Fighting for women’s rights: the power of listening

 

Violette Perrotte

 

 In this autobiographical chapter, Violette provides an inspiring, cross-continental perspective. She writes of growing up in France, visiting the US, and arriving into post graduate life poised to empower and heal women through health care.

 

Making it to America:

When I got to college, I decided I was going to study international studies. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, and it sounded broad enough that no one would question me about what my passion was. One of my biggest anxieties has always been making decisions. The idea of making a decision and sticking with it, without looking back, has always been an incredibly frightening concept to me, whether it applied to schools, jobs, or my personal life.

I was always afraid that if I agreed to something, I would end up regretting it; so I became the master of dragging decision-making over alarmingly long periods of time, until a choice was almost imposed to me either by a third party, or by life itself. 

I took on the pattern of listening to everyone’s advice before making a decision, but usually that only served to make me more confused, and often drowned out my own voice and wishes. Only later in my life did I understand the power of listening to the right people.

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Life was pretty much set for me: I am French, born and raised in Paris, from a French family, and went to a French high school. Simply from the luck of the birth lottery, I was most likely going to spend the rest of my life in my upper-class neighborhood in Paris. In a shocking twist of events, my parents took me out of my French-bubble when I was thirteen years old and sent me to an all-girls summer camp in America to learn English. The day I set foot in Burlington, Vermont, I knew that this was my country of adoption. I had always loved France and felt very much like a Parisian, but when I got to the U.S. it was like I was coming home to a place I could be the person I had always been. Everything felt right: the people, the food, the landscape, the culture, I loved it all. It was strange to feel connected to a place unfamiliar from my home, a strangeness that I simply attributed to America’s longstanding history of welcoming all peoples.

Although I had a thick French accent, and did not understand some aspects of the culture (I truly will never be able to wrap my head around lack of gun control laws), America felt like home. But what struck me the most in the U.S, which turned out to be a watershed moment in my life, were the girls that I met at Brown Ledge Camp.

Over that first summer, I sat in the evening sun as girls as young as 9 braved the stage to perform plays, confidently sing in front of crowds, push their boundaries to learn horseback riding, waterskiing, archery, and so much more. These girls were absolutely fearless. They did not fear judgment, they did not fear failure, and they certainly did not fear change.

I had never experienced anything like that in my time in Paris. Despite being surrounded with incredibly smart and curious friends back home, it felt like we were never truly encouraged to be self-confident in the way young American girls I was meeting at Brown Ledge Camp were. After comparing it to my experience, I fully attributed this gap to the difference between our two schooling systems. I was in awe with the confidence the American schooling system instilled in young people, pushing them to explore outside the classroom, develop skills and talents, and not be afraid to stand in front of a crowd to perform.

 The ladies of Brown Ledge Camp who taught me everything, from English to fearlessness 

The ladies of Brown Ledge Camp who taught me everything, from English to fearlessness 

The French schooling system served to get students prepared for incredible academic success. All students take mostly the same core classes until junior year when you get to choose either an economic, literary, or scientific path. We were in school from eight in the morning to five in the evening, every day, including Saturday mornings. We were required to learn about philosophy, geography, history, maths, French, English, Spanish, economics, and much more. At the young age of sixteen, I already felt knowledgeable, able to write hand written essays for four hours straight on the French economic system at eight AM on a Saturday morning. We were smart. But when I got to summer camp, I realized something was cruelly missing in our school system, and that was self-confidence to do the things we deeply WANTED to do. From 1st to 12th grade, schools made the decision for us on what we should do. We did not have AP classes, we did not a set time apart for extra-curricular activities, and although people with a certain economic standing could afford to practice a sport or music after school, there was certainly no time allocated for that in the school year.

In school, we did not have school sports teams, or student government associations, no proms, no end of the year talent shows, no pep rallies-- nothing that allows you to grow outside the classroom. I never realized how much we were missing out on until I discovered it in American girls. Although we might have been better prepared academically, with a rigor and writing abilities that are well above the world average, we were not truly encouraged to think outside the box and explore other paths than the ones set out to us by our schools. This trend extends even to higher education. In France, we do not have multi-disciplinary schools like American colleges, but instead we have to choose between law, medicine, business, economic, or art for college right when we graduate high school.

