What is a Mother Worth?

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By: Julianne Parker, Young Champion of Maternal Health

This blog post was contributed by Julianne Parker, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. She will be blogging about her experience every month, and you can learn more about her, the other Young Champions, and the program here.

“No one has ever believed in me except Lua Nova,” proclaimed one young mother who has battled a lifetime of domestic violence, homelessness, and drug abuse in the favelas of São Paulo, Brazil.

She and the rest of the residents of Lua Nova’s rehabilitation program have been engaged the past three weeks in an intensive income-generating training course focused on creating “Jovens Lideres,” or “Young Leaders”—not too different from Young Champions! The girls were given support and training in creating entrepreneurial ideas to revolutionize their personal lives. The methodology of the training is superb: focus on the girls’ individual talents, dreams and ambitions, and then give them practical tools to achieve them. Tools like delineating personal support networks, contacting potential partners, basic accounting instruction, and then doling out practical skills training in various fields: housing construction, baking/restaurant management, and sewing/arts creation.

On one particularly moving day towards the end of the course, a team of high-end hair stylists, make-up artists, and photographers came from São Paulo to make-over and photograph the girls and their children.

The day reminded me of another back in September: in one of my earliest group therapy sessions with Lua Nova’s residents, I started the session with a short self-esteem activity. I was in front of the group holding a closed shoe-box, explaining to the participants: “Think of the most important person in your lives. A person who deserves all your care, whom you truly love and know most intimately… Think of this person and what their feelings, motivations, and dreams are…” As they sat thinking, I told them they would then meet this person face-to-face, inside this very shoe-box! I had each girl come up to the front of the room and open the box, seeing a mirror inside. Shock registered on their faces as they realized that it was they themselves who deserve all care and love imaginable! They had worthy motivations and dreams that must be respected! The girls began to cry, and most could only glance in the mirror for a moment before looking away, too startled to see themselves in such a light.

It was a breakthrough moment for all of them to have someone actually say to them: YOU HAVE WORTH. And so this last week, with a whole team of professionals pampering and photographing them and their children, the girls were moved and appreciative. It was a culmination of this whole course which turns the attention on the potential of these young women to erase the hardened abuse they have previously been privy to, and to cultivate their innumerable qualities and skills.

It all makes me think of the awesome conference call the Young Champions and I participated in this week, gleaning updates and insights from each other. I was so struck by what great work everyone is doing in their placements: so many are engaged in high-level policy discussions, liaising with governments and bureaucracies and trying to cut apathy to maternal health out of national and sub-national political dialogues. In Brazil the situation is a bit different: the policies are in place, it is the implementation that has failed for a vast sector of society. It has failed for the girls who arrive at Lua Nova’s doors, a failure Ashoka Fellow and Founder of Lua Nova, Raquel Barros, is attempting to overcome in her work.

We all know that that once sound policies are finally in place for women the race is by no means over. One of the strongest sessions at the Global Maternal Health Conference we attended in New Delhi last August revolved around the role of the law and legal professionals in the fight for maternal health: let’s hold governments accountable to the laws, policies, and programs they have agreed to put into place. Let’s hold them accountable to every mother, no matter her age or social status, so she can no longer say “no one believes in me.” So she is not left alone, with no recourse for care or attention.