Archive for the ‘Global News’ Category

April 6, 2010

Documentary: “Secret of the Dawn” Covers Efforts to Stop Female Genital Mutilation in Mali

by June Tsang

“Every individual has a right to life… and to the integrity of their person.”
– Mali Constitution

On Thursday, April 8, Sini Sanuman and Healthy Tomorrow — sister organizations campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM) in West Africa — will hold a screening in Cambridge, Mass., for the film “Secret of the Dawn.”

The documentary covers the story of the organizations’ efforts to stop excision in West Africa, in particular in Mali, in a culturally competent manner.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 100 to 140 million women are living with the consequences of FGM, also known as female genital cutting, female genital modification, and female circumcision. Internationally, FGM is recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. However, the practice is still prevalent in villages and cities of West Africa.

Within their society, women who have undergone FGM share a bond and are viewed as courageous. The practice also marks a woman as desirable and worthy of marriage. The act involves the removal of all or part of the clitoris and sometimes the narrowing of the vaginal opening — not only to increase pleasure for their future husbands, but for the societal opinion of aesthetically pleasing vaginas.

In an interview with Our Bodies, Our Blog, Susan McLucas, secretary general of Sini Sanuman and director of Healthy Tomorrow, said the film “follows a number of threads to show the complexity of the issue of FGM.”

Sini Sanuman utilizes a number of methods in villages in Mali to spread information about the negative health impacts of FGM, including song, dance and music videos.

The organization also recruits religious leaders, village chiefs, and former performers of excision. One video, “I Abandon,” features 17 former excisers who, during the chorus, throw their knives in a hole.

Above is a poster that Sini Sanuman distributes to its network of activists and partner groups. Here it is in French (as it appears in Mali). Click the poster to read the English version.

While this movement recognizes that a major barrier to preventing FGM is the lack of political rights, Sini Sanuman’s campaign focuses on educating people about the medical consequences of FGM, including life-threatening difficulties in childbirth, severe bleeding, incontinence, and high risks of HIV and tetanus.

Sini Sanuman and Healthy Tomorrow have succeeded in stopping excision in nine villages in Mali so far and are compiling a list of more than 300 villages around Mali that have stopped FGM with other NGOs. This list has inspired the government to organize a Forum of Villages in February, which was televised, The forum adopted a resolution encouraging the legislature to pass a law to ban FGM.

McLucas recounts a story about girls who did not undergo FGM singing at the ceremony in the village of Missalabougou, the fourth village to stop the practice.

“They were a chorus of unexcised girls singing about how happy they were to have been spared,” she said. “They couldn’t carry a tune, but it still made very good TV footage and was very moving.”

“Secret of the Dawn” covers the journey of Sini Sanuman in its struggle to stop excision in women across Mali by relating to them through music, their own political and religious leaders, community meetings, and through the experiences of women who live with the consequences of FGM. The movement to stop excision is gaining strength and the hope is that Mali will soon follow the path of its neighbors and outlaw FGM.

The screening will take place at 7 p.m. in the Cambridge Library in Central Square (take the red line to Central Square). Following the screening, McLucas will discuss the film and the Sini Sanuman organization.

June Tsang, an intern at Our Bodies Ourselves, is studying social policy and public health at Brandeis University.

April 6, 2010

Fighting Cervical Cancer Around the World: John Varallo

View all Women’s Health Heroes. Voting closes May 14. Background info here.

Entrant: Maureen Reinsel
Nominee: John Varallo, MD, MPH, Senior Technical Advisor

Obstetricians and gynecologists choose to dedicate themselves to women’s health, but that alone does not qualify them as a Women’s Health Hero. A hero humbly exceeds the average expectations to create true and lasting positive change. Dr. John Varallo, through his selfless and untiring contributions to women’s health in the United States, Guyana, Tanzania, Uganda, Belize, Guatemala, and Australia, is a Women’s Health Hero.

While I know him through his work on cervical cancer prevention and treatment in Guyana, it is far from his only contribution to women’s health globally. Dr. Varallo works with the most vulnerable women, and inspires others to join him through education and collaboration.

Dr. Varallo has contributed to improved prevention and treatment of cervical cancer, particularly among HIV positive women. Cervical cancer, caused by the sexually transmitted Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), is a preventable disease that kills an estimated 253,500 women worldwide annually (National Cervical Cancer Coalition, The burden of disease is particularly onerous among HIV positive women, who have a more difficult time clearing the virus from their system and in whom the cancer moves significantly more quickly.

Dr. Varallo’s efforts have led to a considerable expansion in coverage of cervical cancer prevention, detection, and treatment. In Guyana alone, he has trained 23 physicians, advance practice nurses, and registered nurses in one year to detect and treat pre-cancerous lesions. His work in Guyana has led to the Ministry of Health instituting a national cervical cancer prevention and treatment program, and he was the principle author of the country’s cervical cancer prevention and treatment policy and guidelines.

