Radio WIBG: In France, in Saint Denis, Ghada Hatem opens a Women’s House

With Ghada Hatem holding, Inna Modja cuts the ribbon

With Ghada Hatem holding, Inna Modja cuts the ribbon

Two years ago Ghada Hatem, head of OBGYN at the Delafontaine Hospital, in Saint Denis, envisioned a Women’s House in Saint Denis, in the heart of the suburb of Paris that symbolizes immigration tensions and social precarity in France. Last Friday, the Women’s House was formally inaugurated.

Born in Lebanon, Ghada Hatem was fifteen when the civil war started in 1975: “It is probably what gave rise to a medical and social vocation in me.” She came to France to study medicine and choosing OBGYN as a specialty came naturally. She has always imagined exercising her “art” within a team.

Thanks to extraordinary teamwork, the Women’s House project went to completion. The day of the inauguration, a passionate and committed crowd was present along with some officials, all of them inspired by the project.

The Malian/French artist and singer Inna Modja has decided to be the benefactress of the Women’s House of Saint Denis. In her commitment to social justice, she has used her artistic expression to denounce female cutting, linking it to her engagement to end violence against women in general. As she explained, after she was cut in Mali when she was 5 against the will of her parents, “I fought to heal myself,” she remembered, first through surgery and then “step by step, I found the energy to become a woman again.”

Ghada and her colleagues received the surgical training to “repair” women who have been cut but as Ghada explains the repair is both physical and psychological and it is never a full restitution, the “scar” remains.

The House will offer many ways to address the trauma including support groups with the collaboration of Inna Modja.

While located within the hospital compound, the House has an independent entrance open to the street. Its role is to allow a free, intimate access to women who have already experienced all sorts of violence and humiliations: a place for them and with them. The need is enormous. The OBGYN department receives about 120 different nationalities and amid the 4500 births and 1000 abortions every year, and about 14% of the women had been cut. The medical system is not enough to help these women to recover their dignity.

This house should serve as a model to be reproduced everywhere it is needed.

Let’s listen to Ghada Hatem’s interview.

Ghada Hatem

Ghada Hatem


(Interview and photos by Brigitte Marti)

In Paris, Ghada Hatem builds a house for women

The Paris suburb Seine-Saint-Denis, also called the 93, is home to a large immigrant population, and it’s there that a Women’s House will be built on the last vacant lot of the Delafontaine Hospital. This project took shape when Ghada Hatem, the hospital’s head of OBGYN, decided she had create a place for women who had been mutilated, chased and had experienced violence during and after the journey that led them to Seine-Saint-Denis. Ghada Hatem found a space on the hospital grounds. With the support of local elected officials and institutions, she was able to secure the major part of financing for this project.

The maternity hospital of Delafontaine registers about 4200 births every year. The majority of the women come from all sorts of precarious situations and origins. Ghada Hatem explains that many just arrived, are undocumented, and without social protection. Her department provides emergency social protection, which is possible in France and called “pass peri-natal”. It guarantees free coverage immediately to pregnant women, regardless of status.

Because of its particular social and geographical situation, the department is composed of surgeons, psychologists, sexologists, social workers and nurses that are formed to run support groups where women who have already been through so much violence can start to reconstruct their lives.

Moreover, 15% to 16% of the women who give birth there have undergone FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), which makes delivery more difficult. The department sent their surgeons to attend training with Doctor Pierre Foldes who has developed the surgical technique to rebuild the missing clitoris. More than rebuilding, he also understood that the reconstruction must be psychological as well. Women like Waris Dirie say FGM means torture and a crime, and should not be dignified as a cultural, or religious tradition. These women are in great need of attention and information.

The department also provides guidance and support to women who face unwanted pregnancy, domestic violence, forced marriage, as well as excision. Because of the sometimes unattainable demands, Ghada Hatem conceived of the Women’s House in this area.

She believes that there is a need for a space outside the hospital that will provide the warmth and welcoming to counterbalance the harshness and violence that has impacted the lives of these women. She understands that women are not going to liberate their voices in a hospital waiting room. The department has translators in Turkish, Tamil, Chinese, and personnel fluent in other languages. She herself can give assistance with Arabic (her own language). They are also equipped with translation services through phones. All this will be enhanced in the Women’s House. The Women’s House will be open only during the day. Her regret is not to be able to provide over night shelter.

Ghada Hatem’s department also performs over 1000 abortions every year and offers contraception consultation to women. Previously, Ghada Hatem worked in a military hospital in Saint Mandé, in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Despite numerous threats and insults, she created an abortion clinic inside the military hospital. Today, this service to women continues and no one would question the presence of this clinic anymore.

She was recently interviewed about her engagement and her project. When asked about abortion rights, Hatem said she regretted the lack of activism among young doctors, reproaching them for having “a more technical approach and a less militant vision of this matter”. Nonetheless, she welcomed the action of the government with the FRIDA plan (Facilitating the Reduction of Inequalities in Access to Abortion) as well as the effort to keep abortion centers open during the vacation month of August, when everything closes in France.

Her project is ambitious but based on understanding “what is lived by women”, ce que vivent les femmes.

Meanwhile, the flux of refugees is growing and increasingly desperate. Médecins sans Frontières has reported that never before had they observed such high levels of conflict and crisis. They estimate that about 51 million people have had to leave their home countries to escape crisis and/or conflicts.

Instead of financing costly militaristic systems of surveillance and control, the EU should be offering the last Euros necessary to bring this project centered on women and their needs to completion. At a time of instability due to capitalist neoliberal thinking, the European Union should learn from women like Ghada Hatem.


(Photo Credit: Elle / Mathieu Zazzo)