Meet MSF Nurse Rebecca Singer, Speaking in Madison, Evanston, and Chicago

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Photo by Giulio Di Sturco/MSF

Photo by Giulio Di Sturco/MSF

Meet MSF Nurse Rebecca Singer, Speaking in Madison, Evanston, and Chicago

Because Tomorrow Needs Her is holding speaking events with local Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) field nurses, midwives and doctors in cities throughout the U.S. Speakers will talk about their experiences in the field and the challenges that women and girls face in getting the medical care they need.

In October there will be talks in Madison, Wisconsin; Evanston, Illinois; and Chicago with doctorally-prepared MSF nurse Rebecca Singer. Rebecca is a Chicago local with over a decade of experience in humanitarian and development work. She has provided services to survivors of sexual and family violence in Liberia, Kenya, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea and most recently in Tanzania.

Where have your missions with MSF been and what has your role been in each?

Most of my 10 years of MSF experience has been responding to sexual and gender-based violence. I started with MSF as the sexual violence response nurse in Monrovia, Liberia, where I helped to set up a clinic exclusively for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and then I became a sexual violence referent for MSF. My other roles have ranged from being the field coordinator for a family and sexual violence project in Papua New Guinea, to a primary care nurse and medical focal point for a project in Uganda, to a medical team leader for a malaria response in Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year. Most recently, I returned to Tanzania to do an evaluation and assessment of the sexual violence situation there.

How does MSF provide care to survivors of sexual violence?

MSF is committed to providing the appropriate response to any survivor of sexual violence at any of their projects. Sometimes patients receive full, direct and psycho-social care, as well as a medico-legal certificate that they can use if they want to take legal action. Sometimes they receive just the medical response and sometimes we refer them to existing care.

What was the sexual violence situation you recently encountered in Tanzania?

There were reported cases of rape among the refugee population that occurred in transit from Burundi or Congo to Tanzania. At one point, there were nearly 500 cases reported in a month – cases which had occurred en route to the camp or before relocation.

Burundi has a very big problem with sexual violence. MSF in Burundi had established a sexual violence response center that was gradually handed over and became a local NGO. So the Burundian populations are highly sensitized to the issues of sexual violence – which is positive. In Burundi they know they should go to the doctor in circumstances of sexual violence and they are a little more open to talking about it.

There were also some incidents of forced marriage where girls living in poverty were being sold to families and forced to marry against their will.

Were their other issues of sexual violence or exploitation in the camp?

Yes, there was a large occurrence of sexual exploitation or transactional sex in the camp. Exchanging sex for food, exchanging sex for grades or for jobs. There were many women, especially Burundians, who came to the camps alone – either their partners did not come with them or got lost along the way. And the distribution of food in the camp was just not enough for these women trying to provide for six or seven children. They would be approached by men who would offer money for sex – which is not a choice in that situation. I believe if a woman is faced with the decision of exchanging sex for money or letting her children starve that is not a choice.

How are these issues of sexual exploitation in the camp being addressed?

They are being addressed in terms of sensitization by raising awareness throughout the camp. However, this is a population that is very hard to bring forward for services. Many women do not see that this is exploitative. And there are many women who have been desensitized to the issue after being raped within the context of war – they see this as something that just happens. So there is a sort of resignation that this is not a reason to seek help.

How has your work with sexual violence translated into a calling for women’s health?

My entire nursing career, other than a very brief period of time, has been in humanitarian response and development work. I prefer to work with women because I feel that women are more vulnerable in that they are denied access to health care more often than men, and they can make fewer decisions on how money is spent and whether to access health care. So I want to make those choices available to women – a healthy woman has a healthier family.

What have been the biggest barriers you’ve seen women face in terms of accessing health care?

I think that in places where there is a fee for services, and where women do not have access to money, they are completely denied access to health care. If you have to go through your husband to try to get health care services, you might not do it. Another thing is that women will often spend money on themselves last because they are going to want to save the money for their children. And often times what money a family has will be spent on the husband because the husband is making the choices.

What is one story about a patient that really sticks out in your mind?

One of the most poignant stories for me is of a woman I met in Papua New Guinea. I was the project coordinator for a clinic that provided care to survivors of family and sexual violence and it had an amazing impact by providing much needed services to this population.

One day, a woman arrived and said that she wanted to talk to me because she had gotten care in our clinic. She had been so satisfied with the care that she wanted to share her story so that other women in her community would come forward and avoid suffering in silence.

She was a very sophisticated and clearly quite educated schoolteacher who arrived with both arms in casts. She told me that one day at the end of the school year her husband called while she was proctoring an exam. She couldn’t pick up her cell because her students were testing. When she came home from work that day her husband went into a rage for missing his call – he beat her so badly that he broke both of her arms. She was so severely injured that she had to come straight to the hospital. After receiving medical care, she continued to access all of the services we provided including psychosocial care and legal information. She told me that she wanted to be an example for other women to come forward.

What do you hope people who come to your talks will take away from them?

I think it’s really good for people to be confronted with the reality of what most of the world’s population faces. All too sadly, your life is determined by where you live. For women facing issues ranging from safe delivery to cancer care to just basic health care – that’s so unjust. In the U.S. we challenge and complain about our quality of health care – and we absolutely should advocate for our own best care. But I think it’s a good opportunity to remember the care that is needed globally and what so many people lack that we take for granted.

We also need to remember that all women everywhere face the same issues. It doesn’t matter if you are a mother or a young girl or an elderly woman in the U.S., Tanzania, China or Colombia – the things that you want for your family and yourself – and the health needs that you have are the same. I think it’s a very powerful reminder to acknowledge that half the world’s population has these issues in common.
Register below for Rebecca’s discussion on some of the challenges that keep women in developing countries from getting the medical care they urgently need.

October 13, 2015 – 7:00pm – Madison, Wisconsin

October 21, 2015 – 5:30pm – Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois

October 27, 2015 – 7:00pm – Chicago, Illinois 

Check out MSF’s event listing to see when a local MSF field worker will be speaking near you!
  #tomorrowneedsher #womenshealth #Tanzania #refugees

Because Tomorrow Needs Her focuses on some of the impediments to women’s health, exposing injustices that disproportionately affect women and girls around the world.