Providers trained by Dr. Varallo have screened more than 5,000 women in one year, providing approximately 800 women with preventative treatment. In addition to his work in Guyana, Dr. Varallo has trained health care providers in cervical cancer prevention and treatment in five other countries, including the United States.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 18, 2010

Responding to the Needs of Women and Girls in Haiti

“In Haiti, as is always true in the aftermath of a major disaster, in addition to the urgent need for what we traditionally consider the pillars of immediate aid – food, water, shelter, medical care – there are needs that are specific to women, particularly for pregnant women and mothers with new babies and the need to address the added vulnerability to violence that women face when government infrastructures are dysfunctional,” writes Lucinda Marshall at Feminist Peace Network.

Our Bodies Ourselves has compiled a list of organizations focused on addressing the health needs in Haiti, particularly the needs of women and girls, during and beyond the initial aid effort. Additional background articles and press releases are also included.

These organizations have contacted us directly, or we have received emails from people on their communication lists. Please add groups we may have missed in the comments. Thank you!

    Working with its partner in Haiti, Zanmi Lasante, to bring humanitarian aid overland into the country. Teams of healthcare workers from the project have established a functioning supply chain through the Dominican Republic and are currently delivering medical aid to those most in need in Haiti.

    Read more about MADRE’s model, which ensures that women in communities are integral to designing and carrying out relief efforts.

  • Global Fund for Women
    Read the Global Fund’s solidarity statement sent to their sisters in Haiti, and learn how you can support long-term work there through their crisis fund. More information about the Global Fund’s recent grantee partners in Haiti is available here.
  • Circle of Health International
    COHI’s team of women’s health providers and public health professionals are leaving for Haiti on Jan. 19 to conduct a Rapid Health Assessment, in order to identify and begin addressing women’s most critical health needs. Recent estimates show that there are 37,000 pregnant women among the 3 million people affected by the disaster.

    COHI defines its target population as women in crisis, specifically partnering with women surviving conflict and disaster, and has a tradition of collaborating with locally based, grassroots organizations when invited into a country context to contribute to women’s health programming.

  • International Planned Parenthood Federation
    100% of donations collected will go directly to PROFAMIL’s operations, so they can get their clinics and mobile health units up and working as soon as possible.
  • Partners in Health
    PIH has been working in Haiti for 20 years. Its focus is tri-fold: to care for patients, to alleviate the root causes of disease in their communities, and to share lessons learned around the world. Read an op-ed by Paul Farmer, PIH co-founder, in Sunday’s Miami Herald: “If Haiti is to ‘Build Back Better’
  • Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders
    Learn more about their current efforts in Haiti. Donation information is available here.
  • United Nations Population Fund
    UNFPA’s immediate humanitarian response includes delivering emergency reproductive health kits that contain essential drugs, equipment and supplies to provide life-saving services to pregnant women. UNFPA will also work to ensure that women and girls have access to basic hygiene supplies so that they can live with dignity, even amidst the worst circumstances.
  • Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom
    Provides an extensive list of non-governmental organizations as well as United Nations and government contacts working in Haiti.
  • V-Day
    V-Day is initiating a Haiti Rescue Fund immediately to be ready with funds for the V-Day Haiti Sorority Safe House in Port Au Prince that provides shelter to women survivors of violence and their children, as well as psychological, legal and medical support.

For additional reading:

December 8, 2009

Rachel Maddow vs. Richard Cohen: Watch It Now

Make yourself comfortable. You’re not going to want to move for the next 15 minutes.

Rachel Maddow invited Richard Cohen, who claims he can “cure” homosexuals, on her show Tuesday night. Passages of his book “Coming Out Straight” — unscientific, debunked, ridiculously accusatory passages — are being used to justify proposed legislation in Uganda  that calls for executing gay men and women either living with HIV or who are “serial offenders” (whatever that means).

Anyone convicted of a homosexual act faces life in prison under the Uganda bill, and anyone who ”aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage of acts of homosexuality” faces seven years in prison.

Cohen insists that he is not a proponent of the legislation, but Maddow doesn’t let him off the hook:

“I realize I was taking the risk of helping promote you and the way that you think about these things by putting you on the air,” says Maddow, “but I do think that you’ve actually got blood on your hands.”

For more background on what’s going on in Uganda and the connection to influential right-wing members of Congress, read the transcript of this “Fresh Air” (NPR) interview with Jeff Sharlet,  author of “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.”

