Human Milk and Infant Nutrition Breastmilk possesses invaluable qualities that nourish, nurture and protect infant health. Most people are aware that the properties of breast milk help to fight against infections in infants. However, it is lesser-known that breastfeeding stimulates hormone responses that establish bonds crucial to healthy emotional development. There is a general lack of awareness surrounding the global inequalities of breast milk, particularly in nutrient quality and status. Society perpetuates the cycle of poverty when they remain naive of the issues affecting poor women.

Not only is the nutritional value of breast milk unequal across nations, but women in developing countries are disproportionately affected by poverty and malnutrition. This further hinders the production of nutrient-rich human milk in low-income areas. Women are also less likely to receive health and nutrition education than men. Despite the fact that women are natural suppliers of infant nutrition, they forfeit nutritional intake under the given circumstances.

Women’s issues in developing nations also face a disparity in the quantity of data. Lindsay Allen, a scientist who studies human milk and micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries, addresses this issue with the MILQ Project. She emphasizes that understanding differences in human milk condition is key in bridging the human milk and infant nutrition gap.

The MILQ Project in a Nutshell

To study the human milk quality of women in developing countries, Allen collected samples from well-nourished lactating mothers in Bangladesh, Brazil, Denmark and The Gambia. With these reference values, she gained a better understanding of the quality of breast milk concerning maternal nutrient intake and infant status. Allen used a consistent frame of reference for extracting research (from the time of delivery until nearly 9 months postpartum) to increase the accuracy of results. She found that there is considerable variance in micronutrient value in breast milk, an issue that remains a misconception among common social ideology.

More specifically, the concentration of thiamin in breast milk and infant status was found to be closely linked to maternal intake. Maternal deficiencies are likely the cause of correlating infant deficiencies, but with supplementation, thiamin levels and infant status were able to adjust accordingly. Research shows that vitamin B6 concentration in infants is also strongly linked to breast milk amounts and maternal status. Additionally, supplementation also improves human milk concentration in a short amount of time.

Sociocultural Norms Leave Women’s Issues Unattended

In addition to the limited evidence base for human milk and infant nutrition, there is also an extreme lack of resources when it comes to nutritional recommendations for lactating mothers. The only mentioning of nutritional lactation support given by the World Health Organization (WHO) was in 2016. The WHO asserts that postpartum women may be prescribed supplementation of iron and potentially folic acid to reduce the risk of anemia for areas in which it is considered a public health concern.

Regarding iron deficiency statistics, the WHO states that “data indicates that while iodine status has improved among pregnant and lactating women in Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific regions, there has been little progress in the African region.” Researchers are learning that lactation nutrition goes beyond iron and folic acid. Studies like the MILQ Project are progressive steps towards bridging the gap in human milk and infant nutrition.

Breast Milk Goes Beyond Nutrition

The biochemical correspondence that takes place between a mother and her infant is a complicated interaction. The recent developments have made it possible to explore the molecular chemical structure of breast milk and infant nutrition. Various other health and therapeutic benefits that extend beyond its nutritive assets can now be validated through research. Infants that receive breast milk of optimal nutritional quality gain access to profound benefits. Areas where infants face micronutrient deficiencies may encounter more of a struggle. This creates a gap between the nursing mother and her infant in terms of the health benefits, as well as their biochemical interaction. Nursing, along with skin to skin contact, allows both mother and baby to produce oxytocin, a hormone that triggers other positive chemical reactions in the brain and is essential in forming bonds.

Recent improvements in methodology have allowed for the study of the chemical nature of breast milk. However, it is still not surprising that few studies have been carried out on this subject. These scientific advancements can aid in developing strategies surrounding nutrition, healthy feeding practices and therapeutic methodologies for infants. These societal advancements will further assist in bridging the gap in human milk and infant nutrition.

