I went to New York last week for the screening and panel discussion of the documentary, “A Powerful Noise,” about women making big impacts in human rights, health services, education and labor issues. The panel included moderator Anne Curry (Today Show), Natalie Portman (actress and activist), Nicholas Kristof (New York Times columnist), Christy Turlington Burns (CARE ambassador for maternal health, model and businesswomen) and Madeline Albright (former Secretary of State).
The panelists discussed supporting rights most American women can take for granted for women who can’t and about how small voices make powerful changes. They talked about how poor women frequently handle money better than men, funneling resources into children’s health and education while men might spend less wisely. They discussed horrors of rape, war, female circumcision and death from easily treatable pregnancy complications. They talked about power imbalances in relationships and how that endangers women and children.
Nicholas Kristof told the story of a mother whose child was dying of malaria. When asked why they didn’t have a bed net (to keep mosquitoes away), she replied “no money.” When asked where the father was, she said, “at the bar.” The other panelists nodded their head, acknowledging a common story of poverty.
They answered audience and email questions. One was inevitable: Why focus on other countries when our own is in such turmoil? Their answers? “Because it’s good public policy to help nations around the world.” “We have a responsibility as the world’s only superpower to take charge.” My favorite answer was Madame Secretary Albright’s. “Women have to help each other. There’s a special place in hell for a woman who won’t help another woman.”
One of the joys I find in this blog is the email I get from all over the world. The questions are sometimes sophisticated but frequently, very basic. Some women are pretty confused about what’s happening to their bodies and what will happen during birth. I answer some and hope health practitioners, mothers, midwives and sisters will answer others.
The point is these women aren’t “over there.” They’re right here on our website, reading the same material Americans are reading. Women want and need the same things: information to make their pregnancies and births safe and about how to feed their babies. Most of all, they need reassurance that they’ll be all right when delivery is over and life with a newborn is beginning.
During my NY trip, I looked out on the ocean immigrants have traveled for hundreds of years, hoping America would provide, and thought about women I’ve helped through labor. A Powerful Noise featured Vietnam, Bosnia and Africa. I’ve been present for the births of more Vietnamese babies than I can count. I admire their mothers’ quiet demeanor and dignity during labor. I love their custom of no cold foods or beverages after birth (common to many cultures) and how older generations of women care for the new mother; barely letting her feet touch the floor for weeks after birth.
I’ve helped many circumcised, African women. Though it’s just another custom in their country, it results in a birth that’s far more dangerous and painful because of the trauma they’ve endured.
I remembered a sweet young Bosnian woman. She came to the hospital with her friend because her husband, a long-distance truck driver, had taken a last-minute, desperately needed job; a drive that placed him far from home when her labor started three weeks early. This was her second baby. Her first was born in Bosnia where she’d had complications and nothing to help with pain. She was frightened to go through labor again.
We got through her labor with the universal language of nurses and patients: a few words, lots of gentle touches and as much compassion as possible. She had a quick, safe birth. I left the hospital that night feeling happy to have been there.
The next day, my husband came home from work and told me this young woman’s mother worked with him. She’d come to work delighted with her new grandbaby and grateful her daughter was safe. It didn’t take them long to figure out that the baby had been born at my hospital and I’d been her nurse. It’s a small world after all.
Those women the panelists were talking about aren’t “over there.” They’re right here, our neighbors, friends, grocers, bankers, nannies, doctors and coworkers. This is a nation of immigrants though some have had an American life a few generations longer than others. Why should we take care of “them” when “we” need so much help? Because “we” are “them.” We’re all in this together and as the wise woman said, “There’s a special spot in hell for a woman who won’t help another woman.” If you can’t find a way to reach out across the globe, reach out here at home and slather kindness on a woman who needs your help.
Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org and it may be answered in a future blog post.
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