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

October 30, 2009

Achieving Global Reproductive Justice: Recommendations from the Frontlines

Serra Sippel, CHANGE; Aziza Ahmed, Harvard School of Public Health; Grace Sedio, Bomme Isago Association (Botswana); Sergia Galván, Colectiva Mujer y Salud (Dominican Republic); Massachusetts Representative Kay Khan; Dr. Fisseha Mekonnen, Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia

Serra Sippel, CHANGE; Aziza Ahmed, Harvard School of Public Health; Grace Sedio, Bomme Isago Association (Botswana); Sergia Galván, Colectiva Mujer y Salud (Dominican Republic); Massachusetts Representative Kay Khan; Dr. Fisseha Mekonnen, Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia

by Kimberly Whipkey, Center for Health and Gender Equity

“At Colectiva Mujer y Salud, we view each woman as a complete person. If a woman comes seeking an HIV test, we will make sure she also receives information about contraception, screening for gender-based violence, education about her sexual health and a better understanding of her rights.”
– Sergia Galván, Executive Director, Colectiva Mujer y Salud, Dominican Republic

Reproductive health care that is comprehensive, accessible and woman-centered is far from a common reality — anywhere in the world. Global women’s health advocates are campaigning for a more holistic approach that better serves women and their families.

In mid-October, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) invited reproductive health experts from the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia and Botswana to participate in CHANGE’s Reproductive Justice Ambassadors Tour. The tour made stops in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to meet with NGO leaders, activists and key decision-makers.

At each venue, experts discussed why investing in comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights is critical at this moment, and they offered suggestions on how the United States can strengthen human rights-based care overseas that breaks down the divisions among HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, and maternal and child health.

The three health experts — Dr. Fisseha Mekonnen Alemu, Grace Sedio and Sergia Galván — offered hope that it is possible to provide comprehensive and rights-based care, even in the face of poverty, a weak health infrastructure and social, political and legal environments hostile to reproductive rights. The obstacles, however, are formidable.

Dr. Mekonnen, executive director of the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia, discussed his country’s dire maternal health statistics. Only 6 percent of pregnant women have a skilled attendant at delivery, and an estimated 100,000 Ethiopian women suffer obstetric fistula — an entirely preventable condition. Rural women have little or no access to modern health care. And 30 percent of women who die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth do so as a result of unsafe abortion.

Women living with HIV in many countries face layers of stigma and discrimination. Grace Sedio, project officer at Bomme Isago Association in Botswana and member of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, spoke about HIV-positive women — especially those who are pregnant— being blamed by public officials in Botswana for spreading the virus. They are often treated as vectors of disease rather than as women with reproductive health needs and rights.

While Sergia Galván, executive director of Colectiva Mujer y Salud in the Dominican Republic, provides comprehensive care through her feminist health center, serious challenges to attaining critical reproductive health services remain. Legislators recently ratified an article within Constitutional reform that prevents liberalization of abortion laws, which currently prohibit abortion under any circumstance. The Constitutional changes were largely influenced by ideological opposition to abortion from conservative factions, including the Catholic Church.

“One Cardinal said he would rather see two deaths [the woman and the embryo or fetus] than one abortion,” Galván said at a Congressional briefing in Washington, D.C.

For eight years under President Bush, the global gag rule stifled NGO advocacy around safe and legal abortion, creating a vacuum in the Dominican Republic that helped enable the Constitutional reform. So, whether a woman is raped, a victim of incest, or suffering life-threatening complications of an ectopic pregnancy, she cannot legally access abortion care, and the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

The Ambassadors often highlighted how decisions made in the United States have had major impacts in their countries. They also offered suggestions for how people in the United States can promote reproductive justice globally. For example, Congress is in the early stages of re-writing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which governs how foreign assistance is spent.

One immediate action step is to contact your members of Congress and urge them to support the inclusion of comprehensive reproductive health. For more information, we encourage you to read CHANGE’s new report: “Investing in Reproductive Justice for All: Toward a U.S. Foreign Policy on Comprehensive Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.”

At an NGO breakfast meeting in Philadelphia with the Ambassadors, a participant said, “At our health center in Philadelphia we view every woman as an opportunity.”

So, too, should U.S.-funded domestic and international programs see each woman as an opportunity to provide comprehensive and rights-based health services — and an opportunity to improve the health of women worldwide.

Kimberly Whipkey is a senior associate for advocacy and outreach at the Center for Health and Gender Equity in Washington, D.C.

October 9, 2009

Update on Israeli-Palestinian Adaptation of “Our Bodies, Ourselves”

The latest newsletter from Women and Their Bodies (WTB), an Israeli-Palestinian initiative that is adapting “Our Bodies, Ourselves” into Hebrew and Arabic (see our previous post), includes this update:

We continue to undergo the massive and vital task of creating local and culturally adapted Hebrew and Arabic editions of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ (OBOS). Women and Their Bodies is fortunate to have generous an unbelievable network of over 300 devoted women volunteers giving of their time and their skills towards the writing, editing, research, etc. of the book.

We are women from a wide spectrum of Israeli society, including religious, progressive and secular women of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities around the country. We come from a wide range of backgrounds and specializations: psychologists, facilitators of women’s groups, gynecologists, midwives, sexologists, gender and social studies researchers and more. We are all activists, each in our own way, promoting women’s equality, justice and human rights.

