Motherhood in Conflict: Grace’s Story

Stories of motherhood and the female experience during war are often excluded and unexplored. This neglect shows in the little attention such stories get in the public discourse and in policy agendas. But without these stories, we miss the voices that are so important for development.

Many of the mothers I met while I worked in Uganda became a mother at a time when the conflict between Museveni’s government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was in full swing. They started their journey of motherhood when murder, abduction, mutilation and rape were common practices.

Motherhood in a IDP Camp

One of these women is Grace*. Now a 50-year old married woman and proud mother of 6 children, Grace was only in her twenties when she and her children, including a baby, fled to a camp for internally displaced persons. The intensifying activity of LRA rebels in her community made it impossible to stay home safely. Though the camp was run by the government, and was supposedly a place to seek refuge, she felt very unsafe:

‘There was no hope of life. I thought I was going to be killed at any time … You cannot lock the house, you come back [to the camp] and you find faeces in bags thrown in your house. There was a lack of food … and if you don’t follow time [related rules] the soldiers beat you.

When the war finally ended Grace and her family went back to their village. Sadly, though, life did not get much better for Grace.

‘Post-conflict’ Motherhood

Though the war has ended, it is inaccurate to speak about peace; the term ‘peace time’ wrongly implies a life free of violence and suffering. Even the term ‘post-conflict’ wrongly signifies a shift away from conflict and violence. To the contrary, many Ugandan women’s lives are characterized by ongoing experiences of violence.

Violence has to be understood in a very broad way and include the violence that results from social structures, such as poverty, patriarchy and ability. Grace is badly impacted by all of these.

The poverty in which she finds herself has determined many, if not all, of her life choices.

Because of it, she is withheld from seeking the specialist care she needs:

‘At times I get pain at my belly and at the side of my belly … When I dig for so long and even uprooting potatoes; I get the problem of the uterus. Up to now, [the] uterus always comes out. I was referred to look for a doctor who can help me but I had no money.’

The fact that Grace does not have enough money to go to the hospital is a result of several issues. Some of these are general, such as a drought. Specific for Grace however, is that she is limited in the amount of work she can do due to her displaced uterus and the resulting pain. Besides that, Grace is also the co-wife of an alcoholic husband:

‘I have a problem at home here, my husband is a drunkard. At this moment the marriage is not good, because I am the second wife to him … I am living with my children and he lives with the first wife. When I harvest crops which I could sell in order to support my family, he comes and sells it and uses the money on his first wife’

Grace’s story painfully shows the struggles that many women in Uganda face today. It highlights how suffering and psycho-social ill-being result not solely from experiences of war and poverty, but to a large degree from being a woman.

Grace Fights Back

Despite all that she faces, Grace is regarded as a role model and an example of a woman living a holy life. This is because Grace stands up against her husband’s violence.

Yesterday he wanted to fight me over the soy bean, but I am now stronger than him (laughing). I have a courageous life. If the man is fighting me, I just follow him with law, I call people.’

In times of marital conflict, Grace calls her brothers-in-law, and if that does not work, she steps to the clan chief.

Though her actions are far from all-encompassing solutions to her struggles, her courage is inspiring.

Due to her perseverance, Grace is understandably a role model in her community – she sparks hope for a different future for many Ugandan women.

*Grace is a pseudonym. The image accompanying this article does not depict the woman who told this story.

Covid-19 and the Rise of Sexual & Gender-Based Violence

We are in the midst of a pandemic. One way to slow down the spread of coronavirus is to implement lockdown and quarantine measures, which means confining yourself to your home with your family. For some people, this includes an abuser. 

Pandemics often exacerbate existing inequalities for women and girls, who are often most vulnerable to violence and abuse in the home. Charities are already seeing a sharp rise in domestic violence reports since the outbreak of COVID-19. Pandemics also exacerbate discrimination of other marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+ people, people living with disabilities, older people, migrants, refugees and those in extreme poverty. 

Increased Violence 

In China, an anti-domestic violence charity in Hubei province reported that intimate partner violence have nearly doubled since cities had been put under lockdown. The same organization has reported that the police station in Jianli County registered three times more cases in February 2020 than in the same time in 2019. 

