Monday morning, I was fortunate to attend the International Family Planning Hero Award Breakfast at the Chicago Cultural Center. This year’s event was in honor of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. Breakfast began at 8:30. I sat down with Monica Avina from the Feminist Creative Alliance, a group founded in Chicago in 2009, bringing together “educators, artists, activists, and students…to bring feminist creative events to communities throughout Chicago.” We were joined by Claudia Jaccarino, the Vice President of Programs for the Chicago chapter of the United Nations Association. She spoke about an idea she’s working on to bring together young people, particularly students, so that they can combine their efforts and learn from each other by doing things such as a speakers series with the young people on the panels. I’m excited to see how this idea moves forward.
The program started at 9:00 with Timothy Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation. He commented on how the politics of reproductive choice and women’s health have become increasingly hostile and confused. Carol Brite, who spoke next, thanked Senator Durbin for his effort in stopping the Pense Amendment (which would have blocked Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal funds) and for working to amplify the stories of women who rely on Planned Parenthood for their health care needs. She also thanked Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, who was also in attendance, for speaking out against the “Let Women Die” bill that was recently passed in the House.
Lyn Schallett, Vice Chairperson of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, emphasized the fact that family planning saves lives and money. As she said, the people in power must listen to the people most in need. There was then a short video tribute showing how women in developing countries have benefited from Senator Durbin’s advocacy for family planning and women’s health services. In countries where over 1,000 women die every day from pregnancy and childbirth complications and 90% of those deaths are preventable, it was inspiring to see these women holding a packet of birth control pills or condoms. The message was clear that these things which many of us take for granted have the power to drastically improve these women’s lives. It was very moving.
In Senator Durbin’s speech, he acknowledged several other allies and activists fighting for reproductive justice , including Molly Melching who has spent many years working to end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Senegal, and his colleagues Barbara Boxer, Jeanne Shaheen, and Dianne Feinstein. He also mentioned something that Hilary Clinton said in a speech she gave while she was First Lady after returning from a trip to India. Speaking on how to know if a developing country had a chance of moving forward, she said that could be determined based on the answer to one question: “How do you treat your women?” It’s reassuring to know that Senator Durbin realizes that no country can be successful if its women are second-class citizens.
To wrap up, he shared a picture slide show of his visit to Ethiopia and Tanzania with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. The most striking pictures were those of a birthing room at a hospital and the cart that passed for an ambulance. The birthing room was basically a small room, maybe 5 x 10, with a cot. It was nowhere you’d particularly want to be, especially if you had a baby coming out of you. And as the Senator explained about the cart/ambulance, for the women who don’t live near a hospital, some travel up to four hours over uneven dirt roads before getting to a doctor. Understanding that all women should have access to basic health care as a human right is why Planned Parenthood and the United Nations Foundation chose to honor Senator Dick Durbin with this year’s Hero Award.
There were two speakers after Durbin, beginning with Veronica Salgado, the Assistant Manager of Near North Center of Planned Parenthood of Illinois. She spoke about her trip to Mexico where she witnessed first hand women’s lack of contraceptive access, health services, and education about reproductive health, some women not even knowing that such services were available. The last speaker was the President of the MacArthur Foundation, Robert Gallucci. The Foundation makes grants and loans to individuals and institutions working to “[build] a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” Their goal, as he put it, is the “improvement of the human condition,” in part by educating youth on sexual health and making childbirth safe for women and girls.
Similar to Secretary Clinton’s view, Mr. Callucci sees the maternal mortality rate as an indicator of inequality- if women are not provided with basic health care they are less likely to be able to sustain their families and their lives outside the home. He also spoke about the use of rape as a weapon of war and how the United States must decide how to help the survivors when we have such tight restrictions on foreign aid going toward abortion services internationally.
I’m very glad that I was able to attend the award breakfast and I feel lucky that I was able to meet Senator Durbin. It was also quite pleasant, as I overheard several people say, to be getting together for something good in the world of reproductive health, rather than to push back against something harmful or having to defend ourselves against attack. I think the morning was a rejuvenating reminder of why we care about women’s rights and what keeps our heads up when faced with lies, smear campaigns, and even violence.
For me, what keeps me fighting is not the serious inadequacies of that small birthing room, but rather the smiles on the faces of the women holding a birth control packet, finally in control of their reproductive lives and finally given the chance to choose for themselves just how high they believe they can climb.