She helps women in her country

When experts are stationed abroad it is often their first time in that particular country. They start from scratch. This however was not the case when the anthropologist Birgitte Bruun went to Indonesia working for UNFPA in the area of reproductive health. As a teenager she spent 10 month as an exchange student in Indonesia and coming back was a joy.
     So here I am waiting for Birgitte Bruun in the backpacker area Jalan Jaksa in Jakarta, which is very close to the UN building where she works with family planning.
     I think she is on her way, actually. The owner of the restaurant in which I’m waiting, also owns a well-known travel agency, and the restaurant and travel agency share premises. A tall fast moving woman raced into the travel agency just 5 minutes ago. And now she is here.
     “Did you have dinner?” Birgitte Bruun asks. When I nod she asks me permission to dine before leaving for her place.
     The staff knows her, which makes me think that all this might have happened before.
     Five minutes later we are seated in a Bagaj on three wheels – the Indonesian version of a Thai Tuk Tuk. I’m surprised of how well she speaks the Indonesian language. It is rare that stationed UN experts have the time to learn the local language, and especially this fast.
     “I’ve been in Indonesia before” she says. “After my first year in gymnasium I took a break from school going to Indonesia as an exchange student. When choosing the country of destination Indonesia was the country I knew the least about. Actually I couldn’t even find in on a map, so it was obvious to choose this wonderful country,” she says while flinging her arms about.
     This young Danish girl arrived all by herself from the other side of the globe, where she has been raised to be independent and take responsibility. It was not without any problems she became part of a culture, in which one has to be 25 years before being allowed to take any decisions on you own, Brigitte Bruun remembers.
     “My independence was a big problem to my Indonesian “mother” who said I had to think about the honour of the family and do as every other girl in Kudus – a small town in Java. I had to go home and stay inside the house at six p.m. every evening.”
     “And I was only allowed to socialise with my friends twice a week. My friends even had to be approved by my “mother”,” Brigitte Bruun says adding that the family named her Ratna when she arrived.
     Ratna was the name of the family’s daughter who died from rat poison when she was only two years old.
     “I thought a lot about changing family. It was very difficult. But I stayed and for this I’m pleased. Today there is nothing but affection between my “mother” and I,” Brigitte Bruun says.
     After 10 month in Indonesia the farmer’s daughter went back to Folding between Esbjerg and Kolding and with a new burning interest for foreign cultures she went back to upper secondary school. She had no doubt; “I wanted to be an anthropologist.” It was difficult to get in but she managed second time.
     The interview has moved to the roof of Regency Menteng having the beautiful view of the sunset on one side and the pool on the other.
     Dealing with far more societal theories than actual foreign cultures the study of anthropology taught Brigitte quite a lot about reproductive health, which is her area of expertise in Indonesia. After graduating she eyed a potential job in the newspaper. The job was in Indonesia – the country she had fallen in love with when she was an exchange student for 10 month.
     “I got the job because I speak the language and because I have experience with reproductive health.”
     Immediately after September 9th 2001 she started working. The job took place in the UN building in the heart of Jakarta.
     “A lot of people moved away from Indonesia, because they were afraid of reprisals. In the midst of all this I arrived in Indonesia without the smallest fear and the Indonesians have never failed my trust. The fear is blown out of proportion especially in foreign media and is unfair and unfounded.”
     “On the other hand the conditions on the new job were almost too realistic. I started the job and faced a late reduction of activities. We had to go report 32 districts that we could no longer supply them with training for midwives and several forms of support in the reproductive health area. Indonesia has never really been able to manage the problem of high death rate among women giving birth.”
     This is why working to improve the conditions for women giving birth, is extremely important. The reason for cutbacks is found in the power of religious organisations during presidential elections in the USA. The Catholics in USA was part of George W. Bush’s election budget and after the victory the new government had let themselves be forced to withdraw US$34 million, because people said that the UNFPA supported abortions in China.
     “The allegation is totally without any reason, but UNFPA lost a great part of the budget.” And once again, it is the Indonesian society, which is left bleeding,” Brigitte Bruun says not being able to choose a better location for working with reproductive health.
     The former President and dictator Suharto ran the country very strict and sometimes even in inconsistency with the conventions on human rights.
     Under the iron fist of Suharto the country broke one record after the other in social amelioration. Quite a large portion of the progress was thanks to very strict rules on family planning, which seem voluntarily on the paper.
     Surprisingly USA was the first country to help the Indonesians out. In one campaign called “Two kids are enough” thousands of local committees controlled the process very closely. The birth rate was too high. The Indonesian private life was exposed to the public on huge posters in the middle of the city. One could be informed if the neighbour used condoms or if the wife has a coil or were on the pill.
     The campaign became the main focus in the fight for welfare and the FN gave Suharto two prices in FN’s world championships. The first one was in the world championship in social development and the other one was in the discipline of voluntarily family planning.
     During the conference in Cairo in 1994 on population and development, new methods were agreed upon. From now on the individual families must have the opportunity to choose and family planning was not only up to women. Men had to be involved and take responsibility for their sexual actions.
     “These are the methods that we work with today. In addition we try to spread knowledge and common sense about HIV/AIDS. When I worked in a fishing village in Malawi, we went to a funeral every week. A great part of the population died from AIDS and orphans wandered about in the streets.”
     Brigitte Bruuns does not think the society will ever get that bad, because the society is stricter when it comes to norms of sexual behaviour. However AIDS is on the way to a country where prevention is illegal before marriage.
     “The government can not give sex education to the public, but NGO-organisations can, and we support them in educating teenagers in schools on the subject of sex. NGO’s also go see prostitutes, pimps and customers to educate them. The message is the risk of AIDS and how to reduce the risk of getting it,” Birgitte Bruun explains.
     She loves the work in Indonesia, but she has realized that she does not want an international career.
     “I have a boyfriend in Denmark. Maintaining a relationship at distance is very difficult.”
     This is why Birgitte went into the travel agency when first arriving at the restaurant. This time she will meet her boyfriend in Bahrain because cheap tickets are available.
     When the contract with UNFPA expires she wishes to take a PhD in reproductive health.
     “I want my work to make a difference” she ends.

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