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Born unequal

A new born baby on a set of scales - ©iStockphoto.com/ArtisticCaptures

Our Professor of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs, Mukesh Kapila CBE and other health care academics have taken the revolutionary step of entering the world of performing arts to confront the inequalities faced by mothers and their daughters around the world.

“Each year, millions of women and children die from preventable causes. These are not mere statistics. They are people with names and faces.” United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon could not have described this global inequality – one that starts at birth – more starkly, or more poignantly.

One must drive on – fuelled by a sense of impatience and anger at the unfairness around us, while remaining optimistic that things can be made better.

Sex-selective abortions, neglect of female infants, more food and better health care for boys and men, and other forms of discrimination have resulted in higher survival rates for males than for females in China, India, Pakistan and other countries.

Researchers estimate that at least 2 million girls a year die and that between 60 million and 101 million women are missing from the world’s population because of gender discrimination, according to Pulitzer prizewinners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book: ‘Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide’.

A burning injustice

Mukesh Kapila CBE, Professor of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs at The University of Manchester, is one of a number of academics who took part in B!RTH: a series of theatrical events and debates at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in October. B!RTH shone a spotlight on global childbirth inequalities – an area which fits with our world-leading research into addressing global inequalities, and one which brings ire to Professor Kapila’s tone.

“The mass culling of a segment of humanity just because of their gender is femicide – a form of genocide,” he says. “This is invisible and insidious and must be dragged into the spotlight.

“And of course there are other inequalities around childbirth – the mortality rates of women who give birth in poverty are five times higher than those who are not. Also, consider the children born in Calais, for example, born without papers. Imagine your chances in life if you are alive but do not ‘legally exist’.

Professor Mukesh Kapila standing in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre

Professor Mukesh Kapila stands in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre

“I am outraged by the injustice that attends the birth of human life. If you make a bad start you will suffer for the rest of your life. So for me, childbirth is a justice issue as much as it is a function of biology. The suffering I see around the world in relation to birth is a litmus test of how society functions. It is just not right.”

A new stage

Professor Kapila has been at the sharp end of global inequality. As a medical doctor and the senior United Nations official for Sudan, he witnessed the 2004 Darfur genocide first-hand and has spoken out against those crimes and others against humanity.

In May, he was a special adviser for the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit which brought together world leaders. More locally, he has established the Manchester Global Foundation to work more practically on global development issues.

B!RTH, however, was a new challenge. Organised as part of Manchester’s year as European City of Science 2016, and supported by Bruntwood and the Oglesby Charitable Trust, the series brought together leading voices from the world of science, art, academia, politics and charities.

Partnering with Manchester – involving academics such as Professors Mahesh Nirmalan, Tony Redmond, David Hulme, Dame Tina Lavender and Dr Carol Bedwell – as well as the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine – B!RTH has commissioned seven plays by seven leading female playwrights from across the globe.

For Professor Kapila, an Academic Lead on the project, the collaboration is not simply an innovative way of addressing global inequalities. It could also have a direct impact on the way people behave – inspiring us all to do what is right as a society.

“My challenge to anyone who sees one of the B!RTH plays is to bring practical help to somebody,” he says. “We cannot just exploit the experience of people and get vicarious pleasure by feeling sorry for them. Do something.”

A journey that never stops

When not in Manchester, Professor Kapila lives in Geneva – an axis point for global humanitarian organisations. When teaching at Manchester, he is also a proud and active citizen here.

“It is great to be associated with Manchester because it has endured tough times and done a lot in terms of generating ideas and manufacturing things to lift up its own population,” he says of his adopted city. “Manchester has a willingness to cross boundaries between communities and make the world a better place. It has always prospered when it has looked outwards. I feel strongly that we must never become inward-looking.

“We have come a long way, but we must never be complacent as we are capable of being, and do so much more. To address global inequalities, remember that we are on a journey that never stops. If you are lucky, you may have a short rest now and then to celebrate some milestone. But one must drive on – fuelled by a sense of impatience and anger at the unfairness around us, while remaining optimistic that things can be made better.”

Professor Kapila reflects: “Wherever I have seen the greatest adversities I have also seen remarkable resilience and courage. People do not want charity. They want the dignity that comes from lifting themselves up. I hope that is what B!RTH does. The audience should challenge the way the world is run and commit to make a difference. If they feel personally empowered to create the world we deserve, rather than to tolerate the world as is, then I think this project will have succeeded.

“We may not always succeed in righting all human wrongs. But we are always required to try.”

The B!RTH play scripts can be downloaded and performed for free around the world at www.birthdebate.com. Read more about addressing global inequalities at www.manchester.ac.uk/global-inequalities-research

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