On Thursday, September 5th, the Goldin Institute hosted its first ever women’s-focused joint discussion with GATHER’s global alumni as well as Chicago Peace Fellows. A lively and informative conversation unfolded over 90 minutes with GATHER alumnus Michelle Kuiper, Yale University researcher and field consultant Jillian Foster, as well as St. Louis, Missouri-based Pamela Merritt of Repro-Action. 

At the outset, Pamela and Jillian gave full background descriptions of their respective journeys working in the fields of reproductive justice, and the impact of conflict on women’s general health and well-being. Earlier in her life, Pamela dealt with endometriosis and fibroids, and she spoke movingly about her challenges seeking consistent medical treatment, spurring her to advocate on behalf of poor, Black American women after a stint at Planned Parenthood USA.

[quote]She noted that while access to safe reproductive health and maternal care is a global crisis, the United States, surprisingly, has the worst outcomes for women in regards to infant mortality and maternal health in the so-called “developed world.”[/quote]

Jillian, a host on the “Radicals & Revolutionaries” podcast, works at the intersection of gender, violence, and health, focusing especially on the African continent, and recently returned from a spring of field research and consultation in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Ethiopia. When she learned the Goldin Institute works with GATHER alumni in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, Jillian spoke of her recent findings and experiences in those nations. In Somalia in particular, she noted that constant armed conflict among multiple warring groups has drastically impacted the physical lives of women and girls, but also diminished the services available to them. She recommended that community “gate-keepers,” especially those in the faith-based spaces, were as-yet untapped leaders in gender protection. Regarding Kenya, Jillian felt that much of the sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls was a result of tumultuous elections, and that many female survivors have been silenced.

Kentucky-based GATHER alumnus Michelle Kuiper followed the two guest speakers by talking about her work supporting survivors of rape and sexual assault. For the past several years, Michelle has worked in her state and across the United States to mandate greater processing of rape testing kits as well as holistic, sustained support of women and girls dealing with the aftermath of violence.

[quote]Michelle pointed out that someone is a target of sexual violence every 92 seconds and one out of every three women globally will be a survivor of some form of sexual violence in her lifetime. [/quote]

Cameroon-based GATHER alumnus Alexander Gwanvalla shared with the speakers and attendees on the call that the issue of women’s health was particularly relevant to him as he lost his grandmother to excessive bleeding from menstruation. He asked the three women speakers, “In my community, we have medical crises, poor health systems and corruption. We also have various cultures within Cameroon with everyone valuing their own culture. Women’s health care is very bad, often based around cultural herbalists that prevent medical treatment. What can I do to help my society in situations like this?”

In response, Pamela recognized how complex women’s reproductive health can be because of cultures and community belief systems.

“The first thing is to think about it in terms of public education which respects and honors those beliefs,” she said. “It is not about disproving but more about modern medicine supplementing [those systems]. It is hard to talk about it, but if we don’t, we have huge percentages of the population living in pain.”

From Somalia, Abdiweli Waberi weighed in by recounting that in 2017, when he spoke about gender-based violence in a public speech, it was shocking for a man to be discussing women’s issues. He noted that for every 10,000 mothers in his country, 1,000 die in childbirth.

[quote]“In Somalia, there is no domestic law that protects women from sexual violence, it isn’t seen as an issue that needs laws and punishments,” he explained. “Often, change is seen as ‘western,’ and rejected.”[/quote]

“You’re right,” Jillian responded. “It is extremely difficult for men to speak about women’s issues. Talk about how men are not acting appropriately, and ask, ‘In our community, what does it mean to be a good man?’ When you’re doing this, speaking with religious and cultural leaders, weave into that [narrative] how violence against women is not a good thing and does not make a good man. Use the social structures to help change the behaviors.”

We invite you to learn more by viewing this recording of the conversation: