Awardees Are Leaders, Not Victims

Anika Rahman

Americans for UNFPA's International Awards for the Health and Dignity of Women showcase contributions from women in the developing world.

I can think of no better way to explain UNFPA to Americans than to share the examples of real women making a difference in their communities. This is the embodiment of UNFPA.

On Tuesday, October 2nd, Americans for UNFPA will honor three women with our International Awards for the Health and Dignity of Women. These three women live and work in their own communities to address problems particular to women. This year they are named for trailblazer and stalwart champion of women Ambassador Robin Chandler Duke. Mrs. Duke, a founding member of our organization, is the kind of woman who lives her beliefs and says what she means.

I'm especially proud of our awardees because when Americans see images of women from low-income countries – the kind of women UNFPA's assistance benefits – they are usually victims of famine, HIV, violence. However, our honorees showcase these women and their passion, ingenuity and resourcefulness. They demonstrate that women's rights activists and leaders exist in every country of the world.

The work of our honorees is funded, in part, by UNFPA and we use their stories to highlight both the challenges faced by women around the world and the solutions that UNFPA pursues. And this is the real story about what the U.S. loses – philosophically and morally – when we defund UNFPA.

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This year's honorees include Salamatou Traoré, an imposing Nigerian midwife, who commands attention everywhere she goes. When the non-governmental organization (NGO) she worked for refused to make medical and social services for victims of fistula a priority, Traoré created her own NGO, Dimol. Rather than deal solely with the repair of fistula, she took the whole problem and created a new strategy for prevention, repair and treatment. A midwife, Traoré considers the issue of fistula — and all issues of women's health — a human rights issue. And she tells this to all the men she encounters, from village elders to members of Parliament.

From Siem Reap, Cambodia, we honor Ket Noeun, who is far ahead of the times of her country, in her big-picture approach to changing the lives of survivors of domestic violence. She trains law enforcement and local authorities, provides victims with shelter, helps them through the legal process and empowers survivors to shape their own destinies. By the end of their legal process, survivors leave the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center trained in sewing, cooking, and other business trades. They're often presented with sewing machines donated by UNFPA and 25,000 riel to start a small business so that they can return to their village with a new life.

Dr. Dorj Munkhuu, the "godmother" of Mongolia, was born into a nomadic herder family and held, among other positions in her career, a seat as a member of Parliament. Acutely aware of the problems of providing health care, particularly for women, on the steppes of Mongolia, she dedicated much of her career to improving that situation for women and families. With UNFPA's help, she brings mobile clinics to the most remote areas of the country. I had the good fortune to visit Dr. Munkhuu in July. In a tiny remote clinic, surrounded by nothing for miles and miles, I was amazed to watch a nurse show a woman her developing baby on an ultrasound machine.

UNFPA helps these women in their quest to improve the lives of all women in their communities. One of our board members, a former member of Congress, told me that the best way to make a legislator a champion for UNFPA is for them to meet even one of these remarkable women. Unfortunately, the new ethics rules prohibit us from taking our elected officials to visit field programs. But next week we'll bring these three amazing women to New York and D.C. It's our hope that our elected officials will see that what these women offer are real, lasting solutions and that if we contributed, our impact would be enormous.

Analysis Sexual Health

Mississippi Sex Ed Law Leads to Reshuffled, But Not Improved, Curricula

Martha Kempner

Having spent much of my career reviewing abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula and material, I can promise that just adding a lesson about contraception cannot turn a fear- and shame-based program into anything better.

In 2011, legislators in Mississippi passed a law (HB 999) requiring all schools to choose between a strict abstinence-only policy or one, called abstinence-plus, that includes all aspects of the abstinence-only approach but also teaches young people about contraception and disease-prevention. A new report published by Mississippi First, the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), found that of the 151 school districts and four special schools in Mississippi, 81 chose abstinence-only, 71 chose abstinence-plus, and three chose a combined approach.

