Archive | October, 2013

Should I Stay or Should I Go? – A Somewhat Personal Humanitarian Dilemma

18 Oct

Seven years ago I broke up with someone I thought previously I would end up growing old with. I did it over the phone. I was convinced that being with someone like him would stand in the way of my real dream: to become an international human rights lawyer and contribute, if at all, to bring the tiniest change to some of the suffering and injustices I see and read about every day. They’ve haunted my dreams for as long as I can remember.

He was a family person, worked in the family business; never saw himself living abroad let alone in places that are “difficult”. It just wasn’t compatible with what I felt I needed to do. I was doing my Masters in Lund and already living in another country. Meeting people with the same dreams as mine from all over the world made it all the more real very quickly: the sea of possibilities. It only took a few months before I made that call. Perhaps it only formalized a decision I made by leaving in the first place.

It was a decisive moment. I was deciding for my career, for my ambitions. I now realize such decisions are not linked with the person you’re with but with all your future persons and possibilities. They are linked to your own choice of personal versus professional.

I ended up marrying a wonderful man who didn’t have those close ties to the Motherland. Someone who also gives importance to my career. He even moved to my home country where I found a job close to my dreams and heart (ironic, huh?) and it was due to his sacrifice to his own career that our relationship really made it. Today the tables have turned and it’s my time to make that move: I’ve done it! I’ve always hated men who drag their wives through the world to “look after” them and their family while they thrive in their careers; I could then not become a woman who asks for that.

So I moved to Europe to give him his chance and I’m starting from scratch in the highly competitive and brutally discouraging world of the humanitarian and not-for-profit sector. The opportunities fly before my eyes and I want to grab them all. It’s like a surreal scene from a Lynch movie in which I’m a paralyzed woman (or small man?) and there’s a group of rainbow colored birds waiting for me to catch them, at least one. But I can’t touch them.

Opportunities in the humanitarian field present themselves increasingly, as various parts of the world collapse and their peoples suffer. It’s sad, but true. Our professional opportunities thrive with war and persecution. Syria, Mali, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, the DRC: one simple P11 away from your dreams at a very high cost. Your personal life. Your chances of becoming the triumphant feminist that was able to have it all and who didn’t have to choose vanish before your eyes. And one memory comes to mind.

Katarina Tomasesvski. She passed away during the time I was doing my Masters in Lund. One of those female warriors who I so admire: former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education. I met her once briefly and of course she never said anything about this, but I bet she had to choose. One of those pioneers that proved others wrong and became a “full on career woman”. She broke the ceiling but if I am not mistaken, died alone.

I’ll never forget the empty-gut feeling I got when I entered the RWI Library to find all her books she’d kindly donated in her will, piled in the Library’s big room against the walls, waiting to be catalogued. I never told anyone, but I took one. I still have it. It was a book on my thesis topic, but more than that, it was a piece of her life, a representation of that dilemma. No one else in her life seemed to have claimed her books; mine are so precious to me that I couldn’t believe it. So I claimed one, for me and for her.[1]

She and many women working on humanitarian issues make that choice every day.  They give it all for their calling, for their beliefs and (a lot of the times) for the organization they work for. Take for example, UNHCR, the UN agency with the highest divorce rates amongst staff members. You still see many “old school” men who found a wife to rotate every 3-4 years with them, but you rarely see women their age having that same experience. I never met one actually, yet I met several men. I would say though, for younger generations it’s more equal (though not totally). In any case, I’ve met many men and woman who make that choice everyday.[2]

I want more. I want it all. It makes me feel like a feminist failure not making that choice, as I see the birds becoming Neil Gaiman’s hunger birds, I close my eyes and just try to survive. I definitely thought it would be easier. I have contacts, I thought, with the organizations I’ve worked for. I have people who can speak for me and my work (I swear I’m pretty good!).

Naive as I was, this is not enough. You give these organizations your personal time, your family time and frequently, your sanity, your health and your sleep. I used to travel 2-3 weeks in a month and sacrificed a lot for my work (those who think frequent work travel is fun have never done it). You loose your figure from all the hotel food and say hi to your eye bags from nights of office work that you only get to do then. Yet the loyalty or appreciation you receive from the organization is best known for its absence. People may think you’re great but even when someone will go the extra mile for you, the organizational structure and values, its functioning, prevents any kind of good human resources policies and loyalty to be effective.

