Motherhood and Reproductive Justice: An Intimate Look at Birth in Togo

By Paige McKinsey

Note: In honor of National Women’s Health Week (May 8-14), this is a guest blog from former Feminist Majority Foundation Intern Paige McKinsey, a 2015 graduate of the University of Mary Washington currently serving the Peace Corps in Togo.

“Le bebe arrive! Le bebe va arriver!” shouted the midwife. I stared at a woman, lying on a plastic covered table, completely naked, legs shaking. Her face contorted in pain, she silently pushed since yelling was a sign of weakness. I didn’t expect birth to look like this. I never gave it much thought beyond seeing the Hollywood, Westernized version of a woman screaming, her sweaty hair sticking to her forehead, surrounded by her family, husband and doctors. That was what birth was supposed to look like for me, but here in Togo, those luxuries are far from reality.

Before I continue, I won’t assume you know anything about Togo. When an American friend tried to mail me a letter, the postal worker looked at the address and told him he needed to include the country. Rather than argue with her, he simply put a comma after Togo and wrote in West Africa. Is it any wonder she had no idea that he had already included the country name on the postage? When I first found out I would be serving the Peace Corps in Togo, I too had to look it up on a map.

For context, Togo is a small country in West Africa between Benin and Ghana. While it has about the same square mileage as West Virginia, poor road conditions make travel long and arduous. There are five regions of Togo; Maritime in the South then moving up, Plateux which is known for its fruit and waterfalls, the Centrale region, the Kara region where I am posted, and finally the Savannah region in the very North. Although French is the official language, most people speak one of the many local languages unique to the nation. People are poor, life is hard, and yet, the people I’ve met here are some of the most generous and warm people I know.

The room where women give birth in the Kara region. Photo by Paige McKinsey.
The birthing room in a health clinic located in the Kara region of Togo.    Photo by Paige McKinsey.

As I sat there watching “the miracle” of childbirth, all I could think was that this was not what I expected. It was messy with urine, feces, blood, and other fluids all over the place, running onto the floor. It was far quieter and mundane than I envisioned. This woman never yelled or screamed. There was no family in the room holding her hand, no one offering words of comfort, and no husband outside pacing nervously. The matron and the midwife carried on personal conversations throughout her labor; this was not a big deal to them. No movie had prepared me for this.

When the baby finally arrived, the matron weighed her, recorded her height, cut the umbilical cord, and promptly, pierced her ears. This little girl was not in the world for more than twenty minutes before her body was literally pierced by gender norms. The mother was walking around before fifteen minutes had passed. At the same time, the women who had accompanied her began cleaning the room.

This is birth in Togo. You travel by foot or motorcycle to a health center where you are expected to provide both fabric and soap to clean up the medical equipment and your own bodily fluids. Women hope to be this lucky: this mother could afford to give birth at the clinic, had women to help her, and most importantly, she survived childbirth. For so many Togolese women, they don’t have a choice about when they become pregnant, who the father is, or how many children they want to have. Many girls find themselves in situations of forced marriage or pregnant before marriage and seek out non-medical abortions from traditional healers.

The unfortunate truth is that it is dangerous to be a woman in Togo.

I remember staring at this little baby girl with her freshly pierced ears and thinking how sad it was that I could essentially predict her future. She would grow up in poverty, learn from her mother how to clean, prepare meals for the men in her family, attend school until middle school, drop out, find a husband, and continue in her mothers’ and grandmother’s footsteps. She would face hardships I would never have to imagine. She would face dangers not fathomable to many Westerners. As I stood over this baby girl, all I could hope was that I was so wrong.

As I reflect upon this experience, I fully recognize my white, Western privilege, and if there is one thing Togo has taught me, it is to extend my feminism far beyond the borders of the United States. As a movement, we cannot discuss reproductive justice and ignore those who face the worst atrocities. If we want to promote feminism as a movement for all, we must prioritize those facing these issues. This doesn’t mean simply having a day or week to talk about women in situations similar to that of Togo. If we are truly a movement for all, we must be a movement for all – each and every single day.

DISCLAIMER: The content of this post does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Togo Government.

By Paige McKinsey

Paige is a summer intern for FMF working on the Global Health and Human Rights Campaign, Education Equity Program, and the Campus Leadership Program. She is a rising senior at the University of Mary Washington where she double majors in Women and Gender Studies and International Affairs.

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