Yesterday I ate my last Kenyan fish fry with ugali and sukuma wiki, which nearly left me crying over my plate. I am already telling myself I’ll come back and bring my husband and hopefully family so that they can also appreciate this beautiful place. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work and live here for a bit, and I have such deep respect for colleagues that continue to advocate for a world where no woman or girl ever dies from unsafe abortion- a world where women can decide if and when to have children, and access the resources needed to raise them in a healthy and supportive environment. We can’t know whether this might be a reality in our lifetime, but the deep transformations of the community members, providers, and decision-makers that the Ipas Africa Alliance works with fills me with optimism.
Last week I had the chance to present to Ipas staff on some of the work I’ve been privileged to do while here. Though I primarily sought to collect and organize feedback from community health volunteers, providers, youth champions and leaders of community-based organizations on how Ipas can improve its’ work to refer young women for contraception, I quickly realized the positive impact that these efforts are having on the people implementing the program themselves.- people like Silvester, from community organization Mitume Mantix, and Nerrie, a Youth Champion at Maseno University. They are the
“If I am a man, when my girlfriend tells me she wants to go for contraceptives, it’s high time for me to stop thinking she’s being unfaithful, or that she’s being promiscuous. Let us support them. I tell them (young men), ‘If you are in form one and your girlfriend is in form two, and if by bad luck you impregnate this girl, you won’t be at peace, because maybe you’ll be arrested, maybe you’ll be taken to court for these things, or rather maybe you will run away from your place, your home, so you’ll also be affecting your education… If you feel you are in an in-love relationship, support her! Go for the contraceptives, and see her through her education, so that if you meet somewhere in the future, you can enjoy your relationship.’ “ – Silvester, of CBO Mitume Mantix, an Ipas community partner
“The project has changed me in lots and lots of ways. It has provided me with a platform to develop my leadership skills and to also empower others on issues dealing with their sexual and reproductive health. Implementing Ipas’ Choice for Change project and working with the Youth Champions across Maseno University has been very fulfilling and a good learning experience regarding challenges faced by the youth on matters regarding their reproductive health. Ipas has taken me places I would have never dreamed of and provided me with invaluable experience that I wouldn’t have stumbled across on a normal day.” – Nerrie, Youth Champion with Ipas’ Choice for Change program, which seeks to increase young women’s access to contraceptives.
These and many more agents of change are the hopeful vision for a more just world that we must all invest in. For every person who has told me that Kenya has a long way to go regarding sexual and reproductive rights, I fully believe that Kenya is already well into that journey, with Ipas staff and those they work with leading the way.
As I think about arriving back home, I am filled with excitement to see family and friends, but a part of me will always remain in Kenya. It’s been one of the honors of my life to be here. Thank you, Ipas and thank you to the Ipas Liz Maguire Fellowship for Young Leaders for this incredible opportunity.
The highlight of this week was co-facilitating focus groups with Youth Champions in charge of implementing the Ipas Africa Alliance’s Choice for Change (C4C) project at two universities in Eastern Kenya on what resources they think young people need to care for their sexual and reproductive health and live their best lives. This was an activity to inform a webage that the Alliance is designing, which will link to their Nimechanuka Facebook and Twitter feeds (Nimechanuka, I am told, means “I am enlightened/empowered” in Kiswahili).
Spending time with these awesome young people reminded me of how much I miss working directly with youth, how much I love sex ed, and how full of hope and amazing ideas so many of them are. There were also several hilarious moments like when we we talked about the fear that sooo many young people have that the natural size and shape of their genitalia are abnormal. This is apparently a global concern for young folks since the youth I worked with in North Carolina and Georgia were equally worried. ALL OF YA’ PARTS ARE NORMAL. lol We had a good laugh.
