Sitting in the Rage of the Moment While Standing Up and Fighting Back

Written by Grace Long, Advocacy and Outreach Fellow | Published: June 21, 2022

In March, together with Population Connection Action Fund, we hosted our annual advocacy conference, Capitol Hill Days. Attendees tuned in to Zoom presentations and interactive training sessions after weeks of radical attacks on reproductive rights in state legislatures across the country, with even more looming on the horizon. We were angry at regressive politicians for pushing these vile laws and anxious about the looming Supreme Court decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade and what that reversal of rights could mean for copycat legislation around the world.

In her keynote address, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) thanked everyone for their continued resolve to fight for the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act, emphasizing that our activism will be the force that gets it passed. She reminded us that reproductive health care is a human right and that backwards legislation can’t change that fact.

Roundtable Discussion: Global and Domestic Reproductive Health Policy

After Rep. Lee’s address, we were joined by Dara Purvis[1], Professor of Law at Penn State (see Dara’s article on page 22), and Caitlin Horrigan, Senior Director of Global Advocacy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, for a roundtable discussion on reproductive health policies. They advised us to sit in the rage of the moment, but to never stop making our voices heard. Their panel provided a comprehensive look at the current policy landscape, as well as the many ways we can push back against present and future threats. Perhaps the most important takeaway was that Americans are global players; the political forces that are motivating states to pass regressive legislation and emboldening the Supreme Court to strike down Roe are also at play in foreign policy decisions.

On the Ground: Family Planning and Reproductive Health Programs Around the World

Melvine Ouyo[2], Founder and Executive Director of Hope for Kenya Slum Adolescents Initiative, emphasized that American bans on abortion and reproductive health services have far-reaching consequences and said that the Global Gag Rule allowed for extreme attacks on women’s and LGBTQ rights in East Africa. Its chilling effect also destroyed medical networks and forced clinics to shutter, eroding community trust in reproductive health programs. The damage that policies like the Global Gag Rule can do is a testament to how important United States funding is for millions of people around the world.

Following Melvine, Dr. Jallicia Jolly, Professor of American Studies and Black Studies at Amherst College, opened her presentation with a question: “What are the conditions needed for people to live autonomous lives?” The answer, of course, is access to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity. Jallicia discussed the community building work of an HIV/AIDS and reproductive health care organization in Jamaica as an example of an effective and culture-specific solution. Their “Mentor Mom” initiative brings together newly diagnosed HIV positive women with women who have been living with the disease for some time, giving them the space to advise and support one another. By addressing the psycho-social needs of their patients, the organization pushes back against the social stigma of an HIV diagnosis and empowers communities to mobilize resources to address the unmet needs and rights of those affected.

Climate, Population, and Reproductive Health

Empowering women to organize around reproductive health and environmental issues means that their region-specific needs stay at the forefront. Sara Lara emphasized this point in her presentation. As the Founder and Executive Director of Women for Conservation in Colombia, Sara works directly with at-risk communities to provide reproductive health services, sustainable job training, and environmental education. Her organization finds solutions that mutually benefit people and biodiversity. As Sara showed in her presentation, encouraging the women her organization works with to make projects their own is key to getting more people involved at the local level, thereby creating more effective initiatives tailor-made for the communities that execute them.

Sara’s fellow panelist, Dr. Joan Castro, Executive Vice President of Path Foundation Philippines, Inc. (PFPI), agreed. Her organization also integrates environmental, economic, and reproductive health approaches to development and has reached more audiences because of it. PFPI works with communities that have been directly impacted by climate change, empowering women through livelihoods training and getting them involved in conservation programs. Combining reproductive health services with economic and ecological initiatives has the added benefit of encouraging men to become more involved in family planning.

The energy from our speakers was electrifying. Each presentation revealed a fresh and innovative approach to reproductive health programming as unique as the communities that benefit. The care the organizations show towards the people they serve, their resiliency in the face of hostile policies and insufficient funding, and their dedication to inclusive programming was deeply moving.

Storytelling: How to Share Your Story for Organizing

Inspired to make a change, attendees tuned in to a session led by M+R Vice President Tania Stewart to learn how to craft compelling narratives and convince legislators to support the policies we champion. Tania said, “Stories have a connective tissue and a powerful imprint,” which was demonstrated so clearly through her presentation and through the storytelling of all of the speakers.

Virtual Lobby Day

On the final day of Capitol Hill Days, participants took their newfound knowledge and skills into Zoom meetings with their members of Congress, where they passionately advocated for the Global HER Act and an increased U.S. contribution to international family planning. Many said afterwards that their training from then-Director of Congressional Relations Stacie Murphy had more than prepared them for the task. One participant reported that her conversation had filled her with a newfound sense of purpose, as the staffer had agreed with her and enthusiastically discussed the need for international family planning. Several other activists were able to calmly and confidently push back against a resistant office, explaining that the Global HER Act would save thousands of lives and positively impact millions more. Each participant’s decision to stand up and make a difference changed their outlook, and most left their meetings feeling more confident than they had been when they arrived.

In the words of Dara Purvis, “Every time you contribute your voice, it makes an impact. It’s important for people to hear that we’re mad about this kind of stuff, so thank you for adding your voice to the chorus.”

[1]   Dara is Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of Population Connection and also serves on the Board of Population Connection Action Fund.

[2]   Melvine is on the Board of Directors of Population Connection.