Category Archives: Women and Girls

11 Key Tweets from #ICMLive

Trainee Midwives demonstrating the childbirth process using the Advanced Child birth simulator Anatomical Model donated by UNFPA at the handover ceremony at Public Health Nurses College. UNFPA/Evelyn Kiapi

3000 midwives have gathered in Prague for the 30th International Confederation of Midwives Triennial Congress. I have been reading the twitter stream closely ahead of my upcoming trip to Ethiopia next week where I will lead a delegation of journalists to report on newborn health.

Here are some tweets I’ve found interesting thus far. Follow the #ICMLive hashtag through June 5 to join the global midwifery conversation.

Why Newborns are on the World Health Assembly’s Agenda


Today the 67th World Health Assembly convened in Geneva, Switzerland. On tap this week will be discussions about health issues ranging from climate change to tuberculosis. Also on the agenda is a key discussion about newborns and the draft of the Every Newborn Action Plan (item 14.2 on the agenda). You might remember that as a network of moms we helped provide comments on the draft plan earlier this year. Our comments along with other stakeholders – over 300 comments  in all — helped UNICEF, WHO and their  partners revise the Every Newborn Action Plan draft that will be discussed and presented to the assembly.

  • Three quarters of all newborn deaths occur in the first week of life. – World Health Organization

Why is there a need for an action plan to save more newborns? While the mortality rate for children under five has been effectively reduced by 50% between 1990 and 2012, the neonatal mortality rate deceased  far too slowly even though there are interventions that can save more newborns’ lives. Over the same time period neonatal mortality only fell 37%.  The vast majority of newborn deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries due to a lack of investments and quality maternal and newborn health care with 12 countries contributing to most newborn deaths. Most newborns die from one of three causes: prematurity, intrapartum-related neonatal deaths (including birth asphyxia) and neonatal infections.

  • Up to two thirds of newborn deaths can be prevented if known, effective health measures are provided at birth and during the first week of life. – World Health Organization

Causes for Child Mortality

The Every Newborn Action Plan lays out the ways in which more newborns can survive through robust continuum of care and provides a framework for countries to reduce their individual newborn mortality rates. The plan has an abitious goal to reduce newborn deaths t0 10 per 1000 people the world over by 2035. In order to reach these goals five strategic objectives have been outlined. The five objectives are  (1) strengthen and invest in care during labour, birth and the first day and week of life, (2) improve the quality of maternal and newborn care (3) reach every woman and newborn to reduce inequities (4) harness the power of parents, families and communities and (5) count every newborn – measurement, programme-tracking and  accountability.

The health assembly is invited to adopt the plan. Doing so will ensure that more newborn lives will be saved through interventions that work.

Follow for up-to-date information on the draft plan and follow #EveryNewborn on Twitter.


Save the Children Releases New Report on Motherhood in Conflict

This article was originally published on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists.

Every year Save the Children releases its annual State of the World’s Mothers report and each year a magnifying glass is held up to motherhood around the world and how mothers fare based solely on where they live. Now in its fifteenth year, Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers report puts into clear perspective the countries where motherhood is best and worst. This year Save the Children focuses its attention on motherhood in crisis.

Devastating crises have popped up across the globe, some of them ongoing and others that are fairly new, relatively speaking. No conflict, of course, is beneficial for the health and welfare of mothers and their children. In fact, women and children are precisely the ones who tend to suffer most during times of civil unrest, natural disasters, and all-out wars. Internal conflicts break families apart, cause families to flee to neighboring countries to then become refugees, or they become trapped inside of their home country and internally displaced. Basic services such as food assistance and health care then become scarce causing undue damage to the lives of children and the mothers who take care of them. The same is true for natural disasters that can irreparably ruin families’ lives and livelihoods.

This year over 60 million women and children are in need of humanitarian assistance according to the report and Save the Children has responded to nearly 120 humanitarian crises in 48 countries. Mothers and children, therefore, who are trapped in fragile countries are more susceptible to death and disease. We already know that 800 women die in childbirth and 18,000 children under the age of five die as a direct result of preventable disease every day. Did you know that half of these deaths for both women and children occur in countries that are fragile meaning there is a lack of good governance and political stability that leaves a country’s citizens open and vulnerable to a range of disasters whether man-made or natural.

