For Rola Yasmine, Co-Founder of the A Project in Lebanon, there was no question that she would be a feminist: “My mother and grandmother were really phenomenal women. My grandmother got a divorce at 23, after having had six kids. At 23, she said, ‘That’s it, goodbye, I’m out—compulsory motherhood is not for me!’ It was a radical stance during those times.” Rola shared her experiences with IWHC supporters and Leadership Council members at a luncheon on March 16th moderated by IWHC’s president, Françoise Girard.
Marta Szostak, Network Coordinator of ASTRA in Poland, had a similarly early start to her activism. “When I was 15 or 16, I was a fan of Pearl Jam, and they used to have pro-choice messages written on their arms at concerts,” she recalls. “When I looked up what pro-choice means I thought ‘wow, this is something I agree with.’ It stuck with me for many years.” This motivated her early activism. “I realized I lived in a country where I could not access this service legally if I chose to do so,” she said. For many young activists like Rola and Marta, early personal experiences often lay the foundation for their later advocacy.
Today, Rola and Marta face different challenges in their work, but they are both fierce champions for women’s and girls’ rights.
“Poland is a country with a long history where abortion was legal and you could access these services,” explained Marta about the country’s past policies. “Now it’s highly restricted.”
Marta aims to change the current policy and also to raise awareness among young people about their rights and to change the conversation. “The younger generation isn’t well aware of what’s going on because they are growing up in a country where the language is highly politicized and heavily influenced by religion, by anti-choice messages.”
Rola also strives to bring women’s rights to the forefront. Her interest in sexual and reproductive health arose out of the realization that “women’s sexuality was erased and most of the attacks on women were on their sexuality, their bodies.” There is enormous pressure on women in Lebanon to look good, Rola explained. “They are hyper-sexualized but expected to be nonsexual at the same time.”
A nurse by training, Rola works with local populations, and increasingly, migrants and refugees. In the Shatila camp in Beirut, there has been an influx of refugees from Syria. The camp’s clinic sees 90—150 women a day, and Rola provides them with reproductive health information and care.
She also works with migrant women from Asia and Africa living in Beirut, who are not officially recognized and have little to no access to health services. She reported that they travel a long distance to receive reproductive health care and are often turned away.
Both Rola and Marta are working in difficult environments, but they are armed with the skills to carry their work forward and effect change in their countries. They were in New York to participate in the 60th session of the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women—an annual two-week conference dedicated to advancing gender equality. Rola and Marta participated in IWHC’s Advocacy in Practice trainings, which prepare young leaders to negotiate with government delegates at the UN and to advocate for women’s health and rights when they return to their home countries. Since 2006, IWHC has supported more than 225 young activists from 60 countries to become successful activists and leaders.
“Working with IWHC helped me become a more conscious advocate,” said Marta.