A Rapt Audience for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Young Feminist Leaders at IWHC Anniversary

“A woman’s control of her own body, her choice, whether, when to reproduce, that’s essential to women and it’s most basic to women’s health to have the ability to have access to whatever contraception she chooses.”

Those were the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Tuesday as she captivated the nearly 300 women and men attending the International Women’s Health Coalition’s 30th anniversary celebration. The event promised an “evening of bold and independent voices,” and based on the reaction in the blogosphere, IWHC delivered.

Despite her actual physical size, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—or the Notorious RBG as her many fans have taken to calling her online—is a giant in the history of women’s rights in the United States, and around the world.

In a candid dinner discussion with IWHC President Françoise Girard and IWHC board member Aryeh Neier (who in 1971 enlisted Ginsburg to start the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU), Ginsburg discussed her work to advance gender equality as a litigator and commented on several Supreme Court decisions related to women’s reproductive rights.

Speaking about her fiery dissent in the recent Hobby Lobby case (where the Court majority – all men – held that corporations have religious beliefs and don’t have to provide employee insurance plans that cover contraception if they are morally opposed to it), Ginsburg said:  “the Court has stepped into a minefield.” But she noted some good may come of it yet:

“One couldn’t think of a health care package today responding to the needs of people in the community that wouldn’t include contraceptives. So maybe the reaction to Hobby Lobby will get maybe even some of my colleagues to think a little more than they did. When the court goes the wrong way it can be a very effective tool. Think of the Lilly Ledbetter case . . . [After that court decision] Congress in record speed, with overwhelming majorities on both sides of the aisle, passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Obama signed it as his first act. So sometimes good can come from a bad decision. And maybe Hobby Lobby will turn out that way.”

Cosmopolitan Senior Political Writer Jill Filipovic blogged extensively about Ginsburg’s comments on Roe v. Wade, which was perhaps one of the most thought-provoking moments of the evening:

Ginsburg… was careful to say she thought the heart of the ruling in Roe was correct — that the Texas law, which made all abortions illegal except those to save the pregnant woman’s life, was unconstitutional. But, she said, the court’s decision to issue a sweeping judgment establishing the right to abortion in all 50 states was a strategically poor one and led to modern-day political battles over reproductive rights.

“There might have been a backlash in any case,” Ginsburg said. “But I think [because of Roe] it took on steam.”

The decision in Roe, too, “was as much about a doctor’s right to practice medicine” as it was about a woman’s right to abortion, she pointed out. “The image was the doctor giving advice to the little woman, not the woman standing alone.”

While the discussion with Justice Ginsburg, Aryeh Neier, and Françoise Girard provided an overview of setbacks and advances for women’s rights in the U.S., an earlier panel discussion gave the audience insight into progress on women’s and girls’ health and rights in Pakistan, Nigeria, and across Africa.

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Erin Burnett, host of “Erin Burnett OutFront” on CNN, led the discussion with three IWHC partners: Sheena Hadi, director of Aahung, based in Karachi, Pakistan; Fadekemi Akinfaderin, co-founder and executive director of Education as a Vaccine (EVA), one of Nigeria’s leading nonprofit organizations; and Yvette Kathurima, head of advocacy of FEMNET, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Sheena discussed Aahung’s innovative life-skills education program that teaches girls and boys about gender discrimination, sexual abuse and domestic violence, family planning, and a woman’s right to decide if, when, and whom she marries. This program has been adopted by both Muslim and Catholic school boards and is now in more than 250 schools in Sindh Province. The success of this program required building bridges with educators, parents, and even religious leaders. (Read more about Aahung.)

Fadekemi noted that sex and puberty are still taboo topics in Nigeria, and parents are reluctant to talk their daughters about basic health issues like menstruation.  To fill this gap, EVA reaches youth directly through peer outreach, social media, and a text messaging hotline that receives 15,000 messages a month. Since its inception, EVA has reached more than 700,000 young Nigerians with information about HIV prevention, sexuality, and contraception. Fadekemi also addressed the Boko Haram kidnapping of school girls in northern Nigeria and urged the audience to use social media to put pressure on the government to #BringBackOurGirls. (Read more about EVA.)

Yvette and FEMNET work closely with women’s groups in 40 countries across Africa to amplify women’s voices and increase women’s participation in political debates and decision-making. They are currently spearheading a number of campaigns, including efforts to end harmful cultural practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation by working with cultural leaders. Yvette noted that Africa has a number of pro-women policies like the Maputo Protocol (what Yvette calls the “African women’s bible”), but what’s lacking across the continent is the political will by governments to enforce these policies. (Read more about Femnet.)

One person in the audience, Adenike Esiet, founder and director of Action Health Incorporated (also an IWHC partner)—and a veteran feminist activist—thanked the young leaders for their work and for inspiring a new generation of young people working to advance women’s rights.

Photos from IWHC’s 30th anniversary celebration are below. Videos of both panel discussions will be online next week.

Photos: ©Sean Sime

Paul Silva

Paul Silva

Paul Silva is a former Director of Communications for IWHC.