After 4 years of hard work, out of the 32, 20 Hebrew chapters are complete and 12 in various stages of preparation. 10 Arabic chapters are complete and 22 in various stages of preparation. The book in Hebrew shall be published in June 2010. Initially we intended to publish the Arabic edition a year after that. Instead, we have decided to publish the Arabic in three parts. The first part, including 10 chapters shall also be published in June 2010. We feel that it is essential to get this information out in the first part due to the general lack of accessibility to information of this kind within the Palestinian community.

WTB’s online information and action center,, is scheduled to go live this month. It too, will feature information in both Hebrew and Arabic.


Want to help support this project? WTB is raising support for the book by offering “social stock” in their organization. Your investment of $150 includes a copy of the Hebrew edition of “Our Bodies Ourselves” and printed acknowledgement of your investment in the the book. Secure online donations can be made here. Tax deductible donations can be made by check, payable to: The New Israel Fund. On the memo line, please write “for Women and Their Bodies” and the NIF identification number, 5459. Mail checks to NIF / P.O.Box 91588 / Washington, D.C. 20090-1588

Plus: Check out other OBOS projects underway in China, India and Nigeria, among other places.

October 6, 2009

Rapes in Guinea Show Escalating Government Crime Against Women

The horror of rape as a weapon of war in Africa is all too common. Just in Congo, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the last 10 years, their stories documented by award-winning radio programs, ongoing news stories and even an HBO documentary.

International awareness and outcry against these crimes is not always swift or widespread. But an attack last month by government troops on women in Conarky, Guinea seems to be drawing a quick response.

Photos of the brutal crimes, which took place during a peaceful stadium rally protesting Guinea’s ruling military junta, are circulating on cell phones, and today The New York Times published a horrific account based on interviews with witnesses and women who had been assaulted:

“I can’t sleep at night, after what I saw,” said one middle-aged woman from an established family here, who said she had been beaten and sexually molested. “And I am afraid. I saw lots of women raped, and lots of dead.”

One photograph shows a naked woman lying on muddy ground, her legs up in the air, a man in military fatigues in front of her. In a second picture a soldier in a red beret is pulling the clothes off a distraught-looking woman half-lying, half-sitting on muddy ground. In a third a mostly nude woman lying on the ground is pulling on her trousers.

The cellphone pictures are circulating anonymously, but multiple witnesses corroborated the events depicted.

The attacks were part of a violent outburst on Sept. 28 in which soldiers shot and killed dozens of unarmed demonstrators at the main stadium here, where perhaps 50,000 had assembled. Local human rights organizations say at least 157 were killed; the government puts the figure at 56.

But even more than the shootings, the attacks on women — horrific anywhere, but viewed with particular revulsion in Muslim countries like this one — appear to have traumatized the citizenry and hardened the opposition’s determination to force out the leader of the military junta, Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara.

Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister of France, told the Times France could no longer work with Camara and urged “international intervention.” Camara seized power in a bloodless coup in December. He had promised he would not run in January’s presidential election but has since changed his mind. As the Times notes, growing internal opposition could force Camara to leave power, or the government could become even more authoritarian. Camara contends that members of the opposition, not the military, were responsible for the assaults and killings.

Amnesty International is calling for an international commission to investigate the human rights violations that occurred.

“The perpetrators of these brutal attacks must be identified and brought to justice,” said Erwin van der Borght, director of Amnesty International’s Africa Program. “This can only be achieved through an international inquiry as the Guinean authorities have already been discredited by their lack of political will to carry out a national investigation into accusations of human rights violations by security forces in 2007.”

Rape is a fairly common tool of military repression in Africa, but large-scale violence against women has not been a previous government tactic here. “This time, a new stage has been reached,” said Sidya Touré, a former prime minister who was also beaten at the stadium and said he had witnessed brutalities there. “Women as battlefield targets. We could never have imagined that.”
“Where could people get the idea to start raping women in broad daylight?” Mr. Touré asked, in an interview at his home here. “It’s so contrary to our culture. To molest women using rifle barrels. … ”

While rape as a tool of military oppression is all too common, it previously has not been used as government tactic in Guinea.

“This time, a new stage has been reached,” Sidya Touré, a former prime minister who was beaten during the opposition rally, told the Times. “Women as battlefield targets. We could never have imagined that. [...] Where could people get the idea to start raping women in broad daylight?”

“They especially tore into the women,” François Lonsény Fall, another former prime minister who was also at the stadium, said. “They were seeking to humiliate them.”

August 24, 2009

Picturing a World Where Women Are Empowered and Valued

new_york_times_womenWomen in the developing world are the focus of the Aug. 23 edition of The New York Times Magazine.

The main feature is an essay adapted from a new book by Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff and former Times correspondent Sheryl Wudunn. Titled “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” the book and its companion website look at three major abuses against women: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality. Here’s the intro:

In the 19th century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.

Yet if the injustices that women in poor countries suffer are of paramount importance, in an economic and geopolitical sense the opportunity they represent is even greater. “Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos. There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.