When the time came to choose my path after high school, I had but one goal: make my way to an American college. I had not developed any particular interest in high school, but I knew what my passion was: America. knew nothing about the reality of American colleges, nor did my family, but I felt with a burning passion that it was what I was supposed to do. I signed up for SAT classes at the bilingual school, where I was the only fully French student in a sea of Americans. I signed up for TOEFL classes while simultaneously working on my French baccalaureate, and dealing with my high school professors who were constantly disapproving of my college choice. They did not get why I wanted to go to the U.S for college where “everyone is so dumb” (verbatim what my history professor said).. Everyone was fairly confused about why one would want to leave such a prestigious academic system for one that many considered inferior. But I was so motivated I knew where I would fit in best – a place that would allow me to grow on my terms to be the person I wanted to be.

When I set foot on the Johns Hopkins campus for a visit after getting admitted, I knew. It was like the summer at Brown Ledge Camp, but with more clarity. It is the most defining moment in my life, not only because I had found the school that would make me the person I am today, but also because it was the first time in my life when I felt that I had the power to make a decision for myself. I had options, and deep down, my gut feeling had already made the decision for me. I saw students walk around campus holding their books like I had seen in the American TV shows I was watching back in Paris, carrying groceries in brown paper bags (yes, that is extremely cool for us foreigners, don’t undermine the coolness of a brown paper bag), athletes going to practice, people drinking coffee in the library, everything seemed picturesque. I decided to go to Hopkins, made the first real decision of my life and never looked back.

 

What am I going to do with my life?

 

When I arrived at Johns Hopkins, I still had no passion. Now that my fight to get to college in the U.S was over, I had nothing to keep battling for. I figured international studies sounded serious and broad enough that it would look good on my resume and no one would question my choice.  However, the notion that American students are deeply passionate soon caught up with me again. On the first day, I met what would become my other half, my roommate Hope. She came from a life that was the polar opposite of mine. She was from suburban Baltimore, had never set foot in France, and was as American as I was French. The day we met she said to me, “I will be going to Law school after college, it’s a dream of mine ever since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and that’s what I’m going to do.” (Spoiler alert: she did get into a top law school right from college. You may have heard about her here first, but it won’t be the last time.) I was absolutely fascinated with this girl, who was so determined, so passionate, and so driven. She was not stubborn, just truly passionate, and it emanated from her.

I soon realized that I was surrounded by many other people my age who were truly passionate, about law, art history, medicine, or writing. These students were not just studying these topics, these were not simple majors to them, but true callings. One of the first essays I wrote in college was about democracy in the Arab Spring movement. I remember looking at the topic, and applying the essay format I had always learned in France: “Thesis, Anti-thesis, Synthesis,” which requires you to look at one angle, then the opposite angle, and then conclude on a mix of these two angles. I was really proud of my work, until my professor came back to me and asked me what on earth I was meaning to write. I explained to him the format I was used to, to which he replied, “I’m not asking you for general angles to a question, I want to know what YOU think based on research”. I was so surprised. I had never been asked my opinion in class, I had always been asked to recite what I had learned in books. It was the first time I realized American college was probably going to teach me much more than I thought about decision-making.

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Inspired by the motivation my friends were showing for their majors, I decided to start taking classes outside of my comfort zone. I signed for “Public Health in Film and Media,” thinking it would be a good class to learn about a new topic, yet easy enough since we were watching movies once a week. One day, we watched a movie called “Yesterday,” fairly unknown to the public. It was the story of Yesterday, a struggling mother infected with HIV and going through domestic violence in Zululand, whose dream was to send her daughter to school. There was not a dry eye in the room when the lights went on. I, too, was overwhelmed with emotions, but not just because the movie was so touching. Something had switched within me, and I felt deep down that a spark had lit. It was not a particularly tear jerking movie, it was not playing for our emotions of pity, or portraying any overrated clichés about poverty, but something about the story opened my eyes to more of the world that I had not yet encountered in close proximity and made me realize that, just as law was Hope’s calling, women’s health was mine.