There have been huge increases in different forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), including intimate partner violence, in many other countries including the UK, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States. In the UK, it is reported that there has been a 120% increase in incidents of domestic violence. 

Self-isolation for women in coercive or violent relationships means being trapped (often without the means of accessing support) with a perpetrator who may become more abusive when there is no other outlet. Lockdowns also mean medical services and support to people affected by sexual and gender-based violence may be cut off or considered lower priority in healthcare structures overburdened by responding to COVID-19 cases.

Lockdowns and lack of prioritization of SGBV response services mean many women will face forced pregnancies. In turn, restricted access to abortion care facilities or pharmacies that provide medical abortions (i.e. misoprostol pills that can be taken at home) if quarantine periods are extended may lead to unsafe abortions and increased mortality among SGBV survivors. 

Another fear is that SGBV survivors may also face difficulties accessing contraception for HIV and STI prevention. Lack of timely treatment can put their health and life at risk. 

Prevention Measures 

Realizing the real danger to women’s lives, some countries have put measures in place to help mitigate SGBV. 

In China, survivors, activists, and organizations have launched a set of actions using social media to raise awareness and support survivors. Some of the actions included creating networks, publishing online manuals on intimate partner violence, and starting a hashtag: #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic

After seeing the increase of SGBV cases in China and similar issues in Italy, the Ministry of Equality in Spain launched a national plan that acknowledged the exponential risks of SGBV due to the lockdown mitigation strategy adopted by the national government. 

The plan recognizes the difficulties faced by SGBV survivors in seeking help in confinement. It adapts services to prevent, address, and reduce these risks under the current circumstances. The services include, among other measures, emergency centers for the reception of victims at risks, safe accommodation for survivors, a hotline for information, and an emergency line to send alert messages with geolocation that will be received by state security forces. It has also been announced that an instant chat-messaging system for containment and psychological assistance will be activated. 

Other initiatives of local governments in Spain have caught national attention and will be replicated in different regions across the country. Survivors of SGBV or women at risk can go to a pharmacy and ask for a “Mask-19”. This tells staff at the pharmacy to activate protection services.

What can be done? 

It is clear that IPPF Member Associations have an important role to play by adapting how they provide services and supporting health authorities to adapt theirs. 

It is essential that sexual and gender-based violence helplines are available and that there is an option for women to access support. This could be hrough text message, call centers, or more sophisticated web/app systems, if available. We also want to see increased access to emergency contraception or other contraceptive methods, and for medical abortions to be made available for all women to use at home. 

Finally, we want all governments to recognize the fundamental human right to access sexual and reproductive healthcare. It is a life-saving, essential service for all, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized. 

Subscribe to IPPF’s newsletter for more engaging content about sexual healthcare. 

Feminism in Yemen: “Now is not the time for women.”

To understand a bit about feminism in a country like Yemen, you must first understand what the situation is like for women there. It is a country that has consistently ranked the lowest on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index since 2002 (yes, that is 17 years in a row). Women’s rights and empowerment have never been a priority.

The discrimination against women in Yemen is very complex. 

Women in Yemen are often discriminated against and looked at as inferior to men. It is a conservative and deeply patriarchal society. Inequality doesn’t only come from the culture, but also from the government. With laws that allow women to be married against their will and under the age of 18, laws that allow “honor killings”, and even laws that obligate women to ask for permission from their husbands to go out, violence and discrimination are inevitable. 

Signs of hope are destroyed too soon.

It wasn’t until the Arab spring of 2011, when thousands took to the streets in peaceful protest, that we had a sign of hope for Yemen. Women participated in the protests and demanded equal opportunities and representation. Finally, Yemeni women were shining and breaking stereotypes. The protests resulted in the National Dialogue Conference in 2013, and 30% of its members were women. The conference proposed a new constitution that recognized women as equal citizens, set a 30% quota for them in decision making positions, and tackled some of the most discriminatory laws. This victory, however, was too good to be true.

