WOMEN ARE OFFEN able to explain quite complex issues by telling stories to one another, expressing their feelings, describing their experiences, putting the narratives of their lives in context.
Thus by far the most rewarding and enriching aspects of the UN Women's Conference at Beijing, for me, were some of the NonGovernment Agencies "workshops" in which women just talked to one another.
Some of these were a bit daft, and some were sharply argumentative, but others were very helpful indeed: beneficial information was exchanged between women in farming, business, on the Internet, for example and friendships struck up; but they were most revealing of all when women tackled difficult issues by sharing their personal experiences.
The most wonderful `workshop' I attended was one on "fertility awareness", which was focusing on Natural Family Planning issues, but in a completely non-didactic way.
Here were women from various parts of the world telling each other and teaching each other too about their feelings towards their fertility, their marriages, their sexuality, their bodies. And it opened my eyes about how natural fertility awareness can really enhance a woman's selfesteem about her body and creativity.
Geeta, for example, is a health worker in Madras, South India: a young married woman with no family as yet, she first taught herself about natural fertility control because other forms of contraception made her sick. Her motive was health, rather than religion, but she found, in examining her ovulation cycles and measuring fertility by the mucous method, that she gained a sense of understanding of her body that she had never had before. "And so I have begun to teach some of the young women in my health care programme about fertility awareness. I don't know whether they will always use it, but I do know that it has helped them so much to gain a sense of selfesteem and respect. These girls have a very shameful view of their own bodies.
"Doctors in India often treat women with contempt, as though they are stupid and you hand them over some pills and charge them the money. They often don't take women's health complaints about artificial contraception seriously. But natural fertility awareness is a health education programme which costs nothing, does no harm to the human body and gives women a sense of their own dignity."
Angelina from Kenya began to talk about natural fertility knowledge in her life with all the poetic power of a born story-teller. For her, natural fertility was not just a means of regulating her fertility, but had enhanced her marriage.
The fact that there is an "abstinence period" with natural family planning had made her marriage more erotic, she felt. She and her husband were 26 years married and yet their conjugal life was as fresh as a young bride's, she said with joy: "I don't want my husband to regard me like an old shirt he puts on every day. Why should I always have to be 'available' for sex? I want my husband to treat me Iike something special as he regards his best clothes, his ceremonial. And he does! The restraint that is part of natural fertility helps the man to understand and respect the woman's body, but also keeps the marriage exciting," she said.
Angelina, who was also a nurse in public health, then told a compelling story about a woman in her neighbourhood who reformed a violent husband by using natural fertility methods she helped him to understand that by respecting her body their life together would be better. "He broke down and reproached himself," said Angelina, "and exclaimed 'what kind of animal have I been?'" We were all close to tears at Angelina's eloquent tale.
She did have six children, but, she said, all were planned, and spaced four years apart through natural fertility methods. And I suspect what impressed some of the American women present was the fact that in the divorce-ravaged West, where married couples seem to tire of each other sexually this fulfilled African woman was talking about a continuously joyful faithful marriage.
The conventional objection to natural family planning is that it imposes an unrealistic degree of abstinence: Angelina thought that was good for a marriage; Geeta also suggested that she might occasionally use a supplementary barrier method if the abstinence became too much of a strain!
The American women, in general, tended to be exploring natural fertility as an alternative to artificial contraception. Religious reasons were not mentioned, though values were. "I just hate the way you get to college and they hand you out pills, and then tell you if anything goes wrong you can get an abortion," said an undergraduate from an American university. "You don't get to talk about your feelings, or to explore your own values about all this."
Another American woman in her 20s was working in a shelter for battered women in a big city: she too was drawn to natural fertility programmes because she felt it was "empowering" for women to understand ther cycles of fertility, rather than merely suppressing it chemically. Also, it could help you to have a baby when you wanted to become pregnant.
A black nurse-practitioner from Chicago felt that knowledge about fertility was helpful as background, but to be frank, most of the people she dealt with did not have either regular lives or monogamous relationships, and it just wouldn't work for them.
It was a real problem area of Chicago, with a lot of crime and drugs. You really had to be in a monogamous relationship to work it properly. That, I suppose, is part of the point: NFP serves marriage rather than a casual sex life.
Denise, a French-Canadian, was most knowledgeable of all: she had used natural fertility for 25 years and had two well-spaced children; she was now teaching it to her daughter. She had a somewhat eccentric menstrual cycle, and yet, she had learned to understand her body well enough to know exactly when she was ovulating.
For some women, this knowledge could become very exact, and they felt a sense of great female intuitive power when they got to this level of self-understanding.
The session gave me a real insight into women's feelings about their fertility, and it was, in a sense, a kind of narrative illumination of the Catholic Church's reasoning in the vexed subject of birth control; but here the subject was being approached from the positive view of women's own testimony rather than from the negative "Thou shalt not use artificial contraception" standpoint.
If only women like Angelina and Geeta and Denise could just tell their own stories to the world then perhaps people would understand better the picture behind Humanae Vitae.
"But there is a great drawback in getting this known about," remarked Angelina. "There's no money in it." The World Bank would be asking: where is the product?
Mary Kenny writes a column for the Sunday Telegraph