Months ago, I was part of a community workshop which was discussing how to avail family planning services in rural Uganda. At the workshop, we had about 16 members of the health ministry’s village health team network. They had come to the workshop both in their capacities as primary health care givers as well as micro-entreprenuers. These men and women wanted to buy small bulks of USAID family planning vouchers (at Sh1000 a piece) and resell at sh2000 each to their community members. On its part, the USAID and its partner NGO – Marie Stopes Uganda, would freely give every woman who showed up with the voucher any family planning they wanted even if it would have cost the woman as much as sh50,000 on the open market.
As part of the usual workshop introductions, everyone in the room was to stand up, tell us their name and a bit about their family. It all was boringly ordinary until one woman who I later learnt was 40 yrs (she looked no more than 30 to me) stood up. She said her name and that she had 7 children. But she didn’t sit down as would have been expected. Instead, she said again, “I have 7 children but only 6 of them are alive.” We all murmured our awkward condolences. Still she didn’t sit down. She went on, “Only six of them are alive and I am sorry madam!” She looked pointedly at me when she said this. I was leading the workshop so it made sense that she would be addressing me but avoided her pointed look. She crowned my awkwardness with, “I am sorry because I aborted the third born.”
Huh! What do you say to that? She had aborted? She was saying it in a room full of people. She was looking pointedly at me and saying she was sorry. What was I supposed to say? First of all, I realized, she wasn’t addressing me just because I was the leader of the workshop. She was actually APOLOGIZING TO ME! But why me? Did she assume that being a representative of a medical service project I was a medical person who has had to deal with the mess that people who abort show up with? Did she assume that being educated, I was the kind of woman who has probably always known how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy and therefore would judge those that have abortions? The later assumption would really hurt me because it wouldn’t be the first time I am typified that way. Once, when the daughter of my mother’s laundry lady dropped out of school with a pregnancy, she reacted to my inquiry about it with pure hatred in my eyes saying, “That wouldn’t happen to you. You have already been taught how to have sex without getting pregnant.” I was 15 years old and 5 years away from my first sexual encounter but I didn’t even as much as argue with her. Keen to avoid a similar scene, I said I was sorry that had happened and quickly called on the next person to introduce himself.
Yet, after the session, this woman still walked up to me, brought the subject up again and once again pointedly apologized to me. I told her she didn’t have to apologise for anything and certainly not to me but she didn’t drop the subject even then. Instead, she explained to me that she knows that what she did was wrong and she had nearly lost her life for it. She told me about lying in her blood on a bed in the local health centre II where the nurse only had a sponge dipped in water to care for her with. When she might have needed a blood transfusion, the nurse ordered her to relentlessly suck on the wet sponge for rehydration. After a few days, she could eat & drink so relatives brought her food believed to help with blood supply – mostly red dodo.
Somehow she survived to tell the story. And because she told me the story, there are few causes quite as close to my heart as providing contraceptives to women. So, here is to organisations like Marie Stopes Uganda, UHMG, USAID, Reproductive Health Uganda and DFID which I know try.