Every Woman Counts

Haiti is a dangerous place to be a pregnant woman. While the worldwide average risk of dying in childbirth has been reduced, the lifetime risk for Haitian women of death during childbirth is a frightening one in 44, the highest maternal mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere. A serious lack of healthcare infrastructure, insufficient numbers of trained birth attendants, extreme poverty, poor governance, food insecurity, and an absence of reliable transportation leave Haitian women with few options to safely give birth. So how does a 58-year-old Quaker social worker find herself volunteering in Haiti with a Richmond, Va., based program Midwives for Haiti? I would have to say grace and Spirit lead me to this place. This trip feels part of a leading over the past years that has involved service in Honduras, Guatemala, and now Haiti. Firsthand with these women I have a deep sense of "that of God" in each person. I have the chance to witness women’s struggles, joys, sorrows, and courage, even in the midst of great challenges—challenges we in the United States often only hear in passing on the news, or imagine in some passing thoughts.

Haiti is a country of deep contrasts that haunt you for a long time after you leave. You see utter poverty, a paltry existence so basic and simple it is hard to fathom, and you see people working hard to find ways to feed their families. You also see people of great faith attending church, singing amazingly soothing melodies in Creole; you see children eager and smiling, curious and longing for opportunities to improve their lives. You see humanitarian aid everywhere, people willing to help and give of themselves to make a difference in this country of stark suffering. However, what I realize is the underlying injustice. Haiti is a symptom of the disparity between the haves and have-nots, a symptom of the social injustices that exist in most places in the world between cultures and races, including the United States. I then must ask myself how I can contribute to end this disparity by my choices and lifestyle.

Midwives for Haiti works to train local Haitian women to be skilled birth attendants/midwives and to provide maternity care in an attempt to address the high maternal and infant mortality rates. In Haiti a simple desire to have a child is fraught with risks we hardly consider in the United States: no prenatal care, high risk pregnancies and births, lack of transportation, a severely lacking health system. Hospital maternity care involves bringing your own food, linens, bedpans, and medicine and hoping that a skilled birth attendant is available—or you deliver at home in some hut in a remote village because you lack transportation or the meager amount of money it takes to get a motor-taxi to the hospital. Also you know if your baby needs resuscitation and there is no oxygen or equipment in the hospital to save your newborn’s life, that’s it. Do women in Haiti worry they will face a difficult birth, an obstructed labor, or bleed to death—alone? The fatalistic attitude of women in Haiti is understandable once you have visited; they don’t even name their babies for several days, not certain they will live. Nevertheless,

I believe these women face the same worries and fears all mothers face and they love their children as we do and want the best for them. I believe, after having this experience, with all the privileges I have as a middle-class white woman living in the United States, that I have an obligation to speak out to have others become aware of the suffering and needs of other women, and the connection we all have to each other. I am compelled to put my values into action. I have witnessed the deep resilience of the human spirit, and it is not something you can forget and put out of your mind.

It is a luxury for us to not have to think about the challenges so many women face in developing countries; we can choose to go about our lives distanced and detached from these realities, or we can educate ourselves, take action on behalf of other women and children, speak up, speak out, and volunteer— together we can make a difference.

Being in solidarity with our sisters in other countries is a way we can live our testimonies of social equality, integrity, social justice, and simplicity. We live in an interconnected world; acting on this knowledge is our responsibility as Quakers. I stand on the shoulders of inspiring Quaker women and other activists who have decided we must act, and somehow know even in the darkest of times, hope and faith are possible.

I choose hope, compassion, and service. I choose to live my beliefs. Every woman counts and we can all do something— so what inspires and motivates you to act?

Janett Forte

Janett Forte is a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she serves as program director for the VCU Institute for Women's Health. Since 2008, she has followed a leading to volunteer with grassroots and local empowerment projects in developing countries. She attends Richmond (Va.) Friends Meeting and lives in an intentional community in nearby Hanover County, Va.