June 2016 Conference
When I imagine travelling to Fiji, I envision the beautiful images that fill the internet – beaches, boats, scuba diving and snorkeling among coral reefs, colorful fish, manta rays and reef sharks, and the smiling faces of the Fijians. When I travel or learn of a culture, I always like to know the history or her-story of people as to know where we come from, as it helps to understand where we are now and where we are going in the future. In order to know the true story, I needed to get beyond the tourist images and understand the people of Fiji whose warm welcome of Bula greeted me wherever I went during my recent trip there for the Midwifery Today Conference.
Fiji has a rich history filled with many challenges and transitions, as many countries do.
I was a bit unsettled to learn of Fiji’s history of cannibalism (and even saw cannibal forks on sale in the markets for tourists). Not only did some tribes eat humans, they did it in front of their friends- a disturbing and horrifying bit of history to learn. The last known act of cannibalism occurred during the ambush of English missionary, Reverend Thomas Baker 1834-1907. Missionaries transformed the island to Christianity and cannibalism ended – more than 100 years ago – I was relieved to hear! I had moments I wanted to cry as I was reminded that we are connected to 7 generations before us, and it takes many, many, generations to heal our past pain. In 2003, relatives from Nubutautau village (who were responsible for the death of Thomas Baker) nationally apologized to the descendants of Thomas Baker who traveled from East Sussex, England for the occasion, believing that they had been cursed over the years due to this killing.
The Prime Minister of Fiji and 600 government employees including the press attended the ceremony.
As I’m sure you are aware, Patriarchy rules much of the world, including the U.S. – where women still earn only .79 to a male $1 with the same job. In a recent screening of the documentary Dream Girls I learned many more facts about women’s rights here in the U.S., including that prior to 1989 women could not get a business loan for themselves, or sign a lease without a male co-signer. Male dominance takes different forms around the world, and Fiji is not an exception. I believe, when women fell put down by men, they often go on to put down other women as well. I call this the crab pot – you never need a lid on crab pot as they will always pull each other back in, rather than allow anyone to stand on their shoulders.
How do we break this cycle and learn to offer our shoulders to lift each other higher, so that then together we all go higher?
I believe as birth professionals we are lifting each other higher and our Midwifery Today Conference in Fiji felt like an amazing wave of love and connection that brought women together in a new way.
Too many countries around the world are putting women down on the day that should be the most sacred, most transformative, the most powerful – the day they give birth. What would the world be like if every woman found her power in childbirth? If every woman was respected and loved in childbirth and beyond? If every woman birthed with her full potential and thus became a fierce strong mother? If every family was healthy and connected with love and communities worked together to protect and nourish children and honor mothers, fathers and all parents?
Imagine how respect and unconditional love could change the world. “Peace on Earth Begins at Birth”
I didn’t stay near the beautiful blue beaches in Fiij, instead we settled into Suva, the largest city in Fiji. I lived amongst the locals, near their traditional markets I shared a home with several speakers included a guard who walked the grounds all night to keep us safe. Feeling vulnerable makes it hard to thrive, as many people today struggle to survive without feeling safe (let alone thrive!) I could feel my body change as I lived in a constant state of awareness to stay safe. One day, I will share my brother’s story, which has changed my perception of safety, as his safety was recently compromised and our family went through as ordeal to set him free. My her-story (like others) continues to change, and the events in our lives shapes how we feel and perceive our surroundings, so at the moment I am aware that I feel unsafe in deeper ways due to my recent experiences.
The Fijian women are beautiful, strong and reserved (at first). As we began the conference with the formalities including having the Prime Minister with us, I could feel the boundaries – the rituals of pomp and circumstance. Our conference theme was “Love from the Beginning”, and as the week went on I could feel the barriers dissolving, our colors, our culture melting. We could see that often the barrier to love and gentle respectful birth is the system itself and each person feeling a part of it. A moment that touched us all was when a beautiful young woman – need Inise- stood up at the microphone. She was not a midwife, she had come to attend the conference as a single mother who was put down and disrespected by midwives during her birth. As she told us the story of her birth trauma, she called on us to not blame her midwives but instead to move forward with love and respect. Filo, a midwifery leader, stood by Inise’s side as she spoke and afterward took the microphone to apologize on behalf of all midwives and to all women that that been harmed, disrespected and received un-compassionate care at the hands of midwives. With tears throughout the room as Mothers and BirthKeepers, we forgave and came together to not suffer from the past, but forgive ourselves and move into the future with respectful, loving, compassionate care.
I felt the amazing transformation in the room – to forgive each other and ourselves for what we didn’t know and didn’t learn, and to acknowledge that to pass along oppression because you are oppressed keeps every woman down including midwives. Midwives must become autonomous, to regulate their own profession, to set their own standards, and the New Zealand sister midwives there spoke and shared their examples of respectful care (Interesting to note that NZ has more equality with women in leadership roles AND every woman has a right to birth at home, in a birth center or hospital with midwifery care.)
I believe that there is a connection to autonomous midwifery and respectful birth care for all to women’s role in society – do you?
During my trip, I toured the hospital and saw women birthing alone – 12 women were in labor in 3 large labor wards, without companions and without privacy. Just 2 midwives and 2 nurses can be caring for up to 18 women in labor and birth. These care providers are overworked in a broken system, and when you watch this happen, it’s easy to understand how hard it is for the midwives and nurses and of course the birthing women. My heart ached as I could see a mirroring of American birth practices from 1920-1970’s, a time of our history where women were truly oppressed during birth in our country. Touring the hospital, I could feel how the power of community women, companions of women’s choice and doulas could make a difference. I talked of doulas in many sessions during the conference, and throughout our conference the determination to allow women to bring companions and doulas with them during birth grew.
Our beautiful strong young Fijian mother vowed to become a doula. Doula Talia from Australia, and I agreed to support her. I gave her my Eat Pray Doula Sarong, as sarongs are also part of traditional dress in Fiji. I learned that she then took off her skirt to put on my doula sarong and gave her skirt to Talia. In the closing ceremony many women gave me their necklaces, their bracelets, adorning me and the other speakers, passing along their loved items to us to share the love and forever to feel our connection, our circle of support.
Giving is receiving- and it was such a beautiful moment.
I spent my last day on the Fijian beach, pondering the sadness in my heart of Fiji’s past, it’s current birth practices as well as what is at my feet – all dead coral scattered all over the beach, the locals believe it’s from global warming, rising tides and more frequent storms. I felt a heaviness in my heart that I know could pull me down to in-action, but I also looked at the beauty before me. I saw turquoise water and colored fish, and I held the necklaces I was given with such love, I felt connected to the love that we all shared during the conference, the vision we created for a better future for Fiji which was presented to the Minister of Health during the closing ceremony, a goal to implement the 10 steps of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Initiative!
We all live in a world filled with obstacles and challenges from our past, from our own training, upbringing and cultures -so do you choose to take a stand and make a difference, or go with the status quo? I choose taking a stand, and I know the Fijian Midwives also do, as well as the other midwives and doulas from around the world who joined us in Suva, Fiji for these 5 days. We were all forever changed and connected.
I know that love heals, changes and connects us all together, and with that love, we will make change for the better.
Please hold Fiji in your hearts and prayers as we work to lift women higher – to connect to each other and stand for change. No woman should labor alone and/or be put down in childbirth – or anytime!