Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Challenges for refugee women and mothers around the world

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the world-first premiere of a new theatrical production called the “Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe” which has just started its run in Sydney.

The production is the brainchild of writer and director Ros Horin, a member of Australia for UNHCR's Women's Committee that helps raise funds for UNHCR's women's health initiatives. It tells the real-life story of four powerful African women, three of whom are refugees. Not only have they helped write the play but they also appear as first time actors in it.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe (Photo by H. Lohr)

I hear many stories of refugees but this is one of the most raw, moving and inspiring testaments to the resilience of refugee women I have experienced outside refugee camps. I took my two teenage children who were both confronted by the stories they heard but also swept up in the joy and laughter that characterised the play. I urge everyone who has the opportunity to go and see this production which goes to the heart of the experience of refugee women. The details are below:

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta: 9-18 May
Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills: 15 August - 15 September

In the lead up to Mother's Day I also had the pleasure of hearing some insightful reflections at our annual Mother's Day lunch from a panel of highly articulate women and one man about their own take on motherhood and the inequities between the access to maternal health care in Australia and that in developing countries.

A Somali refugee mother with her baby

Sky News journalist and columnist Jacinta Tynan spoke very personally about the tremendous joy and love she had experienced as a new mother describing it as a very “zen” moment in her life. She encouraged mothers in Australia to embrace the privilege of motherhood while being aware of some of the great challenges that mothers around the world face.

This was reinforced by fellow panelist Aminata Conteh-Biger, a former refugee from Sierra Leone and Australia for UNHCR Special Representative, who told of her recent complicated childbirth in Australia. She required the attendance of seven doctors, making it likely to have ended in tragedy if she had given birth in her home country of Sierra Leone where medical resources are scarce.

Aminata Conteh-Biger with her daughter Seraphina

Professor Anthony Zwi, Professor of Global Health and Development at UNSW, drew attention to Save the Children's annual State of the World’s Mothers report which was released last week. The report assesses the well-being of mothers and children in 176 countries. Not surprisingly, Australia was included in the top 10, with Finland number one. At the other end of the scale countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where UNHCR has extensive operations, all rated in the bottom 10.

We know that over half a million women die in childbirth each year, and that refugee women are particularly vulnerable. Sadly, improving maternal health is one of the worst performing Millennium Development Goals, with very little progress being made. Maternal mortality in developing regions is still 15 times higher than developed parts of the world. In sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia for example, where maternal mortality is the highest in the world, less than half of births have a skilled health attendant present.

As Professor Zwi reminded us though, it’s not all doom and gloom. The good news is that health care solutions are relatively simple once women have access to them. Some of these solutions include:
•         antenatal care in pregnancy;
•         skilled care during childbirth;
•         care and support in the weeks after childbirth; and
•         attendance at birth by skilled health professionals.

Australia for UNHCR has funded a number of Safe Mother and Baby programs in Myanmar, Chad and Somalia. At the heart of these programs, and part of an overall package of support to mums, is the distribution of the Clean Delivery Kits made up of simple items that ensure a safe and clean delivery minimizing complications from infection.

Access to Education


Ann Sherry, CEO of Carnival Australia and former head of the Office of the Status of Women, was also a guest panelist and highlighted that education is key to improving women's health outcomes and overall well-being. She rightly described access to education as a pathway to better information and most importantly independence.

Guest speakers Ann Sherry and Jacinta Tynan share their reflections on motherhood

UNHCR studies have confirmed that the higher the rates of participation of girls in both formal and informal education, the better the health outcomes for the whole community. This includes lower birth rates and reducing female genital mutilation practices. Girls in school are more likely to avoid early marriage and education can help secure a better job and provide benefits to the whole family.

Through the Educate a Refugee Child program, Australia for UNHCR will give 172,000 children in 12 countries access to primary education for the first time. Funds raised through this program will provide new schools, teacher training and educational supplies. And most importantly, we include the local communities in promoting quality education and learning.

Sexual and gender-based violence


Another big issue for refugee women is sexual and gender-based violence. In one camp I visited, UNHCR estimated 50 percent of the women had been raped. In that same camp there was only one psychiatrist who was available to visit this remote settlement on a quarterly basis.

To respond to the enormous need, UNHCR is providing counseling, community education to help change attitudes to violence, and providing legal assistance and support for mobile courts in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo to give women access to legal justice.

Speaking at the Mother's Day lunch, our Special Representative and guest panelist Aminata Conteh-Biger touched on her real life story which features prominently in the “The Baulkam Hills African Ladies Troupe" production.  Aminata, who was kidnapped by armed militia in Sierra Leone, is also one of the actors and when asked what it was like having to repeat the brutal details of her capture night after night in her performance, her eloquent reply brought many to tears: 

 “I have had this opportunity to give a voice to women who are voiceless. I wake up and look in the mirror, and it’s not about me anymore. It’s about women in every part of the world that are experiencing violence, including here in Australia. That’s the story we are telling. It’s not just a story for refugee women but also a story for every woman.”

I ask everyone to celebrate the solidarity and resilience of refugee women like Aminata by doing something both practical and life changing and support Australia for UNHCR’s programs for refugee women.

Donate to Australia for UNHCR and provide life-changing urgent relief to refugee mothers around the world.

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