Over the past week I was lucky enough to attend a conference that was for me, as well as many women worldwide, a life-changing event. The United Nations hosts many discussions, events, panels and speakers at the UN, however a delegate pass from one of the UN affiliated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is needed in order to attend. My sister Gwen is a board member for the women’s rights group Worldwide Organization for Women (WOW), and was able to get me a pass to the conferences held at the UN.
There are also side events that anyone can attend, although they must pre-register through the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) website, and these events are hosted by the various NGOs themselves, with themes ranging from sustainable development, trafficking in women and girls, health and education.
I first attended a side event, a panel discussion on health care access for rural women in Africa hosted by WOW. Carole Ugochukwu, a WOW delegate from Nigeria, told us about the problems women are facing in her village, particularly maternal health care. One of the biggest problems cited was that due to lack of proper prenatal care and delivery assistance, many women die in childbirth, most often due to hemorrhaging. Postpartum depression also effects a large portion of the population. If it is not treated in a timely manner, often a husband will leave his wife and new child to find himself “a happy wife.”
Maternal health is not the only issue affecting the people of Carole’s village. She told us of her dear friend who had passed away the day before due to a snake bite. Her friend had been collecting wood for her stove when she was bitten. They went to three hospitals and every health clinic in the area but none of them had any anti-venom. Malaria also claims the lives of hundreds every year, even though the disease has a vaccine and has been eradicated in several nations.
Vesicovaginal and rectovaginal fistulas in young girls who are married and impregnated before their bodies have completed puberty, usually between the ages of eight and 14, are not only a health problem, but a social issue as well. These can occur when a girl gives birth before her pelvis is wide enough to allow for the size of the child. Tearing of the muscles of the vagina, bladder and/or anus makes it so that these young girls no longer have any control over their bowels or urination. These girls are often cast out of their homes and shunned from society, either to become beggars or left to die.
Shirley Randell, an activist stationed in Rwanda, had a bit of happier news and was able to report the progress she has made in the past few years working with the Rwandan government on health and social issues. Women are receiving secondary education and rural villages now have two local volunteers who are educated and trained in health care and can help out in traumas, with prenatal care, births and most illness.
Nationwide, 95 percent of all Rwandans now have received vaccinations, including the malaria vaccine. Family planning clinics and health care clinics have been established through out the major metropolitan areas. They have even created a “Mobile Birth Kit” for rural women who are unable to get to a clinic. The kit includes a plastic sheet for a sanitary area to give birth, soap-if there is water to use it, antiseptic, a scalpel to cut the umbilical cord and cotton to tie it off. The kit costs one dollar.
In a panel discussion I attended at the UN, I learned that many rural women lack even the basics to support themselves and their families, such as access to clean water and energy. It is estimated that combined, women in rural Africa spend over 20 billion hours per year just getting water. They also have to fetch wood or dung to use as fuel for cooking. Basic health care and education are almost non-existent. In many rural areas, if a girl is allowed to attend school, it is only for a few years. Many don’t even get up to the 6th grade.
During my time at the conference I met many women, several of whom were from African countries such as Nigeria, South Sudan and Rwanda. As these women shared their stories of their homelands with me, I was struck over and over again with how kind, loving and open they were despite all they had lived through and witnessed. They would clasp my hands or put their arm around me as we talked in a manner of ease and comfort that I previously found only in my dearest friends and relatives. By the the time we parted ways, we were no longer strangers, but friends who I want to know for the rest of my life.
My last day in New York was March 8, International Women’s Day, which was celebrated by many of the attendees of the CSW with a march from the UN headquarters through the streets of Manhattan and back to the UN. Women, and even quite a few men, streamed down the sidewalks, more than a block and a half in length, all marching in solidarity to celebrate women all over the world. We each wore a yellow satin sash on which everyone wrote his or her own personal message. “Stop Human Trafficking” some demanded while others proclaimed “Unity, Equality and Respect.”
People laughed and talked until the last block, where we slowed down to march single file and silent to the square in front of the UN Headquarters. The line of women and men moved into a circle in the center of the square and when everyone was gathered around, we began to sing. Our voices filled the air and rose to join the flags of hundreds of nations that waved in the air and surrounded the United Nations.
And then we danced.