Vaira Vike-Freiberga was president of the Republic of Latvia from 1999 to 2007, the first female president in Eastern Europe. After obtaining her Ph.D. in Canada, she worked for many years as a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal and has gained recognition as an interdisciplinary scholar and expert on science policy. As president of Latvia, she was instrumental in achieving membership in the European Union and NATO for her country. She is a founding member of the Club of Madrid, and has received many awards and medals for her continued work in the international arena in defense of liberty, equality, and social justice.
I have a black-and-white photograph of myself as a child in Riga, staring solemnly at the camera. I am wearing a blue coat trimmed with white rabbit fur. It was the early 1940s, a time of war and foreign occupation, and my grandmother had gone to all sorts of trouble to find the materials for this coat. I look at this photograph, at my serious, young face, and I am inspired by my grandmother’s act – to make something needed out of seemingly nothing!
|Women and girls anywhere in the world should have the right of choice over their lives and command over the integrity of their bodies.|
My childhood was not an easy one, but I did survive. Having experienced one Stalinist Soviet occupation in 1940-1941, my parents were not ready to endure another one. Three days before the Red Army took Riga, in October of 1944, they fled, taking with them my baby sister, me, and only what they could carry in their hands. They had a faint hope that they might possibly return, but deep in their hearts they sensed that they were leaving forever.
We kept moving West. Less than a month after leaving Latvia, my baby sister died in a German transit camp. A year later, in Lübeck, my mother gave birth to my brother at a Red Cross Hospital run by Latvian refugee nurses and doctors. In the bed next to her was an eighteen-year-old Latvian refugee girl who had just given birth as well. At the end of the war, her family had become caught in the wild rampages of the victorious Red Army in East Germany. Jadwiga had been brutally gang-raped by a band of Russian soldiers.
She endured the enforced pregnancy that followed, but when her newborn was brought to her in the hospital, she turned her face to the wall and refused to breastfeed that child of gang-rape or even to look at it. The nurses did their best to care for her, but within six weeks that child had pined away and died, as if understanding that she was not wanted in this world. Babies just kept on dying, whether loved and wanted or not.
I saw all of this as a seven and eight year old: how vulnerable and unprotected were women and children, both during a war and in a post-war period. I had thought such things would come to an end when peace finally came to Europe. But they continue across the world to this day. There is always a new conflict somewhere and there are always new horrors. Soldiers die fighting with arms in their hands. Civilians, especially women and children, suffer and die unarmed and unprotected.
When the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) closed down the refugee camps in Germany, my family moved to a building site in the bled (countryside) of then French Morocco. One day Dad came home telling how an Arab he was working with had made him an offer for his daughter – me! – in marriage: 10,000 francs, two donkeys, and a camel (or something to that effect). Dad was taken aback: “But she is still a child, only eleven years old!” I was so relieved to hear that Dad had not been tempted to take him up on his offer!
Decades later, hardly a day goes by without another so-called “honor-killing” on this democratic continent of Europe. I’m all for respecting cultural traditions and heritage, but not if they infringe on basic human rights. Enforced marriage of very young girls constitutes a disguised form of pedophilia. Enforced early pregnancies are a major cause of maternal mortality. Enforced marriage at any age is not to be condoned in civilized societies. Women and girls anywhere in the world should have the right of choice over their lives and command over the integrity of their bodies.
In my early years in the academic world, I experienced firsthand some of the difficulties women face in what traditionally had been all-male domains. When I got pregnant during my first year as a tenure-track assistant professor, there was no provision for maternity leave in Canada. I was so tired and overworked that my second child was born prematurely and died within two days of hyaline membrane disease. Instead of offering his sympathies, the director of my department called me in after my return from hospital, to complain that some of my colleagues had actually had to correct some exam- papers in my place!
Since then, great strides have been made in improving working conditions, health care, and maternity leave rights for women, at least in the developed world, but there remains so much to be done before the same level is reached worldwide.
Since the end of my second term as president, I have been active in the Club of Madrid, in a variety of projects to empower women. I went to Uganda to try to convince the government to give property rights to women and criminalize sexual violence; I went to Colombia to address the difficulties of women, especially in families driven off their lands by either drug lords or paramilitaries.
In countries where the rights of women are ignored, we are especially challenged. Some social customs run generations deep. One such custom is female genital mutilation, where women are brainwashed into thinking that when their daughters marry, the bride should be “clean.” This perverse cultural custom is being perpetuated by the women themselves, who have become their own worst enemies.
In working to make change in any one of these areas, you need partners. You need determination to do it. I think of my grandmother, gathering what she needed to make me that coat, all those years ago. A button here, a bit of cloth there, a length of thread. And gradually, she brought it all together and made me a beautiful coat.
Together we can make change happen – for that frightened girl pledged in marriage, for that woman who thinks she has no choice, for the desperate worker in the village who cannot work and care for her newborn at the same time – and we can bring it all together. We can insure that all women and girls have the education, services, and supplies they need to lead healthy lives and have healthy children.