During any crisis situation expectant mothers are in particular perilous situations. Obstetric services are often halted save for rudimentary services that many not be equipped to save a mother’s life in critical situations, that is if a pregnant woman is lucky. She may have to give birth alone in the bush or in the back of truck fleeing across the border to save her life and the life of her newborn.

The lives of newborns, of course, are also at increased risk when a mother gives birth in high-intensity, crises situations where mothers worry not only about giving birth to a healthy baby, but also simply staying alive.

As aforementioned, when countries experience crisis situations ordinary citizens suffer most. Health systems suffer. Frontline health workers – even the most dedicated of them – may have to flee along with citizens to save their own lives. And furthermore, hospitals and health centers can become targets of destruction in civil unrest in order to hurt those who need the services most.

Consider the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) where sectarian violence has left nearly 3000 dead and hundreds of thousands of people homeless and without access to the most basic needs such as food, clean water, and sanitation. And now that the rainy season is nearing the hardships in people’s lives will be greatly intensified. It is no wonder that the CAR ranks 173rd in the report rankings.

“Nothing will stop a mother from trying to keep her children safe and protected,” said Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, “But when disaster strikes, whether it’s a war in Syria, a tornado in Oklahoma or a typhoon in the Philippines, women and children are often at the greatest risk – up to 14 times more likely to die than men.  Fortunately, our evidence also shows we can save and dramatically improve the lives of mothers and children, even in the most challenging places to live, if we invest in the services they need.”

In Syria where the civil war has been raging on for four years 1.4 million children and nearly 700,000 women have fled the country, according to the report. There are now over 200,000 women and girls of reproductive age inside and outside of Syria according to the UNFPA meaning there will be an increased necessity for obstetric and newborn health care and family planning services. And, in the case of civil unrest, rape and torture of women and girls are often used as weapons of war exacerbating gender-based violence.

Even in the United States when a natural disaster such as Hurricane Sandy devastated the east coast, mothers and children with the least resources fared the worst amid the devastation and months of rebuilding. No matter the country or crises, women and children remain the most vulnerable communities to death, disease, abuse, and violence.

Through its report Save the Children is putting forth a reminder that in fragile countries the health of women and children remains a top priority and systems must be in placed to ensure they are not let down when they need help the most.

Read the full report at

Photo by Allessio Romenzi for Save the Children.

WHO Releases New Maternal Health and Mortality Data

Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990 – 2013Maternal health  is one of the world’s biggest global health priorities especially as the deadline for the Millineum Development Goals near. As a global priority MDG 5 (improve maternal health) cannot be effectively measured without full and complete data resources. According to the new report, Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990 – 2013, only 40% of countries accurately record the cause of death for expecting mothers. Without this vital data measuring maternal mortality will continue to be an ongoing challenge with missing pieces to the overall maternal health puzzle.

In order to reach MDG 5, vital records must be accurately attained and recorded globally. It was the recommendation of the Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health that countries make marked improvements in vital events and statistics to better measure maternal mortality rates and ratios, and yet that progress continues to be slow-going according to the report.

With the current, available data released by the World Health Organization we know that most maternal deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and that the two countries with the highest maternal mortality deaths are India and Nigeria, but Sierra Leone has the highest ratio of maternal deaths at 1100 per every 100,00 people.

The Maternal Mortality Estimation Inter-Agency Group (MMEIG) has worked to determine comparable MMR rates along with a technical advisory group. Due to the progress made by the MMEIG in conjunction with the advisory group new MMR estimates have been established and released in this latest data report.

In 2013 there were 210 maternal deaths worldwide per every 100,000 people. In 1990, that number was significantly higher at 380 showing a steep decline of 45%. Over the course of nearly 25 years, the maternal mortality rate has decreased significantly as the numbers show, but there is yet more work to do particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where the need to keep more mothers alive is greatest. Women die in childbirth for causes that are completely preventable such as excess bleeding and infection.

Data from 183 countries were included in the new report. According to Trends in Maternal Mortality national-level data from civil registration, surveys, surveillance systems, censuses, and sample registration systems among others were used to determine the new data rates. Despite the still-high numbers all WHO regions experienced a reduction in maternal deaths since 1990. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, women have a 1 in 38 chance of dying in childbirth as opposed to women in developed countries who have a 1 in 3700 chance of dying from pregnancy-related causes. The worldwide MMR (number of maternal deaths) is 210. In 2013, 289,000 women died in childbirth. In 1990, that number was 523,000.

