This weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking at the 2011 National Young Feminist Leadership Conference, hosted by the Feminist Majority Foundation at George Washington University.
It was wonderful to share the podium with six other amazing global leaders, including Anushay Hossain of the Feminist Majority Foundation, Mimi Melles of Advocates for Youth, Mina Ayob, an Afghan Scholar, Sarah Craven of the United Nations Population Fund, and Mahnaz Afkhami, Former Minister of Women’s Affairs of Iran.
You can view video of Sunday’s general assembly here. My remarks begin about an hour and a half in. I’ve also included a transcript of my speech below:
It’s such a privilege to be here today and share my story and perspective with you all at this critical moment in our movement.
I’m going to talk very briefly with you today about some of the ways that U.S. based activists can get engaged at the international level.
And I want to say right off the bat that I know there are some challenges that come with this work, as is often the case with bringing about social change. Some people may be unsure of the ways in which U.S. foreign policy affects the day-to-day lives of women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Others may feel overwhelmed by the need they see in other countries and worry that their contributions amount to just a drop in the bucket. Well I’m going to ruin the suspense and tell you right now that there are absolutely ways to get involved with global advocacy efforts around health and rights and help create meaningful change.
I think it’s helpful to start with my own story, because although I work with the International Women’s Health Coalition now, in its earliest stages, my own feminism was very much tied to my incredibly local surroundings: my hometown, my friends, my high school.
I went to a big public school in south jersey, not terribly far from here. And I’ll never forget, in 9th grade, experiencing my high school’s version of “sex ed” which consisted of, among other things, being asked to consume a bag of Cheeto’s, then gulp up a glassful of water, swoosh it around in my mouth, and spit it back into the glass. As my classmates and I looked at the unappealing orange flecks that had been transferred to the water, we were matter-of-factly told that when you have sex, you are exchanging bodily fluids, and the more partners you have, the more flecks you pick up in your “glass of water”. Though I found myself reeling at the image along with my classmates, a part of me questioned the foundation of the exercise and wondered how such an abstract and shaming image could help give me the tools I needed to navigate my sex life safely and pleasurably.
Since high school, I’ve learned that although of course our experiences at the local level, in our own communities, are our own, they do not exist in a bubble. I am just one small part of an entire global movement of people mobilizing for change around issues related to health, rights, and justice.
Last weekend, I joined 6,000 people took the streets in New York where I live to protest proposed funding cuts to Planned Parenthood, among other attacks on women’s health. This was an awesome show of solidarity with PPNYC. But people are also taking to the streets to fight for their rights, both literally and figuratively, around the world.
Take Ishita Chaudhry, the 26-year-old founder of The YP Foundation, a youth led and run movement for social change in India. Over the past 9 years, Ishita has transformed the ideas of three high school students working from her parents’ bedroom into an organization that reaches 300,000 young people across the country. And she’s not alone. Hundreds of IWHC partners from Nigeria, to Brazil, Pakistan to Cameroun are spearheading movements, creating programs and influencing policies at all levels.
I have three things you can start doing right now to help promote and support efforts like these, the success of which are directly tied to that of our own social justice work here in the U.S.
The first thing to do is to pay attention. Part of being an engaged activist is simply listening, asking questions, and staying informed. One easy way to do this is to read the IWHC blog Akimbo, where we publish perspectives from staff members and our partners from around the world, and similar blogs. Gender Across Borders is also a great source of information on international women’s health issues.
The second thing is to let people know that you’re doing the first thing- that you’re paying attention. Beyond your friends and family, policymakers need to know that you care about these issues and how they play out abroad. Right now, for example, as many of you have heard, we are facing unprecedented attacks on women’s health and rights both here in the U.S. and abroad. It helps to let your elected representatives know that you care about SRRH and you’re watching. Your one call or email adds up quickly and helps build a climate that shows policymakers that we are engaged. And if you want to keep up with initiatives like these, you can sign up for email action alerts from IWHC.
The third thing you can do is know when NOT to do the first thing- when NOT to pay attention. During my infamous Cheeto’s lecture, for example, the lived experiences of young people weren’t being represented, although we were the ones with the most at stake. Many of us, myself included, took the word of the teacher at face value without questioning the source of her authority or of her agenda . As activists, it’s our responsibility to do the opposite of what that teacher did- to work and speak with communities, not for or on behalf of them. IWHC supports local leaders so they can implement what they know works best. We provide communications support to organizations like Reprolatina, whose “Teen Living” website is the most frequently visited website by adolescents and young people in Brazil searching for up-to-date information on sexual and reproductive health. Our support helps them more effectively distribute and implement their own message. It’s crucial to demand meaningful participation from the communities and people whose health and lives are at stake.
In these three ways, each person in this room can be an advocate and partner to changemakers worldwide. Together we can leverage our passions, privileges, knowledge, attention, and voice as a means of helping to ensure every person’s right to a just and healthy life.