“If I can run on one leg, that shows people that they, too, can do something to help.” These are the words of a Congolese woman named Generose, a survivor of unspeakable torture at the hands of the Hutu militia. We’ve been working with her friend Lisa Shannon, an American writer and human rights activist, for the past year on our Fix on Day One campaign to reinterpret the Helms Amendment.
Despite having had her leg cut off above the knee in an atrocious attack by terrorists, Generose attended Run for Congo Women—an effort that Lisa founded to raise funds for Congolese women affected by war and conflict through the organization Women for Women International. In a show of incredible strength, Generose actually ran, on one leg, supported by crutches, for nearly a mile of the 30-mile race. The money raised by Run for Congo Women (most of the races are in the United States, where fundraising races are common, as opposed to in Congo, where Lisa’s bewildered friends remarked, “People here don’t run for exercise.”) goes toward job training and emotional and financial support for vulnerable women in Congo.
Lisa joined us at several of our East Coast grassroots events this fall, as we continued to engage activists around the country in our Helms campaign. She brought the harms of the policy to life by sharing the stories she’s collected in her decade of working closely with women in Congo, Iraq, and Somalia. As Lisa shared these powerful and horrific stories of human suffering, we saw the wheels turning in the minds of activists, as they began to understand how the lives of women in conflict settings in developing countries can be made even worse by the funding policies of the United States. When a woman is raped by a gang of rebels and becomes pregnant, U.S. policy says she must carry the pregnancy to term—under the current interpretation of the Helms Amendment, our foreign aid will not pay for safe abortions for women who are victims of rape, including rape that is inflicted as a weapon of war. Women who bear the children of the enemy are often shunned from their communities, making the initial rape a lifelong trauma to endure.
True to my own personal “theory of change,” the more I heard devastating stories of girls and women, the more connected I felt to them, sparking passion to do more. I try to share these stories, and serve as “chief encourager” to amazing young leaders I’ve met on college campuses at Population Connection events.
Our Fix on Day One campaign aims to reinterpret the Helms Amendment to allow for U.S. funding of abortion in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the woman’s health. Our longer-term goal is to repeal the policy altogether.
Advocacy Training in Ohio
Fix on Day One is a joint project with our sister organization, the Population Connection Action Fund. Throughout the fall, as part of the campaign, we hosted a number of advocacy training events across the country.
In early October, for instance, we held panel discussions and advocacy trainings in Cleveland and Columbus. The Global Health Initiative (GHI) at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus organized 30 students to join us for back-to-back lobby and bird-dogging trainings. Bird-dogging is the act of asking elected officials or political candidates pointed questions on the record (one of our activists in Iowa got Hillary Clinton on camera earlier this year voicing support for fixing the Helms Amendment). In this contentious election season, students were eager to learn how they could engage in a meaningful way with the politicians who are regularly visiting their campuses.
After training the students, we asked for volunteers to practice their newly acquired bird-dogging skills through a role playing session. To break the ice, Lisa shared the story of a protest she led with her mother and a fellow activist. Alarmed by pushback to a bill being considered in the California legislature to restrict the use of conflict minerals in consumer products (which would result in less than a one-cent loss per product), the three women went to the branch of Intel in Portland, Oregon and then drove to the headquarters of Apple, Hewlett Packard, and Intel in Silicon Valley. They showed up at each company with a huge jar containing 45,000 pennies-representing the number of lives lost each month in the conflict in Congo. If the executives in charge didn’t think that Congolese lives were worth saving with their own money, the three women wanted them to know that they would pay the difference.
Lisa and hundreds of other activists followed up the in-person protest by flooding the Facebook pages of companies that would be affected by and senators who were on the fence about the bill. Despite going up against tech industry lobbyists who were much better funded and more experienced at swaying votes, Lisa’s effort resulted in the Conflict Minerals Trade Act of California being passed, intact.
Lisa’s openness about her own nervousness and uncertainty during the penny protest put the GHI students at ease and reminded them of the power of their own voices as voters and activists. The very next day, students put their training to use at meetings with the offices of Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Joyce Beatty. The students made the case for increasing the U.S. investment in international family planning to $1 billion, investing greater support in the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and issuing a permanent repeal of the Global Gag Rule. Increasing our contribution toward international family planning to $1 billion (from $638 million in 2015) would cost just one dollar per American per year—100 pennies that could save tens of thousands of lives (47,000 women die each year from unsafe abortions, many of them self-administered).
Making the Political Personal in New Hampshire
At another bird-dogging training, at the University of New Hampshire—co-hosted by the university’s Vox group (Planned Parenthood’s student chapter) and the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Action Fund—the crowd was inspired, but shy at first. After hearing Lisa’s Silicon Valley story, however, an ROTC student did an impassioned mock visit, drawing on his military background to challenge the “senator” on his stance denying women in conflict settings safe abortions. He used his experience to personalize his message, which is an extremely effective strategy.
These events and so many others that we sponsor around the country demonstrate to young people just how influential their voices can be when used effectively. We are proud to be a leader in training college students as citizen lobbyists and we are optimistic that our work with our grassroots will help make the policy changes we need to achieve universal access to reproductive health!