By Brigid McConville
Many women were initially dumbfounded when we asked them to say what they want for their reproductive health care in the What Women Want campaign which has now heard from 1.2 million women in 114 countries. A common refrain was ‘I’ve never been asked before.’ Another was ‘it won’t make any difference’ — this most often from ‘developing countries’ where women said they were fed up with being the objects of study by researchers paid to ask irrelevant questions thought up in some distant ivory tower.
It seems that women are inured to not being asked what they think is important for themselves, as defined by themselves, wherever we live in the world. A campaigning midwife told us that women she approached in London (including doctors at a health conference) initially looked as blank as those she had asked in villages in India. But in both locations, once the conversation was opened, a torrent of ideas soon followed.
We took this campaign to places where women can be killed for making decisions about their own bodies. We took it to places where women can be taken by police to hospital for choosing when and where to give birth. We took it to places where having a termination or helping a woman to end a pregnancy can mean many years in prison. Those places are in Asia, in Europe, in Africa and the USA. All over the world, women’s reproductive rights are either unknown or under threat.
Talking about women’s rights, asking what women want for their health, listening to their replies: this stuff is deeply radical. It’s astounding then that in Pakistan, where women told us they faced violence or the threat of violence for even speaking about these things, a quarter of a million women responded to the campaign. When they knew their rights, they wanted their rights. They said that if it was too late for them to avoid the rape and violence which is child marriage, then it is not too late for their daughters.
Some men were supportive, even shocked at what they were hearing. ‘Why have we not asked women before?’, said a community leader in Cameroon. Others tried to close down the conversation. In Delhi, a shopworker was told by her boss not to speak to the campaign. At the risk of losing her job she told him that it was her right, and defied him to give her statement on camera. In Sindh province, family members beat up a woman and her husband because she had been asking the incendiary question ‘what do you want for your reproductive and maternal health?’
Like Pandora, the campaign opened up hitherto closed boxes, letting out knowledge that can never again be hidden. Women in one community said they wanted more security in their maternity ward. Why? Because their babies were being stolen, perhaps for sale. One mother said she was shown the photo of a baby who had died and was told it was hers, but she knew that it wasn’t. In other communities, topics that had never been spoken of before were broached, including incest and child abuse.
Safety was a big topic. Every woman wants to feel safe during birth, and it is every pregnant woman’s right. But safety means different things to different women. When your nearest health centre is 30 kilometers away through a game park on the back of your husband’s bicycle, and when that baby just won’t wait to be born, safety means not being attacked by the hyena menacing you in the dark. Even when a passing vehicle takes you to the health centre where the midwife saves you from bleeding to death, it’s not safe because the same midwife explains that women don’t want to come to her health facility because there’s no escape if soldiers from Congo come down the dirt road.
Safety means something again in the UK, and maybe not always what you would expect. If you’re a mum who has fled from violence in Sudan, safety now means not fearing that your hijab will be pulled off or acid thrown in your face before you can get home to your kids at night.
After ‘respect and dignity’, cleanliness (water, sanitation and hygiene) was the topic mentioned by more women than any other. This also means different things depending on where you live. In Malawi, women at one rural health centre told us that when in labour they have to walk out into the dark of night to a stinking latrine if they needed the toilet. Without running water in the health facility, there was no way to wash themselves or their newborns after birth, other than to go down to the river, which is in effect an open sewer for villages upstream.
Now we are demanding that the decision makers of the world listen to what women have said. Listening is also a radical act, but it will not be enough. Women now want action. Taking action on what women want will be revolutionary.
White Ribbon Alliance unites citizens to demand the right to a safe birth for every woman, everywhere. We harness the power of local women and men to achieve lasting change. Our approach is working. Donate to White Ribbon Alliance and help protect and promote women’s health. Subscribe to WRA Voices and follow WRA on Facebook and Twitter to learn more about the work White Ribbon Alliance does around the world.