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15 Apr 19
Claire HarperClaire HarperAmericanMidwifeDemocratic Republic of Congo

A joyful experience: Celebrating International Women's Day in DRC

Music, food and the opening of a life-saving new maternity building. US midwife Claire has a party to plan...

It's Sunday afternoon here, which means I just spent some time snuggling with a cat.

The music from the church next door has quietened down after a lively service, and I’m taking a minute to reflect on our celebration of International Women’s Day here in Walikale.

Celebrating women

I have observed International Women’s Day in small ways for the last several years. As a women’s healthcare provider and feminist, it’s exciting to have a day dedicated to celebrating women.

It’s not a very well-known day in the US, though, so celebrating has usually meant taking a selfie and posting it on Facebook or Instagram.

I knew from talking to other MSF workers that 8 March IS a big deal in many of our projects, and the project’s midwife usually takes the lead in planning the festivities.

The Maison d’Accueil

Walikale’s project was no exception. I was delighted to realise soon after I arrived that 8 March would also be roughly around the time that our new maternity waiting home, or Maison d’Accueil, would be ready for business. The celebration was on.

The Maison d’Accueil was planned long before I arrived in Walikale, but I am lucky enough to be here for its opening. Its purpose is to prevent maternal and neonatal deaths on the road to Walikale and improve access to care for women with high-risk pregnancies.

Our hospital serves women who live as far as six hours away from town. However, now women who live far away from Walikale and have a high-risk pregnancy can stay at the maternity waiting home while they wait to go into labour.

High-risk pregnancies include a range of complications; women who have previously had a caesarean section, a history of post-partum haemorrhage, or pre-eclampsia all fall into that category.

Party planning

Opening the Maison d’Accueil seemed like the perfect way to celebrate International Women’s Day, and I was determined to plan a great party.

Here in DRC, that means serving soda, beignets, and peanuts with a healthy dose of dancing to Congolese music. Our guests would get the chance to see the new building and we would invite local leaders to join us as well. Of course, the planning still came with a few surprises.

My first surprise was that men are not invited to the party. We invited women who work at our base, at the hospital, and at local health centres to celebrate with us, but none of our male colleagues. 

This was even stranger to me because we have a male supervisor for the maternity unit at the hospital, a male midwife on the MSF staff, as well as several male midwives who work on the maternity unit at the hospital.

It is much more common to see men working in women’s health than it is at home, but when I asked my colleagues Heritier and Christophe what we normally did for the celebration, they chuckled uncomfortably and said, “Sorry, ask the women, we’re not invited.”

While my team loved the idea of inviting community leaders, they chose to invite only the female leaders or “mère chefs.”

For me, that decision was fraught with contradiction. I would like to believe that my male colleagues would be interested in International Women’s Day because they are passionate about improving women’s health, and not just working in the field because the job was available to them. I value safe spaces for women and feel very comfortable in single-gender groups, but I also want to honour the work that our male colleagues do to promote women’s health and equity.

Party pagne

The second surprise was the importance of pagne in our celebration.

Pagne is a brightly patterned cotton cloth that is ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa. You can typically make three pieces of clothing (top, bottom, and one accessory) with a pagne, and women also use it as a towel, a blanket, baby-wrap, or just about anything else you can think of. It’s versatile. And, for women’s day, every woman on our staff gets one.

About a week into February, one of our local staff members asked whether their pagne had been ordered yet, and I had to field questions about it regularly right up until the morning of our celebration.

In honour of the day, all the women in our project had matching outfits made from the pagne we were given. A tailor came to our base and took measurements for all six of the international staff who would be attending the party. He finally finished his adjustments with only hours to spare.

It wasn’t just MSF that gave its employees pagne - most major employers in the area did the same. Our colleagues who work for the national health service (or BCZ) also wore matching pagne in honor of the day, albeit in a different pattern than ours.

Wearing matching outfits may seem odd at home, but it ended up being a fun way of connecting with my coworkers. 

An equitable society

The party began at two in the afternoon. So, between women missing part of a work day as well as getting their pagne courtesy of MSF, there was definitely some push-back from our male colleagues regarding our day.

I had some thought-provoking conversations with our team about women’s day, the role of women in society here, and especially the validity of excluding men from the celebration.

I heard several male colleagues express the sentiment that women’s day wasn’t valuable to them. They didn’t have anything against it, it just didn’t matter that much. I tried to bridge the gap, however, there were many jokes about them not being invited and I found myself defending the holiday.

I had to articulate multiple times that feminism is not a doctrine of female domination but rather an ideology that aspires to an equitable society.

The fact is, our office is predominantly men. And, as I midwife, I’ve spoken with many married women here who state they do not feel comfortable seeking birth control without their husband’s consent. I don’t see many safe spaces for women in Walikale, either.

One of the biggest values of International Women’s Day can be to create and support relationships specifically among women.

The conclusion that I drew from these conversations:

We need (at least) two days to help improve women’s status in society- International Women’s Day, which is just for women, and Gender Equity Day, in which we encourage our male allies to join us and talk about what they can do to help.

However, International Women’s Day is valuable because it sparked conversations about sexism. I would love to see that continue throughout the year. And, despite awkward giggles, our staff have been referencing the holiday often when talking about women in the workplace.

A joyful moment

The celebration itself was incredibly fun and meaningful. We started out with short speeches from the group’s leaders- our project coordinator, myself and a physician at the hospital.

Doctor Benjamin is the only female doctor at the hospital and I was so glad she agreed to say a few words. Her message was my favourite one of the day. Its essence was, “We know women can do anything we set our mind to. Today is about helping us find our voice.”

Next, we saw some fabulous sketches about our reproductive health services that our outreach team had put together with community volunteers. The sketches were in Swahili, which I do not speak, so one of our national staff whispered in my ear and translated for me. They were funny, accurate, and obviously connected with the community. When a woman came on stage dressed as a man accompanying his wife to a visit, everyone broke out laughing and clapping.

After that, we cut the ribbon and opened the Maison d’Accueil!

The women I work with broke into song as they poured into their new space. We all stood in a circle together in one of the most joyful moments that I’ve experienced here in DRC. It felt like we were blessing the building and all the women who will stay there.

I couldn’t have asked for a better day.

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