Tuesday Guest Post: “Half the Sky: A Screening Review”

This week’s post was written by recently trained BADP volunteer Becky Michelson. Becky is a San Francisco native who grew up speaking Russian. She studied Cultural Anthropology at UC Davis and conducted a senior project researching the top three barriers women face in reproductive health care issues and proposed solutions. Her project was greatly enriched through volunteering with ACCESS: Women’s Health Justice. She is fascinated by reproductive health issues from a variety of perspectives including clinical, political, and cultural. She has loved volunteering as a doula during her time in Davis, is looking forward to continue learning and serving in the Bay Area, and is inspired by the reproductive health community she is discovering. In her spare time she enjoys longboarding, camping, watching documentaries, and making collages. 


Half the Sky: A Screening Review

By Becky Michelson

On September 18th, the San Francisco Public Library hosted a pre-screening of the documentary Half the Sky followed by a panel discussion with women’s rights and health leaders. The event was sponsored by groups such as Women and Girls Lead, a “public media initiative to focus, educate, and connect audiences worldwide.” Half the Sky, originally a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, exemplifies female heroes who have mobilized to fight against major gender-oppression issues in education, health care, politics, and the economy. The film exposes female celebrities to the harsh realities faced by women in impoverished places to help raise awareness about the global gender gap.

The screening focused on Edna Adan, a talented nurse-midwife who rallied resources after her retirement to create a women’s hospital in Somililand. At age 75 she runs the hospital, trains midwives to serve rural populations, and advocates for changes against common cultural practices of female genital mutilation. Her hospital has a maternal mortality rate that is 1/4th that of the rest of the country; however, an international student midwife from the UK still exclaimed that she had observed more deaths in 4 weeks of her apprenticeship than from several years of her career back home. Edna explains that a woman in Somliland has a 1 in 12 chance of dying and sadly the causes are due to basic issues such as anemia, eclampsia, and malnutrition. She spoke of a common domino effect where many intersecting factors negatively impact women’s health (such as poverty, poor education, early marriage, devalued role of women, etc). While many simple solutions exist, there are deeply entrenched cultural beliefs that result in women being treated as second class citizens and become a barrier to enacting the necessary changes. In many places, such as Somililand, a woman seeking control and autonomy over her body is highly controversial. 

So it was no surprise when the panelists mentioned that it is often a fear of many humanitarian aid workers not to overstep cultural boundaries. For example, Diane Lane remarked how one can be careful to use the word “cutting” and not “mutilation” when referring to female genital mutilation (FGM) because terms like “mutilation” implies judgment. However where do you draw the line between cultural sensitivity and human rights? The practice of FGM was explained by people in the movie to help insure the chastity of young girls. However besides completely eliminating any sensation, it causes many health problems including  hematometra (collection of blood in the uterus), creates conditions prone to infection, and pain during sexual intercourse. The procedure creates scar tissue buildup which can result in fisutla and tremendous complications during childbirth. In Somaliland, the procedure is often done to girls at a young age. The producers of the film decided to visit someone who does this procedure on a daily basis to try to gain a better understanding of how it is normalized. They encountered a woman who does 10-12 procedures a day, and admitted that if she had another source of funding, she would not do this job. Even though FGM has recently been illegalized in Somaliland, panelists warned that such laws can also create negative impacts, such as citizens traveling to neighboring countries for the procedure or it being done at earlier ages. Panelists also mentioned that as “barbaric” as FGM appears to many people, we must also acknowledge American beauty standards that include body manipulation because the various global practices speak to a broader scheme of gender-oppression issues. 

The panel was moderated by the director of the International Museum of Women, Clare Winterton, and featured: nurse-midwife/director of Safe Motherhood Programs Dr. Suellen Miller, as well as Carolyn Kouassiaman from the Global Fund for Women, and the CEO of the Fistula Foundation, Kate Grant. While each leader spoke from a slightly different perspective, they all encouraged audience members to support women-led initiatives, stay informed on reproductive health developments, talk about important issues, and advocate for increased funding for international women’s development.  In looking at solutions, they also promoted a well-rounded approach enacting change from both within communities and externally (through work such as law and policy reforms) in the struggles to improve reproductive agency and access to resources. Changing political will was highly emphasized by Caryln Kouassiaman who explained that effective attitude changes can come from identifying opportunities to engage traditional and public leaders. As daunting and overwhelming as reproductive health injustices can be, Kate Grant urged attendees to find a piece of the work that speaks to their heart. In whichever work is your calling,  prioritize the agency and power of the individuals you help during the empowerment process. An inspired audience member commented on how there are many local issues that need attention, such as a high population of refugees in the Bay Area and the need to raise awareness of cervical cancer.

I am proud to be a part of the Bay Area Doula Project whose members are helping fulfill the needs of women seeking full-spectrum care. It is inspiring to work with people who are constantly seeking to improve their knowledge of reproductive health resources, injustices, policies, and positive changes we can make. Hopefully through events such as this screening, we can continue both the broader discussions of gender oppression and the contextualized solutions we can implement locally.

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