Sunday, July 29, 2007

Living on the Downlow

Someone in my town (I am not mentioning who for privacy’s sake) has asked me to buy her birth control. She is married and her husband does not know that she is taking it. When asked by other women, she maintains that no of course not, she would never intentionally prevent pregnancies, that is up to Allah, but she is thrilled to have discovered the pill.

At first I thought she was probably being overly cautious, or paranoid. I mean, this is 2007 and I live in a fairly large town where most young people receive an education and they provide it at the pharmacy and the health post don’t they? Shouldn’t that be enough? But I also live in a conservative, Muslim, Pulaar, polygamous, society in West Africa.

Guess which one wins out at this stage in the game?

So I gladly agreed to help her out and rattled off some statistic about the percentage of women in the US that practice some kind of family planning (pretty sure it’s around 75% if memory serves me correctly? Please feel free to correct me if I’m totally off). Telling her that it will of course not harm her, or her ability to have babies later, and she can stop whenever she wants etc. I read her all of the facts, and myths included on the brochure she had (she is not very literate) and headed to the pharmacy with her thanking me profusely.

At the pharmacy, the man behind the counter refused to sell them to me. This is how the conversation went (French not Pulaar):

“I need 3 refills of this pill”
“I can’t give them to you.”
“No, it’s not for me, I’m picking them up for a friend.”
“Because she is busy at home preparing lunch and I offered to pick them up on my way into town”
“Why won’t she come pick them up herself? (gee. I wonder.) What’s her name?”
“I don’t need to tell you that.”
“Is she married?”
“What? Yes. (totally caught me off guard). Why does that matter?”
“Well does her husband live HERE? (insinuating that she’s being unfaithful) Does he know?”
“That is none of your business. Why would that be important? That has nothing to do with this.”
“Well I cannot sell them to you.”
“Fine. I won’t buy them from you then. Goodbye.”

I nearly lunged at his esophagus. The nerve. The ignorance, the machismo, the abuse of power. I walked right out, talked to the woman and promptly walked right back to the pharmacy. I ignored that first young man and went straight to the nice old man who sold them to me NO PROBLEM. Apparently that first guy is infamously difficult and everyone tries to be waited on by the older, nice man. But that is just a little taste of the kind of odds women are up against in my town. They can’t even space their pregnancies without living in fear of people finding out and being punished. When I talked to her about it she said that some of the older marabous in this area preach to people and tell them that the pill is evil and it makes women sick and that it will kill their children if they use it.


And it’s not as if she is the only one.

I have had several women approach me privately at the health post asking me if I can give them the pill. The conversation always happens quickly, in hushed voices, away from the eyes of curious neighbors. When I tell them that I don’t, that they have to see the midwife first and get a prescription, they always clamp their mouths shut quickly and that is the end of the conversation. I try to be as encouraging as possible, answering all of their questions and letting them know that it is inexpensive and available. But the risk of others finding out is simply too great.

Challenge # 5,396.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

Actually, this past year I had a ballet student who sat out of class every month with hideous cramps. I said something to the effect of, you know you don't have to live with that, birth control will help. She says her mother won't even consider it because she (the mother) thinks it will keep her daughter from ever having children. This is suburban Massachusetts...

<3 long email on the way