Concerted Improvements

There is no doubt clear improvements in maternal health have been realized over the course of two decades. However, the global health community can save more women’s lives. 800 women die every day from birth complications that are largely preventable. The World Health Organization recommends that women have access to more antenatal care, delivery with trained midwives and frontline health workers, blood supplies and medications and education about having a healthy pregnancy and delivery.

UN Photo/David Ohana


Last Minute Mother’s Day Gifts That Give Back and Save Lives

Mother’s Day is a celebration full of flowers, cards, and sentimental mementos. It’s also a day to celebrate not only our mothers and the moms we know personally, but mothers everywhere.

As you know there are women around the world who will lose their life giving birth. That may sound blunt, but the numbers say it all. 800 women will die today from birth complications that are largely preventable.

How can you help turn this statistic around this Mother’s Day?

Below are six organizations that are providing prenatal care, mobile obstetrics services, and safe births for women who otherwise might have to deliver alone at home without a trained health professional and without the tools and knowledge  she needs to stay alive. Your donation to any one of these organizations can help save a mother’s life.

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Motherhood in Zambia. Photos: Jennifer James

RESCUE GIFTS from the International Rescue Committee: $52 will help train a woman in Kenya become a midwife. Midwives are trained to save the lives of mothers and newborns. Around 800 women die each day from complications from pregnancy and delivery as aforementioned. By training women to become midwives, more women will live to care for their babies and families.

BRAC PRENATAL GIFTS: Saving lives is one of the most important gifts you can give to mothers who live in low-income, low-resource settings. Your Mother’s Day donation will provide prenatal health care for women in countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Uganda where maternal mortality numbers are perilously high.

Motherhood in India, Zambia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Photos: Jennifer James

KANGU: Providing safe births is the sole purpose of one of our newest partners, You can help fund a mom’s safe birth for as low as $10.

MIDWIVES FOR HAITI: Reaching expecting mothers who otherwise can’t get to a hospital or health center to deliver their babies is the focus of Midwives for Haiti. Through its mobile clinic, midwives help women with safe and healthy births. $10 can save the life of one mother. Donate more and save more lives in remote Haiti.

MOtherhood Collage3
Motherhood in Zambia and Tanzania. Photos by Jennifer James

EVERY MOTHER COUNTS: Every Mother Counts provides a cross-section of maternal health services you can donate to in order to save a mothers’ life from providing a ride to a hospital where an expectant mother can deliver her baby to buying a solar suitcase for a health facility in Malawi.

SAMAHOPE: Samahope’s #HonorYourMom campaign is an easy way to show your mom how much you love her and also donate to safe births and other medical treatments for mothers. See all of the honored moms in Samahope’s #HonorYourMom gallery. Your donation goes directly to doctors who provide medical care in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

We hope you get inspired by the fantastic, life-saving work of these selfless organizations. They can use your help this Mother’s Day to prevent more mothers from dying just to give birth.


Support Our Partner, End 7

One thing is certain: I do not know how to read a fiscal budget, but I have sat in awe watching experts dissect the President’s budget line by line and then meticulously explain what programs have been cut and programs that have been relatively spared. So, when our partner, End 7, reported that funding for the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Neglected Tropical Disease Program has been cut by $13.5 million I know that as a community of passionate moms we need to do something.

Neglected tropical diseases are “neglected” because they don’t get the big funding and recognition like HIV/AIDS, malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarrhea, for example. They are diseases that people can usually live with for some time despite discomfort and debilitating ailments and a lowered social standing.

According to End 7, neglected tropical diseases, like hookworm, trachoma, and lymphatic filariasis affect 1 in 6 people worldwide and keep them in a perpetual cycle of poverty. Most people don’t know about these diseases. Their names are too long and technical and don’t grab headlines, but they can be prevented. The global health community has committed itself to controlling and eradicating these neglected tropical diseases by 2020. In order to reach this goal the funding cannot stop now, especially when so much progress has already been made.

