On Wednesday, after a month and a half of planning, I walked into a room of thirteen women sipping tea and chatting around a large table waiting for a workshop on women’s health to begin. I’m interested in women’s health and health education because I believe it is so essential for women to understand how their bodies work and to be able to express any concerns to their doctor. So many times, women place the wellbeing of their children and families ahead of their own, and, with our clients who are trying to support their families in a life-altering transition, it can be even more apparent.
I’d noticed in the first few weeks at my internship that my clients did not volunteer information readily and that very pointed questions and relationship-building were needed to hear their concerns. Most providers start appointments by saying, “How are you doing today?” Clients reply, “Good,” and providers move on. When this happens, clients aren’t able to share their worries or problems. Since there is little access to women’s healthcare in Afghanistan, and speaking about reproductive health is culturally taboo, many of our clients did not know what was normal or abnormal, nor did they have the tools to self-advocate and ask their providers questions. So, I initiated and planned a women’s health workshop with a local OBGYN to provide some of our clients with the knowledge and tools to self-advocate at their appointments and understand the various tests and cancer screening procedures.
While the workshop was meant to be 30-45 minutes of presentation and 15 minutes of Q&A, it ended up being cut off after 2 hours! At first, the women were nervous, but as the doctor spoke, they began to smile, nod, and those that could write feverishly took notes. The doctor shared information about routine pregnancy care and labs; cervical, breast and colon cancer screenings; menstruation patterns; and controlling or augmenting fertility. She stressed the importance of women’s healthcare for reasons other than pregnancy as well, since so much focus is put on the health of women during pregnancy and for the sake of their children and not necessarily for their own benefit.
The doctor did an amazing job presenting the information in a straightforward way and encouraging the women to share their thoughts and ask questions. She used anatomical diagrams to help explain the female reproductive systems so that everyone could understand what their bodies looked like. The doctor stressed that because providers and patients don’t speak the same language or come from the same culture, doctors aren’t always able to communicate well with them. She shared that she doesn’t always ask the right questions of them and that sometimes she makes mistakes, so it’s crucial for them to tell her how they’re feeling and self-advocate. This openness allowed the women to feel comfortable sharing their worries and questions on everything from missed periods, to colonoscopies, to questioning why American women had such high breast cancer rates. The biggest revelation for the group was when they found out that men’s sperm is truly what causes the sex of babies, so having only girls was not the “fault” of the women. Jaws dropped, and several women yelled, “They lied to us!” through their interpreters.
The most rewarding part of the workshop for me was seeing the women’s faces as they processed the information and seeing their confidence grow as they asked and even answered questions for other women in the group. One workshop participant commented that while it was so important for the women to learn this information, that we should also hold a workshop for the husbands because they needed to know this information too! I know that this information will be handed down to daughters and other women in the community so others will also be able to understand their bodies and advocate for themselves at OBGYN visits. But, I also felt sad because as my internship comes to an end, I will have to say goodbye to the women and families with whom I have built relationships. There are still so many loose threads I wish I could help fix before I have to say goodbye.
I am so thankful to have witnessed the strength and determination of these women and their families adjusting to life in a new country. My advice for someone beginning a position like mine would be to listen and absorb as much information as possible. Being able to go with the flow and be all-hands-on-deck when a crisis arises is extremely important. Most importantly, being thankful for the relationships you build with people from around the world, as there is so much to learn from others.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are mine alone and not indicative of those of IRC.