Change, however, may not be that simple. In a separate article, “The Daughter Deficit,” Tina Rosenberg probes why discrimination against girls persists even among wealthier, more developed areas:

To be sure, development can eventually lead to more equal treatment for girls: South Korea’s birth ratios are now approaching normality. But policymakers need to realize that this type of development works slowly and mainly indirectly, by softening a son-centered culture. The solution is not to abandon development or to stop providing, say, microcredit to women. But these efforts should be joined by an awareness of the unintended consequences of development and by efforts, aimed at parents, to weaken the cultural preference for sons.

Other stories in this magazine issue look at women and philanthropy; a Q & A with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on plans to push women’s rights issues on the international stage; a reporter returns to a school for girls in Afghanistan that was the site of a violent attack; an interview with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the only female head of state in Africa; a look at the “feminist hawk” position that advocates the use of force to aid women; and a poignant “Lives” column that concludes with an HIV-positive 16-year-old’s simple plea: a safe place to be a girl.

Plus: If you want to share the work that you’re doing to educate and empower women, Kristof is collecting personal stories on his blog that describe efforts by individuals and organizations worldwide. Some of the submissions will be highlighted in future columns; three winners will be chosen to receive a signed copy of the book. You can also submit photos that capture the theme of women’s empowerment.

August 14, 2009

Breakdancing Mums Can Groove Their Bumps, But Do They Inspire Action?

Have you seen this video?

I think Flashmobs are the the coolest. What first appears as spontaneous and organic comes to be understood by the bystanders as something orchestrated and substantial. It’s grassroots. It’s guerrilla. And it can be an incredibly effective way of making a point.

From the text that appears in the video clip above — “Worldwide, 1,400 women die everyday in pregnancy and childbirth due to lack of basic healthcare” — the point here is to raise awareness of maternal health in poor countries and around the world. Who couldn’t groove to that?

Is it just me, though, who finds the action less than convincing? The description of the YouTube clip makes the intentions clear:

If you think this is dangerous, try giving birth in poor countries without a midwife, hospital or medicine. This flashmob is one of a series happening in Paris, Berlin, Utrecht and across Canada to highlight the scandal that millions of women in poor countries and around the world aren’t getting the healthcare they need for a safe and healthy pregnancy.

But if you were in the crowd in London or elsewhere, would you get that? Or would you respond, as several YouTube commenters have, with statements like: “I’m so proud of those women doing that pregnant! GO GIRLS!!!!!” or “who said pregnant ladies can’t get down!”

A blog post on Oxfam’s website notes that the actual dancers were not really pregnant (and it’s mentioned in a parenthetical note in the YouTube description, but you have to click “more info” to see it) — and other YouTube commenters are quick to point that out to the uninformed.

But if the action itself doesn’t have that context or conversation, is it effective?

Maybe I’m being too critical here. As on YouTube, I’m sure most bystanders were sparked to have a conversation — and maybe literature was passed around afterwards. And it’s the cognitive dissonance of pregnant women dancing that grabs everyone’s attention. It’s difficult to construct a creative action that will inspire people to think about such a difficult-to-think-about issue, but I’m not convinced this hits the mark.

(hat-tip: Wendy, thanks!)

July 28, 2009

Confusing Advice on Swine Flu for Pregnant Women

News outlets, especially in Britain, have been abuzz with discussions of the appropriate precautions against (H1N1) swine flu infection for pregnant women. While pregnant women may be slightly more vulnerable to flu because pregnancy compromises the immune system, some of the suggestions for limiting exposure and preventing infection (aside from basic handwashing and hygiene) sound impractical and unworkable for most women.

In Australia, several medical groups suggested that pregnant women wear masks, and some U.K. health agencies have suggested that women “limit the movements” of their children to prevent their bringing the virus home, and avoid public transportation, as well as crowds and unnecessary travel.

Dr. Annabel Bentley, writing at BMJ Group Blogs, calls the advice “at best confusing and at worst completely impractical and non evidence-based.”

Facemasks, for example, are sometimes suggested to prevent an infected person from transmitting the disease to others, but are not generally recommended for widespread prevention. Bentley also wonders how, exactly, women should define “unnecessary travel” and avoid crowded places, and she alludes to the certain amount of privilege necessary to even contemplate staying home and avoiding others:

Perhaps now is the time to switch from travelling to work on the underground and finally hire a chauffeur (one that’s already had swine flu preferably) to keep you away from the virus-breathing hordes?

Some advice on the topic does at least acknowledge the problem with these recommendations — that “complete isolation at home would be regarded as extreme for most women” — although the advice provides little help for women hoping to find a reasonable balance.

A U.S. News blog post also illustrates the confusion pregnant women face over a swine flu vaccine, when it becomes available:

On the one hand, healthy pregnant women who get infected with the flu are at increased risk of serious illness and hospitalization. In fact, the second H1N1 flu death in the United States was a pregnant woman. Because of this greater risk, pregnant women are advised to get annual flu vaccinations. On the other hand, pregnant women also are advised to be very cautious when taking any medications — especially the newest ones — because of unknown health risks to the developing fetus [...] Just today, public health experts said that there’s no way to know if any rare side effects will occur in the new vaccine until millions of people are vaccinated. Those unknowns would make an expectant mom especially nervous.