I became fascinated with learning more about the additional burdens that women face in low to high income countries, and about the exceeding rate of unmet need in their access to health. I signed up for a double major in public health, and decided to focus on the cultural factors influencing access to health, and harmful traditions leading to human rights violation in young girls and women in low income countries. My interest in women’s health lead me to focus mostly on the African continent, because that is where I found the most interesting and diverse interrelations between culture and health.

I started looking at several issues: female genital mutilation (the action of cutting a part of the female genital organ for no medical reasons), child marriage, and access to contraception. I studied these issues from a public health perspective, the consequences of these issues on women’s health, but also from a societal perspective, the impact of lack of women’s health and rights on the economies of low-income countries. The United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that over 200 million girls have been forced to undergo female genital mutilation and every three seconds a girl under 18 is forced into marriage. These issues seemed extremely urgent, because they were intrinsically related to questions of human rights, personal poverty, and lack of national economic development. 

I started to understand that when women have better control over their sexual and reproductive health it made them better workers, mothers, and overall productive society members. Ensuring women have access to health and protecting them from harmful cultural practices was essential in guaranteeing economic development in low-income countries. Simply put, not all societal or cultural practices are good. And when evidence shows that there is a severe health threat or societal loss involved in a cultural practice, it is the onus for all of us to stand up for justice. For example, education has been proven to be a protective factor against child marriage. If a young girl stays in school, the odds are that she will not be forcibly married before the age of 18. If, after that, she has access to contraception, then she can space her births in a way that protects her body and her economic resources. If when she is pregnant she has not been cut, she is less likely to encounter medical issues at birth and will thus have a safer pregnancy. If she has access to a health center where she can give birth and receive visits from a community health worker throughout her pregnancy, she can better protect her health and the health of her baby. A healthy baby is the future of all nations. If a woman is healthy it benefits entire families, and thus entire countries. Indeed, the intricacies of traditional practices were very complex and, as I observed, directly related to women’s health.

 

 

“Voluntoursim”

These cultural factors were sensitive issues to study as a foreigner, as I wanted to avoid being in a position of judgment or assumed superiority. Rather, I wanted to objectively, empathetically, and analytically study the issue of how some traditional practices can be medically harmful, and how to prevent these without taking anything away from the richness of cultures I witnessed. For example, if female genital mutilation (FGM) is entrenched in a cultural representation of coming-of-age, what ways could we empower those communities to develop new practices that fulfill the same need and preserve the health of the girls?

As Millennials, we have so many opportunities to travel and explore different cultures. Yet, it is important for us to use our access responsibly and come as ambassadors for partnership to the communities and cultures we visit. I am sure we have all heard about the concept of “voluntourism,” the idea of a group of people from high income countries going to low income countries to help the local population, often time through medical missions or building shelters, water pipes, etc. These trips came from a good place of people wanting to improve impoverished people’s lives, but often turned into an imperialist journey with the said group coming for just one week providing a service some locals had never even asked for and may not need.

These groups that participate in “voluntourism” do not address to the local demand for their project, or think about the sustainability of their project, but rather made a paternalistic decision for the community they sought to aid. This type of activity often results in Facebook profile pictures with black and brown children sharing many good memories from the participants’ perspective. They often speak about the feeling of self-fulfillment, but these highlights hide the lack of impact in the community visited, and, in fact, it often times more harm than good. I promised myself that if I were to study women’s health and issues of access to health in the African continent, I would always remember my place as a foreigner, and never assume I knew best. It was not because I was educated and from a wealthy country that I could understand these issues better, but on the contrary it was because I was from such a different background that I had so much to learn.

During my sophomore year, I was selected to represent the country of France at the G(irls)20 Summit in Moscow, a model G20 Summit where one young women between the ages of 18-23 is selected from each G20 country to meet and discuss on women’s rights around the world. On the last day we were asked to write a set of recommendations to be given to political representatives in our respective countries. We began to collaborate and work early in the morning and our ideas began to fuse.

I remember leaving the room for a bit, and when I got back in, I stopped in the doorway and observed from afar the magic that was happening: young women from 20 nations, who had never met each other until 5 days before, from so many backgrounds, were coming together with brilliant, innovative, well rounded ideas that would make any government official green with envy. We imagined microcredit loan programs in India, kindergartens in companies for working mothers in Italy, scholarships that would allow students from low income countries to go study in high income countries (granted they come back to their country afterwards for a set period of time, to prevent brain drain). We were responsibly crafting the future that we believed we deserved. It was at that moment that I realized the unbounded potential of Millennial women coming together and building on each other’s ideas to fuel their own.

