As Founder and CEO of Your Egyptian Doula, Merette Khalil is disrupting the narrative around sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and maternal care in Egypt, one birth at a time.
“There is a massive silencing and stigmatization of anything related to maternal health or SRHR, and too many women are denied respectful maternal care and subjected to obstetric violence,” asserts Cairo-born Merette.
A graduate of KIT’s Master of Public Health Programme, Merette is now part of a new generation of researchers and advocates pushing for change in Egypt’s maternal care system. Merette works as a doula – a non-medical companion and advocate that provides birth support – while leading a team of young women on a quest to ensure that every family has a supported, informed and empowered birth experience.
Finding her calling in maternal health and advocacy
“My interest in maternal health and social justice was born from the intersection of having, on the one hand, a strong feminist mother who from an early age taught me to find my voice and try to empower others…While on the other hand, being confronted with the frustrating and ugly reality of the state of SRHR, gender equality and women’s overall place in society, especially as a young woman in Egypt.”
Merette jokes that revolutions follow her wherever she goes. She watched the Arab Spring unfold as a high school student; later, as a student at St. Louis University’s (SLU) College for Public Health and Social Justice, she witnessed the rise of Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of the Michael Brown police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. These were formative moments for her, solidifying her desire to contribute to social justice and advocate for human rights in public health.
It was during her time at SLU that Merette first learned of midwives and doulas, practically unknown entities in Egypt. During a year of service with the Loretto Volunteers, Merette worked as a patient advocate at a birth centre in Washington, D.C.. Each day, when her shift finished, Merette would also work on-call with the centre’s midwives, who sponsored her training as a doula.
“It was a beautiful time,” Merette recollects. “I found my calling.”
Returning to Egypt with the World Health Organization
Merette returned to Cairo in 2017 after accepting a position with the World Health Organization (WHO), where she is working as a health systems consultant on the COVID-19 response. Her early work with the WHO offered a different perspective on public health, a unique deep dive into systems and regional-level policy and research.
Your Egyptian Doula: Educate, Advocate & Empower
In 2018, Merette founded Your Egyptian Doula, which is one of the first doula organisations operating in Egypt and the region, “And this is a part of the world that needs many more,” Merette notes.
“Obstetric violence manifests at the intersection of health systems and societal norms, and unfortunately it has been normalised, which makes it more difficult to see. Women expect birth to be traumatic and painful. So when we talk about rights-based and respectful maternal care, part of that is having access to birth support and being able to advocate for your options and rights.”
This is where doulas come in, which Merette describes as a combination of cheerleader, advocate and walking encyclopaedia for expecting couples, helping them to make informed decisions based on options and evidence. At the same time, doulas also try to create space for the mother’s voice to be heard and their autonomy and basic human rights to be protected during what is an incredibly intimate, somatic, spiritual, and emotional moment in life.
“We want to cut through the deafening silence around SRHR and maternal care in Egypt and disrupt the narrative when it comes to how women, communities and society conceptualize and experience birth.”
It is a challenging mission. Egypt has one of the highest rates of caesarean sections in the world and continues to struggle with high rates of sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and female genital mutilation. Beyond the chilling effect that this has on women’s willingness to speak about their SRHR and options as an expecting mother, it also raises the spectre that many women will be forced to re-live their trauma during childbirth.
“That is why we believe it’s essential that all people have access to high-quality, patient-centred, trauma-informed care…and to ensure that they have voice in the decision-making process.”
Master of Public Health at KIT
For Merette, following the evidence is instinctive and an intrinsic part of who she is as a researcher and advocate. This ultimately brought her to KIT as a student in our Master of Public Health programme.
“I was very grateful to find KIT and to be offered a scholarship through the KIT Scholarship Fund. It enabled me to continue researching obstetric violence and contribute to the body of evidence around what constitutes quality maternal care. This was difficult to reconcile with what I was seeing supporting births as a doula, and the experience really lit a fire in me to return to Egypt…to talk, disrupt and advocate against obstetric violence and all of its root causes.”
“My dream is that Your Egyptian Doula continues to contribute to the revolution that is happening in birth work and SRHR here in Egypt. But regardless of the outcome, it has helped me to find my voice in the system and do something that I love.”
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