In 2012 the London Declaration Committment brought together an array of partners from the World Bank to USAID to GlaxoSmithKline to set strategic goals to eliminate the most common neglected tropical diseases by the end of the decade. A recent update report was released showing that more low income countries are implementing programs to control neglected tropical diseases in their own populace, the demand and allocation of drugs to prevent the diseases is higher, and more research and development is going into fighting these diseases. Even more importantly since 2012 the global efforts to control or eradicate neglected tropical diseases has now turned into a global movement. Read Delivering on Progress and Driving Progress.

End 7 is asking its supporters to encourage members of Congress to rethink the proposed spending cut to USAID’s Neglected Tropical Disease Program and to thank Congresswomen Granger and Lowey for keeping neglected tropical diseases on the funding agenda.



Women Helping Women in Johannesburg’s Townships

This post was originally published on Impatient Optimists.

I met Jabulile Tlhabane, 57, in a small woman-owned restaurant on a busy road in Alexandra Township located about 60 minutes outside Johannesburg depending on the time of day and traffic. Alexandra, or Alex as the locals call it, is home to over a million people even though its resident capacity is intended to be capped at 100,000. That means stresses are rife on Alexandra’s overcrowded citizens from a lack of adequate health facilities, increasing teenage pregnancies, largely unreported violence against women, drug abuse, and a general absence of jobs and opportunities. Tlhabane is a longtime member of Rebecca’s Well, a small nonprofit that provides help and healing for women and girls in need as well as microfinance and enterprising skills. I met with Tlhabane to learn more about their work. Rebecca’s Well was started by a Boston woman, Sheila Wise Rowe, who now calls South Africa home with her family.

Tlhabane first joined Rebecca’s Well over a decade ago after her husband abruptly left her and her children. “When I first met Sheila at my local church, she advised me to go for healing,” Tlhabane remembers from those difficult early years after her marriage dissolved. “It took me years to get completely healed. I think I spent the first six to seven years crying. I was married to my schoolmate. We were married for twenty-six years and we had six children.”

It’s stories like Tlhabane’s that made Wise Rowe dedicate her life to helping women in Johannesburg area townships including both Alexandra and Soweto who need encouragement and renewed hope to ease towards self-sufficiency.

Tlhabane is now the director of Rebecca’s Well’s Soweto program where there are both initiatives for women and teens. “The problem is unemployment and women who do not pursue their education,” said Tlhabane about Rebecca’s Well’s work in the biggest township in South Africa. “That is very challenging. People fall pregnant. Those are the things that challenge us.”

But there are success stories. Tlhabane told me about a member of Rebecca’s Well who was at one time homeless without any options, but through assistance from Rebecca’s Well now has a stable job, attends school, and was able to recently purchase her own car.

Regina Morutu is another success story. She has been a member of Rebecca’s Well since 2009. A young mother of a five-year-old and Soweto resident, Morutu graduated with a B.A. in psychology last year and dreams of getting her masters in forensic psychology. “I came to Rebecca’s Well because I had school problems,” she said. “I dropped out of school because my father passed away and my mother couldn’t afford my school fees, so I took a break.”

Rebecca’s Well helped Morutu get back into school and helped her with school fees as well as with transport costs. “I spend a grand (South African rands) on transport each month and I still have to eat,” Morutu said. “Yes, it is expensive.”

“When people hear about Rebecca’s Well they think it will be a quick fix,” Morutu added. “Some people don’t have the patience to wait and endure. I think their mental state needs to change.”

While Rebecca’s Well isn’t a large scale nonprofit its presence is being felt by women and girls who have little options especially those who become pregnant and need help staying in school and matriculating into college or women who need new skills to earn their own money.

“If it wasn’t for Rebecca’s Well I’d still be at home looking at life in the hood,” said Morutu. “Now I have direction.”

Learn more about Rebecca’s Well’s work at

USAID Launches New Global Development Lab

Exactly how does the global community end poverty by 2030? According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), it’s by working together.

Today marks the official launch of USAID’s Global Development Lab, a new initiative that uses science and technology to improve global health and development outcomes around the world. Utilizing data and analytics USAID is quickly moving towards more efficient ways to track, report, scale, and improve the ways in which hundreds of millions of people worldwide can plausibly leave poverty behind in 16 years.  Poverty is currently calculated as those who live on less than $1.25 a day.

