Tuesday was International Women's Day, and celebrations were in full effect around the world, where for many countries, it's a national holiday. Since it was the 100th Anniversary, the celebrations seemed to take over the US media as well, marking a significant departure from the day's usual low-key coverage. I have celebrated it for many years in Europe and Afghanistan and have always been disappointed it didn't have more of an impact on the American consciousness.
As important as it is that we take the time to mark this day, celebrate women, and discuss what faces women and girls around the world, it is also important to look deeper at WHY we still need to mark this day. Why is this day still important, beyond the celebrations and the concerts and the marches?
In Sudan on Tuesday, approximately 60 women gathered in a street in Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city to protest police brutality and rape. The women shouted: "Freedom! No abuse of women! No rape of women!" In return, the police they were protesting against arrested approximately 40 of them.
In South Africa, corrective rape is an emerging 'hate crime' against lesbians. Female footballer and equal rights campaigner, Eudy Simelane, was one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian, was gang-raped and brutally beaten before being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs. The sick irony is that their constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the country was the first in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage.
Its much the same in Afghanistan where women's rights are afforded some protection in the current constitution, but the breakdown occurs in the judicial process. The fact remains that women are raped, disfigured, and killed because its accepted by the community and the culture. Women who are raped typically bring dishonor to their family and face jail time instead of the rapists who committed the actual crime.
The disturbing irony of these events is not limited to these three countries. It's going on all around us. Systematic rape as a weapon of war in the Congo. Women trafficked across borders as sex-slaves throughout Southeast Asia. Young Afghan girls have acid thrown on their faces to discouraged them for going to school. Women and girls marginalized and victimized by the root of their gender throughout the world.
While these shocking events propel us into both conversation, media attention, and action, we should also be focused on the silent deaths that are rampant despite their lack of headline coverage. One of the biggest killers? Maternal mortality.
We need action to combat these quiet deaths that hit women daily across countries like Afghanistan. By the accepted estimate that one woman dies every 30 minutes in Afghanistan in childbirth, 48 Afghan women died giving birth on Women's Day. Another 48 will die today. And tomorrow.
"Far more women will die in Afghanistan in childbirth than people will be killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and yet reproductive health is never on the radar screen," Nicholas Kristof said recently.
You would think there would be more of an uproar in a country with the highest maternal and infant death rates. Only one other country in the world loses more women in childbirth than Afghanistan, Sierra Leone. Rarely has being first at something meant so much loss.
While this problem is in no way limited to Afghanistan, Afghanistan has a harder road ahead that most to turn these preventable deaths around.
Lack of simple medicines, pre and post natal care, and adequate numbers of female midwives and doctors equal death on a large-scale. This in a country already suffering from something akin to country-wide post traumatic stress disorder due to nearly four decades of war and incredible loss of life that has affected every family. A community with a male doctor clinic doesn't help maternal mortality as he's not allowed to assist in childbirth. Even if the woman is dying he won't be allowed to see her. Thanks to a lack of educated women and a culture that won't let male doctors assist in childbirth, women will continue to die at alarming numbers. Many of these deaths are preventable, and communities crave midwife training even in areas that they won't yet educate girls. Which is a key to increasing the value of women and employing them throughout a country where many women still can't leave their home without a burqa and a male escort.
Midwife training schools now exist in nearly every province to address this situation and the Afghan Minister of Public Health touts its success. Successful for urban areas, yes. But this 2-year program rarely spreads far into the rural communities.
Lack of education, infrastructure, and a conservative culture makes a trickle down effect nearly impossible. A unique village-to-village approach is needed to save lives in rural communities. The reason? Girls must have a 9th grade education to attend midwife training. That's a rarity in rural communities. Those that can get that level of education, must then have the permission from their father or husband to leave their community for two years to attend training. In the rare case that education, permission, and scholarship are available, and that the girl finishes school, she will most likely return to her community to live. It's a wonderful solution for THAT village and she will do much for her community's welfare, but what about the communities that don't have educated girls to send?
So, a solution? Train women and girls with low levels of education, even those that are illiterate, to be skilled birth attendants. Teach them the simple solutions that save lives that you or I could learn in 4 short weeks. Teach them basic sanitation and have them educate their village. Teach them how to administer basic medicines and vaccinations. Pay them a small stipend to work in their village. As the village thrives, and the women earn money for their family, the value of women increases and deaths decrease.
As Melinda Gates stated yesterday, ""We know we can save the lives of mothers & babies. The question is: will we?"
Often it's illustrating the way girls and women can contribute to the general welfare of the community that makes the rational argument for their health, worth, and their education. I hope that as the celebrations of Women's Day fade, our resolve does not. Women around the world are depending upon us to continue the fight, EVERY day.