by Elizabeth Gracen:
In our continuing series Making the World a Better Place, we highlight the amazing work being done by hard-working people all over the world who have made a choice to step out of their comfort zones and help those in need. These people serve as inspiring examples of who we can become and how we can make the world a better place.
We are thrilled to tell you about an amazing woman named Jane E. Drichta who works through her organization, Global Motherhood Initiative, to help the Yezidi women in Iraq recover and thrive after incredible hardships.
It all started with a post I shared on Facebook about Nadia Murad—a fierce, courageous Yezidi young woman who escaped the horrors of sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS to become a champion of girls and women around the world affected by violence. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of 2018 for her outstanding work and dedication to the cause.
Her sad story, amazing escape, and subsequent mission to help other females in the world is more than inspiring. Little did I know that because of that simple FB post, I would soon be in contact with another extraordinary woman who gives me hope and inspiration to move forward to do good in the world.
When Jane Drichta sent me a message thanking me for posting about Ms. Murad's prize, I was taken aback. You just never know when something you do—seemingly small—will actually open your eyes and change your world view. Jane's message did that for me. In a matter of twenty-four hours, we were connected: me on the West Coast of the good 'ole USA, Jane in Iraq.
I am thrilled that Jane has agreed to share her story with Flapper Press and to write monthly posts about her life in Iraq and the amazing work she is doing with the Global Motherhood Initiative.
Please meet Jane E. Drichta!
EG: Your website is incredibly informative, but I’d like you to restate what the Global Motherhood Initiative is and the organization’s mission regarding maternity care for the women of the Yezidi in Iraq.
JD: On August 3, 2014, ISIS attacked the Yezidi region of Shingal with the expressed intent of wiping this culture from the Earth. Thousands of women and children were captured and taken into sexual slavery, some sold multiple times and many trafficked out of the country. Approximately 3,500 Yezidi remain in captivity.
Young men were taken and forced to fight for ISIS or killed outright.
It is estimated that 10,000 Yezidi were captured or killed during the first 28 days of August, 2014. Every single person who survived has lost family, friends, and community.
The Global Motherhood Initiative (GMI) is a teensy-tiny grassroots organization started to provide dignified, compassionate, evidence-based care for these women who now reside in Khanke Camp, Kurdistan, Iraq. We combine top-notch midwifery care with trauma therapy, provided by our partner, the Free Yezidi Foundation. We are the only clinic in Iraq which combines these two vital aspects of healthcare, and we embrace the philosophy that every single life we touch is vital to the community and to the world.
The Yezidi are incredibly resilient people. Midwifery care is based on family centered care; decisions are made cooperatively, and the midwife functions as a guide and as support rather than as an authority figure with the power. It is absolutely vital to assist women who have experienced such extreme trauma in reclaiming their own power. Our approach is to provide a supported space for healing and allowing the woman to guide her own journey to motherhood.
EG: Tell me a little bit about who you are, your history, and the journey you’ve taken to where you are now.
JD: Oh my, I’m not that interesting, I promise. I have an undergraduate degree in English and political science, so naturally, I trained as a midwife. /sarcasm font off (When I wrote a book in 2013, my mother was thrilled I was finally putting that degree to use!) I have always been interested in the global political landscape and how social determinants of health impact health systems on an international level.
But what really lights me up is individualized care. I am passionate about providing the opportunity for women to explore themselves as they transition into motherhood. How does this fundamental shift affect them mentally, emotionally, spiritually? How can medical providers support every aspect of a woman so that she feels so seen, so loved, that she is launched into early parenthood from the highest possible position of strength?
My goodness, can you imagine how much the world could shift if we could actually pull that off? But how do we do that with all of the systemic obstacles that characterize 21st century life? I still don’t have the answer to this question, for sure, but I’m super interested in exploring possibilities.
I combined these two interests by doing global health work. I’ve delivered babies on four continents, practicing clinically in Uganda, the Philippines, Greece, and several other places before transitioning to health programming and consulting for large and small non-governmental organizations. Finally, I returned to school, receiving a Masters in Global Public Health and Policy from Queen Mary University of London. I also hold a Diploma in Tropical Nursing from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
As everyone with eyes to see and an internet connection knows, one of the greatest crises of our time has been forced migration, whether due to war, disease, economic catastrophe, or natural disasters, particularly those exacerbated by climate change. Talk about systemic obstacles! And with apologies to Liam Neeson, I have a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career, and they all seemed to be leading me to work with refuges and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
So . . . I did.
EG: How and why did you decide to form the Global Motherhood Initiative?
JD: One thing you must understand is that I always swore I would never start an NGO (Non Governmental Organization). NEVER. EVER. I swore in every way possible . . . on my father’s grave, in several languages, loudly, softly . . . that this was not going to happen. It's too hard, trust me. I’ve been doing this work for over ten years, and I know the ins and outs of the development/emergency response world pretty well. Seriously, never do this. You don’t want to, trust me. But . . .
I was in Kurdistan for a few months in 2017 doing some consulting work for a small NGO that was considering opening a project in Khanke Camp. Part of my job was to do needs assessments with some focus groups, and it became just so clear that there was a huge gap here. Nobody was using the midwifery model of care here, nobody was doing doctoral-level therapy, and certainly nobody was doing them together.
I tried so hard to ignore my brain. I really did. I tried to distract myself at night with bad reality TV and ordering shoes from Amazon, and this utterly and completely failed to work (although, I did get a couple of groovy pairs of boots out of it). My brain just wouldn’t shut up.
Finally, I gave up and started planning out how this could all fit together. I went back to the camp and met with an established NGO, the Free Yezidi Foundation. They had a trauma therapy program with two psychologists on site, and after a series of fantastically productive meetings that gave me at least a sliver of hope for humanity, we decided to partner up. And GMI was officially born!
EG: In the current world climate with so many women and children in distress, why did you specifically decide to work with the Yezidi?
JD: This organization was founded on the premise that every mother and every child matter, and not just in an airy-fairy pie in the sky, internet meme way. Each person we work with is a vital part of the community here, and if they are not encouraged to reach their highest potential, the community is diminished. In a culture as small and as persecuted as the Yezidi, well, we just cannot allow that to happen.
The genocide of 2014 just . . . offended me. Trying to wipe out an entire culture just because you don’t like the way they dig God? Um, no. And this is the 73rd genocide that the Yezidi have endured. Over 23 million Yezidi have been killed over the past 700 years. The intergenerational trauma is so strong; and one of the ways that we can interrupt that is to bring the next generation into the world as gently and humanely as possible.
Midwifery care is designed to do exactly that. So, this was a situation in which the ancient, women-centered traditions of midwifery could combine with cutting-edge knowledge of how the brain reacts to trauma, and really do some good.
EG: What do the day-to-day operations of your organization look like? How many team members are on the ground with you? Please tell me more about your team in general.
JD: We are the smallest NGO ever. I am onsite all the time, overseeing general operations of the clinic. Remember the Free Yezidi Foundation, our partners in not-so-crime over here? Well, they recruited me to be their Country Director a year ago. This is outstanding because not only do I love them and their mission, but I can get paid! And eat! And take care of GMI right here on the ground all the time!
So, I am here dealing with the ever-present bureaucracy, writing grants, fighting tooth and nail for funding, and generally running around like a headless chicken trying to get people to understand the Yezidi’s situation. My Clinical Director is a lovely midwife from the UK who has volunteered her time here through September of 2019. I’m not sure what I did in a past life to deserve her, but I must have been pretty spectacular because she is absolutely amazing. She does all our clinic visits, goes to see women in their tents when needed, does health information work, and generally is a huge-hearted, energetic badass. Our Clinic Manager does all our translation work, organizes our appoints, and generally keeps the logistics of a clinic running smoothly. She is a Yezidi from Shingal and is our only paid staff member.
We generally see between 6–9 clients a day in the clinic. Unless it rains. When it rains, the camp floods and our fence actually is electrified. This is something I wish would stop, as it is annoying to have to push it open with a stick every time it sprinkles. I mean, really?
Our mothers are required by law to birth in the maternity hospital downtown (Don’t get me started on THAT. It is an hour away and these women have a lot of babies. You can do the math on that one. Many don’t make it to the hospital.) However, we do all of their prenatal and postpartum care. We also end up doing a lot of primary care inadvertently, as people just show up with health needs.
Our beneficiaries are screened for perinatal mood disorders three times during their care: twice before birth, and once after. If they show signs of needing mental health assistance, they are sent to one of our psychologists, provided by the Free Yezidi Foundation, conveniently located about 50 feet away. Our clinical director and the psychologists are in constant contact about the needs of our mutual clients. It works very well.