I had another important realization that week. Because we were all from such different backgrounds, and knew barely anything about the struggles going on for local women in other places, we were forced to listen intently every time one of us talked. The nature of our foreign-ness meant that we did not know what the other young women were going through back home, so we could not readily “one up” the other, all we could do was ask questions and learn about our common struggles in differing contexts. That is when I realized the incredible power of listening. I understood that real, unaltered listening could be the key to help me resist the trap of “voluntourism” because I could never assume best. As a visitor, the local community is the expert, and you are a consultant at best. Careful listening would allow me to never step outside the line in my travels. I swore to myself that I would always listen more than I spoke, because that would be the only way for me to grow. Listening, I understood, is the highest form of respect and vulnerability: vulnerable because keeping silent is admitting you do not know, and respect because it shows you are willing to learn about the things you do not know.

Too often we see people, particularly politicians, talk about things they do not know anything about -- especially when it comes to different cultures, and especially when it comes to women’s health. Our power as Millennials is that in our generation, we are constantly connected to other people and other cultures, we have had a chance to learn how to listen and now we must use it to demand change.

 

Take child marriage. An illegal and extremely harmful practice, it is undoubtedly a human right violation (in fact, every nation on earth has declared it a violation of human rights though it is commonly practiced). Although early marriage is often entrenched in cultural norms (as I learned by being deemed a spinster at the ripe age of 21 everywhere I went), there are also strong economic factors that I learned about during my travels. I listened to mothers who told me they could no longer feed their daughters and marrying them off was the only way to keep them and the rest of the family alive. They told me that if they had things differently, they would not have made the choice – it was about survival. Listening to the actual communities impacted by these practices debunked all the preconceived ideas that I had about the subject that I thought I had studied extensively.

 

Discovering “the field”

I decided to explore what I had learned in class “in the field” (a term that would soon lose all significance to me, as I later discovered this said fieldwork 30 minutes away from my house in Paris). Right after the G(irls)20, I went on to study in South Africa, where I took classes at the University of Cape Town, and simultaneously worked in a night clinic and at a center for isolated women. That is where my passion for access to health grew, because I discovered how complicated it was for women to access healthcare, especially pregnant women in townships, and isolated older women.

The night clinic that I worked for was an initiative launched by students at the medical school, who had managed to acquire two big buses where they had set up medical boxes to have consultations. They drove to the townships several nights a week and offered free medical consultations to people, under the supervision of a pro-bono doctor. The initiative was a great actualization of the impact that our generation is poised to make and can make, as it stemmed from young people wanting to do something about lack of access to healthcare in their communities. They were providing what they considered basic health care, but it was vital for the inhabitants of the townships. There I learned that you are never too young to do things, and that it is better to help in a small way than to do nothing at all. What those students were doing would not permanently solve the issue of lack of care, no, but it was a start. By doing this, they were shedding light on a sidestepped issue, and through incremental progress, they could push for policy to mend the gap and provide permanent healthcare access for those townships.

The following summer, I went on to work in a local NGO in Debre Brihan, Ethiopia, on a program that improved access to health for pregnant women. I was on an all-male team, with whom I toured the north of Ethiopia to evaluate the efficiency of health centers and spot deficiencies and needs. I was struck with the men’s open-mindedness regarding women’s issues. I found myself unexpectedly getting my period while there, and as we were in a rural area without any supermarkets or anyone speaking another language than Amharic, I had to resolve asking one of my male coworkers to get me tampons. I was happily surprised when he gladly agreed, and went on to spend 20 minutes with the local shopkeeper discussing the best hygienic pads available. These were men who were working to improve women’s access to health, and did not feel that these topics were taboo. Oddly enough, while these two men were comfortably discussing hygienic products, I was mortified at the idea that people could hear them and know I was on my period. Despite my knowledge on these issues, I was still uncomfortable openly discussing anything related to my own personal health.  

