Bearing witness to a revolution in women’s health and rights

Bearing witness to a revolution in women’s health and rights
Munira Sha'ban, Jordan's celebrated midwife (centre), with UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin and UNFPA Director Dianne Stewart. Photo credit: UNFPA/Omar Kasrawi
  • 01 October 2014

UNITED NATIONS, New York – Next year, Munira Sha’ban will celebrate her 50th year working as a nurse and midwife. Her career has taken her all over the world, to the halls of the United Nations, and, through a televised health show, into the homes of thousands of Jordanian families.

She has served women and families from Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and Syria. And over the decades, she has seen the steady advancement of human rights come to some of the most vulnerable women and girls. As a result, she has watched their health and prospects improve.

She has also played a key role in promoting this progress. As a trusted health adviser, she offers counselling and information to improve women’s and girls’ health and circumstances.

Still, she says, there is much more work to be done.

Below is a condensed, edited interview with Ms. Sha’ban about how women’s health and rights have changed, and what remains to be done.

How have women's sexual and reproductive health and rights changed over the years?

Twenty years ago, women used to receive orders from male family members and elderly women on reproductive health in general, on the number of children they should have, and on all the other personal reproductive decisions to be taken. But these days, women are empowered socially and economically. They know their rights, and they decide for themselves the number of children they want and how to manage their health.

Through the lectures I give and the awareness programmes I’ve run in schools, tents and community associations, I have noticed that women today have significantly improved sexual and reproductive health, from my point of view. They understand the health benefits of spacing their pregnancies, for example. Additionally, women nowadays work, and so they better recognize the need to have spaces between pregnancies.

Some of these changes have been quite recent. During the last couple of years, I have been working with UNFPA in the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. In the beginning, I noticed that many Syrian refugees did not believe in family planning. Furthermore, they had a high incidence of early marriage.

After working with them for the past two years, I noticed that Syrian refugees – men and women – have more information about family planning, and they recognize the need for reproductive health in general. They have also started to use different tools for family planning.

Could you share an experience showing some of these changes?

Years ago, I helped a very young girl give birth at home, far away from Amman, the capital. She was only 16 years old, and she already had two children. I talked to her about her young age and the importance of being empowered. I spoke with her about the difficulties that young married women face and also about her rights.

A few years later, I learned that she had studied at home, had received her school diploma, and had entered university.

Another time, there was a lady who attended my awareness- raising lectures. I talked about family planning and contraceptive methods and the advantages of spacing between pregnancies. This lady was convinced, but her husband threatened to divorce her if she did not get pregnant immediately after giving birth.

She told him about the disadvantages of getting pregnant with no spaces between children. She gave him facts from the Holy Koran that supported the spacing issue and encouraged breastfeeding. And she explained the advantages of having a couple of years at least between pregnancies.

She convinced him, and together they decided to use contraceptive methods.

Why do you think these changes have taken place?

There are many reasons behind these changes. I believe that growing awareness about women’s health, social and legal needs and rights, as well as protections and economic opportunities are the most important reasons behind empowering women.

Legal reforms, more equality and greater participation by women in society and decision-making are also having an effect.

And women nowadays are better educated than before, and they are working so that they can support their husbands and families. As a result of being breadwinners, they are more empowered to make decisions together with their husbands.

There are also many organizations that are working to support women and empower them. Some organizations provide women in need with legal counselling and legal aid. There are also associations that support women’s small businesses, either at home or otherwise.

In your view, what are the biggest problems for women's and girls’ health and rights today?

There are so many problems. Some of them relate to the wars and violence that are happening in our region. Another problem is male control over women, which is an issue of culture and mentality.

One reason these problems have not been solved is because women do not usually reach positions where decisions are made. For example, we always call for 30 per cent of decision-makers to be women, but the actual percentage of women in power is very low. Today, there are women working as lawyers, working in municipalities, and even a few women working is ministers. However, overall, women’s representation is too low.

What must we do to address these problems?

We should encourage women to work, as work is important to empower women socially and economically, and we should encourage women to reach the high ranks of decision-makers. We should encourage women to seek continuous training, and to seek education, and to be empowered in all stages of their lives. And more work must also be done to change mindsets.

– Rebecca Zerzan


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