And of course, babies! We are a bit different in that we keep mamas and babies in care until the baby is 12 weeks old. There are just so many things that can happen in a camp environment health-wise, none of them spectacularly great. So, we like to keep an eye on our littlest friends.
EG: Does your organization offer any sort of training programs to help the women you work with learn skills to find jobs to support themselves and their children?
JD: Absolutely. Under my direction, the Free Yezidi Foundation offers six-month programs in which women can learn vocational skills, and GMI women are encouraged to take advantage of this. We have classes in English, Arabic, Computers, Sewing, Knitting, Art, and Yoga. After graduation, the women are given a certificate detailing their skills, which helps them get employment or start their own businesses. FYF also hires from our pool of graduates. All of our instructors are Yezidi, most living in the camp.
We also operate a children’s center, so there is secure and free childcare onsite. This also helps the children, who have also suffered trauma. ISIS is big on child soldiers, and we have a few in our center. I had a ten year old act out an ISIS beheading on the playground the other week. Sigh. Sometimes this isn’t such a joy-filled place.
EG: What happens to the women and children after they leave the services of your organization?
JD: This is the best part! We get to keep seeing our clients again and again, as most of them also use the services of FYF, getting vocational training. We also put on health workshops for the women, offering breastfeeding advice, contraception information, etc. And lots of times, they just drop by to say hello! We also do a lot of tent visits just to keep in contact.
EG: Does your organization work with immigration to help find homes for the women and children you work with?
JD: We have a robust referral network. Immigration is tricky. Some of the families wish very much to emigrate. Their lives have been shattered, their community decimated. They want nothing more than a fresh start. Many have family members who have already been resettled, mostly in Germany, Australia, or Canada. The wait is long for these places and priority is given to the most dire cases. Former captives, in general, move to the front of the line. It's hard though because families are giant and everything is communal, so if a family member is resettled, there is a very profound sense of loss and grief for the family, even though it is a happy event. Humans are so astoundingly complex, aren’t they?
And of course, some want to go back to their homes and rebuild. The Yezidi are one of the oldest cultures on Earth. Their roots are so deep that they reach down to the center of the Earth. But Shingal is not safe. ISIS occupied it for so long.
I was working a justice case (more details on that below) with a Yezidi gentleman who found pictures of his beautiful home on Facebook, posted by an ISIS soldier. He had to see ISIS sitting in his courtyard, sticking their feet in his fountain, wearing his clothing. They just came in and took everything. And then when the area was liberated, they just destroyed it. The same gentleman then showed me pictures of the house riddled with bullet holes, the beautiful fountain smashed into rubble. And yet, he wanted to go back. I get it. Nothing can truly be destroyed, it just changes form. The fountain can be turned into gravel, but the spirit of the people who built it is still so very present.
It's not safe, of course. ISIS sleeper cells are still there, and there are IEDs and oh so many landmines. But maybe someday.
EG: How long is the average stay after childbirth? How long does their treatment continue?
JD: The women here spend a couple of hours in the hospital after a birth and are then released with no follow up. They return to the camp directly after, where we see them and their little ones. The hospital is abysmal. They are stretched so thin and have so few resources. Their training is sub optimal and there is so much corruption. This is where our immediate postpartum care is so important.
As I mentioned above, we keep the clients in care for three months post birth. This is not only to keep an eye on their physical health but their mental health as well. 42% of IDPs and refugees experience a perinatal mood disorder, be it depression, anxiety, or other disorders. This is compared to 10–20% of the general population. Our suicide rate in the camp is high anyway, so you can see how these women are particularly vulnerable.
We are just so proud to have a place where mental health and reproductive health is completely integrated.
EG: Tell me more about the type of therapeutic services you provide. Is the therapy one-on-one, group, or both?
JD: We have two trauma therapists who work with our mothers, through the Free Yezidi Foundation. They provide group therapy and individual therapy as necessary. They use EMDR as their main modality. We also have trained 15 members of the community to act as lay counselors. They work in the camp teaching psychological stabilization techniques to families in crisis, as well as providing conflict resolution sessions and mediation. As you can imagine, many of the families are in crisis, and these sessions help prevent the domestic violence which is so prevalent in the camp setting.
EG: Jane, tell me about how people can help support the important work you are doing. How can we donate to help keep your organization thriving and robust?