After the focus groups were over, I had the honor of sitting down with two of the brilliant Youth Champions one-on-one to talk about their work to refer young women on their campuses for contraception. They had a lot to say about the work and what motivates them, and how the training and support they’ve received from the Ipas Africa Alliance has changed the way they view themselves and the importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights. They’ve generously given me permission to share their feedback and photos.
Meet Morra*. Don’t let her small stature fool you- she’s is on fire for reproductive health and rights! She’s also got great style, so we clearly hit it off! 🙂 Here’s what she had to say about her work with Ipas during our interview this week:
“They (other young women) tell me they admire my confidence and I tell them they too need to be confident. It’s important in our society where the feminine gender is considered inferior.”
What impact has the Choice for Change (C4C) program had on young people in your community?
“Through this program, youth have been able to learn facts about contraceptives. You know there’s been so much fiction and in fact, (before) if you ask a lady why she can’t go for contraceptives, people surely will tell you that, “You know, I would grow fat, I would grow thin, I would lose my shape.” But now… they are able to get the facts on importance and effects of contraceptives. And they have been able to access contraceptives in the right place from the health practitioners… They’re first advised by the health practitioner, they’re given a variety (of options) so you make a decision, an informed decision.”
What has your experience been like working with Ipas to implement C4C?
“When I first started this I was green. But you see I have gained a lot of information. Initially I was afraid of talking about contraceptives, but now I’m courageous. I can teach people. In fact, I have really gained knowledge. I have also been able to convince some other people. I have advised them on the right way to make informed decisions.”
How has the program changed you?
“Initially, I wouldn’t advise somebody to go for contraception. The only thing I knew was you would bleed. But now I know it is not that bleeding like I thought. That bleeding is just for a short time before the body gets to be compatible with the new substance that has been introduced into the body. So it changed by perception about contraceptives and in that way, I’ve also helped change other people’s perceptions who thought the same as me. They (other young women) tell me they admire my confidence and I tell them they too need to be confident. It’s important in our society where the feminine gender is considered inferior.”
What motivates you do refer other young people for contraception?
“I was born out of wedlock. Because one, my mom wasn’t informed about contraceptives… She was the only bread winner. She told me my father left before I was born. So, at least I can help a few.”
“There’s (also) a number of drop outs on my (campus)…. I just want to reach out to any people so that they can make informed decisions. Prevent the unplanned pregnancies, the STIs, the HIV, and children who are born out of wedlock.”
How do you feel when you refer other young people for contraception?
“The feeling is incredible. I just can’t get a suitable word. But it makes me smile knowing that I have achieved my objectives (sensitization and referral). Helping the youth, especially ladies, make informed choices is just my happiness.”
If only we were all this wise in college! Can we please give this woman a standing ovation? ❤
The other young person I had the honor of talking to this week was Cleophas. Here’s a photo of him breaking down the importance of safe sex and contraception for his peers during the focus group,* and what he had to say about his work with Ipas:
“I’ve had the chance to change the lives of those other innocent students, because we have had cases of students who are procuring unsafe abortion before, but now they are able to access contraceptives so that they do not reach to that stage of unsafe abortion.”
Tell me about your work with the Ipas Choice for Change (C4C) program.
“What I do normally, I reach out to students. I attend to so many students. I do counseling, peer education…. I also do referrals to the link students to health centers that Ipas is working with. So these are just the kind of groups we are referring students to. I also do a lot of phone calls to attend to students. I do one-on-one chats. We do chats on social media. At times I even stay awake, like, throughout the night because students just keep on asking me questions.”
How confident do you feel answering the questions students ask?
“At first I didn’t feel that confident because my experience with Ipas has been gradual. It has not been so immediate that way, because the research, at first I was a bit naïve talking about matters concerning sexuality, but through the training, capacity building, networking and advocacy trainings that we were taken through, I was able to gain that confidence and I’m able to counsel and offer guidance.”
What has your experience been like working with Ipas to implement C4C?
