Every day in March 2011, we'll be talking about one awesome woman and why she's so powerful. Some will be well known; some may be new to you, so check out all the awesome women in the series now.
Don't let Yvette Mulongo's big brown eyes or soft-spoken voice fool you. She is one awesome woman, determined to change one of the most dangerous places to be a woman -- one girl at a time. Mulongo is a healthcare advocate from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country known as the "ground zero of rape." Maternal death, lack of access to basic education and contraception, and a destructive disease called fistula are also commonplace in Mulongo's home country.
I met up with Yvette in San Francisco, where she was accepting an award from Americans for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). For sixteen years, Mulongo has campaigned for the healthcare of Congolese women. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she went on to earn a Master's Degree. But even with an advanced education, she was not immune to the widespread abuse of women. When Mulongo was still in her twenties, her abusive husband left her, taking their two young daughters with him. Mulongo channeled her grief into working as an advocate, reaching out to the most isolated rural villages, where conditions are at their worst. Schools are often unsafe, lacking basic necessities -- such as toilets for girls. Knowing how awkward it can be even for American teenagers to deal with those issues around their peers, I can understand why Congolese girls often drop out of school when they begin menstruating.
Because of rural poverty and the financial rewards a dowry can bring to a bride's family, girls are often married off and bearing children by the age of twelve. Mulongo tells me about her cousin who grew up like a sister to her, then was married at a young age to an abusive husband.
"We shared the same bed, wore each other's clothes," Mulongo recalls. "But when I went to visit her as an adult, she looked so much older, like she had no hope. She had given birth to ten children and was coughing from tuberculosis. Several of her children also had tuberculosis and some of them did not even have clothes."
Another huge problem in Democratic Republic of Congo is fistula, a horrible medical condition I had only read about in Abraham Verghese's best-selling novel Cutting for Stone:
“… A frail, barefoot girl, no older than twelve came stiff-legged up the hill. Prematurely stooped like an old woman, she leaned heavily on her giant of a father… An unspeakable scent of decay, putrefaction, and something else for which the words remain to be invented reached our nostrils. I saw no point in holding my breath or pinching my nose because the foulness invaded instantly, coloring our insides like a drop of India ink in a cup of water.”
-- Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone
Unlike the novel, fistula is not a work of fiction. An estimated two million women in the world, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, live with this condition. TWO MILLION. Fistula is a result of rape or traumatic childbirths, especially in girls whose bodies are not fully matured. The walls of the uterus, bladder or rectum are damaged, causing the slow and steady leakage of bodily waste through the vagina.
In radio announcements that reach remote villages, Mulongo broadcasts the availability of simple surgeries to repair the damaged organs. While as many as 25 women a day are operated upon for fistulas in Mulongo’s hometown of Kinshasa, countless others are too ashamed to seek treatment.
She also teaches family planning among Congolese women -- and men, who hold most of the power in this traditional culture -- and works to make contraceptives more readily available and accepted.
Changing traditional Congolese society is tiring, sometimes discouraging work. But Mulongo is fortified by her faith and her hope that her own daughters (now seventeen and twenty) will be able to have better lives. Mulongo tears up when talking about her own family, but the spark of determination lights up her eyes again, as she says, "To give opportunity to girls is the beginning of changing the direction of the country."
Yvette Mulongo is a healthcare advocate in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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