It’s all about choice

Hi all!

In my last entry, I mentioned that I had some exciting news for you all. I can now reveal that on the 20th of May, I was invited as part of VSO’s Women in Power campaign to attend a panel debate in London on women, girls and reproductive health. The debate itself was hosted by DFID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with Save the Children and International Planned Parenthood Foundation, and discussion ranged from child marriage to availability of contraception, with the emphasis at all stages on women having choices open to them. I’ll be discussing what was said at the debate further on, so just bear all that in mind for later!

I decided that this particular London-foray was going to be a round trip, and so after a very early start (my alarm went off at 3.30am), I found myself in Westminster for 1.30 in the afternoon, having wandered around buying books and eating croissants for most of the morning.

I met up with Team VSO, a mixture of ICS and ‘grown up’ VSO Returned Volunteers and staff, and we had a little time to discuss the event and get to know each other before heading over to Great George Street for the beginning of the debate. I had no idea how big the event was – I was under the impression that there were going to be a few people from various different organisations, a bit of talking, a bit of mingling and a bit of eating tea and biscuits. Instead, there were people in suits, people with tape recorders, the media, academics, gynaecologists, policy makers, politicians, representatives from the NGO and charity sector; in other words, it was most certainly A BIG DEAL.

When the panel walked in, I realised just why it was such a big deal. Those debating the topics above were:

No wonder there was so much press!

(I should point out that I spent the majority of the debate furiously writing down as much as possible for use here, so I only have one photograph of the panel):


L-R: Natasha Kaplinsky, Melinda Gates, Justine Greening, Tewodros Melesse and Catherine Ojo

L-R: Natasha Kaplinsky, Melinda Gates, Justine Greening, Tewodros Melesse and Catherine Ojo


Natasha Kaplinsky began by introducing herself and the panel, following a welcome from Justin Forsyth. Each panellist put forward a few thoughts about the topic, which was a good way to open up the conversation. For example, Natasha described visiting a hospital in India and watching a new mother go through an agonisingly long labour, only to be disappointed that the baby was a girl. Each panel member had a similar sort of experience, or anecdote, and the geographical spread of their experiences, from South America to Africa, the Middle East to Asia, highlighted the global challenge we face in trying to involve women as equal citizens.

This was also the point in the debate where a lot of statistics were introduced, and fittingly, many were from Ethiopia – this is partly because we have about 40 years of historical data on Ethiopian-based interventions, so we can track ups and downs in progress. In Ethiopia alone, 31% of girls will be subjected to early marriage. 57% will undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). Only 1 in 10 women will give birth with a midwife to assist them. These statistics are at the national level, and vary across the country; the rates will be far higher in rural areas, or in certain regions. The most recent statistics I’ve seen on Ethiopia’s regions suggests that 90-98% of women in the area around Dire Dawa had undergone FGM. We’ll come back to this in the next blog post.

Ethiopian readers: you will be happy to know that there was a lot of praise for efforts in reducing your rates of what are termed ‘harmful traditional practices’, and rolling out successful health campaigns to help protect your girls. I felt very gobbez for you all 🙂

The speakers all echoed the need for a greater educational, legal, medical and social response to the problems faced by women across the world: efforts must be holistic, otherwise the vulnerable will slip through the net. And it’s not good enough to just make a law: it has to be enforced. Only telling girls about child marriage won’t save them from it: you have to tell the boys as well. We need more trained midwives who will be able to support women through difficult childbirths and recognise when they need further help. This may all seem fairly obvious to those of us lucky enough to be protected from child marriage, bride abduction, FGM or lack of contraception, but to women in these situations, there is no alternative.

The panel had some really interesting facts, and actually, the best thing might be for me to bulletpoint some of the things they said that really struck me, whether good or bad. Hopefully something here will strike a chord with you too.

Justine Greening

  •  By 2020, we want to provide 120 million women with the access to reproductive health options. And it’s not just about The Pill, it’s about communicating other messages, like spacing out children, which means they have a greater chance of being healthier, and that the family size will not swell beyond a manageable number of little ones.
  • Women and girls are absolutely central to the attainment of sustainable development (thank you, Justine, for agreeing with me 🙂 )
  • The UK government is committing to support the Early Newborn Action Plan, and recognises that healthy livelihoods mean looking not only at nutrition, but developing education as part of human potential


Melinda Gates

  •  Disclaimer: I will never be as eloquent as Melinda was, so I apologise. You’ll just have to imagine her saying this much better than I can type it.
  • We need to re-think how we talk about the female health issue, and instead of talking about ‘infants’, ‘girls’ and ‘women’, move towards a continuum of female health
  • Child mortality has almost halved since 1995
  • On the first day of life, 2.9 million babies die globally. A further million will die within the first month. These deaths occur overwhelmingly in the developing world. Lives could be spared with very simple solutions, like ensuring the baby stays warm and dry and is exclusively breastfed.
  • There has also been very positive progress on reducing maternal and childhood deaths around the world. We are moving in the right direction.