“It has been extremely positive working for C4C as a champion, I am reaching (out) to other students and changing even my life as an individual… I know much on contraceptives and I’ve had the chance to change the lives of those other innocent students, because we have had cases of students who are procuring unsafe abortion before, but now they are able to access contraceptives so that they do not reach the stage of unsafe abortion.”
How beneficial has C4C been to your community?
“It has been extremely beneficial because since the time I came here the lives has just changed. People have just changed with Ipas…When I came here back in 2014, there was a lot of pregnant women in the community. People even branded the university… like a maternity (ward)… So, you know, that time so many students were pregnant but within a short while this pregnancy just disappears. So, it never disappeared in a positive way, you know in a good way, but people are procuring unsafe abortion. But now through the information Ipas has impacted students, and you know even when I walk along the corridors of JOOUST, there is a name a lot of students have branded me, they do call me “Ipas.” Because when they see me they see hope… When they see me, they see a solution to reproductive health (problems).”
Aren’t they AMAZING?! If there’s hope for the world, it rests on our willingness to invest in youth like Morra and Cleophas.
*Both Morra and Cleophas gave written permission to be interviewed and for their photos and names to be shared.
I keep thinking that it’s simply not possible that I’ll be leaving Kenya in just two weeks! I’ve met so many amazing people here that I’m going to miss, and besides, I’m finally making progress with learning Kiswahili… Kenya ni nzuri! 😊 I can only hope that the work I’ve been privileged to do with Ipas Africa Alliance staff to document their efforts will help spread the word about their fantastic work. At the same time, given the disastrous and hateful political machinations going on in my country, I am growing eager to return to the U.S. and resist hate and ignorance with millions of others. I have never felt more urgently the moral obligation to share the impact that U.S. policy has on Kenya and other countries. It’s an unfair reality, and should motivate those of us who are pushing back to keep the pressure on.
Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting with a partner organization that will likely be unable work with Ipas moving forward due to the Global Gag Rule. This is in spite of the fact that every single Kenyan personin the room has witnessed women in their communities suffer injury or death from unsafe abortion. Then yesterday during a staff meeting, an Ipas Field Coordinator shared that two young women in her county died last week trying to end unwanted pregnancies. One became so desperate that she punctured her own abdomen with a sharp object. While most people living in the U.S. have no recollection of the days when these types of tragedies occurred, the grief my Kenyan colleagues and their communities feel comes from close proximity to the consequences of a lack of access to reproductive rights, health information, and services. We must make sure that these stories are known by those with the power to prevent them from occurring- including countries like mine that provide life-saving funding to nations set-back by colonialism and global inequality.
The reality of how unfair, how unfeeling the Global Gag Rule and Helms Amendment are sits like a stone in my stomach. It’s unacceptable and imperialist for the U.S. to bully other countries in this way, while hypocritically ignoring the damage to life that these policies cause. The message my government is sending is that unwanted pregnancies, no matter the circumstances, carry more weight than the dignity, safety, hopes and dreams of the women walking around in the world right now.
This callousness is why we must continue to passionately and consistently state this reality: making abortion harder to access does not stop abortion, but it does lead to the emotional and physical anguish of women, girls, and their communities. This is especially the case in settings where women do not have access to legal abortion care, or the information, support, and the medication necessary to successfully end a pregnancy on their own.
Despite the sender’s intentions, the article only assured me that the work we are doing at Ipas must continue. Impacting women’s and girls’ lives and qualityof life requires a fierce and sustained commitment to helping people understand both intellectually and emotionally what happens when women are denied their bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. I cannot imagine anything that denigrates life more than ignoring the preventable suffering of other people. Expressing concern about the number of fetuses who are aborted while ignoring the complex realities of women who have had abortions and the reality of unsafe abortion is both hypocritical and deeply misogynistic, regardless of whether that is the intent.