Everything went downhill when the Houthi Rebels took power in late 2014. Hope was destroyed and there has been ongoing conflict ever since. The intervention of a western-backed military coalition led by Saudi Arabia turned this conflict into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And so, women had to survive not only the struggles of being female in Yemen, but also a deadly war that caused thousands of deaths, forced many to flee their homes, and deprived many others of basic needs, healthcare, and access to safe water.

Women’s representation and rights are considered luxuries.

5 years later, and after a number of attempted peace negotiations, there is always one answer whenever the representation and rights of women are brought up: “Now is not the time for women.” As if women’s participation in these negotiations is a luxury and not a necessity. It is the same comment I get on the feminist online platform I founded, The Yemeni Feminist Movement.

The Yemeni Feminist Movement is the first Yemeni feminist online platform. It raises awareness on feminism and discriminatory laws and practices against women in Yemen. When we post about gender equality and the discrimination against women in the Yemeni legistlation, people will often say, “Now is not the time for women’s rights.” They say to me, “We are at war and all you care about is women’s rights?” or “We don’t even have human rights, so now is not the time for women’s rights.”

It is astonishing to me that a lot of people think of human rights as different from women’s rights. As if women aren’t humans! “Let’s focus on human (men’s) rights first and then we will focus on women’s rights later!” It is even more bewildering when people don’t understand the correlation between conflict resolution and equality for women. How can we achieve peace if women aren’t part of peace negotiations? If there is no justice and equality for women? How can we ever be a peaceful country when women aren’t given the same freedom and opportunities as men?

We almost had victory in 2013 because of strong Yemeni women who vocalized their demands and did not take no for an answer. If now is not the time for us Yemeni women to do the same again, when will be?

International Women’s Day in Latin America

On this International Women’s Day in Latin America women march, and then they strike.

Micaela. Pamela. Brenda. Guadalupe. Jordana. Octavia. Agustina. Ingrid. Fátima. Angie. Manuela. Doris. Adriana. Luisa. Ana. Luz. Jesenia. Mónica.

These are just a few of the women and girls who were killed in Latin America in 2020 – a region where there is a new femicide every two hours. There were 1206 registered femicides in Brazil in 2018. In Mexico, there were 1006 registered cases last year. In Argentina there were 68 registered femicides so far this year. It’s time for it to stop.

According to Reuters, “Femicide claims the lives of 12 women a day in Latin America which is home to 14 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide globally but 98% of these killings go unprosecuted.”

Women in Latin America are tired of seeing a new femicide in the news every day.

They’re tired of being afraid and angry all the time. They’re tired of worrying about their safety, of having to check in on their friends, of being alert at all times because they’re not safe in their homes. 

All eyes will be on Latin America this International Women’s Day. Women all over the region are marching this Sunday to demand justice. And on Monday they’re planning to strike — they will stay home from school, work and university and they will avoid making purchases. The goal is to show people what the world would be like without them.

Illustration with the words 'Silencio Nunca Mas'.
Illustration by Laiza Onofre for the International Women’s March in Mexico. See more at undiasinmujeres.mx

Here are some things you can expect to see: 

If you aren’t in the region and want to join them from abroad, like I’ll be doing, you can show your support on social media. There will be plenty of photos, videos and illustrations circulating mainly on Twitter and Instagram. You can also find threads like the “hallada” test, where women searched on Google their names with the word “found” (hallada) and realized they share their names with women who were killed. 

As the feminist movement in Latin America continues to become more powerful and influential, the pressure on governments to implement policy changes grows. I’m excited to see these women speak up for themselves and each other. They broke the silence and now they’re unstoppable.

This International Women’s Day let’s support women in Latin America.

A Word to Men Ahead of International Women’s Day

Feminists around the world have put endless effort into explaining that International Women’s Day is for all people to fight together for gender equality. And while the statement is true, I don’t believe everyone’s job is the same. Every year, ahead of 8th March, there’s heated debate on men’s role in the gender equality movement. Are they doing enough? Are they doing too much?

These are my reflections for all men willing to listen.