While it is good news that some students in Mississippi, a state that ranks at the bottom of all sexual health indicators, may be taught something other than “just say no until marriage,” the report also notes an oddity in how the law has been interpreted and implemented, which means that some curricula have ended up (without alterations) on the “approved” list for schools with both abstinence-only and abstinence-plus policies. Having spent much of my career reviewing abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula and material, I can promise that just adding a lesson about contraception cannot turn a fear- and shame-based program into anything better.

The Choosing the Best series, which includes curricula for grades six through 12, can be used by schools that pick either policy. In fact, this series is overwhelmingly popular in Mississippi as it is being used by 74 percent of schools that chose an abstinence-only policy and 39 percent that chose the supposedly more expansive abstinence-plus approach. The point of schools adopting the abstinence-plus policy is to be allowed to discuss, in the words of the law, “other topics such as contraceptive options and the cause and effect of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.” Unfortunately, Choosing the Best does not do that. (Note: The examples below are from the SIECUS review of the 2006 editions of this series. Schools in Mississippi may be using a newer edition, though in my experience few things change between editions.)

The discussions of contraception and STDs within the Choosing the Best series are very limited and based more on fear than fact. For example, in the program designed for sixth graders, the teacher is told to hold up cauliflower and explain that this is like a genital wart, one of the many STDs young people are likely to get if they are sexually active. (Something green and oozy is used to represent chlamydia.) Though this representation might seem clever to program planners who have seen pictures of genital warts left untreated for many years, which do in fact resemble cauliflower, most cases of warts are tiny dots that are not visible to the naked eye. Young people should know this so they know what to look out for and do not just assume they are fine unless they see something as large and obviously problematic as what their teacher is holding up during this presentation.

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The program for older kids includes this story in lieu of education about chlamydia:

The first time I had sex with anybody, I got Chlamydia. So one week I was a virgin, and two weeks later, I had an STD….I became violently ill. I had a 105 fever, severe abdominal cramps, and throwing up. The conclusion was yes, that I was infertile. My tubes had been damaged beyond repair.

While it is entirely possible to get chlamydia from one’s first sexual experience, it would be nice if the curriculum clarified that a condom could have prevented this outcome. More importantly, though, the infection would not progress to irreversible tube damage in just a couple of weeks (which despite the clever use of ellipses is how the story reads). Chlamydia, which often has no symptoms, is easily curable with antibiotics. If not treated it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is what would cause someone to have fever, cramps, and vomiting. PID can also be cured with antibiotics. It is when PID is left untreated that scar tissue builds up. This would not happen rapidly, and given the symptoms this character experienced, there would have been plenty of opportunity for her to seek help and get treatment long before permanent damage was done. In actuality, the danger with chlamydia and the reason why it leads to infertility is that there are usually no symptoms, and without testing a person doesn’t even know she has had it until damage has been done. Implausible stories like this do little to educate students.

My favorite story from Choosing the Best has always been this one in which a new bride tells of how she’s suffered because of her husband’s infidelity:

I was rushed to the hospital with intense abdominal pain. Emergency surgery revealed such an extensive infection that my uterus, tubes and ovaries all had to be removed. My husband of six months had infected me with gonorrhea, which he had contracted from a ‘one-night stand’ prior to our engagement. Our dreams of biological children will never be realized.

Throughout the lessons plans, the authors make it clear that the only way to protect yourself from STDs is to stay abstinent until marriage. This point is underscored so often that it almost seems like wedding rings themselves have some kind of magic protective properties. And yet, the author’s own story proves this wrong. The speaker here could very well have taken the program’s advice and stayed abstinent until her wedding night but she got gonorrhea anyhow. Clearly, she and her new husband would have been better off had they been given real information about how STDs are transmitted, prevented, and treated.If they had, perhaps her husband would have known to us a condom during his one night stand and get tested for STDs before he had unprotected sex with his wife.

Information on condoms and contraception is quite sparse and laser-focused on failure rates in Choosing the Best. The program tells students, for example, that the failure rate for condoms is 15 percent in preventing pregnancy which is more or less accurate though fails to note that this rate includes couples who used a condom incorrectly or didn’t use a condom at all when they became pregnant. When used consistently and correctly condoms are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. The curricula then says: “Could you live with a 15% annual failure rate on: A roller coaster ride? “An airline flight? Skydiving?” Again, because the 15 percent includes non-use, to be accurate, the skydiving analogy would have to include all of those people who jumped out of an airplane without their parachute.