The depth and scale of global poverty obviously requires increased innovative methods to tackle what many attest is an attainable goal by 2030. That is why USAID has brought together leading organizations and foundations from the private sector, universities, as well as corporations to tackle the issue collectively under the wide-reaching umbrella of the development lab.

“We do know things are improving and the interventions that are most cost-effective,” said Karen Cavanaugh, Director, Office of Health Systems at USAID during a recent discussion about global health best buys. “We need to invest in implementation science.”

NGOs like CARE and Save the Children have already become “Cornerstone Partners” that have committed to using their expertise and data driven global programs to join this poverty eradication effort. For example, CARE is already using cell phones to monitor pregnant women in Bihar, India and is helping savings group members in Kenya and Tanzania access their funds.

Corporations such as Coca-Cola and Unilever are lending their consumer-driven insights about scale and distribution of goods to the lab and innovative companies like Microsoft and Intel will likely bring their technology expertise to the table. Thus far, $30 billion in investments have been pledged by the Cornerstone Partners as well as by USAID to bolster the efforts and outcomes of the lab.

USAID is also rallying the most brilliant minds through global challenges, open data, and fellowships to accelerate the rate in which technology and science is used to save and improve more lives.

Today USAID Administrator Raj Shah will give the keynote at the official Global Development Lab launch in New York City. Only months into his administration Shah had already laid the framework for the lab in speeches about the ways in which USAID can advance to save more lives through “embracing innovation, science, technology and research.”

Read more about USAID’s Global Development Lab at


Maternal Health in Kenya

By Naomi Kamau, freelance journalist based in Nairobi.

Maternal health and child delivery is a crucial phase in a mother’s life and that of her baby. I tend to believe that every mother who carries a pregnancy to full term hopes to deliver well and have a baby after nine months of ‘hard work’.

For some mothers this is not always the case as complications may arise causing miscarriage, still birth or death of the baby. Other mothers go through prolonged labor or a c-section while yet others have not so good treatments from nurses and midwives.

On September 4, 2013 video footage went viral of what can be termed as the worst possible form of patient mistreatment experienced at Bungoma District Hospital in Kenya. The video shows a mother forced to deliver on the floor as nurses look. They then abuse and slap her for supposedly messing up the floor. Given the public outcry and demand that the nurses on duty be fired and their licenses revoked, the hospital staff blamed the surge in numbers of expectant mothers for the sorry situation. Nevermind the psychological damage that was done to the lady at hand and the fact that this video was taken by another expectant lady awaiting delivery. When she saw what happened to her counterpart she told her husband to transfer her from that hospital.

To say the least, the situation was saddening. And we could only hope that other nurses had learned their lesson from this scenario. However, barely four months later another story of expectant mother negligence occurred.

On January 16th this year, a mother said her newborn baby died because she gave birth while standing due to negligence. The woman and her husband say the baby came straight from the womb and hit his head on the floor, dying minutes later. Efforts to resuscitate the baby boy were futile as he died about ten minutes later. The medical superintendent admitted that the unfortunate incident had happened but attributed it to a shortage of staff. He said that the nurses in charge were busy attending to another patient who had come in with a raptured uterus.

These and many other cases that go unreported form not only nurses/doctors negligence but add to the statistics of maternal health care. Many times I have heard conversations of mothers saying they preferred men midwives as compared to women. The reason? Men make better midwives and are gentle and caring to their patients while women are harsher and see ‘no big deal’.

Another debate that comes up is whether to go to a public or a private hospital for delivery.

Public vs Private hospital

My sister gave birth to her first child in a private hospital. In her conversations with other mothers they always tell of how things happen ‘really quick’ in a private hospital leaving no room for natural labour pain and child delivery. For instance the nurses are too quick to put you on drip or in some cases suggest a c-section. This may be the reason why she opted for a public hospital for her second delivery.

I dare say it is only mothers who have been there who are able to attest to these findings. One of the major maternity hospitals in Nairobi is Pumwani. Although it has had its fair share of challenges including strikes, holding mothers “hostage” for failure to pay maternity fee and child swapping, it is also one of the maternity hospitals that records the highest numbers of child deliveries.