This anecdote opened my eyes to the importance of including men in the fight for women’s health. Only men worked at my office, and they were all trying to find ways to improve the logistics of health centers, and make them more accessible to women. They had a credibility that earned them respect in the community, and, because they were men, other men paid attention when they talked. Men’s wellbeing is directly tied to the wellbeing of women around them, and so it is a joint responsibility to help better women’s access to health.

For example, the presence of men in the fight against FGM is absolutely primordial. Still today, because cutting is done by women to girls, it is deemed as a topic that only concerns the female kind. However, having men, whether they are regular citizens, religious heads, or community leaders stand up against the practice, speak up about the harm it does, and their dislike of having a wife cut, or their daughters cut, is one of the most efficient ways of reducing it. In most areas, the tradition of cutting women stems from the belief that uncut women are “impure” or “unclean”, will go after men, and will never find a suitable husband. It is therefore essential that men themselves go against that belief by showing they disagree with this narrative and want to marry uncut women, and fight alongside women to end that practice.

When I graduated, I accepted a job at the United Nations World Food Programme in Senegal as a Princeton in Africa (PiAf) fellow. I chose PiAf because it represented exactly the opposite of “voluntourism”. It found either international organizations of local NGOs, schools, health centers, and analyzed what their needs were in terms of staff skills: did they need a teacher, a stats pro, a French speaker, a monitoring and evaluation specialist? Then they tried to find young people with these skills in the U.S and send them for a year to help with that demand. PiAf adapted to the needs of local communities and did not make any decisions on behalf of the local organizations. It was truly a partnership for progress.

What struck me most at the end of my time working in these different places was that I realized that, everywhere, for change to take place, it needed to come from within. I was a foreigner in all these places, and despite having studied the questions and issues thoroughly and being an actor of change, I could not be the catalyst of that change. I lacked the credibility and legitimacy to convince the communities to make changes in contexts that I could not fully grasp. Although I had never fallen into the “voluntoursim” narrative, I still felt like the work I was doing was not efficient enough, and not enough inclusive of locals to be truly impactful. Who better to tackle local women’s health issues than local women themselves?

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Thankfully, change was already taking place from within. This is the narrative that is often missed. I visited community health centers that have managed to bring the number of women giving birth at home to zero, ensuring that women give birth in care centers that have the necessary equipment to support them in case of complications; here, they had created ingenious systems to bring women to health centers. One of the health center managers, a local man, had turned his health center into a socializing place where women could gather to make coffee and chat, and children could come in to draw and play. That way, women were familiarized with the place and the rest of the village did not see it as a place where only sick people came, making it much easier for women to come get medical care when needed, without fearing to be judged by the community.

I witnessed the endless list of innovative ideas people in all types of organizations were trying to set up to improve women’s health and women’s rights, from offering small amounts of money for each year a daughter stays in schools, to a piece of cattle if the daughter is not married by age 18. These interventions were recognizing the systemic, not personal, nature of these harmful cultural practices and moving to correct them. I saw programs offering professional conversion to the women in charge of cutting girls, by using their medical knowledge and turning them into midwives. I saw how efficient street performances were to change community mentalities, especially regarding sexual health. I understood the power of elders and religious leaders and the importance of engaging them first to spread health messages. And everywhere, I saw how powerful and resilient women were. If given the right resources and access to education they could all be catalysts of change in their own communities.

I then realized I wanted to see how I could better tackle these issues looking at women’s health from my own home. I had always pictured my life in America, or in an African country, but after a while, I decided I would never fully understand issues in women’s health until I had looked at how we were dealing with them in my home country. So, against all odds, and to my mother’s sheer joy, five years after I had boarded the plane for Baltimore, Maryland, I returned home to Paris.

