Vaira Vike-Freiberga: I relate to these issues


Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former President of Latvia.


Dominic Chavez

At the end of October, the world's population will cross the 7 billion mark and continue to climb. Over the next five weeks, Global Pulse interviews several world leaders about how to slow this explosive growth.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga, former President of Latvia from 1999 to 2007 and the first woman President in Eastern Europe, was in Washington, D.C. this week for a series of meetings, including an Aspen Global Health and Development event titled, “7 Billion: Conversations That Matter ‘Good Governance and the Women Dividend'.” She is a member of Aspen’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health. Vike-Freiberga spoke to writer John Donnelly about advancing women’s reproductive health issues, the need for doctors to treat women with more dignity, and about how she got “the scare of my life” as a young girl living in Morocco when an older man tried to persuade her father for her hand in marriage.

Why did you first start to get involved in advocating for women’s reproductive health issues?

During my presidency, I came in contact with a wide spectrum of needs and necessities that were not being taken care of. The women’s question was one among many. But myself being a woman and because of certain life experiences, I related to these issues.

Since the end of my second term, like other former presidents, I have become involved in a number of groups of like-minded people who feel there are a great many needs in the world, a great many problems, where our experience is very useful. I am most active in the Club de Madrid, which took on a variety of projects about empowering women. I went to Uganda to try to convince government to give property rights to women, and I went to Colombia to address the difficulties of displaced families on the so-called drug route. In Latvia, we have found our indicators for women’s reproductive health were at the tail end within the European Union in terms of maternal mortality and early infant mortality. Since our independence, these figures have been going down – improving. During the Soviet times as well, there were more abortions.

What has happened since with abortions?

Since independence, there has been fewer of them.


Because of the availability of contraceptives and family planning.

You are a member of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health. How can being part of a group like this help advance social issues?

There are two ways of looking at it. Each member can continue being active in their own country and to put pressure on legislatures, and to approach their populations of women as well as doctors. I’ve heard many stories from women in Latvia who have said doctors were so dismissive of them. Their attitude toward patients was not what one would like to see. In Canada and the U.S., the medical profession with women patients also could be improved. These doctors sort of push women through like sausages in a factory on a production line. Medical personnel need to be reminded that relating well to people can prevent many problems, especially with women and girls.

The second way is working in countries where the rights of women are totally ignored or don’t exist, and it’s a huge problem to get changes accepted. In Uganda, several attempts by the Club de Madrid have not been successful in trying to give property rights to women. That is catastrophic in northern Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army has killed so many men, and a woman can be thrown off the land she has been cultivating for many years.

How can you be persuasive in another country?

One has to stay discreetly in the background. If you come and beat your fist on the table, it won’t work. The trick is to kindle the spark that will convince them. You need to say, ‘We know how this policy came about, we know you are doing your best, and don’t you think it would be better for the country if you made a change?’ It’s a matter of finding arguments to convince everyone involved it’s a win-win situation, without sermonizing or imposing your will.

Still, isn’t it quite difficult to change ingrained cultural practices?

Yes, some social customs run generations deep. You can look at female genital mutilation, where it is the women themselves who are brainwashed into thinking that when their daughters marry, the bride should be ‘clean.’ This cultural ordeal, which is totally perverse, has been perpetuated by the women themselves. There was a book about how China gave up on foot binding (of girls). That didn’t change until the upper class was convinced it was the smart thing to do. There’s the situation around the world of child marriage. It’s a social thing, involving the rights over who the daughter will marry.

In any one of these areas, you need partners. You need determination to do it. If you wish to see social change of any kind, you are talking about changing attitudes. First you need to define what the problem is, as the Aspen Institute has done, as the UN organizations have done, gathering facts and figures about situations in a number of countries. The steps that follow are known. It’s not something where one person goes out waving a flag and something happens. I’d rather see us being a foot soldier in the worldwide army that tries to move things ahead.

You talked earlier of ‘certain life experiences’ that motivate you to work on these issues. Can you give an example?

When I grew up in Morocco, I got the scare of my life. There was a man who knew my father, someone he was working with, who asked my father if he could have permission to marry me. He offered 10,000 francs, two donkeys and a camel for me. I was scared out of my life. I was 11 years old. My father said, ‘The child is only 11 and she has to go to high school.’ I remember the man saying, ‘Alright, I can wait, and I’ll throw in a couple of extra camels and she can go to school; and when she’s finished you can bring her to me.’ My father thought it was a big joke of course. But I was scared. My family had just arrived from a displaced persons camp in Germany and we had literally nothing.

So you know how a young girl might feel today if her parents ordered her to marry an older man.

Yes, that might be true. Many of them might feel as I did. They don’t have a choice. It’s an awful thing.