Only when you’re living the possibility of this choice is when you realize why all those colleagues who already made it joke sarcastically about how the failure with partner number 2 or 3 coincided with their amazing time in Bosnia, Rwanda or Kenya. So I still want it all, and even if it is considerably much harder to find an opportunity that doesn’t involve going to a “no family duty station” (and let’s not even get the risk of death, kidnapping and other harms in certain stations, that’s for another post), I will make the same choice everyday.

It’s a bitter-sweet taste. Some days more bitter than anything. And as personal as this post has turned out to be, it’s a reflection on the humanitarian system and what it requires of persons wanting to work in aid and development. We have created a system that allows highly passionate individuals to fully live only one kind of passion. It’s also perhaps a somewhat jealous tribute to all my amazing friends and colleagues, and the ones I don’t know, who make a different choice than mine everyday. The ones willing to sacrifice almost all for this calling. To them, chapeau! But they shouldn’t have to make this choice.

I guess I am still not one of them, and probably never will be, but the internal debate doesn’t go away. I have it with myself as I sit at my desk applying for much less exciting jobs that ultimately have less impact. Then I see Katarina’s book sitting on my shelf and I decide on the same route everyday, over and over again. What an exhausting journey this is!


[1] Allow me to clarify that all these facts are my own assumptions. I have no clue if someone in her life wanted them and she still decided to donate them to the library. I’m using her as a metaphor for many women (and men) I’ve met in for this situation and, mostly, using her example because that was the feeling I had at that moment.

[2] I also want to say, these people are not entirely alone. Many of my amazing friends who have made this choice have a strong network of friends and colleagues who become their family and I don’t want to paint them as sad people at all. That is, however, not to say that they have indeed sacrificed a lot, mainly family life, or even the possibility to have a family, for this compromise they have with their work.

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The Baby Matrix

15 Oct

Yesterday I was reminded again why the world needs feminism. Why everyone, men, women, children do. And how it is sometimes hard when you start seeing gender in everything and how it permeates so many facets of lives and absolutely every facet of reproduction and child rearing. And how difficult it is to make someone – who does not see the world this way – understand without him or her accusing you of exaggeration.

But let’s start at the beginning. Yesterday, I went to the hospital to visit a baby. Not just any baby, my boyfriend’s sister’s baby. Which, by extension, is something like my niece and I am very proud. She is the tiniest baby with the most hair in the world. As I stood watching her, it seemed like she was singing to herself while she kept touching her face, not understanding that her hands and face all belonged to her. She is incredibly cute and adorable, obviously. However, I cannot be sure if she was already, like I suspect, singing Yellow Submarine to herself because I didn’t hear any sounds coming out of her mouth. Why is that? Because I could only see the tiny human from behind a glass wall and I wasn’t able to touch her. Do I suffer from the Plague or any other contagious disease which could potentially be fatal to newborn beings? Not that I know of.

The hospital I went to look at the baby was a Hungarian hospital. Hungary has a pretty advanced health system in terms of the actual treatment, proven, for example, by the fact that gazillions of Austrians and Germans come over the border every year for dental treatment because it is good and cheap.

But when it comes to newborns, what I saw yesterday is this: the mother, after the birth, is normally put in a room with one or two other mothers in the maternity ward. The maternity ward is a no go area for anyone who is not a mother, a baby, a doctor or a nurse. This means that you cannot visit the mother in her room, for reasons that evade me. If you want to see her, she has to come out. I guess one of the reasons is that the mother can get some rest and is not subjected to strangers visiting someone else in the room when she doesn’t feel well. However, this means, that a) the mother is totally alone there with no family or support to comfort her (the mum I visited told me she couldn’t stop crying when initially she was totally alone in a room and that she appreciates the presence of another mother now so that she has at least someone to talk to) and b) for you to visit the mother, she actually has to come out at the maternity ward. Yesterday, there were about five other mothers standing outside the maternity ward in a hall which had two iron benches and a snack machine and lots of crude lighting. All of these mothers wore night or hospital gowns and some additionally carried around their urinary catheters in a plastic bag. Now that is the state in which you want lots of strangers to see a tube carrying your pee emerge from between your legs, right?

But even worse than that, for me, was that the mums were not allowed to bring the babies outside. So there were five little ones in tiny beds on wheels propped behind the glass door for relatives to watch them and take pictures and make baby noises. The most positive hospital memories I have (well, the only positive ones) are from visiting friends and family with newborns. You sit around their bed, you marvel at the tiny hands and feet and their funny grimaces. Everyone takes turns in holding the baby and remarking how much it looks like Uncle Michael when he came out. You might wipe away a tear when you witness older siblings seeing their younger brother or sister for the first time, carefully stroking their head and then doing it again for the camera. You help the new mum with adjusting to this new life a bit, by reassuring that you are there, that you will be there through all the poo and baby vomit and sleepless nights ahead and that her baby is indeed the best, cleverest, most beautiful, funniest human being on this earth, the bullet that killed Kennedy.