 

 La Maison des Femmes 

La Maison des Femmes 

 

Actually discovering the field

I started working at La Maison des Femmes (literally “The House for Women”), the first center in France that welcomed a planned parenthood, a unit for women victims of violence, and a unit dedicated to victims of Female Genital Mutilations. La Maison des Femmes was connected to the Delafontaine Hospital, and was thus a medico-social structure. A medico-social structure means that it does not just deal with the medical issues of the person, but also engages the societal influences and barriers to their health attainment.  The structure offers medical care, through gynecologist and surgeon consultations, but also psychological support with therapists, psychiatrists, and support groups, social services with policemen and lawyers, and wellbeing services, with self-esteem workshops, masseuse, and osteopaths. The center has opened in July 2016, and was the initiative of Dr Ghada Hatem, a gynecologist who specializes in clitoris repair, and is led by Mathilde Delespine, a midwife trained in violence against women. They have made it their life’s work to include screening for domestic violence as a part of any regular medical consultation. They were obvious examples of change coming from within, and I wanted to be a part of their project. The concept is simple, yet brilliant: build a place where women could come in without appointment, and find complete and holistic solutions to their problems in one same place. Many would come in for a regular gynecologist appointment, then be screened for violence, and taken care of. Access to care, check. Availability of care, check. Ease of navigation, check.

I knew there was a need for women’s health improvement in France, but not quite as much as I soon realized. In our partner hospital, about 15é percent of the 4,000 women giving birth in the maternity ward each year had suffered female genital mutilations. Women came from every corner of the world to find a better life in France, and carried with them the scars of their past, usually stricken with violence, forced marriage, excision, sexual violence, and a complicated migratory path to France. In that center, we could help them rebuild themselves. I was amazed to see healthcare practitioners be so driven by their wish to help women, and make them more productive society members.

 Dr Ghada Hatem and Mathilde Delespine, who run la Maison des Femmes 

Dr Ghada Hatem and Mathilde Delespine, who run la Maison des Femmes 

 Mathilde and I teaching the female anatomy to immigrant women recently arrived in France 

Mathilde and I teaching the female anatomy to immigrant women recently arrived in France 

They all believed that if women were healthier and could control their reproductive health, it was their children, their communities, and the whole country of France that would benefit. Most of the women we saw had come to France to find peace and although they quickly disenchanted when they realized how difficult integration could be, at La Maison des Femmes, they could find that peace. The place had so much soul, and this soul is so desperately vital for the work we do, given the impact of violence against women in France. For the first time, a team of people had found a simple model that could have a dramatic impact on breaking the cycle of violence. Change was coming from France, and had an impact all the way to their home countries: Excised women who had come to France could get surgical repair, and in turn protect their sisters, friends, nieces, and cousins and stop the vicious cycle of excision. They could be community leaders in their countries diaspora in France, and bring change from afar.

Although while working at La Maison des Femmes I witnessed the change that could happen when motivated and passionate people all bring their skills together to empower women, I also realized how fragile women’s rights, especially regarding health, are in our society. Women we saw came from so many different places, and yet everywhere we heard about some facet of the culture or tradition had a negative impact on women’s health. Whether the culture imposed virginity, prevented the control of one’s reproductive health, cutting, or other forms of oppression, the lack of women’s autonomy and agency was omnipresent in the stories the women told. This oppression had no specific color, no specific country, no specific social class, but it was worsened by economic poverty, because it kept women in this fearful state of not knowing what their life would be made of next. In the U.S, the election of Trump has put at risk all the efforts that have been set up to protect a woman’s right to choose and control her sexual and reproductive health, and in France, the rise of the conservative party and of a right wing presidential candidate who has publicly proclaimed to be against abortion has also made clear the fragility of women’s rights even in our current world.

 

Lessons from my very very few life experiences

From my short life and few experiences, I have drawn several conclusions on how to continue protecting women’s rights and women’s health from within, and despite political leaders perpetually trying to jeopardize basic rights. I want to share these lessons with you, peer Millennial, because I believe that all of our journeys have imparted valuable information to us and we can share what we have learned with each other as we continue to perfect the world that we know.

 

Lesson one

Get informed: In general, knowledge is power, but in terms of women’s health, knowledge is absolutely vital. Too many young women know so little about their body and their rights. When society makes girls believe that looking down at their reproductive organ is dirty and shameful, they grow up not knowing how they are made.

This misinformation can so easily lead to unsafe sexual practices and result in a lack of control over their reproductive health. Too many young girls come to the center for an abortion because they did not think they could get pregnant from having sex just once, or they thought the temperature method was a safe contraceptive measure, or that the pill could make you sterile.