Of course, even if the curriculum provided decent information about condoms or contraception, this would be instantly undermined by the messages of shame that suggest young people who have sex lack character and values. Take the exercise “Mint for Marriage” in which the teacher passes around an unwrapped peppermint patty and asks each student to hold it for a second. When it is returned to the front of the room she says:  “Why is this patty no longer appealing?” The answer: “No one wants food that has been passed around and neither would you want your future husband or wife to have been passed around.” A similar exercise called “A Rose with No Petals” ends with the explanation “Each time a sexually active person gives that most personal part of himself or herself away, that person can lose a sense of personal value and worth. It all comes down to self-respect.”

Almost 60 percent of high school students in Mississippi have had sex. It’s hard to see how learning that they lack personal value, worth, and self-respect will be a good motivator for making sure they protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy when they have sex in the future.

Jamie Bardwell, of the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi, one of the groups that authored the new report, told Rewire, “It is incredibly confusing that the law allows a sex education curriculum to be labeled as both abstinence-plus and abstinence-only. True abstinence-only-until-marriage programs like Choosing the Best, should not be labeled ‘abstinence-plus’ simply because they mention the word contraception.”

Bardwell added: “Programs like these that shame LGBT young people and include wedding ceremonies, inaccurate information, and gender stereotypes. They should not be taught in any Mississippi classrooms and certainly not in schools that want an abstinence-plus programs. Young people need and want good, medically accurate information to make healthy decisions.”

Advocates in Mississippi are trying to get the law changed so that better curricula are required, at least in schools that chose an abstinence-plus approach. In the meantime, a clear majority of students in the Magnolia State will be told by Choosing the Best that sexually active teenagers are like a pitcher of spit—dirty, gross, and not wanted.

News Contraception

They Are Coming for Your Birth Control: “Abstinence Never Fails to Prevent Pregnancy”

Robin Marty

The new motto in preventing pregnancy is apparently "you can't fail if you just say no."

Note: Think that anti-choice politicians and activists aren’t trying to outlaw contraception?  Think again.  Follow along in an ongoing series that proves beyond a doubt that they really are coming for your birth control.

Mary Turner of Wisconsin is pretty sure she has a flawless reason that everyone who doesn’t want to be pregnant should just stop having sex—birth control failure. Oh, and “relationship failure.” She must be right, she claims, since both the Pope and Planned Parenthood are on her side.

Via the Lacrosse Tribune:

As for contraception and the Vatican, again the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood’s research arm, has repeatedly reported that women seek abortion due to contraception failure.

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Abstinence never fails to prevent pregnancy. Contraception can and does.

Turner is the former president of Life Voice, an anti-choice Wisconsin-esque anti-birth control group that vowed to “Tell the Truth With Charity About Contraception.” Allied with Pro-Life Action League, the organization that is responsible for a vast portion of the anti-choice presence outside of reproductive health clinics, the now defunct organization considered birth control, “the cause of so much chaos in the world today and the root of the abortion culture and the culture of death.” In 2006, she rallied with other anti-contraception groups eager to come up with an action plan to rid the country of the scourge that is birth control, seeing it as the next frontier to fight to eliminate. She told the Chicago Tribune:

“It’s new to some aspects of the pro-life world, and it’s old news in other parts of the pro-life world. It’s just beginning to be embraced more fully by the whole pro-life world,” said Mary Turner, 42, of La Crosse, Wis., one of about 180 people who attended Friday night’s opening of the two-day conference, called “Contraception is Not the Answer.”

That possibility alarms abortion-rights advocates, who warn that birth control, taken for granted by millions of women, could become a new battleground.

Turner may not be with Life Voice now, but luckily she still has a forum in newspapers sending letters to the editor to explain why she, and other anti-choice zealots, are coming for your birth control.