Swine flu concerns also arise when it’s time for women to give birth. One statement (from RAZCOG, linked below) highlights a potential problem with the recommendations, with regards to pregnant women limiting their potential to infect others: “Whilst women with possible influenza should avoid crowded antenatal clinics (to avoid transmission to others), they will still need to attend hospital for birth” — where they could presumably infect others, but which also goes against the advice to stay home and avoid crowded places.

In the United States, some home birth midwifery advocates have also suggested that women may prefer to stay away from hospitals when rates of infection are high. The Midwives Alliance of North America, for example, has suggested that out-of-hospital births may be preferable or necessary in some cases during pandemic flu.

Meanwhile, in the UK, where midwives and home births are better-integrated into pregnancy care, hospitals are drawing up emergency plans in which “Home births would be refused and planned caesarean sections abandoned if there were not enough staff to carry them out safely.”

Here’s guidance from health agencies on swine flu and pregnant women:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; also, “What Pregnant Women Should Know About H1N1 (formerly called swine flu) Virus
  • The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists [PDF]
  • National Health Service (UK)
  • The American College of Nurse Midwives also has links to a number of additional resources.

    Added: According to AP, a federal vaccine advisory panel is meeting Wednesday to discuss priorities for who should be first to receive swine flu vaccination, and pregnant women are likely to be high on the list [hat tip to the Daily Women's Health Policy Report]

    July 13, 2009

    Political Diagnosis: Global Gag Rule; Update on Conscience Clause; New Violence Against Women Advisor; The Last Word on Sarah Palin? …

    Supreme Court Decisions and You: The National Women’s Law Center has released an analysis of 2008-2009 Supreme Court decisions that have a direct effect on women’s lives. Here’s the report (pdf); more discussion at the NWLC blog, Womenstake:

    In Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee, the Supreme Court safeguarded women’s and girls’ rights by allowing them to pursue remedies for gender discrimination in schools under both Title IX and the Constitution. In Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, the Court ruled that employees are protected from being subject to retaliation for cooperating with an employer’s internal investigation of discrimination. “The Court’s decisions in these two cases kept hard-won protections in place,” [NWLC Co-President Marcia] Greenberger said.

    But not all outcomes were positive:

    “In AT&T Corp. v. Hulteen, the Supreme Court ignored the realities of the workplace and the intent of Congress and ruled against female workers,” Greenberger said. As Justice Ginsburg noted in a strong dissent in the case, the Court’s decision permitted AT&T to pay women lower pension benefits for the rest of their lives.

    Gag on Global Gag Rule: Ever since President Ronald Reagan instituted the “global gag rule” in 1984, its existence has been dependent on which party is in the White House. If it’s a Democrat, it’s revoked; if it’s Republican, it’s reinstated. On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 17-10 to approve an amendment to a Department of State and foreign affairs appropriations bill that would make permanent President Obama’s reversal of the global gag rule. Emily Douglas has more.

    The global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy (the site of the United Nations International Conference on Population where it was first announced), prohibits international family planning groups that receive U.S. aid from offering abortion services or providing information about safe abortion, even if they use other funding. It would be great to see it gone, for good.

    New NIH Director: President Obama has nominated Francis Collins, best known for leading the public effort to sequence the human genome, to be director of the National Institutes of Health. Chris Wilson at Slate looks at how Collins, an evangelical Christian, has combined his faith in God with his faith in science.

    New Violence Against Women Advisor: “Vice President Joe Biden’s June 26 announcement of a White House Advisor on Violence Against Women stirred some public grumbling about President Barack Obama’s recent ‘czar frenzy,’” writes Kayla Hutzler at Women’s eNews.

    “But at a time of rising pressure on domestic violence shelters, representatives of two of the largest advocacy groups for ending domestic violence were far more enthusiastic about the creation of the post. They were also excited at the naming of Lynn Rosenthal, a former executive director at the New Mexico Coalition against Domestic Violence in Albuquerque, with a substantial resume of safety advocacy and working ties to Biden.”

    Here’s the White House announcement, and a New York Times editorial in favor of the appointment.

    The Last Word on Sarah Palin (Fingers Crossed): Go read “Palin’s Long March to a Short-Notice Resignation,” then head over to Slate for Dahlia Lithwick’s parting shot: “[Wh]en the dust settles, the lesson may be that she was simply a woman who made no sense.”

    Looking Ahead to 2012: Jill Miller Zimon wonders, “Could we see a female-female GOP ticket for president and vice president in 2012?”

    Update on Conscience Clause: Kay Steiger has written a good round-up of efforts at the state level to pass legislation that allows medical professionals to refuse to provide services that violate their religious or moral beliefs.

