On 2 March, an international conference entitled ‘She Decides’ will be held in Brussels. The conference is being co-organised by Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark.

“She Decides is taking a stand for women’s rights, in particular their obvious right to decide over their own bodies,” says Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate Isabella Lövin.

 

Support for sexual health and family planning can change lives. Meet three women who have experienced this.

 

Elisabeth, Kenya:

Fourteen-year-old Elisabeth had no idea what an abortion was. Nor did she know what sex was and she had never had a boyfriend.

One evening, Elisabeth’s world was turned on its head.

Her mother made soap and in the evenings Elisabeth and her siblings would help to deliver the soap to customers.

“When I came to this man’s house, he suddenly shut and locked the door and forced himself on me. I couldn’t scream because he had his hand over my mouth. Afterwards he said I couldn’t tell anyone because then something terrible would happen,” she says.

When she missed her period, Elisabeth talked to her older sister who promised to help her so that she wouldn’t be thrown out of school. They looked for the man who had raped Elisabeth, but he had moved. She wanted nothing more than to continue going to school, and the man who had caused her suffering had disappeared.

In Kenya alone, 3 000 women die each year because of unsafe or incomplete abortions, representing approximately 30 per cent of maternal mortality in the country. Elisabeth’s sister had heard about a safe clinic in Kisumu, which is a member of Family Health Options Kenya. Thanks to the clinic, Elisabeth avoided having to subject herself to unnecessary risks and becoming one of the women who die of pregnancy-related causes every minute across the world.

(Names and certain facts in this article have been changed as Elisabeth wishes to remain anonymous, but is keen to tell her story to increase understanding about abortions and their context).

 

Bertha Mbile, DR Congo:

Every day, more than 1 000 women around the world die because of injuries related to pregnancy and childbirth. Substandard maternity care also means that there is a major risk of suffering from serious injuries. One of the women who experienced this was Bertha Mbile.

Bertha had a fistula. A fistula develops when the wall between the vagina and the bladder is injured during a difficult birth, a Caesarian section or sexual violence, for example. The woman then starts to leak urine, which leads to social exclusion and prevents her from living a normal life. Bertha was forced to remain indoors for ten years after giving birth. Her urine would leak uncontrollably.

“Discovering that I had a fistula was like being knifed in the back. I had no social life and was worth nothing. But at the Panzi Hospital they did everything to help me,” she says.

Childbirth-related injuries are common in Congo and are caused by long and difficult births or incorrectly performed Caesarian sections. These problems can often be prevented with competent midwives and doctors to hand. But with incorrect interventions the injury can instead become chronic.

There are few people who speak up for women in Congo and the lack of qualified maternity care hinders all aspects of societal development. The Panzi Hospital has the expertise that is needed to operate fistula injuries, and hundreds of women have had the procedure. Since Bertha received help, her life has turned around. She says that she got back her dignity and has realised what her rights are. But many of her fellow women still live in shame and isolation.

“When I was well again I decided straight away. I would start working in maternal health care and help others,” says Bertha, who now works at the Panzi Hospital.

 

Anab Farah Ahmed, a midwife who runs a hospital in Somalia:

The vast majority of Somali women have undergone genital mutilation, a dangerous practice that causes lifelong injuries.

The small Magan Hospital is located in one of the poorer areas of the city of Hargeisa. Women who have problems as a result of genital mutilation can receive care at the hospital or, if their problems are very serious, be referred to other hospitals for surgery. Three times a week the organisation Nafis, which works against female genital mutilation, is open for counselling. Its counsellors also devote three days a week to visiting families or women’s groups. The counsellors are now tasked with explaining, informing – and persuading. They receive up to ten people every day, who come here to ask questions and get advice. Some are very positive about what the counsellors say, and these people are important because they spread the message.

Many of the people meeting with the counsellors are young men. What questions could these men have? Well, most of them are unmarried and have been told by married friends about the pain that women experience due to female genital mutilation, and about problems with their sex lives.

“I have no doubt that the young generation, especially men, can help to bring an end to this tradition. The strongest defendants of female genital mutilation are often older women with little education. This is despite the fact – or perhaps because of the fact – that they have been exposed to it themselves,” says Anab Farah Ahmed, a midwife who also runs the hospital.

 

Read more about She Decides at government.se