When I learned that tomorrow is the International Day of Action for Women’s Health, I thought of my own experience last summer teaching health education in Marangu, Tanzania. In my first week of teaching, I had asked a group of young women, aged eleven to thirteen, who their role models were. One by one, each of the girls pointed to their mothers or their grandmothers, the strong and robust women you saw on the street dressed in colorful cloth, balancing buckets on their heads. They were the mothers, the wives, the farmers, and the teachers that form the backbone of Tanzanian society. They are robust, flamboyant, easy to talk to, yet demanding of respect. But, despite their social autonomy and powerful demeanor, these women lack reproductive rights. They are empowered in so many ways, except when it comes to controlling their own fertility. Time and time again they will be subject to complicated pregnancies, risk of obstructed labor, and other adverse health effects, all consequences of an inability to access family planning techniques.
Unfortunately, this is a story we have all heard before. Over the next few weeks, I asked their daughters about their own knowledge of family planning. I wanted to know what information mothers and grandmothers were giving these young women as they enter adolescence and become sexually active individuals.
I found that the girls knew about HIV/AIDS, malaria, and malnutrition. They cited facts about diarrhea, dental care, and tuberculosis. But they didn’t know about birth control pills, how to chart their menstrual cycle, or how to combat social pressures. They were equipped with the knowledge to pass a classroom exam, but not with the understanding that would allow them to control their fertility and their reproductive health. Education needs to go beyond the textbooks. It needs to be personal and practical. As Cherisse Scott, a Health Educator for Black Women for Reproductive Justice, said during a congressional briefing earlier this week, “How can you be held responsible for something you have never been taught?” How can we expect these women to make responsible family planning decisions if they lack the knowledge to do so? Once they are equipped with knowledge and access to contraceptives and services, these women can then make a difference in their own lives. They are the workers and the planners of so many other aspects of society, and they have the right to become the planners of their own fertility and family size.
For more than 20 years, USAID has recognized women for their critical role in society by celebrating the International Day of Action for Women’s Health. Today we celebrate women across the globe, across all demographics, who serve as the foundation behind strong families and communities. But while we celebrate, we also recognize that women suffer disproportionally from inadequate health care. Today, we join with USAID in reminding others that voluntary family planning and reproductive health services can save women’s lives in developing countries, and enable them to be good mothers and strong role models.
Posted by Sarah Chapin, Stanback Fellow