By large, young women base their knowledge of contraception anecdotal evidence, on stories that they have heard “of a friend’s mother’s sister who got an arm implant and this happened to her.” Control over one’s body begins by knowing exactly how one’s body works. Just as one knows where her eyes, nose, and mouth are situated, every girl should be able to tell the difference between her vagina, her uterus, and her clitoris, and what each does. These topics have always been deemed as inappropriate and taboo, but it is clear that this knowledge is absolutely essential in ensuring safe sexual practices and to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

Knowledge is also essential when dealing with physical, sexual, emotional, and economic violence.  What is consent? Up to when can I say no to someone if I don’t want to sleep with them after all? There is a real, deeply entrenched issue with the concept of consent, that leads many young women to refuse pressing charges on their assailants because they do not think people will believe their story because they did not physically fight off their attacker. The state of women is under severe threat.

The lack of knowledge about consent is both internal and externally realized. Even in police stations, officers will still ask “Did you try to fight them off?” “Were you drinking?” “What were you wearing?” when victims muster up the courage to come to see them. On top of that, in France, many women will not even go to press charges because they think they cannot press charges if they do not have French citizenship, or because they think violence is real only if it is physical.

I see women who will never go to the police station because they fear the retribution that will befall on them or to their attacker from visiting the station, especially if the attacker is a husband or a family member. If everyone was taught early on that any unwanted sexual act is sexual violence, that emotional violence is just as damaging as physical violence, that you can press charges for emotional violence devoid of physical violence, that consent is absolutely and undoubtedly mandatory, women could have better control over situations they find themselves in. Knowing your rights is vital in making the first step to break the cycle of violence, because fear of the unknown makes it incredibly difficult to leave a violent household.

 

Lesson two

Empowered women empower women: Surrounding yourself with female role models and supporting women around you is essential in continuing the fight for women’s rights and resisting against people challenging basic women’s health rights. When I met Dr Hatem and Mathilde, the doctor and midwife who created the structure I work in, I was struck by the “girl power” vibe that emanated from their personalities and their work. They had made it their life’s work to fight for women’s rights, to listen to women whom no one had listened to before, to empower women who had been brought down by life, to literally fix the broken bodies women have sustained from oppression. And what’s more – they encourage all of us around them to take up our skills and do the same.

In our world where government funds go to many places except women’s health and where many believed that since abortion and birth control was legal, the fight for women’s health rights was over, Dr Hatem and Mathilde realized the struggle was still upon us and they vowed to create a structure where women could find comfort, not just through medical care, but also through therapy, legal aid, osteopathy, support groups, self-esteem workshops, and so much more. They fought for 5 years to convince people of the relevance of their projects, and managed to innovate in a field where many thought they had seen it all. They created a place with such spirit, that women from all walks of life felt at home and safe enough to ask for help.

What struck me most working with them both was how incredible their listening skills were, which renewed my belief in the power of listening. As a gynecologist and a midwife, they spent much of their consultations listening to women, but I witnessed how careful and considerate listening can change a patient’s consultation from a purely medical check-up to a therapeutic conversation where the woman, sometime for the first time, can disclose their life story, their despair, their problems, to the person sitting across from them.

Dr Hatem and Mathilde were empowering these women by letting them speak, listening to their stories, and maybe most importantly, by believing in what they were saying. So many women came from places where their voices were not heard, or had been shut down since they did not speak the local language of the places they had found themselves in during their migration journey. Others had so many stories to tell, stories of trauma and despair that they were longing to get off their chests but had never been believed by their family, friends, the police or others. By giving them a safe space where they could talk and be heard and believed, the staff at La Maison des Femmes was offering them more comfort than any medical consultations ever could.

If we cannot admire many of our politicians or the people in power, let us admire one another. If we do not feel well represented by the people in charge, let us let other women represent us and what we stand for. Despite how young we are, or what society thinks about our gender or power, we have an inherent responsibility to empower the generations of women around us, listen to their stories, and give them a voice.

 

Lesson three

Lobby to your government to fund women’s health support structures: It is no secret that Planned Parenthood funding is being jeopardized by restrictive laws, which will have disastrous impact on women’s health. Family planning centers have accomplished so much to improve women’s access to health all around the world, and have quite literally saved many women’s lives, yet somehow they are being demonized and threatened regularly.

