Every day, 800 women around the world die of causes related to pregnancy or childbirth; causes that are most entirely preventable. Ninety-nine percent of these women live in developing countries, half of them alone in Sub-Saharan Africa. And these statistics only begin to scratch at the surface of major global issues facing the health of women today.
In her talk “Because Tomorrow Needs Her” on Wednesday evening, Rebecca Singer spoke to the Northwestern and greater Evanston community about three key problems in particular—obstetric emergencies, unsafe abortions, and sexual violence. Rebecca Singer is a registered nurse with over a decade of experience with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières; MSF) treating survivors of both man-made and natural disasters and helping to develop sustainable advocacy and training campaigns throughout a number of countries.
Drawing from her considerable experiences in the field, Singer began her narration of these issues with a discussion of barriers to care and their impact on obstetric emergencies. She identified the three major causes of delayed care as (1) reluctance of local midwives to hand over their clients to Western medicine practitioners in cases of emergency, (2) inaccessible medical facilities and professionals due to distance or lack of transportation, and (3) inadequate training and resources in these clinics or hospitals. While considerable strides have been made in lowering maternal mortality rates over the past fifteen years of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), postponed care for obstetric emergencies and unsafe abortions continues to perpetuate this unresolved issue.
Of the top five causes of maternal mortality (severe bleeding, infection, high blood pressure, complications and unsafe abortion), unsafe abortion is the only that is entirely preventable. Of the 44 million abortions performed each year worldwide, only half are considered safe. But despite their exceedingly controversial nature, abortions continue to take place everywhere, irrespective of standing laws or cultural practices. While Doctors Without Borders does not perform on demand abortions, it is not uncommon for their surgical members to safely finish up abortions that women begin themselves at home. MSF works to ensure that women have access to safe abortions, often through other health care providers in the area, and occasionally administers abortions directly in cases of sexual violence.
Treatment for cases of sexual violence is another prominent aspect of MSF’s work. Last year alone MSF treated 11,200 survivors of sexual assault, the vast majority of whom were women and children. They not only provide direct care to survivors through medical treatment and counseling services, but also develop advocacy and training campaigns. These campaigns have succeeded in raising general awareness of the issue, changing local laws on rape, developing permanent support services for survivors, and training local medical and law enforcement personnel. Singer’s discussion of the long-term impact of her work was of particular interest to me. In my discussions of MSF, I have regularly heard concerns raised over MSF’s inability to bring about sustainable change in the short time spans of their missions. Far from the quick Band-Aid solutions that I often associate with MSF, these campaigns succeeded in bringing about enduring change on health matters that have long-term and far-reaching effects themselves.
This work on women’s health issues not only impacts the women themselves, but their family as a whole. As Singer described, “Research has shown that, if a woman dies, her children are more likely to die as a child, and they’re less likely to thrive. And they know that for children of mother’s who die, those children are less likely to receive immunizations, which is seen as a proxy to access health care services in general.”
The dialogue following the talk was largely dominated by questions on pursuing careers or internships with MSF. Those hoping for internships should note that MSF does not offer any internships in the field, though they do offer positions in most departments that work out of their headquarters in NYC. For those thinking about their future careers, Singer and her two colleagues took time to emphasize that the majority of individuals involved in Doctors Without Borders are, in fact, not doctors, but other allied health workers like nurses or logisticians. Other tips for students looking to involve themselves in MSF included learning French, working abroad before you apply, and pursuing a Masters in Public Health.
This talk was only a small part of MSF’s global advocacy campaign on women’s health, in following with their core belief that “the principles of impartiality and neutrality are not synonymous with silence.” To learn more, you can check out their website here.