Believe in Feminism

Take part in International Women’s Day because you believe in gender equality. It’s not our duty to make you feel included. It certainly is not our responsibility to convince you to fight for women’s rights. I often struggle to find the correct arguments to get men onboard, or the best feminist angle so as not to offend anyone. But I shouldn’t soften my words for the sake of masculinity.

Know your beliefs and own them. Advocate for women’s rights because you want to. Don’t wait for an invitation. Be a feminist because you see the burden of unbalanced gender dynamics and you want to tackle it.

It’s not just about the Women you Love

Whenever a case of sexual assault or domestic violence occurs, it’s common to hear that “it could have happened to your girlfriend/sister/daughter”. It seems like the offence is aggravated by the victim’s relationship to a man. Sure, we’re someone’s relative or friend but our worth doesn’t rely on this kinship. Before someone’s daughter or sister, we are our own selves. Women are deserving of respect, public presence and integrity because we exist.

Don’t march on International Women’s Day for your mother, daughter, girlfriend, wife, sister or female friends. Forget about the women you love for a second. Get involved for the billions of women you don’t know. This is not about someone close to you suffering, it’s about justice for half the world’s population.

Know your Role and Step Back Sometimes

Being an ally to any cause means acknowledging your privilege, offering support and settling for a secondary role to leave space for others to speak up.

Being an ally to women means understanding men’s role in the movement. While you’re welcome to stand at the very front of a march, think twice: do you really have to be right there? Or are you taking someone else’s place? Feminism wants and needs men to be involved but we don’t need you to lead. We can lead. We don’t need you to give us a voice, but we do need you to shush people when they aren’t listening. Shout with us, not for us.

An effective way to take part in International Women’s Day is to contact feminist organisations and offer to volunteer or make a donation. You can also babysit the children of your female friends or relatives so they can fully commit to the day. In your workplace, support female colleagues, employers and employees if they decide to go on a strike. Campaign on social media, don’t mansplain feminism to women and encourage your male friends to march. But mainly, don’t be scared of calling yourself a feminist – it’s a good thing.

Women’s Rights for Everyone

Gender inequality doesn’t just affect women, and it doesn’t affect all women equally. Working class women, BAME women, trans women, lesbian and bi women, Muslim women, older women, female sex-workers, disabled women, women in non-paid domestic jobs, women who don’t adhere to traditional beauty standards, homeless women, migrant and refugee women… All of us struggle in different ways.

Listen, learn and acknowledge the different ways patriarchy constrains women’s rights. Not all discrimination looks the same. So make sure you don’t assume, judge or take anyone for granted. Every single woman should feel as worthy as everyone else. 

Question Yourself

International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to reflect on the invisibility of everyday sexism. Turn off autopilot and question everything you assume about gender. Work to deconstruct your normalised behaviour and interrogate your day-to-day vocabulary. Likewise, pay close attention to bias that goes unnoticed, like sexist news headlines and misogynist commercials. Take some time to understand the concept of toxic masculinity and how it affects you. Understand that your position as a man might not allow you to witness the whole spectrum of gender discrimination.

Take this opportunity to interrogate your conduct and examine if there’s anything about your actions that could change to achieve a fairer future for everyone. 

March and Be Proud

You’re campaigning for female empowerment, against gender-based violence, for respect and justice, against stereotypes and gender-bias, for full social, political, legal and economic equality and against the othering of women in society. That’s major.

Don’t question your power and feel proud of what we can achieve together.

Gayle’s Birth Story: knowledge is power

In this episode, Gayle tells us about two very different births that took place over 20 years ago. I am, as always, amazed by how crystal clear this experience is for us – even many years later. The process and the feelings that are created are timeless and never go out of date.

“You can’t script a birth and you can’t script your life.”


The Positive Birth Story Podcast features empowering & positive stories about birth. Swedish midwife Åsa Holstein shares her in-depth knowledge of birth and speaks to brave women who share their personal stories. This is a podcast with women, for women about the super power that resides in all of us.

Find all episodes of The Positive Birth Story Podcast here.