I spent this week joining Ipas Africa Alliance staff on several site visits to hospitals throughout western Kenya again this week, interviewing more providers and community health volunteers on their experiences referring and caring for young women seeking contraceptive services. Several times, those I interviewed mentioned young women who sought services for fear of becoming pregnant due to ongoing sexual abuse in their relationships or from men in their village. In Kenya, as in my country and many others, rape culture continues to threaten women’s health and dignity. Ineffective legal responses mean that victims rarely receive justice or adequate protection from the law. It’s an area that Ipas plans to work with partners around the world to address- for even if a woman or girl can access safe abortion or contraception when she needs those services, she has no reproductive freedom if she doesn’t have complete control over what happens to her body.
The fact is, the lives and dignity of girls and women are under threat to the point that calling the degradation of women’s lives a global crisis would not be incorrect. In Guatemala, on March 8th, 2017, 41 girls burned to death in a state home for troubled minors, locked in by the people administering the home for having tried to run away. Details are still emerging, but there’s mounting evidence that many of the girls were being physically and sexually abused by the people paid to protect them. Most of the people I mention this to don’t even know this tragedy happened. How is this possible? And if you think that race, class and nationality aren’t at play here, think again- if 41 white, U.S. citizen girls burned alive in Oklahoma, you can be damn sure the world would know.
I carry an immense amount of privilege as a white woman from the United States. I still don’t feel entirely safe in my country. How could I when I have a president who brags about violating women’s bodily integrity and advocates for policies that aim to dehumanize marginalized people? In a country where three women are murdered by their partners every day (often with a gun) and victims/survivors of sexual assault are still not receiving the justice they deserve, we are by no means high and mighty in the way women are treated in the U.S. We are also the country whose current leaders delight in stripping poor people, especially low-income women of color, of access to healthcare, including safe abortion care. Apparently, it’s not enough to do this to our own residents- see our recently-expanded Global Gag Rule and revocation of UNFPA funding, which will result in the death and suffering of women and girls in nations all over the world.
To be clear, women and girls don’t need saving- they need the tools to shape their own futures, their own destinies, to demand justice for themselves and their communities. This “saving” mentality has been behind been a lot of the advocacy to end gender inequality globally, and it sickens me in the way that it juxtaposes privileged white women with women of color living in developing countries. This type of “advocacy” is colonialist and it doesn’t just repulse me, it’s ineffective. It ignores the agency, intelligence and determination of women in developing settings, while generally simultaneously ignoring the suffering of marginalized women in the U.S.
During the Ipas Africa Alliance staff meeting this week, one of the staff members who has been working to advocate for women’s dignity and rights for many years presented us with the statistics on who is being served by the programs he’s managing. While helpful for understanding the organization’s progress in linking women to safe services, numbers tend to numb us to the urgency with which we need to advocate and act when it comes to the injustices faced by women. At the end of his briefing, he shared with us a slide that read as follows, thoughtfully pointing out that in the context of unequal relationships with men, abstinence may not be an option for many young women:
“What alternative is best for a young, unmarried woman?”
“Act of Sex…. Taboo!”
“Pregnancy before marriage… Taboo!”
“Having an abortion… Taboo!”
“What best option do young women have? Even abstinence may be a concern!”
I couldn’t agree more, and sadly, these same statements could be made to varying degrees in communities all over the world, including my own. Women, particularly women hurt most by racism and colonialism, but in the end, all women, are not yet free.
Some days, especially this week, I find that maintaining hope is harder than others, and I know a lot of this has to do with what I expose myself to. What’s really ironic though, is that the very fact that I get to limit that exposure reaffirms the unearned privilege I carry.
I push back against these hopeless feelings is by asking myself: “Is giving in to your hopelessness helping to collaboratively improve the world?” The answer is, of course, no. In these moments, I try to focus on doing something that might link to social justice work. This might mean calling and writing my legislator, elevating the work of marginalized people, sending friends some type of content that humanizes those who are most often dehumanized (in my country, men and women of color), writing an op-ed for my local paper, or volunteering to turn my state and nation blue. To be honest though, sometimes I also just pet my cat and promise her that I’ll start the work again tomorrow. And I always do. Join me.
This is Linda*, a nurse in one of the facilities we visited in western Kenya. She shared with me her commitment to supporting young women seeking respectful, compassionate reproductive healthcare. Her work is one more reason to be hopeful and committed to finding ways to support her efforts.
*Linda gave written consent for her photo to be shared.