What Can You Do to Help?


How One Philanthropist is Changing Lives for India’s Women and Girls – Part II

By Indrani Goradia, founder of Wajood, a partnership between Indrani’s Light Foundation and PSI

Yesterday we published How One Philanthropist is Changing Lives for India’s Women and Girls. Today we’re publishing part two of the piece. In this continuation, Indrani Goradia tells the stories of three women she met during her most recent trip to India to launch Wajood, a partnership between her organization, Indrani’s Light Foundation, and PSI to address violence against women. Read more about Wajood in yesterday’s piece.


Victim turned advocate Laxmi speaks at the launch of Wajood – a project developed in partnership with philanthropist and advocate Indrani Goradia and PSI India to address violence against women in Delhi, India. Laxmi’s efforts led to the Indian Supreme Court regulating the sale of acid and making prosecutions of acid attacks easier to pursue.

Laxmi strode confidently into the hotel ballroom where we were holding the launch of Wajood – a project developed in partnership between Indrani’s Light Foundation and PSI India to stem gender based violence in Delhi.

She’s slight, dressed in skinny jeans and unmistakable in her confidence, her beauty and for the scars covering her face and arms.

We had not exchanged a single word but I could feel the life and purpose flowing from her, and I loved her immediately.

A little later, we sat down to talk and with self-assurance and boldness, she shared her story. When she was only 15 years old, she refused the marriage proposal of a man twice her age in her New Delhi neighborhood. As revenge, the man enlisted his friend to help him punish her. At a crowded upscale market in India’s capital, the two men approached her and threw a glass of acid in her face.

Now at 23, after multiple surgeries, she is speaking out on the issue of violence against women and mentoring women who’ve experienced similar abuse. She is giving voice to victims and hope to women, and she is pushing for change.

There is something painfully beautiful about the human spirit that allows Laxmi to take such an unimaginable tragedy and turn it into fire and light and love.

Too many young girls and women share Laxmi’s experience. She’s determined to stop the cycle. I am, too. It’s why I am here in Delhi launching Wajood with PSI India. The timing is critical and the women I met are ready for change in one of the most dangerous places in the world for girls and women.

I leave our conversation restless, determined and impatient. Laxmi inspires my work and she challenges me to do more.

What one thing can we do today to help create change? It could be a simple as sharing Laxmi’s story.


Today I spent time with prostituted women at Shakti Vahini, India’s leading organization to combat human trafficking and slavery.

It broke me. I felt sorrow, anger, rage, and incredible grief.

But what most overwhelmed me was the incredible grace of the women I met. They invited me into their space and they shared their very intimate personal stories.

A girl in the New Delhi community of Bindapur, a resettlement colony comprised of migrant workers. Girls and women often do not have the support networks they need to recognize the signs of gender based violence. Indrani’s partnership with PSI India will establish a coalition of organizations to better serve those in communities like Bindapur.

Geeta’s mother died when she was seven, leaving behind six children – all girls. Two of her sisters were married off at the age of 7. As her father could not support her, she was sent away to be a domestic servant.

Geeta was only 15 years old when she was married to escape servitude, and then promptly had two children by age 19. Her husband regularly beat her and demanded that she make more money selling goods at the local market. He soon left her alone, young and with no way to support her two children. That’s when a “trusted” male friend offered her a better life and work in the city. Hopeful for a way to provide for her children, she agreed and was soon sold into the Delhi brothel that has become her life, her home, her prison.

One after another, each woman shared her story. I am humbled and I fight to hold back tears.

I’m thankful for Shaki Vahini and their work to strengthen law enforcement agencies and campaign against violence against women, child marriage, sexual harassment, and forced marriages. With them we are a step closer to ending gender-based violence in my lifetime.

Join me. Share Geeta’s story. Help create the awareness we need to change. When our voices become too loud, too powerful, they will have no choice but to be heard.


I think most people would expect an educated woman in the country’s capital city to somehow be immune, protected, to have the same basic rights of a modern woman.

A woman waits to see a doctor in the New Delhi community of Bindapur, a resettlement colony comprised of migrant workers. Project Wajood will build upon existing health clinics to launch much needed gender based health services that reach women and their families at the community level.
A woman waits to see a doctor in the New Delhi community of Bindapur, a resettlement colony comprised of migrant workers. Project Wajood will build upon existing health clinics to launch much needed gender based health services that reach women and their families at the community level.

