This is the fifth post in the "Imagine a World..." blog series from Marie Stopes International.
I first met Eleemu and her children in February 2009. I met them close to their farm in the fertile, remote and inaccessible interior of conflict ravaged eastern Congo, fleeing terrible violence.
Then 32 years old, Eleemu struggled under the weight of the huge sack of her family's belongings, which were strapped to her back. Her eight month old baby hung from her chest and her three small boys, all under 8 years of age, trotted alongside. Energetic and buoyant, they laughed with their friends in the long column of fleeing villagers, good natured despite the circumstances.
Their intention was to stay close by, hidden in a safer part of the surrounding forest, within reach of the fields they relied on for food and money, until the danger subsided. But it wasn't to be.
I’ve worked with Marie Stopes International for many years. Over this time I’ve travelled far and wide, and met and spoken to many women, their husbands and even generations of their families. I initially wanted to work with the organisation because I felt the work they do providing family planning is important: the experiences I’ve had over the years have confirmed the point over and over. I know full well how important it is.
Or, so I thought.
When I met Eleemu 18 months later she was many miles from her home, displaced by the horrific violence which followed them and claimed the lives of many of those I’d seen with her all those months before.
They were living in a tiny borrowed garden shed, the dirt floor still wet from the previous night’s rain which streams in through the roof, forcing the family to stand pressed up against the walls.
Back in their home, Eleemu and her family had been well off. They lived in a nice house and owned two productive plantations, as well as animals. Access to food, medical care, and school was never in question. Now though, the boys were emaciated shadows of those I’d first met, and toddler Angelique's cheeks bulged, chipmunk like, from severe malnutrition. Access to medical care had ceased – it was simply no longer possible.
In Eleemu's arms was a new baby, a baby she had delivered on her own in the middle of the night as the rain poured into the shed, her other children pressed to the walls and a puddle forming underfoot, a baby she could not even feed. It was like being struck by a thunderbolt: in that moment, I understood the importance of family planning in a way I had not before.
For all my previous experience, knowledge and information, nothing taught me what family planning meant the way this moment with a woman I knew did. Nothing conveyed the life-changing importance of being able to take control of your reproductive choices so graphically.
Eleemu told me that she did not choose to have this child, she had the child because she had no choice. I met Eleemu again last month, and her circumstances remain utterly heartbreaking. Surviving – just barely – on missing meals, wit, and the paltry fee from the occasional backbreaking porter job, she has managed to cobble together enough money to send one of her children to school.
An educated woman herself, she chose her 7-year-old so he too could at least learn to read, like his older siblings who were all top of their classes before fleeing. But again, she was heavily pregnant and expecting another child in just weeks. Having fought so hard to send one of her children to school, she was only too aware of the additional difficulty another child would bring. She looked me in the eye and simply said: “There is nothing I can do.”
It’s hard to understate the difference it would have made to Eleemu and her family if she had access to family planning. I’ve been working in Congo for years, so I know how many women there are like her – women who struggle against odds which mount with every unplanned pregnancy, conspiring against their hard fought efforts to achieve the better lives and education every woman wants for her children. And Congo is not alone. It’s clear to me how extraordinary a difference family planning could make in transforming whole communities and entire countries.
These are without exception resourceful women who work impossibly hard to achieve their goals. Imagine how transformative it would be for an entire community of women like this to have control over their family sizes – enabling their vast energy to be productively channelled into raising the education levels of their children and contributing to the alleviation of poverty in their country. Women have the power: lack of family planning sabotages it.
At the London Summit of Family Planning on 11th July, governments, donors, and civil society came together to give women some power back. An additional $2.6 billion was pledged for family planning, and a promise was made that modern contraception would be brought to 120 million more women who want it by 2020.
I hope that next time I see Eleemu she will be one of those 120 million women, and that family planning access will have reached her and the many others like her living amidst violence around the world.