    Speaking of conscience clauses, anyone remember the federal rule instituted in the final days of the Bush administration? It cut off federal funding for state and local governments, hospitals, health plans and clinics that did not fully accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists or other employees who refuse to provide care they feel violates their beliefs. Aimed at abortion and family planning services, it went beyond laws that already provide for healthcare workers and threatened access to many health services, including infertility treatment, end-of-life care, blood transfusions and mental health counseling.

    President Obama moved to rescind the rule, as expected, but the process has been very slow. The 3o-day public comment period on rule changes ended in April; Health and Human Services Department is still reviewing the hundreds of thousands of comments received.

    Administration officials acknowledged early on that they were looking for a compromise, but we haven’t heard much more on the subject until President Obama told a group of religion reporters earlier this month that the new policy would “certainly not be weaker” than what existed before President Bush’s expansion:

    We will be coming out with I think more specific guidelines.  But I can assure all of your readers that when this review is complete there will be a robust conscience clause in place.  It may not meet the criteria of every possible critic of our approach, but it certainly will not be weaker than what existed before the changes were made.

    David Brody has the full transcript of Obama’s remarks.

    July 7, 2009

    Female Condom to be Reintroduced in Uganda, United States

    We’ve written about the female condom – including the recently approved FC2 – several times in the past. Serra Sippel of the Center for Health and Gender Equity has an update on this topic at RH Reality Check, noting that Uganda is working on plans to reintroduce female condoms, with that nation’s government planning to promote the device beginning this fall.

    Sippel explains that the Center for Health and Gender Equity and the Global Campaign for Microbicides recently met with:

    …local leaders from HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, domestic violence, human rights and women’s rights groups in Kampala for an advocacy training targeted at donors and national government to ensure successful reintroduction of female condoms in Uganda. As part of the training, participants met with members of the Health Development Partnership Group, which USAID heads; with UNFPA and the Ministry of Health, demonstrating civil society support for the prevention method. Participants also learned about the history of the female condom in Uganda and how to move forward with advocacy efforts beyond the training.

    After having received FDA approval to market the device in March, the FC2 female condom is expected to be available in the United States this September. PreventionNow! has additional resources on the topic of female condoms, including news and global promotion efforts.

    June 24, 2009

    Maternal Mortality Reduction as an International Human Right

    Maternal mortality and morbidity is a large problem worldwide, and one we’ve written about here in various contexts in the past. According to the World Health Organization, 1,500 women die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications every day, mostly in developing countries, and most of these deaths are avoidable.

    In an attempt to focus international attention on this problem, The United Nations Human Rights Council included in its recent session a resolution on maternal mortality and morbidity.  According to the agency’s press release the resolution calls for the following:

    • a study on preventable maternal mortality and morbidity, including identification of human rights aspect
    • an overview of initiatives and activities within the United Nations system to address all causes of preventable maternal mortality and morbidity
    • identification of how the Human Rights Council can add to existing efforts by providing human rights analysis, including efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goal on improving maternal health
    • recommended options for better addressing the human rights dimension of preventable maternal mortality and morbidity throughout the United Nations system.

    In a joint release responding to the resolution, the Center for Reproductive Rights notes that “This is a groundbreaking step towards ensuring every woman’s basic human right to a safe and healthy pregnancy and childbirth. Governments should heed the call of the Human Rights Council and take urgent action to prevent women from dying needlessly in pregnancy and childbirth.”

    A representative of Action Canada for Population and Development quoted for the release described the importance of the resolution thusly: “By supporting this resolution, governments have affirmed the right of women and girls to receive care before, during, and after pregnancy and childbirth, and to survive these experiences without illness or disability.”

    May 28, 2009

    Raising Money for Hebrew and Arabic Versions of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” One Step at a Time

    Last month, a marathon in Tel Aviv drew runners raising money for a number of different causes — including an adaptation of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

    Sophie Walsh, a clinical psychologist who moved from London to Tel Aviv in 1994, ran in support of Women and Their Bodies: The Women’s Association for Health Action and Responsibility. Founded in Israel in 2005, Women and Their Bodies (WTB) is an Israeli-Palestinian initiative that is adapting “Our Bodies, Ourselves” into Hebrew and Arabic.

    “This version will be up-to-date for this decade, making it available to all women in Israel regardless of their native tongue,” Walsh told the Haaretz newspaper.

    The OBOS global translation/adaptation program was recently featured in On the Issues magazine. The story explains how each international project is specific to the community’s health needs and social and political conditions.

    We haven’t discussed the Israeli-Palestinian project in detail here before, so here’s some news about the effort.

    WTB has more than 40 Hebrew and Arabic chapters in progress, and the goal is to publish the Hebrew edition in 2010. The Arabic edition will appear first online and as booklets — two of which will be published by the end of the year — with a book publication date to be announced soon.

    women_and_their_bodiesThe organization is working with Jewish and Arab groups to localize the material and has collaborated with numerous women’s and human rights organizations. WTB has also recruited teams of volunteers, Hebrew and/or Arabic-speaking, between the ages of 21 and 65, to conduct interviews for the personal narratives present in every chapter.