It is outrageous that Ipas and other organizations must continue to reinforce the message that the lives of women and girls have value and are worth defending. Tens of thousands of them will be injured, and many will die preventable deaths each year due to unsafe abortion. But these numbers are not my only motivation, for even one woman or girl injured or harmed due to a lack of choices regarding her reproductive health is one tragedy too many. The people I’ve had the honor to work with over the past two months know this too well. A true defense of life requires that we stand up for safe abortion.
As I contemplate the fact that I only have about four weeks left here in Kenya, I find myself in the strange position of simultaneously missing Kenya and home. When the end of an experience that you know you’ll surely never have again starts to appear on the horizon, it fills you with a strange kind of premature sadness and longing. Also, WHERE in Sanford, North Carolina am I going to find ugali and sukuma wiki?! The green fields and forests of Western Kenya, the sunsets on Lake Victoria, the delicious-but-cute goats wondering about… I’ve really come to love Kenya in these past weeks, and I deeply respect the difficult, world-changing work of my colleagues here. My eyes are getting teary as I write this!
This week, I traveled along as Ipas Africa Alliance staff visited several towns in Trans-Nzoia County, including Endebess, a town near Mt. Elgon National Park where people work on a large, corporate-owned plantation, typically receiving only maize and milk in exchange for their labor. The people that live there have very little access to healthcare or formal education, and when Ipas partners with the Kenyan first-lady, Margaret Kenyatta’s Beyond Zero mobile clinics, it’s not rare for hundreds of women to line-up to receive contraception. The scenario left me with great respect for Ipas’ work to collaborate with existing government structures and programs to reach women and girls in the most remote areas of the world with contraception and safe abortion care. It also made me wonder about the role that colonization has played in stagnating development, and wondering why so-called pro-life groups weren’t also working in these areas to join Beyond Zero in eliminating preventable death and suffering due to a lack of healthcare and opportunities. Apparently, they are too busy working to criminalize abortion worldwide. 😦
One of the staff members that I traveled with this week is Nancy Aloo, a nurse and health systems advisor for Ipas. Nancy is religious, and our travels in the field usually started with a prayer for traveling mercies, which was a great relief as speeding matatus and boda-bodas flew by my window. I asked her what got her into this work, and she shared that she was curious about how unsafe abortion could be addressed, having worked for USAID in the past, which prohibits its’ funding from responding to the death and suffering related to unsafe abortion in the developing world. These Helms’ Amendment restrictions on the use of funds for safe abortion care, generally even in cases of incest, rape, or life-threatening pregnancies, have serious consequences in countries that receive foreign-aid, often preventing implementation of a country’s own laws on the matter of abortion- see more on this imperialist foolishness (for, that is what it is) here.
Nancy shared with me that abortion was talked about as being against her religion and “something that will kill you” when she was growing up. She accepted these messages until she started college, when saw middle-class Kenyan classmates having safe abortions and surviving. Then, her clinical work began, and she started finding herself working in emergency rooms caring for large numbers of poor women who didn’t have access to the safer abortion methods that her classmates did. She came to the conclusion that, “Even if some religious people say that abortion is not permitted, women still have them. When a woman here decides she is going to end a pregnancy, she’s going to do it. We can either make sure she does it safely, or let her fall into danger. Why not make it safe?” As Nancy and other members of religious groups in Kenya have come to realize, allowing women who are disproportionately poor and have limited access to contraception to suffer and sometimes die unnecessarily is not in line with their beliefs. Many of us with Nancy’s logic- why not stop this needless suffering altogether?
