Walking in women's shoes
Wedges, heels, or flats? What says professional, yet cross-terrain functional? Some may find it somewhat odd or maybe even offensive that when I think about the 100th anniversary of International Women’s day the first experience that comes to my mind involves shoe choice. But on a recent trip to Egypt, when I was preparing to travel to newly built clinics and meet women whose lives had been changed through the clinics, this was a big decision. I know this sounds like a problem for some Hollywood debutante, but let’s ‘fess up…we’ve all been there. And when you’re working in international health this becomes an even bigger issue. Why? Because there is a definite chance of encountering dirt roads, lake-like puddles and worse. As I was getting ready, I knew I would be visiting clinics in rural, very non-heel friendly areas, BUT I was also informed that we would be meeting with the governor’s office and thus told to “dress nice.” Sigh. Have I lost sight of the bigger picture? This is what I’m concerned about? I’m a focused, empowered, Women’s Studies-degreed feminist. Why am I obsessing over shoes?! I blame advertising and the clearance rack at DSW.
So—the compromise—I slide on my short heels. I am one short plane ride away to bumping along dirt roads to the clinic. We arrive. It is a beautiful, newly constructed clinic. However, my worst fears are realized. Mud. Grand Canyon-sized puddles. And, worst of all, the evidence of farm animals. Don’t get me wrong, this is the part of my job I love the most. Getting the opportunity to see how the work we love, care, and advocate for is changing women’s lives keeps me staring at my computer screen nights and weekends and causes my partner to beg me to put the laptop away.
I should give a little background here about the clinic and purpose of my visit. The organization I work for, Pathfinder International, has been implementing a project in Egypt working to increase access to reproductive health and family planning services and information. The clinics—and the community health workers tied to them—disseminate information regarding nutrition, literacy, and women’s health, including topics such as female genital cutting (FGC).
FGC—sometimes referred to as female circumcision or female genital mutilation—is a practice in which there is a partial or full removal of the labia, clitoris, or both. Every day about 6,000 girls undergo genital cutting, and the World Health Organization estimates that around 100 million to 140 million women worldwide have undergone the practice overall. While FGC is banned officially banned in Egypt, the practice is still pervasive in parts of the country and other regions around the world.
As we enter the clinic, we are immediately greeted by a roomful of women, religious leaders, and young couples who have come to share with us how the clinic and its services have affected them. Before I can absorb the scene, I am immediately engaged in conversation, via a translator, with Shahira*, who recently attended workshops that the project provided on FGC and literacy training. Just a few months before attending the FGC workshop, Shahira had her own daughter circumcised. She shares what she learned, including the negative health effects of FGC and that it is not mandated by the Koran. She tells me that she deeply regrets having her own daughter circumcised. “How did I not know this? Why didn’t someone tell me earlier?” she asks. I don’t have an answer. Her regret lasts only a moment, however, as she tells me how she shared her knowledge with her sister. That conversation convinced her sister to cancel the planned circumcision of her daughter. Shahira tells me how she is discussing her newly found knowledge with the women in her community, because she believes that “all women should know this.” This is not merely a woman accessing important services, this a woman owning the knowledge that is being presented to her. I can only imagine how many women’s lives Shahira alone will impact now.
As I ponder that thought, I meet Maha. Maha is a pretty, seemingly shy woman who talks so quietly that my colleague translating for me has to ask her to speak louder. Maha is enrolled in the literacy classes for women being held at the clinic. She quietly tells us how much she enjoys the classes and appreciates the opportunity to learn. She is then asked by the class leader to give a demonstration of what she has learned in the class. Maha is shy no longer. She absolutely beams as she holds the chalk and writes her own name as well as a few of the health messages that are given as practice in the literacy class. She tells us how she is sharing what she has learned in the literacy class with her female relatives and neighbors. This woman is a born teacher.
It doesn’t amaze me that, armed with this knowledge, these women are empowered—and empowering other women. What amazes me is that it took so long for them to get access to vital information about their own health. I have the luxury of worrying about shoes because I don’t have to worry about getting access to health services or information. I have always had choices about my reproductive life.
In thinking about my trip to Egypt, it strikes me that we’ve both come along way—but still have much further to go. I know the challenges are immensely daunting and that there are—and will be—setbacks. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel in international women’s health and rights. Once women have access to information and services, they make changes in their own lives and spread the word to others—because these are choices we as women all desire.
We have made progress. We have ignited changed. So again, I ask, ballet flats or pumps? Who cares?! As long as we all join together to work with the Shahira’s and Maha’s around the world, the information will “walk for itself.”
*Named changed for privacy.