I met Dr. Solomon Orero in 2008 at a ceremony where he was honored for his heroic work in reproductive health in Kenya by the Feminist Majority Foundation. I was heavily involved, since 2002, in 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund, which asked for one dollar from 34 million Americans to make up for the yearly $34 million shortfall under President George W. Bush.
Dr. Orero is an obstetrician-gynecologist who specializes in reproductive health at the Center for the Study of Adolescents Kenyatta National Hospital, in Nairobi. He and I communicated often over several years. I emailed him a week ago about the Trump administration’s certain defunding of the UN Population Fund, which provides emergency and other health-care services to women in developing countries. (The White House announced officially it was withdrawing financing on April 3.)
Dr. Orero wrote back: “Dear Jane, It has been a long time. It was humbling to read from you. Many of us who work where women are denied, where women are crucified, where women are punished all on account of wanting to fulfill their reproductive health and rights are very saddened at the goings-on with the current US administration.”
Here is a story Dr. Orero wrote about his work in South Sudan, a war-wracked nation that the United States and other members of the UN Security Council have been unable to control and where large-scale rapes have been weaponized by both sides in the conflict.
“One of the women I met narrated how in her ninth pregnancy she nearly died from bleeding after a postpartum hemorrhage. She resolved she was not going to die and leave her nine children orphans. She heard from refugees in Uganda that there were ‘methods’ she could use. The husband would not listen to that. She then told her husband that he could marry again for all she cared, but she would not give birth ever again. The husband demanded that she give him cows for a dowry. Her brothers supported her with cows. We supported her as a Family Planning champion. She is now a midwife and is in charge of one of the labour wards in one of the hospitals and is able to furnish contraceptives because of UNFPA’s supply chain of commodities. The women no longer have to travel to Uganda.”
The UN Population Fund, or UNFPA, is the largest buyer of contraceptives in the world, so it can bargain for the lowest prices. A video by Population Action International, “Empty Handed,” shows women telling their stories of heartbreak because of their unwanted pregnancies, all for the lack of contraceptive supplies.
Dr. Orero relayed another story to me: “I was on a fact-finding mission for UNFPA again in South Sudan. I had an encounter with a woman in one of the remotest villages, who upon hearing I was a women’s doctor, braved it and approached me. After politely greeting me, she said: ‘Doctor, I am tired. Look at me. I am looking old, haggard and looking ugly. I am only 26 years old. I have been married for 12 years, and in the 12 years I have delivered eight singleton children at home. Ever since I was married, I am either pregnant or breastfeeding or both. My husband does not listen to me, does not care. All he wants is more children. I look for the food, firewood, water and mind the children. It is tough. It is draining, I cannot do anything else. Whenever I propose natural method of abstinence when I am in my fertile period, I am beaten. I have decided now to run to the bush and sleep outside the home during my fertile period, which is also very risky with wild animals everywhere!’
“By that time tears were rolling down her cheeks! After she calmed down I listened, I empathized. She continued: ‘Doctor, give me something secret to regulate my delivery, so I can have a rest and effectively look after the children I already have. At this rate I am going to die and my children will suffer and will even die!’ “
Dr. Orero continued: “Yes, UNFPA had supported Family Planning Programmes and I was there on a fact-finding mission courtesy of UNFPA. I started her on a 3-month injectable method. For the next 4 years when I was in the country, she was very happy, relaxed and her health had improved and she quipped: ‘Doctor, you have made me younger and beautiful. Thank you.’ I told her it was possible because of the work and dedication of an organization called UNFPA.”
In a conference call with the United Nations Foundation last week, I learned that there have been no maternal deaths and 7,000 safe births in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which houses fleeing Syrians. The UN Population Fund is there with doctors and the wherewithal to make this happen. Just imagine the supply chain necessary to make this possible. My heart and soul are with UNFPA. I would love to see 34 Million Friends explode. Please visit www.34millionfriends.org
Jane Roberts co-founded 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund in 2002 with Lois Abraham, for which they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. A former French teacher at the University of Redlands, Roberts was named a woman of the year by Ms. Magazine in 2003 and received a Special Recognition Award from the Population, Reproductive Health and Family Planning branch of the American Public Health Association. Since 2002, she has traveled to more than 35 American states and spoken at more than 60 colleges and universities as well as to civic, law, environmental, women’s, church and public health groups about 34 Million Friends and global health and population.
Roberts has an M.A. in French from the Middlebury College Graduate School of French in France, and lives in Redlands, Calif.