This week, an article was published in The Washington Post regarding the likelihood that, if made illegal in the U.S., abortion might not necessarily be unsafe for large numbers of U.S. women, as many more women are now able to order misoprostol online and end a pregnancy safely at home. This is true, and could be used by anti-choice groups to argue that abortion need not be institutionalized. However, as I reflect on the disparities poor women face, like the women Nancy encountered during her days of clinical nursing practice, and the low-income women I used to work with in the U.S., a deep unease settles in my chest. Yes, women like me- the most privileged, literate women with the resources and knowledge needed to look-up online, pay for and order misoprostol regimens necessary to induce an abortion, will rarely, if ever, suffer death or injury as a result of the procedure being driven underground. However, it is a global reality that the poorest women remain most at risk for resorting to unsafe methods of terminating a pregnancy. With an anti-choice majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, the future of clinic and hospital-based abortion access in the U.S. is at risk like no other time in recent history, and the criminalization of women who have abortions, while devastating, would not be the only potential risk of overturning Roe vs. Wade.
Consider the film, Jackson, a documentary that highlights the struggle of Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic in a state with 38 Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs). CPCs are heavily-funded by anti-choice groups and aim to coerce women considering abortion into giving birth, no matter the emotional and economic impact of this coercion on the women they target. In one scene, April, the young woman featured in the film, who is clearly unsure about her decision to continue an unplanned pregnancy while struggling to provide for her four children, talks about growing up poor in rural Mississippi and drinking Clorox after realizing she was pregnant as a teenager in an attempt to end her pregnancy. This scene has stayed with me. April drank bleach to end her pregnancy in the U.S., not in Kenya, or other countries where access to misoprostol is cost-prohibitive to large numbers of poor women. Can you imagine the desperation and fear that April must have felt to drive her to such lengths?
No, if abortion is criminalized in the United States, large numbers of women might not fall ill or die, but we must admit to ourselves (which the Post article does not) that those made most vulnerable by inequality, racism and a lack of opportunity are likely to suffer damage to their health and potentially lose their lives. As Nancy wisely said from experience, when a woman has decided to end a pregnancy, she’ll find a way. Are we willing to accept the suffering of those least likely to find the safest ways? Are you?
Yesterday was a powerful day, that once again filled me with sadness, hope and admiration for the courageous work of my colleagues at the Ipas Africa Alliance office. I’m still processing my thoughts and emotions and will write more later, but for now I want to share a story from an interview with an Ipas community partner. His ally-ship to women, and the way in which it builds hope in his community and gives power back to the women he supports, is changing the lives of Kenyan women and girls, and it’s safe to say, the world as well.
While the 2010 Kenyan constitution permits safe, legal abortion in cases of rape or risk to the life or health of the pregnant woman, I’ve changed some of the details below to protect his privacy and the privacy of the young girl he supported. (For more on the legal status of abortion in Kenya, see here).
April 28th, 2017*
“We carried out an outreach in Kipsongo area. Kipsongo is one of the slums in Trans-Nzoia county, it’s near to the urban center and when we went there, first we went there with information on contraceptives, that was… some time back in last year, and getting there after addressing, passing information, getting questions and answering them, we left. So, after leaving, one of the girls got confidence and called me through my contact because we usually give our contacts (to the youth) in case there is an issue. And this girl told me, “I have a friend of mine who wants the contraceptive method.” I told her, “That’s good, how old is she?” (She answered) “She’s just 16 years, she is in class 8, and she is sexually active, she has a boyfriend.” So I told her, “It’s okay. We’ll come to you so that we can help you get the services.”
But unfortunately, when getting there, the girl who called me was herself a victim. She was a victim in a way that she was already pregnant. She’s 16 years, she’s already pregnant. She’s come from far away to visit her parent during the December holiday. Her parents don’t stay together. So, her dad is married to a different woman elsewhere, but her mother stays on this side, so she has come. She has been impregnated by a very close person, whom she thinks was a relative staying at her mother’s house. So, she is pregnant, plus she is worried. She has just finished her class eight, and she has passed… She’s supposed to go back to her father so that she can continue her studies, but now she’s in a dilemma. What can she do?
So, now that we were engaged by Ipas in the first program, on the issues of unsafe abortion, so we still had that concept, and when we tried to get one or two people for help. We reached a nurse, who told us that we can take her there. So, I took her personally to the health center, which the procurement was to be done late, because of the issue of stigma among staff, among service providers. The nurse said she would be on staff, on duty at night, so I took her around 7 PM.
