Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking of all. – Martin Luther King Jr.
Watching humans come into the world through women is one of the most influential experiences of my life. Being a birthworker affirms my reverence for life. It reminds me about what is worth fighting for: the respect for human life and its basic needs. Growing up in the Bronx showed me first-hand what matters. It called me into action as a writer and marginalized woman to speak on how human rights are being violated in the United States throughout our reproductive life.
How do I erase the look of terror and pain on a woman’s face as her membranes are stripped without a full explanation? What of the many rough speculums entering women with no way to report abuse? Of doctors saying, “You have enough sex. You should be used to this”? This is cruel. This is inhumane. This is violent.
According to Amnesty International in 2011, the United States is one of the most dangerous countries for women to give birth – it ranks 50th in the world. In other words, women face a greater risk of maternal death than in 49 other countries. To further expound the situation, issues of race and class make the numbers of maternal mortality rise. This tragic story of reproductive health in the United States is made more severe by the roadblocks to adequate health care – lack of equal access to annual exams, mammograms, family planning education, prenatal care, publicly funded care, STD testing and conscientious health workers.
I found support through the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR)’s briefing paper, “Reproductive Rights Violation as Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: A Critical Human Rights Analysis.” It outlines the abuses women suffer when their reproductive rights are violated; abuses that inflict physical, emotional, mental and spiritual pain. Furthermore, these abuses amount to torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment (CIDT) that are prohibited in international human rights law. The briefing paper shows that many reproductive rights violations in the U.S meet the legal requirement for CIDT. It enrages me that women are experiencing violence throughout their reproductive life and health.
On a local level, we must recognize that our basic needs are of the utmost importance. When we acknowledge that humane treatment should never be denied, we can demand better care. I have asked myself why I have felt that I didn’t deserve to have my body respected; this question is important to deconstruct our own internal barriers to demanding justice. In helping others, I have found my voice to be the proverbial change I want to see in the world. My solution is sharing information. When I use my words to share with women about our bodies, what trauma has done to our lives and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, change happens.
Sharing our stories makes us feel less alone when we confront these violations. I can provide space for women to be open about their reproductive lives. Women often feel shame about their bodies and don’t know who to turn to. Some of these women turn to me because I have made myself available as a resourceful person. We can all do this for each other. Women who know about their reproductive health and resources can become hubs of information and empower other women.
With time, women we are in sisterhood with recognize they are deserving of competent care and education. In my experience, most have gone on to pass the knowledge to another woman. I am encouraged by all the women I’ve supported; they have shown me that my presence, willingness to listen and honor their humanity goes a long way. We all have the power to do this. As we become more informed and empowered, mobilizing into marches and protests at our local legislators and senator’s office becomes imperative. To raise our voice, we must cultivate it first. It is my hope that bringing attention to human rights violations in the United States is part of that cultivation and awakening.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.