    A graphics committee is charged with making sure that the book’s images are representative of women’s bodies in the Middle East and include women of varied religious and ethnic backgrounds. According to WTB’s 2008 annual report, dozens of women have already volunteered images, including those shown here.

    In addition to the Arabic and Hebrew publications, WTB is creating an online action and resource center, with links to women’s organizations and blogs providing updates on health legislation.

    The organization also runs community outreach workshops on women’s health rights and sexuality. Facilitator Suzaan Abu-Waasel led a workshop on women’s body image and empowerment for the older women’s club at the Arab Jewish Community Center in Jaffa. Here’s what she said at the end of the session:

    Asking the women aged 45-60 to put their social commitments aside and focus on their own bodies and wellbeing, was an extremely challenging task. Much patience is needed to raise taboo topics.

    Many of the participants focused on good parenting, or their relationships with their in-laws; the concept of taking care of ones’ self was rather alien at first … I am thrilled to tell you that their group coordinator now reports an overflow of critical discussions.

    It costs approximately $5,000 to produce each chapter. If you and a group of friends or an organization want to sponsor a chapter in the Hebrew or Arabic adaptation, you can make a secure electronic donation, or write a check to “Women and Their Bodies,” and mail it to 34 Kfar Etzion St. Jerusalem, Israel 93392.

    Smaller sums go directly to support sections of chapters, such as the narrative collection, or the linguistic editing in the chapter of your choice.

    For a U.S. tax deduction (minimum $100), make out a check to “New Israel Fund.” Write in the memo line that it is a donor advised contribution to Women and Their Bodies – Fund ID #5459, and mail it to NIF, 1101 14th St, 6th Floor, Washington D.C. 20005-5639.

    Let us know if you want additional information about this or other OBOS adaptations. Projects are currently also underway in China, India, Nepal, Nigeria, Russia, Tanzania and Turkey.

    May 21, 2009

    U.S. Soldiers Seek Midwife in Afghanistan

    Philip Smucker of McClatchy Newspapers has written a must-read story about a search for a midwife in an Afghan war zone. American soldiers hope the woman will help open a health clinic in Paktika, described as one of the poorest and most dangerous of Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.

    Yes, the effort is part propaganda. But it sure beats the CIA handing out Viagra to Afghan tribal leaders.

    Afghanistan has devastatingly high infant and maternal mortality rates, and war has made access to health care more difficult. Every 26 minutes, an Afghan woman dies giving birth; the rate is second only to Sierra Leone. Midwives are critical to any public heath effort, yet even the training poses a real risk.

    “Frequently the distance between home and a health care center is a two- to 10-hour walk,” Kathrin Lauer, a medical administration expert with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, said. “Midwives with good training are critical if you want to reduce the maternal and neonatal mortality rates. This is one way to help win the war.”

    A Chicago Tribune story last year on an Afghan midwife training program noted that militants shot and killed a midwife, allegedly for  handing out condoms and birth control. One midwife said women feared even taking part in the training program, originally created by a Dutch relief agency, because the school was near an American base. The women didn’t want to be associated with Americans, or give the impression that they were.

    In the McClatchy story, soldiers received the name of a midwife from a local pharmacist. One of the soliders, Maj. Yince Loh, is a brain surgeon from Los Angeles.

    “Right now, we can’t help the Afghan government come in here and build a big Afghan clinic,” Loh said. “But we have some options and we are still looking for midwives to help. Our goals are incremental: to improve infant mortality step by step. That will certainly help improve perceptions of the government.”

    But when they found the woman, named Shamshad, 45, she was terrified. The Taliban had previously abducted her for two weeks — punishment for providing a bandage to a wounded Afghan government soldier. Smucker writes:

    “Please help me, but don’t bring me anything yourself; send it at night through someone else,” Shamshad pleaded as the Americans greeted her.

    Sgt. Eric Pollock, a National Guardsman from San Diego, asked Shamshad whether she could work at an Afghan medical clinic, but she said she couldn’t.

    “If I work in an official clinic, they (the Taliban) will behead me,” she said, demurring from having her photo taken out of fear that the Taliban might see it.

    “I’ve been interested in medicine for a long time,” said Shamshad, who wasn’t covering her hair as Afghan and many other Muslim women traditionally do. “My husband would not let me work in a government clinic, so I opened my own clinic here. But when I was arrested in Pakistan by the Taliban and fell ill, thieves ransacked the clinic and took everything, including my stethoscope, hot water heater and blankets.”

    Loh said he’d think about how he might help Shamshad as he emptied his medical supplies onto the counter for her and prepared to return to base.

    Thoughts on how the U.S. can do good as our presence complicates the situation even more?

    Plus: Read our previous coverage of maternal health conditions in Afghanistan and U.S. involvement, including stories about Afghanistan’s largest women’s hospital, Rabia Balkhi, home to the Laura Bush Maternity Ward.

    And over at Feministing, Courtney ponders military escalation in Afghanistan and what it means to Afghan women.