International Women’s Day: Healthy Women, Healthy Nations
Putting a child on the earth is a whole different type of work. Not everyone can guide a woman and her baby safely through pregnancy and childbirth.
I know what it means to keep women and babies alive and healthy because I am a midwife.
As a young girl in Mali, I passed the village dispensary on my way to school every day. I felt sorry for the people lined up outside waiting for treatment for their illnesses. I always told myself that one day I would wear the white coat of health workers and help those who are sick. During my health education training, I studied midwifery because I wanted to educate, advise and assist women before, during, and after pregnancy.
Although I stopped practicing midwifery in maternity wards, I apply my professional passion to my work with MSH. No matter where I am or what project I’m working on, I speak with midwives, visit community health centers, and counsel pregnant women about their health and about that of their children whenever I can. When I visit communities, I encourage women to go to their local clinics for prenatal exams and to breastfeed and vaccinate their babies.
A nation cannot develop without healthy women, but in many of our communities in Mali, women face barriers to accessing health care. In rural Mali, some women are not self-sufficient and cannot make decisions about their health or even about their own bodies. If a woman is sick, she cannot go directly to the health center or get medication without her husband’s or his family’s permission. Her family might tell her to boil leaves and drink them, because, they say, they don’t have the money to take her to the health center.
In Mopti, a central region of the country, girls as young as 12 or 13 are often forced into marriage. For these girls, pregnancy can be catastrophic. A young girl’s pelvis is not fully developed and is still too small to birth a baby, so if she doesn’t deliver in a health center, she could develop fistula — a hole between her vagina and rectum or bladder — among other complications.
Taking care of women and girls is taking care of our nation. Women and girls must have the power to seek health care, to choose when and to whom they get married, to decide when they want to get pregnant, and to preserve the dignity of their bodies.
Through the FCI Program of MSH, we are working with partners to prevent sexual and gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation, and to stop child marriage in rural communities of Mopti and other regions of the country. Last year, with support from UN Women, we opened the first holistic care center for women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Douentza. For the first time, women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence have a safe place to seek counseling, medical care, and legal services at the Douentza Reference Health Center.
In 2014 we established the multi-sector Debbo Alafia Consortium with the Malian nongovernmental organization Conseils et Appui pour l’Éducation à la Base to advance women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health through social and behavior change activities and advocacy.
The majority of Malians are Muslim, so we have worked extensively with religious leaders in Bamako and Mopti to promote sexual and reproductive rights. Each time we visit a community, we bring a representative from the Islamic and Population Network for Development to facilitate community discussions that link the Koran with women’s and children’s health. After our trainings and discussions, religious leaders have agreed that the Koran supports women’s health, and some of these leaders have become champions for women’s and girls’ rights, maternal health, and family planning.
We need to ensure that women and girls have the places in society they deserve. If women are to lead autonomous lives, they need to have the opportunity to realize their right to health. We have to be proactive in the work of our own communities to fight discrimination and not underestimate the significance of gender barriers and discrimination. We must value the health and lives of women and girls if we want to see our nations prosper.
Fatimata Kané is Project Director of the FCI Program of MSH in Mali.