Fieldset
Labor against the binary

"Girls here are not educated; they are married in their adolescence, bear children early—and with minimal spacing—until their fertility wanes. These factors contribute to the high maternal mortality rate in this northern region of the country, one of the principal reasons MSF has a project here."

I support a woman as she bears down, finally giving birth to her child. I dry and swaddle the crying infant and show his exhausted mother the beautiful little face and full head of hair. The midwife snatches the baby from me, unwrapping him to expose his genitals saying, “She wants to see that it’s a boy.” Boys are favored in this area, as they are in many regions of the world.

The previous afternoon, after the birth of a baby girl, my colleague commented of her mother “She is probably disappointed that it’s a girl.” My immediate response was “So am I,” knowing that the child will be bound to a life that is limited and proscribed, one in which she will have little personal control and so few choices. All because of her gender.

I am working with MSF in a busy maternity hospital in Jahun, Nigeria. Girls here are not educated; they are married in their adolescence, bear children early—and with minimal spacing—until their fertility wanes. These factors contribute to the high maternal mortality rate in this northern region of the country, one of the principal reasons MSF has a project here.

Above: OBGYN Lisa Lepine holds a newborn baby in Jahun, Nigeria. Photo by Jared Watts

We muse over dinner what it might be like during deliveries if there was no focus on “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.” If we chose to celebrate the bringing forth of new life just for what it is—a beginning, with all its possibilities. But with the first glance at the newborn there is a diminishment of possibilities and a burdening of this new being with expectations, norms, and restrictions. This happens everywhere in the world, but I feel it particularly profoundly here.  Being a member of one category means exclusion from the other—including attributes and prospects ascribed to the other.

Emphasis on dichotomy—in political perspectives, social views, etc.—reigns these days, engendering an exaggerated sense of division among individuals and groups. Prejudice and violence are the products. Given the upsurge in bigotry and nationalism in the US and around the world, issues of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and place of birth are highlighted. These characteristics define groups and individuals and determine their opportunities. And yet, it seems to me that the youth of this generation reject attributes imposed upon them like no generation before them. I am heartened by their courage as they struggle to become their true selves. So I choose to be hopeful, realizing that we will have made real progress when the classification will no longer need to be unlearned but—from the first breath of life—it is never assigned.