In 2004, Mitu, a pediatrician, married an orthopedic surgeon. Shortly after her arranged marriage, her in-laws demanded a greater dowry from her parents – a new car, more jewelry and other possessions. Her parents could not give more, and as a result, Mitu suffered abuse at the hands of her mother-in-law – a practice all too common in India.

After becoming pregnant her in-laws demanded a sex determination test. Mitu refused.

She was carrying twins, and she knew that they would force her to have an abortion if she was pregnant with girls. Persistent, her in-laws tricked her into eating a cake that she was allergic to and she ended up in the hospital where they arranged a full fetal scan, revealing the sex of the babies to her in-laws. All without her consent.

Mitu fought back.

It so happens that gender based abortion is illegal in India under the PNDT Act of 1994. She is the first woman in India to file a complaint under the law against her husband and the doctors and hospital that performed the illegal sex-determination test. To date, no charges have been pressed.

One of the great challenges in addressing gender-based violence is getting laws passed that protect people from abuse. Another great challenge is ensuring charges are filed and people are held accountable for their actions.

The deeply engrained preference for boys in India means that most people feel that Mitu is wrong and that she should have respected her in-laws’ preference for a boy.

Mitu’s path has not been easy. She experiences stigma, has been ostracized and is financially burdened. But she does not let these things stop her from doing what she knows is right.

Change takes champions, advocates and heroes. Mitu and Laxmi and Geeta are my heroes, I join them to forge a world where girls will choose who they marry, when they marry, and celebrate the birth of their daughters.

As I prepare for the journey home, I have a lot to consider. I am exhilarated, exhausted and inspired. I will take these stories with me and I will do my best to amplify them – to honor them.

I’ll write one more post. Until then, keep these women in your thoughts.

We are all abused when one of us is abused.

I have been back from Delhi for about a week now.

I went to launch a partnership between Indrani’s Light Foundation and PSI India and Wajood – a project to address gender based violence in Dehli and surrounding areas.

It’s been my dream to take my experience and the experiences of the women I have met through Indrani’s Light Foundation and put them to use to help women around the world. This week, that dream was realized.

I expected to hear difficult stories, I expected to see great differences in culture and the similarities that make us all human. What I did not expect, what has stayed with me, is the overwhelming sense of hope – from Laxmi and Mitu and Geeta.

When I close my eyes I see their faces, I hear their voices and I feel their pain and their purpose.

These women are regular women – obedient girls and hopeful wives whose lives were upended by harmful cultural practices that have become far too common. Geeta was forced into prostitution and 20 years later she still suffers, Laxmi was barely 15 when a 32-year-old man doused her with acid because she refused his hand in marriage and Mitu is a pediatrician whose daughter was thrown down the stairs by a spiteful mother-in-law because she did not want two girls in the family.

Thankfully, what is also becoming common is that women like Geeta, Laxmi and Mitu are giving voice to an issue that holds back families, communities and countries. These women are easy to identify as activists, as they are speaking up to create change for the country they so dearly love. But for every Laxmi there are hundreds of women who will never get the chance to speak openly or in public for fear of reprisal or even death. Nevertheless, these unsung heroes live next door to us in Delhi, Detroit and Dublin. They take the beatings and the rapes and daily verbal abuse as they try to do their best for their children. They continue to care for the parents of their husbands, often their abusers, and they continue to try to be the best wives and mothers they know how to be.

These women, these invisible heroes, are the backbone of India. They are the ones we must reach with prevention efforts and support services for they will change India into a more compassionate culture towards girls and women. We must also reach boys and teach them new ways, we must talk with men and family members to break harmful cultural practices.  The work is complex and daunting and something we must do. Laws must change, people must be held accountable for crimes, solutions must be developed as locally as possible so they are relevant, and we must push for more funding and greater inclusion of gender based violence programming into existing health programs.

Wajood, the movement that we have started to help address issues of Gender Violence in Delhi begins today. We join a growing chorus of organizations, women and men who will not stop until we achieve a world free from violence based on gender.

Today, I feel nothing but hope.