In Allen’s MILQ Study, vitamin concentrations in breast milk in developing areas were considered insufficient to obtain adequate infant status. Nutrient deficient mothers are not able to provide all of the necessary nutrients and micronutrients to their infants. The review shows that vitamin concentration levels are often less than half of optimal levels in comparison to the U.S. When it comes to human milk and infant nutrition, there is a global and gendered gap limiting the world’s understanding of the inequalities of human milk.

Helen Schwie
Photo: Flickr
 

 

The Butterfly iQ

Two-thirds of the world lacks life-saving access to medical imaging. However, new technology — such as portable ultrasound machines — brings modern medicine where it might not otherwise take root. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 70 percent of technology designed in developed countries does not work in still-developing nations. Fully-equipped hospitals can be hours, or days, away from villages, leaving conditions undiagnosed and untreated.

A Handheld Ultrasound Finds A Wide Variety of Uses in Africa

In recent years, multiple companies have developed portable ultrasound technology, often with these remote areas in mind. The Butterfly Network, a Connecticut-based company, is one such organization, which launched its prototype known as the Butterfly iQ in 2017. The device costs approximately $2,000 and is around the same size as a cell phone. The company’s founder, Jonathan Rothberg, has donated scanners to 13 low-income countries, partnering with organizations like the Canadian Charity Bridge to Health and Uganda-based Kihefo. The organization also has backing from USAID to help further its reach.

Portable ultrasound machines like the Butterfly iQ, are largely being used to test for and treat pneumonia, which causes 15 percent of the deaths of children under 5 years old, killing more than 800,000 children in 2017 alone. The technology has also been used to examine goiters, tumors and other conditions that were otherwise difficult, or impossible, to assess.

In 2014, portable ultrasound machines in Africa took on a new life. Bridge to Health and Kihefo worked to offer women the opportunity to see their unborn children. They brought suitcase-sized ultrasounds to clinics and pulled in six times the normal number of visitors, among them women who had only seen traditional healers before.

In addition to its uses in ruling out tuberculosis and helping to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates, ultrasound technology is also an important diagnostic tool for patients with HIV.

Portable Technology Carries Back Into the Developed World

The Vscan Access from GE Healthcare was originally intended for frontline health care workers in Africa and Southeast Asia. However, the portable ultrasound machine has now found a place in developed countries such as Norway, where it offers an unobtrusive ultrasound in the maternity ward.

Compared to standard ultrasounds, which can not only be uncomfortable but also intimidating to expectant mothers, the Vscan Access is small, deterring worry. Its screen is still large enough to provide a full view of the womb, including the fetal position. Dr. Birgette Kahrs of St. Olav’s Hospital in Norway also notes how easy it is to teach midwives how to operate Vscan’s touchscreen technology.

An App Expands the Reach of the Portable Ultrasound

In 2018, Philips launched Lumify, an app-based portable ultrasound system in Kenya. The new tech was announced at the launch of Beyond Zero Medical Safari, an event hosted by Beyond Zero, an organization founded by the First Lady of the Republic of Kenya that aims at preventing child and maternal deaths.

Lumify unifies portable ultrasounds and mobile devices, creating channels for secure image exchange and processing. It is primarily designed for emergency centers and urgent care centers. The app would, through a subscription service, connect health care professionals around the world. Lumify will additionally offer support, training and IT help.

Lumify is compatible with soft and hard tissue scans. It allows for audio-visual calls, which can connect doctors to remote patients, allowing for diagnosis and treatment across the body and across the globe.

Portable ultrasound technology is still relatively new, so long-term benefits are still unmeasured. Still, portable ultrasounds in Africa, like the Butterfly IQ, already show massive potential in improving the medical status of people without access to first-world medical care. With supporters including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Butterfly iQ and devices like it, are only just getting started.