None of this was possible in this hospital. And the very worst part, the thing that just put me over the edge, was that it was not even possible for the dad. Indeed, the person who actually took part in making the baby was not allowed to touch it either! He was allowed to stay in the delivery room with the mother for two hours after the birth and from then on he could only see his newborn child through glass. If there are minor complications during the birth which cause the mother to be very weak afterwards and prompt her to need a lot of rest for a couple of days during which she is unable to care for the baby, the baby’s father is not allowed to stay with his baby, not even during the day. The baby is cared for by the nurses and will, in that case, have little physical contact with anyone.

For the sake of completeness, in this hospital, it was  possible to pay for a private room in which the parents of the baby could stay together. So rich dads get to care for their newborns. In this room, however, no other visitors could be received either.

This experience was disturbing on so many levels I couldn’t believe the gender stereotyping and the sexism that this system manifested. I was outraged on behalf of all the fathers that had to look at their baby through glass not being able to hold and fed them and sing to them. On behalf of the mothers who had to go through the humiliating experience of carrying around their pee in front of twenty people they had never seen before. On behalf of the baby who should be able to experience physical contact from both their parents, as it is proven to be important to their development and well-being, particularly right after the birth and during the following days. And on behalf of them both for the obvious institutionalisation of gender roles and ideas on how child rearing should be organised and who should have a say in it. Mum stays in and cares for the baby, dad goes out to celebrate the arrival of his child with a couple of drinks (because, what else could he do, not being allowed to be at the hospital?), showing up every day with flowers and good words but not actively being able to help. Now many people only spend two days in the hospital, but with complications, it can easily amount to more than a week in which a baby can only be seen behind glass. I was appalled by the paternalism this whole system reeked of, telling grown up women that it is their and only their obligation to tend to their babies needs and that they mustn’t let anybody else touch the precious offspring (offspring which were totally healthy and, if it weren’t for the complications because of which the mum had to rest a little longer in hospital, would long be home and cuddled by friends and family).

For me, this was such an obvious manifestation of sexism and symptoms of antique gender stereotypes in a country in which a man is entitled to a grand five days of paternity leave and in which the paternity leave can only be shared after the child turned one, the constitution calls the family the ‘fundamental framework for community, in which the pre-eminent values are loyalty, faith and love’, and Fidesz (the governing party) politicians refuse to call domestic violence by its common Hungarian name (translated as violence in the family) because the family is a cozy sacred nest of peace and cannot be besmirched by associating it with anything negative. A country in which a member of parliament for the government party physically assaults his wife in such a severe manner that she ends up in hospital and, when asked, explains to the bewildered nation that his wife tripped over the pet dog. And a country iwhere another Fidesz member of parliament claims the reason of domestic violence is the fact that women don’t make enough children in order to be respected within the family and calls upon ‘ladies’ to produce two, three or four children ‘as a gift for the fatherland’ before  they ‘can fulfill themselves and may work at different jobs’.

But I am told that sexism has no influence on this particular case, on how maternity wards are organised and on the rights and obligations of mothers and fathers there. I am told that the reason are practical issues, or maybe corruption (that the hospital wants people to pay for private rooms) etc. I see how it can be hard to associate a specific case with a broader, systemic issue of society. I am not claiming that other issues are not also at work here. But it is frustrating to try to explain something that is so obvious to you to someone who just totally doesn’t see it. It makes me feel like in the sexist matrix. And it is easy to be told or to even feel like a fundamentalist, to feel like the one crashing the party when everyone else just wants to admire the baby (from far away). But these things are interconnected. How should dads and mums get a sense of child rearing as a shared responsibility when a newborn baby gets cut of basically any contact between themselves and their father in the first days of their life? How should couples arrive at the conclusion that they both have to tend to the physical and emotional needs of this tiny person when one of them is prohibited from doing so by the same institution which patronises them and puts their baby behind glass walls? And how should new mothers not feel left abandoned to the child-rearing tasks in a place where they are physically, actually, alone? All these are leads for and expressions of greater societal persuasions, convictions held by a majority that see a division of household/child-rearing labour and gaining employment and financial support of the family for women and men. They manifest themselves everywhere in the world, on all levels, in law and policy, as well as in the cribs of tiny humans.

How are maternity wards organized in your country? Can dads come and visit or even stay overnight? Are visitors allowed to see the mum and  baby in their room?

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