Stories From Ethiopia: Women's Health & U.S. Policy

By Christine Cupaiuolo — November 6, 2006

The Des Moines Register has published a six-part series by columnist Rekha Basu on her recent trek to Ethiopia. With EngenderHealth, an organization that supports women’s reproductive health projects in Ethiopia as their guide, Basu and six U.S. delegates visited health clinics in an attempt to figure out how U.S. aid can best be used to address women’s health issues.

The series is a must-read. Basu’s writing is clear and persuasive, especially when writing about misguided U.S. policies:

It’s one thing, for example, to require U.S. schools to teach only abstinence until marriage in publicly funded sex-education programs. But Congress, in extending its faith-based initiatives overseas, also has mandated that at least a third of AIDS-prevention money abroad be spent on promoting abstinence programs. When we place that caveat in a country where girls marry as young as 8 or 9, and 94 percent of girls having sex are married, what does pushing abstinence before marriage accomplish? And neither an abstinence oath nor the requirement that organizations getting AIDS-fighting money take anti-prostitution pledges is going to help stem the epidemic among commercial sex workers, whose only means of sustenance is selling their bodies.

The series’ presentation is useful as well. On the left side of this page, for instance, a sidebar titled “Why the Strings?” explains U.S. aid restrictions and the reasons behind the administration’s insistence on them.

Other columns focus on obstetric fistula and prostitution. In part 4, Basu looks at the effect of restrictive abortion laws, noting that while abortion is generally illegal, “crude attempts” persist, which account for almost one-third of obstetric deaths.

In almost the entire continent, ending a pregnancy without some extenuating circumstances is illegal. Ethiopia recently liberalized its law, but performing a routine abortion remains a criminal act, punishable by up to three years in prison. Pressure from anti-abortion activists purportedly trained in the United States blocked efforts at further liberalization.

A ban on the books is one thing. Reality is another. Women determined to end their pregnancies will find a way, sometimes with devastating consequences.

The journey for Basu was deeply personal — “Recently widowed, I learned it is possible to travel halfway across the world alone, in sorrow, see no familiar faces, and be all right – in fact, come to feel alive again.” It is also one of the most informative and engaging series you’re likely to read about women’s health in Africa. In the final chapter Basu writes:

I came to understand that this intense fear of female sexuality, and by extension, female power and independence, has driven so many harmful traditions from child marriage to genital mutilation. I saw a link between those fears in Africa and the ones that are fueling a backlash against birth control back home, and driving rape, battery and other anti-female violence. And for the umpteenth time, I saw that a country cannot thrive without the full empowerment and engagement of women.

Readers can peruse Basu’s diary, view a narrated slideshow and join a discussion. Registration is required for comments, but you only have to submit your name and e-mail to take part.

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