I organized with another colleague. We took her, and… she procured an abortion. And after two days… it was successful and she herself suggested that she wants a Jadelle, a long-acting method of contraception. She was given the service, so she was very happy. Then she went back to high school.
She is in form two (10th grade) now. She gives us phone calls every now and then, telling us that she believes it’s through our work, the work that Ipas is doing that she’s now in school. Because if it wasn’t that she could have either been beaten by her Dad badly, or either thrown out of her home. And now when she comes to where her mother is, her mother is not that well-off, so she thought about how she could (have gone) for an early marriage or engaged in prostitution for her survival, but now she believes that through our work, through the work that Ipas is doing in Trans-Nzoia County, she’s in school today.”
– Nicholas, Team Lead, Choice for Change Project
*Written permission was given for this story to be shared.
Bell Hooks, feminist scholar and author, said that “Feminists are made, not born.” In a society dominated by constant gender role-policing, virulent historic and ongoing racism, and a misogyny that runs so deep as to lead millions of white U.S. citizens to elect a racist, childish, sexual predator as our nation’s leader, women’s journey toward feminism is perhaps even more miraculous and in urgent need of sustained defense. I am thankful to the women who brought me to this ongoing feminist journey, and thought I’d share with you how I boarded this bus (like I said, it’s a journey, and I’m not “there” yet, nor do I ever expect to be.)
When I was about 10 years old growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I remember watching TV on the floor of my living room, hearing my mother say to a friend on the phone, “I’m not a feminist but…” and then going on to lament the double standards, sexual harassment and physical abuse she experienced in her lifetime. For my mother, a strong and compassionate woman, “feminist” meant “abortion.” Regardless of how she might have truly felt, this view was perpetuated by her pastor, with no room for nuance or empathy for women facing unwanted or unviable pregnancies. In fact, the voices of women who had abortions, or any real facts about the devastation caused by unsafe abortion globally, were entirely absent from the narratives on abortion that I heard as a child. Always present though during those Sunday sermons were the cutting judgement directed at women who defied gender norms and our pastor’s “fire and brimstone” version of God’s love. Her frustrated tone on the phone that day made me nervous. I remember lying in bed at night listening to the crickets outside and thinking, “Is this just what you get when you’re born a girl?”
During college in Atlanta, I was invited by a friend to attend a volunteer training at a women’s reproductive health clinic. That invitation was my first exposure to local feminist leadership, discussions about what feminism really means and the importance of intersectionality (without which, honest feminism cannot exist). There, I learned that abortion is an experience shared by nearly 1 in 3 U.S. women, and that before it was legalized, U.S. women regularly faced injury or death due to unsafe abortion. I learned that the same legislators who rejected comprehensive sex education and birth control were also passing laws making it harder for women to access safe abortion. It seemed clear to me then, just as it did when I was 10, that being a woman meant getting the short-end of the stick. By then I also knew it wasn’t just women. Throughout college, I volunteered as an interpreter at a hospital providing care to immigrant families and was disturbed by the health inequalities they faced. I could plainly see that different women and their families experienced injustice to varying degrees, largely as a result of the way in which racism and xenophobia are embedded into the institutions and society in which we live.
Around that same time, I took a job at an agency that seeks to support survivors of domestic violence. I was responsible for completing “shelter intake” and I often found myself sitting with women with swollen faces and traumatized children who feared for their lives. They knew the man who attacked them night before would be free by tomorrow. I remember sitting in courtrooms passing women tissues and holding their hands as we listened to too many judges ally themselves with abusive men. Sometimes, the court system would strip women of their children altogether, occasionally handing them over to the same person who had raped and tortured their mother. I saw poor women, mostly women of color, have their children taken by the foster care system after they became homeless in their efforts to find safety. Fear and sadness were palpable in their voices. Sometimes, though not often enough, so was triumph in the face of a system largely working against them.
I remember one woman, Maria* that I was very close with. I met her on a humid, rainy Atlanta night. The police brought her to the shelter after responding to a 911 call she made when her then-boyfriend threw her to the floor and repeatedly kicked her in the stomach, furious with her for becoming pregnant. She had tears in her eyes and was visibly anxious, and I brought her some soup from the shelter kitchen. As she cupped the bowl with her hands she explained to me that she had left Honduras a year ago, nearly suffocating in the back of a truck on her journey to cross the border. She had grown desperate watching her children suffer hunger and depravation, and was determined to give them a better life than she had. Once in the U.S., she fell in love with a man that promised to help her and her children, but ended up abusing her whenever she refused to help him get high.
Later that year I sat with her while she was in labor, holding her hand through contractions. It was a few months later, when she was in transitional housing, that she called me to tell me that an acquaintance had raped her at a party. She was adamant that she did not want to go to the police or the hospital, and she was equally adamant that she did not want to continue this pregnancy. A day later, we sat for 6 hours in the waiting room of the same reproductive health clinic I had begun to volunteer at years before. As I began to call every abortion fund hotline I could find online, I watched her grow more and more desperate. I remember the tears rolling down her face and her watching her rocking back and forth. I rubbed her back and we kept on calling. I felt my stomach drop a few hours in, when I considered the possibility that she’d be forced to go through with this pregnancy. We finally reached the operator on the other end of the National Network of Abortion Funds Hotline, and, within a few hours, her procedure was over and we were pulling away from the clinic.
As we drove away, I thought about the multiple forms of structural and interpersonal violence she’d suffered, and the dearth of opportunities she’d had to create a better life for herself and her children. I thought about my own privilege, how undeserved it is, and my heart filled with anger. Misogyny was the tip of the iceberg for her: xenophobia, racism, sexism, and even U.S. imperialism in Central America had brought her and many other women I worked with so much pain. This righteous anger, and cautious hope, fuel my desire to help create change today.
My work with Maria and communities like hers has convinced me that abortion access is only one tool for achieving gender equality. Albeit, it’s an extremely important one, and it is not hyperbolic to say that when people are denied access to contraception and safe abortion, they die or suffer severe consequences to their health, dignity and life opportunities. But we can’t stop there. Safe abortion will never be a battle we’ve entirely won until we dismantle they forms of oppression that lead to women’s lives mattering less in the first place. The patriarchy depends on a sick web of injustices that, too-often, succeeds at keeping women, particularly women of color, and their communities from reaching their full potential.
To answer my 10-year old self: my mother’s trauma and the trauma of so many women is not normal. Injustice and the suffering it causes in people’s lives are not normal, and neither is the systematic overvaluing of some people’s lives over others. What we do need to normalize for all the 10-year-olds of the world is the struggle to fight back against oppressive forces that kill and maim some and ultimately hurt us all.
I am grateful to be a small part of this growing, collective resistance through my work with feminist colleagues, fighting every day for the realization of reproductive justice in the U.S. and all over the world. And as has been chanted by protesters across the south, I Believe That We Will Win.
*Not her real name. All identifying details have been altered to ensure Maria’s anonymity.
I spent this week joining Ipas Africa Alliance staff on several site visits to hospitals throughout western Kenya again this week, interviewing more providers and community health volunteers on their experiences referring and caring for young women seeking contraceptive services. Several times, those I interviewed mentioned young women who sought services for fear of becoming pregnant due to ongoing sexual abuse in their relationships or from men in their village. In Kenya, as in my country and many others, rape culture continues to threaten women’s health and dignity. Ineffective legal responses mean that victims rarely receive justice or adequate protection from the law. It’s an area that Ipas plans to work with partners around the world to address- for even if a woman or girl can access safe abortion or contraception when she needs those services, she has no reproductive freedom if she doesn’t have complete control over what happens to her body.