Katie Hwang
Photo: Unsplash

Building Schools Using Recycled Plastics
Education in Cote d’Ivoire continues to be a major challenge in the country which has had a literacy rate of 53.02 percent among 15 to 24-year-olds as of 2014. In fact, more than 2 million children are out of school due to a lack of infrastructure. Classrooms are often full beyond capacity with more than 100 students. Fortunately, West Africa is building schools using recycled plastics as a ground-breaking initiative to change the status quo.

The Fighting Women

Abidjan, a city in Cote d’Ivoire, produces about 288 tons of plastic waste every day. The country recycles only 5 percent of the waste, and when it is, it is usually women that do so informally. These women recover the waste and use it to make money.

A women’s group called The Fighting Women makes a living from collecting plastic and selling it for recycling. However, The Fighting Women is now a part of a project that will not only clean up the environment but will also help improve education. The Fighting Women is an organization of 200 women that collect plastic. A woman named Mariam Coulibaly runs the organization and she has been collecting trash for 20 years. Coulibaly’s organizational skills are what made the project possible. The plastic that these women collect go into bricks in order to build schools.

Conceptos Plasticos

UNICEF in Cote d’Ivoire has partnered with Conceptos Plasticos, a for-profit plastic recycling Colombian company that will turn plastic to bricks and build schools for children. This project will help reduce the issue of overcrowded classrooms and give children the opportunity to attend school.

In 2018, the first African recycled plastic classroom emerged in Gonzagueville. It only took five days to build this classroom as opposed to the nine months it would take to build traditional classrooms. In addition, within the first year, two small farming villages, Sakassou and Divo, constructed nine demonstration classrooms. These new classrooms included bricks that are cheaper and lighter than traditional ones, and also last longer.

Before the new plastic classrooms, children would go to school in traditional mud-brick and wood buildings. The mud-brick would erode from the sun and rain, and require repairs constantly. However, the newly built plastic classrooms are way better and longer-lasting. The classrooms are fire retardant and stay cool in warm weather. In addition, the classrooms are waterproof, have excellent insulation and can fight off the heavy wind. UNICEF and Conceptos Plasticos are planning to build 500 classrooms for more than 25,000 children with the most urgent need in the next two years.

Further Success of the Project

On July 29, 2019, a plastic converting factory opened in Cote d’Ivoire, which is also the first of its kind. This factory produces easy to assemble, durable and low-cost bricks others can use to build classrooms. The factory will solve a lot of major education challenges that children in West Africa face. According to UNICEF, kindergarteners from poor areas will be able to join classrooms with less than 100 students for the first time. Once the factory is fully functioning, it will recycle 9,600 tons of plastic waste a year and provide a source of income for women that collect trash. Moreover, there are plans to expand this project to other countries where there is a high percentage of children that are out of school.

Now, children are able to sit comfortably in classes that were once too overcrowded. This project of building schools using recycled plastics has not only constructed classrooms, but it has also reduced plastic waste in the environment. Although there is still a large number of children out of schools, this innovative project to help build schools in West Africa has been tremendously successful and has impacted the lives of many women and children.

Merna Ibrahim
Photo: Flickr

Jewelry Brands That Give BackEvery day, people around the globe wear jewelry to either symbolize a personal significance or to complete any outfit. Whether it is worn as an accessory or to make a statement, jewelry has been around for centuries. There are thousands of jewelry brands in the world, but only a small fraction of them give back to people in need. This article will focus on five jewelry brands that give back to exploited women and children in need.

5 Jewelry Brands That Give Back

  1. Half United– Siblings, Christian and Carmin Black founded Half United back in 2009 as a way to merge their passion for fashion and philanthropy. Using recycled bullet castings, Half United’s unique jewelry designs empower consumers to fight against hunger. Each product purchased creates seven meals for a child in need. At the end of each month, Half United divides the number of meals raised equally between their local and global partners. One of their global partners is Elevating Ministries, which feeds more than 5,000 students a day. In the past eight years, Half United has supplied over 800,000 meals for children in need.
  2. AccountABLE- After witnessing the hardships Ethiopian women endured in extreme poverty, Barrett Ward was on a mission to end generational poverty when he created AccountABLE. The organization presented women with an alternative opportunity that would provide them with a living while empowering them out of poverty. Women in Ethiopia, Mexico, Peru and the U.S. create items from handmade jewelry to footwear. AccountABLE is one of the few companies that have published their wages. By making their worker’s wages public, AccountABLE is hoping other companies will do the same and realize the difference between minimum wage and a living wage.
  3. Akola – Akola is a local Ugandan dialect that translates to “she works”. Each piece of jewelry is handcrafted by women across East Africa and the U.S. Akola employs women who care for an average of 10 dependents. Through their nonprofit partners, Akola Project and Akola Academy, the organization creates jobs for women in unstable situations in both East Africa and the U.S. They create a community to assist, teach and empower women to become self-sufficient and free from poverty. Akola is not only helping women but also the environment through upcycling Karatasi beads, horn and natural raffia.
  4. PURPOSE Jewelry- For the past 11 years, PURPOSE Jewelry has been helping and employing young women around the world who have been rescued from human trafficking. Every stage of production involves one of these women and enables them to earn a living, learn valuable skills and gain a sense of security. Each handcrafted piece of jewelry includes the artisan’s signature, forever connecting her story of hope to the consumer. With each purchase, a portion of the proceeds goes toward their nonprofit, International Sanctuary. International Sanctuary provides women with education, health care and counseling. In the past year, they have provided over 9,600 hours of professional training and nearly 3,800 hours of education and tutoring.
  5. Starfish Project- The Starfish Project provides care for exploited women in Asia through its social enterprise of handcrafting jewelry and Holistic Care Programs. The Holistic Care Programs provide women with career training, healthcare, counseling, safety and education grants for children. Each month, the Starfish Project serves over 400 women by making weekly visits to local brothels. These visits provide women with medical services, education and even birthday celebrations. Nearly 150 women have been employed by the Starfish Project with thousands more participating in their Community Outreach Services. One hundred percent of the proceeds are reinvested into the Starfish Project’s mission of restoring hope to women and girls.

These five jewelry brands that give back are more than just selling accessories, they are helping those in need. These five jewelry brands give women back their freedom and give children back their childhood.

– Emily Beaver
Photo: Flickr

women's empowerment in nigeria
Hajiya Amina Ahmed inspires women all over Nigeria to become more involved in making decisions that affect their daily lives. She believes that women should have a role in decision-making processes concerning peace and security. Women in Nigeria are often on the receiving end of conflict situations, but people do not give them a voice in rectifying such situations. Ahmed is a voice that empowers women in Nigeria; she acts against the inequality that women face by empowering women and building communities across religious and ethnic lines.

A Long Way Toward Women’s Empowerment

Achieving women’s empowerment in Nigeria is a very difficult task, especially considering that Nigeria has been violently divided by sex for so long that even some women are against complete equality. There are prominent women in Nigeria who believe that men and women should be different, but equal. Some believe that women should have careers, but that men are the heads of the house and are in control of their wives in the home. Ahmed is counteracting the notion that men and women cannot have equal rights in Nigeria.

Some believe that men and women cannot be completely equal thinking as it will not end gender-based and may increase it. This is why education is the most important aspect of Ahmed’s initiative to involve women and girls in their communities.

Ahmed’s Work

Ahmed is the Executive Director of the Women Initiative for Sustainable Community Development in Plateau State, Nigeria. She has been working in peace and conflict transformation since the 2001 ethno-religious crisis in Plateau State. Since 2001, the recurring communal violence in Plateau State has killed at least 4,000 people.

Ahmed’s work involves countering this violence, specifically the violence against women and girls, as well as promoting their involvement in development processes. She believes that the more women and girls involve themselves, the more they will want to continue and be a voice in their communities. The end goal is for men and women to have equal voices in their communities. Slowly, but surely, she is seeing the difference that she is making as she empowers women in Nigeria.