Catherine Ojo

  • Midwives have the opportunity to teach girls and women to embrace family planning and wider education
  • Only trained professionals can give a safe delivery; Catherine warned against using traditional birth attendants as a culturally appropriate substitute, because they don’t always have the medical knowledge to recognise a preventable problem early enough.
  • FGM has a devastating effect on women. Catherine told us about a woman who came from a community that didn’t practice FGM, and married a man whose community did practice it. They had a little girl, and the parents were delighted. They both agreed that they would leave their daughter alone, and refused FGM. When the little girl was 8 days old, the paternal grandmother visited the family, and put horrendous pressure on the couple to cut their daughter; she said that unless this happened, the girl would not be able to give birth safely, would never marry, and would be unhealthy. The baby underwent FGM, and the grandmother told the parents to tie the baby onto her back to heal. The baby bled to death and was dead a few days later. This was down to the ignorance of the grandmother, and the strain that her pressure put on the couple, who felt forced to give in to the wishes of an elder family member.
  • How can a girl participate in society if she is traumatised from childhood?
  • Pregnancy should happen by choice, not by chance


Tewodros Melesse

  • International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) is aiming to treble family planning provision by 2015
  • Works with young people and the government in India, who committed around $8 million to the IPPF’s work. They are also partners of the UNFPA.
  • Need to ensure choice of contraceptives
  • IPPF is working to eliminate gender-based violence, especially in the Pacific region
  • We have to address the needs of adolescents, who are usually left out of the baby-girl-woman model; echoed Melinda’s promotion of the ‘lifecycle’ model
  • It’s crucial to recognise reproductive rights as human rights. If they are fundamental rights, they cannot be imposed upon by anybody
  • We have to engage young leaders and religious leaders to promote gender equality, girls’ education and family planning


Once you see it written down like this, you realise that the messages from these different sources – the politician, the broadcaster, the humanitarian, the midwife and the director – are all calling for the same thing. I think Melinda summed up the formula for success best:

Policy and law + community groundswell + public awareness + open discussion = cultural change

It’s a big ask, and a lot of communities won’t be ready for it yet. But the good news is that many are. We are making changes; the graphs are trending in the right direction, and the people in power care about winning the battle they’re facing.

Tewodros made a vital point at the end of the debate: some male feminists exist! We don’t have to fight these problems with only half of the world’s population. Including men is absolutely crucial if we are going to save women from a life of pain and poverty, because at the moment, men are ones with the voice.


All in all, the panel debate was a fantastic experience – the fact that I was in the room with these people blew my wee mind. If VSO wanted a broad representation of women in power to inspire us, then they certainly got it, not just in the form of the panel, but the people in the room. As Melinda said, we need women in power throughout society, not just at the poles. This is only way you will get a push-pull effect; society pushing women up from the bottom and leaders pulling them up from the top.

Equally important was the presence of Tewodros, a man from a country (Ethiopia) without a tradition of women in power, standing up and fighting for women and girls. He told us that he watched his own mother struggle with the reality of child marriage herself, but still pushing her children to achieve their full potential.

I think Tewdoros hit on the key to this conversation – when we talk about ‘women and girls’, we de-personalise the conversation. But if we re-frame the discussion in terms of our mothers, my sister, your daughter, his wife, it suddenly becomes personal and incredibly important. Making harmful traditional practices like child marriage and FGM ‘real’ and relatable, and actually explaining what happens to the girls in these situations starts to demystify the culture that’s built up round them as a way to stop them being challenged. If child marriage was morally justifiable, would it be taboo to discuss it, even in the societies where it’s practiced? I doubt it.

Throughout the debate, I was turning a few things over in my head, and I’m not sure I have answers to either yet, or whether they are even questions:

  1. What would a girl from a poor background and a very traditional upbringing think if she knew we were talking about FGM and child marriage in her community with Westerners…and worse…men? Would she actually agree that these practices are wrong? Girls who lack educational opportunities are more likely to support the continuation of these practices – how do we reach them?
  2. As that discussion was happening, girls were being pinned down and undergoing FGM. And not just in Africa, but a lot closer to home. They have no idea that the debate was happening, that anyone knows about what’s happening to them, or that the world is trying to save them. That was food for thought.
  3. VSO and agencies like them are the people who are actually helping to disseminate these messages to people on the ground, in the middle of nowhere. NGOs have an absolutely critical role to play in this, especially where the government doesn’t see fit to intervene.

If any of this has got you thinking, congratulations. You’ve just started to inform yourself about a multitude of issues that are faced by girls and women all over the world every day. I honestly believe that information dissemination is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. Harmful traditional practices are perpetuated by a culture of silence and secrecy. End that and you’re a step closer to ending the practice.  Keep asking questions. Keep educating yourself. This problem isn’t going anywhere, and the more people are talking about, the fewer places the perpetrators have to hide. Increasing public awareness is akin to flooding a darkened room with light and then shining a torch into the shadows – we have to stop giving this a dark corner to hide in.

I realise I’ve touched on A LOT in the course of one post. I apologise – I didn’t realise I had as much to talk about! A lot of it hasn’t really been explained, and that’s because I wanted to ease you, the reader, into the discussion, not scare you off.

The next post (I know – the blog was like the Marie Celeste not that long ago) will discuss FGM, and it probably won’t be the most light-hearted piece I’ve ever put together. It’s a very difficult topic to broach, and until recently, I felt like it wasn’t my right to talk about it. To borrow a particularly toxic phrase, ‘it’s not my culture’.

But here’s the deal. It’s not culture. It’s a tradition of abuse, and is actually recognised as such all over the world. If people with a platform for discussion (like me) shy away from taking the opportunity to raise awareness of FGM, we’re condemning millions more girls to a life of pain and missed opportunity.

Not on my watch.






One thought on “It’s all about choice

  1. Pingback: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: What’s All the Fuss About? | Ethiopian Endeavours

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