The fact is, the lives and dignity of girls and women are under threat to the point that calling the degradation of women’s lives a global crisis would not be incorrect. In Guatemala, on March 8th, 2017, 41 girls burned to death in a state home for troubled minors, locked in by the people administering the home for having tried to run away. Details are still emerging, but there’s mounting evidence that many of the girls were being physically and sexually abused by the people paid to protect them. Most of the people I mention this to don’t even know this tragedy happened. How is this possible? And if you think that race, class and nationality aren’t at play here, think again- if 41 white, U.S. citizen girls burned alive in Oklahoma, you can be damn sure the world would know.
I carry an immense amount of privilege as a white woman from the United States. I still don’t feel entirely safe in my country. How could I when I have a president who brags about violating women’s bodily integrity and advocates for policies that aim to dehumanize marginalized people? In a country where three women are murdered by their partners every day (often with a gun) and victims/survivors of sexual assault are still not receiving the justice they deserve, we are by no means high and mighty in the way women are treated in the U.S. We are also the country whose current leaders delight in stripping poor people, especially low-income women of color, of access to healthcare, including safe abortion care. Apparently, it’s not enough to do this to our own residents- see our recently-expanded Global Gag Rule and revocation of UNFPA funding, which will result in the death and suffering of women and girls in nations all over the world.
To be clear, women and girls don’t need saving- they need the tools to shape their own futures, their own destinies, to demand justice for themselves and their communities. This “saving” mentality has been behind been a lot of the advocacy to end gender inequality globally, and it sickens me in the way that it juxtaposes privileged white women with women of color living in developing countries. This type of “advocacy” is colonialist and it doesn’t just repulse me, it’s ineffective. It ignores the agency, intelligence and determination of women in developing settings, while generally simultaneously ignoring the suffering of marginalized women in the U.S.
During the Ipas Africa Alliance staff meeting this week, one of the staff members who has been working to advocate for women’s dignity and rights for many years presented us with the statistics on who is being served by the programs he’s managing. While helpful for understanding the organization’s progress in linking women to safe services, numbers tend to numb us to the urgency with which we need to advocate and act when it comes to the injustices faced by women. At the end of his briefing, he shared with us a slide that read as follows, thoughtfully pointing out that in the context of unequal relationships with men, abstinence may not be an option for many young women:
“What alternative is best for a young, unmarried woman?”
“Act of Sex…. Taboo!”
“Pregnancy before marriage… Taboo!”
“Having an abortion… Taboo!”
“What best option do young women have? Even abstinence may be a concern!”
I couldn’t agree more, and sadly, these same statements could be made to varying degrees in communities all over the world, including my own. Women, particularly women hurt most by racism and colonialism, but in the end, all women, are not yet free.
Some days, especially this week, I find that maintaining hope is harder than others, and I know a lot of this has to do with what I expose myself to. What’s really ironic though, is that the very fact that I get to limit that exposure reaffirms the unearned privilege I carry.
I push back against these hopeless feelings is by asking myself: “Is giving in to your hopelessness helping to collaboratively improve the world?” The answer is, of course, no. In these moments, I try to focus on doing something that might link to social justice work. This might mean calling and writing my legislator, elevating the work of marginalized people, sending friends some type of content that humanizes those who are most often dehumanized (in my country, men and women of color), writing an op-ed for my local paper, or volunteering to turn my state and nation blue. To be honest though, sometimes I also just pet my cat and promise her that I’ll start the work again tomorrow. And I always do. Join me.
This is Linda*, a nurse in one of the facilities we visited in western Kenya. She shared with me her commitment to supporting young women seeking respectful, compassionate reproductive healthcare. Her work is one more reason to be hopeful and committed to finding ways to support her efforts.
*Linda gave written consent for her photo to be shared.