JD: GMI relies heavily on private donations to fund our projects. We have a special fund, named after our first baby with clubfoot, Aya. Aya’s Fund allows us to support families who need a higher level of care. We need to replenish this fund and the rest of our coffers, as the need here is so great. Our goal is to obtain 100 $10 monthly donors. Just ten dollars can go so far here! It can buy three mothers needed antibiotics. It’s a taxi ride to the hospital in town. It’s three packages of maxi pads. If we can form these $10 relationships, our current programming will be completely self sustaining!
EG: Does your organization work in conjunction with other organizations, such as the Red Cross?
JD: We have many referral pathways to other organizations, both locally and internationally. Everything works best when we work together. It doesn’t always go smoothly, but it usually ends up going.
EG: Do you have plans to branch out into other areas of the work to help other women?
JD: Do we ever! Half of my heart is here, but the other half is in sub-Saharan Africa, especially Uganda, where I worked on and off for eight years. We have a partnership in place to expand our model there. All we need is funding. But if I had a nickel for every time I’ve said that, well, I wouldn’t actually need any funding.
EG: Does your organization also work on a political level to help change the laws to help women?
JD: Reproductive freedom and justice work are at the core of both Global Motherhood Initiative and the Free Yezidi Foundation’s work. We celebrate Yezidi women for who they are, not just for their contribution to society, valuable though that is, of course.
The genocide in 2014 tore the very social fabric of the Yezidi people apart, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the effect it has had on women. This was a particularly gendered genocide, with weaponized sexual violence being a lynch pin in ISIS’s domination plans.
FYF works on the international stage for individual Yezidi women seeking justice against their perpetrators. No ISIS member has ever been charged on a human rights violation. No rape, no trafficking, etc. They have been tried on terrorism charges, but that’s easier. You blow something up, you behead someone in front of a black flag, well that’s terrorism. Throw it on YouTube, and you have a movement. It’s easy to recognize and easy to establish motive and precedent.
However, human rights, particularly women’s rights, are a bit more slippery, aren’t they, and bump up against millennia of ingrained misogyny, particularly in the patriarchal context in which we work. People’s ideas of what women should tolerate as a price to exist in the world do not always correlate with the accepted definition of justice.
We are committed, both on a personal and organizational level, to these women. Their stories must be told, and the world courts must condemn the actions of gendered violence and extremism. We do this by sponsoring lawsuits, providing logistical and informational support and funding to back these efforts. Our legal team is so committed. My job is to get the victims where they need to go, arranging security, and interfacing on their behalf with embassies, lawyers, and law enforcement. We also collect evidence and interface with various government officials, depending on the case.
While it is FYF that does most of this advocacy work on a global level, at GMI we serve as a first point of contact on the ground. Because of the extremely high incidence of rape and other forms of reproductive violence during this conflict, many of the women we encounter have cases to be made against ISIS. Since our model of care is relationship based, they come to feel comfortable with us and often tell us stories that deserve a closer look by government authorities.
EG: What are you plans for the future of this organization and the work, in general, that you are doing to make the world a better place?
JD: We have so many plans! Our most exciting expansion will occur in May when we will do the very first cervical cancer screen and treat campaign EVER in a camp setting. We will be using a protocol developed in sub-Saharan Africa that allows us to visualize cancerous and precancerous lesions and then use cryotherapy to obliterate them. It's like a ray gun for cancer cells! (God, I’m such a geek.)
Cervical cancer is the eighth most common cancer in the world, and those stats include developed countries where there is universal screening. Obviously here in the camps, there are no pap smears, no labs, and no doctors to interpret. The technique we use doesn’t depend on any of these variables. We are stupid excited about this.
Women in camps deserve the exact same screening and treatment around non-communicable diseases as women in the West. Providing these vital screenings/treatments is a glorious form of health equity, which we cannot wait to implement.
We are also in talks with a few other partners to open a holistically oriented dental clinic, using our same model of compassionate care. This will be amazing! Dental care is so lacking and can impact so many things, from nutrition status, to organ function, to quality of life.
We are always looking to expand our care and provide even more women with a dedicated space for radical healing. Pregnancy and childbirth offer us a unique opportunity to influence two generations at once, to share our humanity on the deepest level. GMI is simply a vessel for this love.
EG: Jane, thank you so much for sharing your world and the outstanding work you and your team are doing to help the women of the world. I look forward to your updates on all the projects and initiatives. I'm incredibly excited about what you are doing, and I wish you all the luck in the world!
A video from Jane in Iraq: