Belkis Giorgis

{Photo credit: Rui Pires.}Photo credit: Rui Pires.

Each year International Women’s Day energizes women and girls all over the world to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of women globally. Together, we celebrate both the spirit and the essence of women wherever they may be, in whatever role they have taken. Based on our own experiences as women, each of us must align ourselves in solidarity with movements that signify a moment in our lives where we have overcome challenges despite the obstacles faced. 

For me, International Women’s Day represents the everyday successes that occur: when a mother delivers her baby safely in a health facility, the first day that little girl goes to school, and when she graduates from university. These moments of triumph are the result of the struggles of men and women who fought against the injustice of discrimination based on gender.

I want to acknowledge these great achievements of women and girls not only on March 8, but each and every day. 

{Photo credit: Rui Pires.}Photo credit: Rui Pires.

We do a lot of things in the name of culture. From our hair to our food to our ceremonies, culture informs our identity, our very understanding of who we are, and how we fit into this world.

In countries where female genital cutting is widely practiced, “culture/tradition/religion” feature prominently among the reasons why the practice began, and why it is perpetuated. In fact, there is no religious reason for this practice, also known as female genital mutilation, FGM, or FGM/C. Yet, those who support the continuation of FGM/C often invoke the name of their culture, or tradition, or religion as dictating their actions.

Culture viewed from this perspective is oppressive—denigrated into a static phenomenon, unchanging, and uninformed by new knowledge. It is only when we accept culture as a dynamic force–one which is ever changing and evolving–that we proudly can identify with, and derive our identities from it.

Culture can be a powerful positive force in our lives if we dare to challenge it.

{Photo credit: Todd Shapera}Photo credit: Todd Shapera

Co-authored with Elly Mugumya, director of the LMG/IPPF partnership, this post originally appeared on the LMGforHealth.org Blog.

Hearing the perspectives of women leaders is an effective way of amplifying the collective voices of women to bring about change. Women often do not have a platform to tell their stories. These stories are personal and resonate with those of other women who aspire to leadership positions. The USAID-funded Leadership, Management & Governance (LMG) Project has captured some of these stories in a new publication, An Open Mind and a Hard Back: Conversations with African Women Leaders.

{Photo credit: Rui Pires.}Photo credit: Rui Pires.

We call on you to celebrate the girl child, read and support the Girl Declaration—a call to action for the post-2015 development agenda to prioritize girls and stop poverty before it begins—and help educate and empower the girl child in all of us. Many of us are shaped by what we experience as children. For those in high-income countries, the world of the girl child is often full of possibilities and options. However, for many in low- and middle-income countries, the girl child lives in a world fraught with harsh realities and limited choices. To understand the journey of women, we must look at the girl child not only as a period in one’s life but as one which continues to live in all of us as we reach adulthood and beyond. "I was not put on this earth to be invisible."

[A woman talks with Belkis Giorgis (right)] {Photo credit: Dominic Chavez, 2011}A woman talks with Belkis Giorgis (right)Photo credit: Dominic Chavez, 2011

I was circumcised when I was eighty days old, as is the tradition in Ethiopia. My sister was three. My mother had tried to spare us, but her aunt discovered that we were not circumcised and took it upon herself to have us circumcised.

Years later, I asked my aunt why she did it. Her response was not defensive. On the contrary, she responded very matter-of-fact: My sister and I were circumcised so that we could find a husband, have children, and become women. This is the cultural ideology that most Ethiopian women believed at that time, and unfortunately, that many still adhere to in the 21st century---an ideology and practice that is detrimental to a woman’s health.

Female genital circumcision alters or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. There are no health benefits for girls. On the contrary, the procedure can lead to severe bleeding, infections, and problems urinating, during sexual intercourse, and complications in childbirth, as well as later cysts and increased risk of newborn deaths---not to mention the severe pain and shock of the procedure.

Girl from Uganda. {Photo credit: MSH.}Photo credit: MSH.

The press statement title caught my attention: “Members Continue Efforts to Protect Rights of Women in Developing Countries.”

With piqued interest, I read on:

Congresswoman Betty McCollum and Aaron Schock have once again introduced legislation to stem the devastating impact of child marriage on young girls in developing countries.  The McCollum-Schock International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, House Resolution (H.R.) 6087, promotes and protects the rights of girls in the developing world.

I was pleased to learn that H.R. 6087 establishes a strategy to prevent child marriage and promote the empowerment of girls.  The legislation also integrates the issue of preventing child marriage into existing US development programs, and requires that relevant agencies collect and make available data on the rates of child marriage and its impact on meeting key development goals.

Video that highlights the work of thousands of Tanzanians---mostly women---working as accredited community drug sellers operating in rural areas.Video that highlights the work of thousands of Tanzanians---mostly women---working as accredited community drug sellers operating in rural areas.

Today is International Women’s Day, celebrated around the world as an opportunity to look back on women’s accomplishments and look forward to the realization of their full economic, political, and social rights. The United Nations theme for this year, “Empowering Rural Women,” is one that resonates powerfully with MSH’s work.

A midwife in Wau, South Sudan. {Photo credit: MSH.}Photo credit: MSH.

Josephine, a wife and mother of six living in rural Uganda, tried to soothe her 3-year-old daughter. The girl was suffering from diarrhea and a high fever and her crying filled the home. Recognizing that the girl's health was in danger, Josephine summoned the courage to ask her husband for permission to take their second-youngest child to the local health facility unit -- and pleaded for money to cover the travel and treatment expenses.

Requesting permission from her husband to travel to the facility was not her only choice, however: choosing to take her daughter for treatment also meant leaving her other children -- including her youngest -- unattended at home. Once at the health center, she continued to navigate the challenging road to treatment for her daughter, communicating her situation to the health providers and negotiating the financial and provider aspects of the health center system, without assistance. Relieved and exhausted, Josephine returned home safely with her daughter, oral rehydration salts, and knowledge.

Recognizing women leaders

What makes a person in the health system a good leader? Who determines that he or she is a leader? How do we empower leaders to improve the health of those around them?

Dr. Belkis Giorgis, MSH's Gender Expert 

One hundred years ago on March 8, a handful of countries celebrated the first International Women’s Day. Today it is celebrated around the world as an opportunity to look back on women’s accomplishments and look forward to the realization of their full economic, political, and social rights. The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day 2011 is centered on women’s access to education, technology, and decent work.

For 40 years, MSH has promoted equal access to health care for women by strengthening health systems and building the capacity of women as leaders and managers, technical experts, clinicians, and community health workers. We interviewed Dr. Belkis Giorgis, our NGO Capacity Building/Gender Advisor in Ethiopia about women and development.

Why is International Women’s Day important?

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