatient program. Thanks to the generous support of our donors and partners, we provide treatment, food, and accommodation for fistula patients free of charge.
Treating existing cases of fistula will help reduce the backlog of women living without access to this dignity-restoring corrective surgery, but it will not solve the problem. The best way to prevent impairments like fistula is by increasing access to safe, quality maternal and newborn healthcare (MNCH). This is why CCBRT and Kupona are working in close partnership with the Government of Tanzania to make motherhood safe in Tanzania. This video introduces our MNCH program. Tanzania is one of the top 10 contributors to maternal death in the world². In Dar es Salaam, where we focus our efforts, the number of maternal and newborn deaths is alarming, despite the fact that 90% of births take place in a health facility³.
Our message is simple: all babies deserve the best chance to survive their first days, and every mother deserves to greet her newborn child.
Integrated throughout all of our maternal and newborn healthcare services is an effort to include men in the process. He for She. Maternal healthcare, pregnancy, and the risks that come with childbirth, are not solely women’s issues.
It is impossible to introduce CCBRT and Kupona Foundation in a single post. Our work covers a comprehensive spectrum of service delivery, capacity building, health system strengthening, advocacy, and health education in both the disability and maternal and newborn healthcare arenas. If you stay tuned to Girls’ Globe we will share more of our story, and update you with new developments from Tanzania. Working together with partners, supporters, and advocates like Girls’ Globe, we can change the status quo in Tanzania to ensure that motherhood and childbirth is a cause for celebration, not a tragedy.
Follow @CCBRTTanzania and @KuponaFdn on Twitter to hear more about our 20th anniversary plans and to learn how you can show your support! #CCeleBRaTe20
¹ Bangser M. Obstetric fistula and stigma. The Lancet. 2006
² ‘Trends in maternal mortality 1990-2010’, WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and the World Bank Estimates, 2012
³ 2010 Demographic and Health Survey,National Bureau of Statistics, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. April 2011
Before the Irise menstrual hygiene (MH) education team left for Malawi, we underwent some training with Theatre for a Change (TfaC) on their innovative and highly interactive teaching methodology. As part of this preparation process our facilitator measured our confidence in talking about menstruation on an imaginary ladder. As I boldly began climbing to the top rung I hit a snag that held me up a few bars short. He asked, “How confident do you feel talking to men? How confident do you feel talking to your dad about your menstruation, for example?”
I had to concede that, even as co-coordinator of Irise’s MH Education Programme based in Uganda, I had reservations discussing the topic openly and confidently with men. I had even spent some time skirting around the details before I could finally tell my boss exactly what project I was leaving work for. As I paused on my rung of the ladder I felt a sinking feeling, realising this lack of confidence was a form of hypocrisy. I made some strict resolutions with myself to talk to more men and more openly because surely if I can’t talk to men about this issue, I’m going to miss so many opportunities for change. I won’t get to inform men I know in the UK about the difficulties girls around the world face managing their periods each month and I won’t be able to discuss the issue openly with men in East Africa; to explore their attitudes and how they can support their wives, daughters and communities with what is, essentially, a normal bodily function.
With all these reflections bubbling over I landed in “the warm heart of Africa.” I began to put my confidence to the test and was pleasantly surprised by the response Malawi’s men had to offer. First there was the hotel waiter who, peering over my shoulder at diagrams of female genitalia being prepared for the day’s session, politely asked what we were teaching. After a short pause to compose himself, he happily engaged in discussions including the merits of reusable over disposable products.
Then there were the male workshop participants who enthusiastically extolled the virtues of menstruation as good lubrication, shunning more traditional views of sex during menstruation being “a dirty business.” Even an inebriated young man in a bar was unperturbed by my attempts to repel his advances by loudly repeating that I work in the field of menstruation…but maybe that one doesn’t count?
Then there was Harry, TfaC’s smart finance intern who wouldn’t look out of place in a fancy bar in London. He persisted through his shyness of the topic to plaintively ask what he’s supposed to reply when his girl texts to say she can’t seem him this weekend as she’s on her period. And what he should have done when his young cousin came home from school crying but no one would tell him she had started her period, so how could he help?
In addition to a reassuring warmth and openness to discussion, each of these men showed me that it is not as simple as men preventing dialogue about menstruation, sometimes it’s down to women as well, but more often it’s long-held beliefs about what can be said about menstruation and by whom. This experience has not only pushed me another few rungs up my confidence ladder but has also shown me how liberating it can be to give women and men the language and opportunity to discuss menstruation.
Niki Fitzgerald is a junior doctor currently on a career break working as Coordinator of Irise’s Menstrual Health Education Programme in Uganda. She is a firm believer in the power of male feminists #Heforshe.