Ahmed, along with her co-workers, also believes that the most important aspect of women bridging the gap between men’s and women’s roles in their communities is education. When women know what is at stake and what could be different about their lives, they are much more likely to take action and to become models of their communities.

The Nigerian Parliament

In Nigeria, men are disproportionately in control of leadership positions. Even though women make up 49 percent of the Nigerian population, they do not make up even close to 49 percent of Nigerian leadership positions. There are seven female senators out of a total of 109 senators and there are 22 female representatives in the House of Representatives out of 360 total. Nigerian women are trying their best to be a part of their government, but it is difficult when others force them into their cultural and religious obligations of ceding governance to men. Ahmed’s work is an important aspect in giving women more of a say in the Nigerian government.

Ahmed’s Impact

Ahmed is one of the many women who contributed to the Promoting Women’s Engagement in Peace and Security in Northern Nigeria Programme. The E.U. funds the program and supports the Nigerian government strengthening women’s leadership, gender equality and protection of women and children from violence. This program exists in three northern Nigerian states, including Ahmed’s home state of Plateau. Women that are tired of conflicts in which innocent people have perished are leading and carrying out this plan.

Nigeria’s government lacks female representation, but Ahmed, along with her fellow peacemakers, is making a difference by achieving women’s empowerment in Nigeria. Hopefully, more people will join the cause in making Nigeria a country that men and women lead equally. Peacemakers are the starting point of making Nigeria a country that does not divide itself based on sex.

– Megan Maxwell
Photo: Flickr

Visual Impairment in Refugees

Last year, there were an estimated 70 million forcibly displaced individuals in the world. NGOs and governments stepped up by providing funding for food, water, sanitation, education, and healthcare, but visual impairment in refugees is rarely ever prioritized.

Vision Impairment is a Major Life Obstacle

Eye care is something often overlooked when organizations are administering urgent medical treatment to refugees–in most cases, eye injuries are not considered life-threatening. While an eye injury may not be fatal, it can greatly reduce the quality of life. This was the case for 10-year-old, Hala Shaheen, who suffered retinal detachment before the outbreak of the Syrian War and was undergoing treatment to fix the issue. She required specialist care and regular check-ups.

However, when chaos and violence broke out in Syria, Hala and her family were forced to flee to the Rukban refugee camp between Syria and Jordan, where no eye care specialist could be found. Now Hala is blind in one eye and her vision in the other eye is continuing to deteriorate. When asked about her condition, she told reporters, “I don’t want to continue living with this level of pain and suffering.”

Refugees like Hala do not have the resources to prevent or tackle blindness, Hala could have retained her vision. Blindness prevents her from experiencing life fully. Since braille is not readily taught, getting an education is difficult. Hala’s condition forces her to be dependent on her family. When blindness presents itself in adult refugees, it stops them from being productive workers and the extra burden is placed on their family’s shoulders. Thankfully, some NGOs have identified this problem and are on their way to creating better conditions to fight visual impairment in refugees.

Bringing Clarity to the Visually Impaired

NGOs and charities are assembling coalitions all over the world to find solutions for visual impairment in refugees. The main mission is to provide diagnostic services and visual assistance to those who need it.

The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) is working in Cox Bazar, a Rohingya refugee camp of over 900,000 people, has created an eye care plan to fight visual impairment in refugees. They plan to provide over 150,000 eyeglasses each year and deploy 30 optometrists and 30 ophthalmologists to conduct Rapid Assessment of Avoidable Blindness (RAAB) exams. These exams are vital in the prevention of blindness and vision loss, which can be the result of neglected chronic eye disease. In Cox Bazar, there is an estimated 30,000 at risk for diabetic eye disease and 70,000 at risk for glaucoma. If left untreated, it could result in a massive amount of vision loss.

There are numerous other coalitions like the IAPB. VisionSpring works with EYElliance in Ghana and Liberia to provide glasses to children and launch country-level initiatives to identify visual problems in refugees. SightGeist is an annual conference of companies and organizations from various sectors who come together and use their resources to provide visual assistance and preventative care to those affected by visual impairment. NGOs like Light for the World work together with Warby Parker, an eyewear company, and Aravind Eye Care System, a chain of hospitals in India, to come up with solutions to problems that are too large to tackle alone.

Gender and Visual Impairment

Another aspect of visual impairment in refugees is gender. Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by visual impairment, accounting for two-thirds of those with severe vision loss. This can be due to the impact of traditional female roles, like having to collect water and wash clothes. These duties put them at risk of being bitten by blackflies which transmit parasites that destroy vision. In developing countries, women are typically not in charge of finances, so they have less control over the budget and cannot pay for healthcare. Women are also often too busy taking care of the home and may not even know where to go to access eye care.

Visual impairment in refugees, particularly females, deepens their plight; those who are visually impaired are more likely to suffer sexual violence and shamed by their families. Programs like CATCH in Uganda and Lady Health Worker in Pakistan are reaching out to these women. CATCH conducts exams to detect visual impairment early and provide preventative care to women. The Lady Health Worker program empowers female workers to provide healthcare and eye care to women and children in their own communities. Simply bringing attention to eye care and reducing the stigma of visual impairment can vastly improve lives.

Visual health underpins many of the Sustainable Development Goals put forth by the U.N. It is up to these organizations now to spread the word and see to it that visual impairment in refugees and developing countries become a greater priority for donors.

– Julian Mok
Photo: Flickr

social media affects human traffickingNearly two decades into the 21st century, more than 2.5 billion people use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Youtube. There’s no doubt that these types of digital realms alter human interaction and communication. Many users view these high-tech advances as ways to connect with communities they might not have been able to connect with otherwise. Unfortunately not everyone with social media accounts use them solely to stay connected with old friends and distant relatives; human traffickers utilize social media to recruit, run operations and control their victims. Here are eight facts about modern-day slavery in Europe and how social media affects human trafficking.

8 Facts About How Social Media Affects Human Trafficking

  1. Human trafficking doesn’t only include forced transportation for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. In addition to servitude and prostitution, trafficking also consists of the removal of vital organs and forced criminality, such as pickpocketing, shoplifting and drug trafficking.
  2. Human traffickers lure, abduct and control victims solely for their own financial gain. They may lure victims by offering an escape from extreme poverty or abusive homes. As Professor AnnJanette Rosga, who oversaw the “Research on Child Trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina” report stated, “the global sex trade is as much a product of everyday people struggling to survive in dire economic straits as it is an organized crime problem.” Some individuals and families believe that the financial benefits will outweigh the costs of modern-day slavery or that victims will be able to escape. Addressing root causes of what makes people vulnerable to human trafficking, such as poverty, lack of job opportunity and lack of safe migration opportunities, will certainly decrease the prevalence of human trafficking.
  3. Developing European countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania each have millions of internet users. These and other Eastern European countries oftentimes have histories filled with corruption, civil strife and authoritarian government that contribute to high unemployment levels, leaving civilians vulnerable. Young girls and women struggling with poverty create optimal conditions for criminals to connect with vulnerable people like them without immediately exposing themselves as criminals.
  4. “Poly-criminal” gangs create fake social media accounts, marketing them as employment agencies to target young and vulnerable victims. Hiding behind fake profile pictures and information can transform any criminal into someone who might seem trustworthy, especially to young people who want to help their families living in poverty.
  5. Likewise, human traffickers will manipulate their victims’ social media accounts to maintain control. Social media oftentimes seems like a connection to friends and family members, but traffickers will restrict or monitor use of social media to keep their victims powerless.
  6. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization, works against human trafficking in several countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Albania. The OSCE recommends combating modern-day slavery through a three-step framework: prevention, which includes raising awareness and addressing root problems, prosecution, which includes investigation and cooperation with international law enforcement, and protection of victims’ rights, which includes assistance and compensation.
  7. La Strada International is a leading network of eight independent organizations that work on a grassroots level to combat human trafficking in Europe. La Strada has offices in Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Macedonia, Moldova, Netherlands, Poland and Ukraine, but they lobby at the international level, advocating for changes in policy and stressing the importance of human rights.
  8. Ariadne is a regional network of 16 organizations in 12 countries, dedicated to combating human trafficking in Southeastern and Eastern Europe. Their most recent joint project focuses on developing effective reintegration models for survivors of human trafficking in the Western Balkans.

While the Information Age continues to bring about life-altering knowledge and technologies, there are always those who will manipulate technological advances for criminal activity. With increasingly new gadgets and technologies, 21st-century caveats include cybersecurity and data privacy issues as well as catfishing. While poverty, lack of opportunity and weak labor rights are some causes for humanitarian injustices, high prevalence and ease for traffickers to disguise themselves and their intentions are how social media affects human trafficking.

– Keeley Griego
Photo: Flickr

FGM Sierra Leon
Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone has recently become a topic of conversation both nationally and internationally since it is one of the 28 African countries that still partake in the practice. The World Health Organization officially described female genital mutilation (FGM) as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The procedure usually involves some kind of cutting or removing of the genital flesh of a female as part of the initiation into womanhood. Several organizations are spreading awareness of the devastating results of this barbaric procedure and working to end this practice once and for all.

Why FGM Occurs?

The reasons for the procedure of FGM depend on the culture, they but usually fall into four categories: psychosexual, as a way to control female sexuality and maintain virginity; sociological and cultural, the practice is viewed as a vital tradition to the cultural heritage; hygiene and aesthetics, as some communities view the external female genitalia as unappealing and unclean; and finally, socio-economic factors since FGM is often a pre-requisite for marriage and the right to inherit.

The procedure is often performed with penknives, razors or even cut glass, and can result in severe pain, bleeding, cysts, infections, complications in childbirth, infertility and in extreme cases, death. The initiation can also often result in psychological issues from the trauma and pain of the event as well as from the inability to experience sexual pleasure thereafter. An estimated 200 million women and girls have undergone the procedure worldwide, with a staggering 90 percent in Sierra Leone.

Challenges in Stopping the Practice

The practice is ingrained into the culture and holds high social significance. In fact, 69 percent of women and 46 percent of men aged 15-49 believe in the continuation of the practice. FGM has been viewed as an initiation into womanhood and has been an important cultural touchstone for the people of Sierra Leone. This makes it difficult to stop the practice, as many see it as socially embarrassing and being unworthy of marriage if they have not received the initiation.

Another challenge faced to end FGM is that many Soweis, who usually perform the initiation, refuse to end the practice as they see it as a threat to the traditions of the Bondo society. They also receive large amounts of money for the initiations and do not want to lose this source of income.

Organizations Working to End FGM

The Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM) is a non-governmental organization aiming to end the procedure. It was founded in 2002 by Rugiatu Turay, a victim of FGM herself, and many other women while living in a refugee camp in Guinea during the Sierra Leon’s civil war. AIM activists visit villages and speak with the women who perform this procedure and try to convince them to give it up. They have convinced 700 practitioners from 111 villages to stop practicing FGM.

AIM believes that one of the most efficient ways to begin the ending of practice is to teach women how to read and write since most of the procedures are performed by illiterate elder women. Providing them with the knowledge to read and write will open opportunities for them to pursue alternate means of income and reduce their interest in performing FGM.

Another non-governmental organization, AMNet, is fighting against the old fashioned initiation rite. AMNet works with Soweis, the senior female community members, to change the social stigmas surrounding women in regards to FGM in local communities. The group has high profile supporters like Sia Koroma, the first lady of Sierra Leone, which helps bring attention to their cause.

