Murshidat, Midwives and Nurses: Women Transforming Health Care and Social Relations in Yemen

by Delores M. Walters, Ph.D.
Director, ALANA Cultural Center, Colgate University

Yemen Update 40(1998):#1

During the Fall of 1997, a rough edit of the video, Murshidat, Midwives and Nurses: Women Transforming Health Care and Social Relations in Yemen was completed. This preliminary video is based on footage which I shot in 1996. As director of the project, I am working with video editors at the Syracuse Alternative Media Network (SAMN) and utilizing the editing equipment at Colgate University. My involvement in producing a video documentary on the work/lives of the murshidat began in 1982 when I spent eighteen months in Yemen conducting anthropological fieldwork in two Yemeni communities, including the town of `Abs in the northern Tihama (coastal plains). After a ten year's absence, I observed a remarkable change taking place in both rural and urban communities in Yemen. One change is the implementation of training programs for women, especially the training of primary health care workers, known as murshidat. These programs are not only raising health service delivery to basic standards, but they are inclusive of the most marginal members of Yemeni society, especially the African- identified akhdam.

The video tells the story of approximately twenty women, who with a minimum of a sixth grade education and oneyear of training in basic health, hygiene and sanitation, are bringing health services to their northern Tihama community. In sodoing, the women are incorporating former outcastes (akhdam)and ex-slaves (`abid) into the health care system, and by extension into other educational and economic opportunities available in contemporary society as well. By rendering health services to the lowest status groups in the social hierarchy, the murshidat are promoting the egalitarian ideals of Islam. The video features the murshidat's home visits and daily routines in the various clinics or"rooms" where they conduct pre-natal check-ups, well baby monitoring and provide immunizations as well as routine deliveries and malaria treatments. Extensive interviews detail the reasons the women became murshidat and how this new role has changed their roles as women.

In December, I returned to Yemen accompanied by a professional videographer, Mary Beth Bresolin from Los Angeles,and social scientist Raja al Musabi from the Dept. of Women's Studies at Sanaa University. We spent two weeks at the Maternal and Child Health Center in `Abs upgrading the original footage by adding background shots and re-shooting certain interviews. We also obtained new interviews from women who previously had declined to be filmed.Another objective of this recent trip was to ask the murshidat for their comments and suggestions on the video-in-progress. The murshidat viewed the preliminary video, but although we we reable to secure a working VCR, the women were unable to hear the dialogue due to problems with the town's electricity. Nonetheless,the women were excited by what they saw. In the lively discussion that followed the viewing, the women recommended retaining modern standard Arabic for the narration. Convinced of its value as a training video, the murshidat also wanted to retain the detailed presentation of their work routines. However, they also readily acknowledged that the video has the potential to appeal to a wider audience. Other interested viewers include health officials, various community groups and students within and outside of Yemen. As a result of our discussions, we are planning to produce both an edited documentary and an unedited training version of the video.

The rough video draft was also viewed by development workers who are presently engaged in the murshidat training program or who have been involved in the past. I met with funders of the project at the Netherlands Embassy, including the Regional Sector Specialist on Health and Population, Dr. Theo Pas and his assistant, Dr. Mohamed Aideroos. Amat al-Aleem al-Soswa, Yemen's Deputy Minister of Information, provided me with historical documentary video tapes on the revolution in 1962 and a development project in the Tihama showing women working in agriculture in the1980s.

The final edited video will be a thirty minute documentary with English subtitles and will include the new and original footage as well as some archival material.

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