Lack of funding for health structure is the best way to deny women of basic rights. And they know it. But do they care? We must show them that we do.

Governments often think spending money on women’s support structures is a black hole and do not realize the incredible cost of not funding these structures. In France, it has been estimated that the social security cost of care for victims of violence is 3.6 billion euros. Therefore, one cannot help but think that funding structures that help women break the cycle of violence is actually a way to save money for our society in the long run. But women are penalized everywhere in the process of receiving care: in America, there is a tax on feminine hygiene products, a basic necessity for all women, yet there are restrictions on accessing contraception, and then again restrictions on accessing abortion care services. Everywhere down the path, there is a high cost that can only be summed as the cost of being a woman.

Funding programs for schools that teach about safe sex, equality between boys and girls, and consent is also a way to prevent future high expenditures and make our society safer. Both boys and girls should be taught that they have an equal right to a healthy and safe sexuality, and that violence does not have its place in society. If these issues are tackled when children have already reached adulthood, it is far too late because violence has already become normative, and the belief that a woman does not have an equal say in relationships is already entrenched. Having complete and insightful school programs teaching about these issues is absolutely essential to make sure people grow up knowing their bodies and their rights.

 

Lesson four

Women’s health is essential. And not just to women. Allowing women to control their bodies, their reproductive health, and their sexual life, is essential to society. I truly believe that if women have better access to sexual and reproductive care, they will be more empowered, and empowered women can pave the way for a better society. Humanity has always ever known society led by men and the evidence of that is still all around us. We still do not know what it means to have a majority of women heads of states, a majority of women in powerful economic positions, a majority of women CEOs, lawyers, physicians, artists. In every country, we have fought, and the battles we won are countless, and yet, in 2017, basic women’s rights are still being questioned by political representatives. I believe female empowerment will take place only when our most basic health rights are respected, and we gain full control over our sexual and reproductive health.

I did not want to take part in this “Next Four Years” project at first because I did not feel legitimate enough, credible enough, to share my story with others. But then I realized, oddly enough, my feeling of lack of legitimacy, despite being sometimes a handicap to asserting myself, is also one of my greatest qualities. Being aware I lack credibility is what made me avoid voluntourism. It is what kept me quiet when I did not know and needed to learn. It is what gets me to ask questions, and say aloud: “I don’t know”. And most importantly, is what got me to listen. And the day I started to listen is the day I started to grow, as a woman, as a professional, and as a human being.

 

The Next Four Years

My wish is for all of us Millenials, irrespective of nationality, religion, and language, is to find that fragile balance between recognizing our power to change things at our level and beyond and acknowledging that we still have much to learn.

In these next four years, I want to expand the work done at La Maison des Femmes. I want to fight to see similar structures set up everywhere in France, the U.S, and low-income countries. There is still so much to be done to ameliorate women’s rights, and I hope to do my part to advance the health, economic, and social attainment of women. I also want to continue working with mentors who inspire me, and someday be that mentor for someone. I will continue to improve my decision-making skills while empowering other women to make decisions for themselves. To be truthful, and although it causes me panic attacks on a daily basis, I have no concrete plan for the future. However, unlike many politicians who believe they are done learning, I know that I have more listening and learning ahead of me, and that that’s where my power lies.

Understanding you lack legitimacy to question certain things is essential to be a good politician, yet the given narrative today is that men decide the laws on women’s bodies, majorities decide how minorities feel, wealthy people decide what is best for society. 

If, for once, a male politician said, “I don’t know how it feels for a woman to get an abortion”, or a white person said, “I have no idea what it’s like to be scared for being pulled over by the police”, then that’s a discussion I would tune in for.

I have travelled, but I haven’t travelled enough. I have listened, but I haven’t listened enough. I have studied some topics, but I have not experienced them all. I am passionate, but I am no expert, and being aware of all of those nuances is what makes me a powerful woman. So open your eyes, and maybe most importantly, open your ears, because you hold the power to change things, if you let your lack of knowledge show, and your desire to learn shine through.

My final words come from the great feminist Gloria Steinem, “One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak”.

 

-Violette Perrotte

 

 

 As a program manager at La Maison des Femmes

As a program manager at La Maison des Femmes