On July 22, 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the United States would withhold a $34 million contribution that Congress had approved for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), falsely claiming that somehow UNFPA was complicit in China’s coercive one-child, forced-abortion policies. Complete balderdash, of course. No other country in the world agreed with this made-up claim.
So, this 61-year-old married mother-of-two, retired French teacher and tennis coach from Redlands, California, knew she had to do something. I decided to ask 34 million Americans to contribute one dollar to the UNFPA, and I got some help from a local “Planet” group to which I belonged. Quite honestly, my goal was to change the world.
Serendipitously, a certain Lois Abraham had had the same idea and started a similar campaign, emailing her friends in the legal community. Lo and behold, the idea took off. UNFPA was inundated with envelopes containing cash or checks arriving at its offices in New York. The UN Foundation (founded by Ted Turner) had to step in and hire staff to handle and keep records of the deluge. Lois and I were invited to New York for a press conference. NPR called me for an interview. (It didn’t make air.) Staff of “60 Minutes” wanted to film a piece on the story. (It was nixed by higher-ups.) ABC Nightly News did air a segment. But suffice it to say, I wasn’t yet media-savvy.
UNFPA invited Lois and me to travel to see their work on-site. In early 2003 Lois went to Nicaragua and then to Timor Leste; I went to Mali and Senegal because I speak French. These countries so appreciate the work of UNFPA that we were treated like rock stars, garnering big press coverage. In Senegal, I learned on the internet that our campaign had reached the $500,000 mark. Elation. (It has now exceeded $4 million.)
Home again after my mind-blowing trip, I decided that I had to write a book, tell the story, and give an excuse to the media to interview me and keep our cause in the public eye. By this time, I had had ‘media training’ and gave really good interviews. (“Well, that’s a good question but what I really want to talk about is…”) My book, “34 Million Friends of the Women of the World,” is available as a PDF file at the bottom of the home page at www.34millionfriends.org.
I also told the UN Foundation that I wanted to travel and talk. So, for the next four years, with the Foundation’s support, I went all over the country talking at universities, at conferences, to feminist groups, to environmental activists, and to religious organizations. You name it, I did it.
Throughout this experience, I have kept posted, right above my computer, the words of Stephen Lewis: “I challenge you to enter the fray against gender inequality. There is no more honorable or productive calling. There is nothing of greater import in this world. All roads lead from women to social change.”
I believe in the utter truth of this statement. For me, there can be no gender equality unless women have an education. Two-thirds of the illiterate people on the planet are women and girls. And women and girls must have health care – particularly reproductive health care – and reproductive autonomy. If you can’t control your fertility, you are not free.
UNFPA is at the forefront in providing family planning commodities and services around the world. Thanks in great part to UNFPA, the statistics on maternal mortality (dying in childbirth) have dropped to about half of the 500,000 it was 20 years ago. UNFPA also combats early forced marriage, where girls as young as 12 are pawned off by poor families to much older husbands who may already have other wives.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is another big target of UNFPA, and it and other organizations (such as TOSTAN) are having success in convincing whole villages to abandon the practice. Often FGM is the root cause of obstetric fistulas, which are injuries to the birth canal when the baby just won’t come out and tears develop between the birth canal and the bladder and/or rectum, rendering the woman incontinent and needing surgical repair. At Lois’s behest, half of our first $1 million raised went to fistula repair surgeries.
And then there is the issue of population. When I was born, in 1941, there were maybe three billion people on the planet. Now there are 7.6 billion and, according to the UN, another two billion or more will be added in the next 30 years, straining resources and access to food & water, shelter, energy, education, and health care. And climate change already is beginning to drive or worsen conflicts and refugee flows, with concomitant political upheavals.
In that vein, Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” inspired the vision I had for a film to be titled “The Stories Women Tell” (or “The Stories Women Don’t Tell”). Linda Harrar, an award-winning producer for PBS, and I are pursuing funding for the project. I’d love to see it get made. It would go a small way toward changing the world.
If you are so moved, please join www.34millionfriends.org.