Legislation is Needed

Non-governmental organizations are working hard to provide knowledge on the issues surrounding FGM, but formal legislation against the practice will further help end the societal pressures and stigmas that encourage the continuance of the initiation rite. Several countries have banned the practice, including more than 20 countries in Africa and most Western European countries. Ending the practice has also become a part of the United Nations 2030 sustainable development agenda.

Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone is not yet illegal, though progress is being made to eradicate the procedure. The country recently ratified the African Unions 2003 Maputo Protocol on Women’s Rights, stating in Article Five of the protocol that female genital mutilation should be prohibited by the government in order to finally end the procedure.

Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone has been a huge cultural touchstone for many communities. The procedure, though, is highly dangerous for females in many areas of their mental and physical health. Many of the activists fighting to end the procedure recognize that immediate ending of the practice will not work, but could lead to underground practices, as the social and cultural significance of the initiation is far too important to many communities. Instead, they hope to use education to spread awareness about the harms of the practice, hopefully, changing opinions over time with respect to cultural significance.

Mary Spindler
Photo: Flickr

Maternal Healthcare in Belarus
Fewer than 30 years ago, maternal health care in Belarus was not treated as a top priority in the country and the numbers show it. In 1990, 33 out of every 100,000 live births resulted in the death of the mother. By 2015, that number had decreased to four out of every 100,000.

Reasons for Bad Maternal Health Care in Belarus

The reasons for this precipitous drop are numerous, but some stand out more than others. For a long time, public health in Belarus revolved around containing the fallout from two momentous events. One was the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 that directly affected more than 2.2 million people in Belarus, half a million of whom were children. Charities, nongovernmental organizations and United Nations system organizations focused on providing emergency care to those who had been exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation.

The other event was the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health care in Soviet-era Belarus was centered on the Semashko system. In this system, industrial workers, believed to be the source of productivity and prosperity for the Soviet Union, were essentially considered more important than the rest of the population. This resulted in addressing their immediate health needs first while overlooking larger public health concerns and it also meant that health care professionals were not as highly regarded as industrial workers. Low pay and little respect for medical workers perpetuated a cycle of subpar health care in Belarus.

Government Initiatives

Independence from Russia brought economic decline for Belarus in the short-term, but it also created an opportunity to revamp the country’s approach to public health. Maternal health care in Belarus received some overdue attention. Between 2005 and 2010, several health resolutions were initiated under the new Government of the Republic of Belarus, including a greater focus on reducing maternal mortality rates.

One such initiative was to build health facilities in rural areas, so that expectant Belarusian mothers in agricultural townships would have the same access to care as their urban counterparts. Another was to create a multileveled perinatal care system, made possible with the support of the head of state who approved the allocation of funds to improve maternal health care in Belarus. This included employing almost 2,700 obstetrician-gynecologists to treat a population of roughly 4.8 million women of fertile age. This initiative was implemented in 2005.

The Progress of Maternal Health Care in Belarus

A doctor visit at the earliest point in a known pregnancy is optimal for the health of mother and child. To ensure that expectant mothers would adhere to this guideline, a monetary allowance was given to them as an incentive for seeing a doctor within the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy. As a result of this bold initiative, prenatal visits within the first trimester increased by approximately 93.5 percent.

Paid maternity leave in Belarus lasts between 126 and 140 days, depending on the difficulty of the labor. Fathers are encouraged to play an active role in the birthing process, with maternity wards made to accommodate families. Today, maternal health care in Belarus ranks 26th in the world. Belarus is a shining example of how a country can evolve over a matter of mere decades and transcend seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

With a maternal mortality rate among the lowest in the world and a compassionate and comprehensive maternal health care system, Belarus has defied expectations across the board. The aid provided to the country during the low points in Belarusian history following the Chernobyl disaster and the fall of the Soviet Union was an important stepping stone toward a healthier and more independent Belarus. The state of maternal health care in Belarus is a magnificent reflection of that.

– Raquel Ramos

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