World Congress of Families Gathers in “Bastion of Anti-family Policies”

SIECUS Opposition Researcher

Right-wing groups, claiming that the “natural family” is under attack by a “terrible cloud of ideologies, “feminism” and “secular liberalism” meet in Amsterdam to plan their strategies.

Rewire Exclusive: Over the next several days, SIECUS’s opposition researcher will be providing ongoing coverage of the World Congress of Families, including reporting on discussions of such topics as "the natural family," "traditional values,"  marriage and family configurations, demographic shifts, pre-determined sex-specific roles, HIV/AIDS, and family related policies at national and international levels.

It’s that time again. Every other year, the most extreme global right wing voices gather to mobilize efforts to stuff the evil, liberal, secularist, "abortionist" genie back into bottle.  The fifth World Congress of Families (WCF), a gathering organized and co-sponsored by an array of right-wing organizations such as the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, Concerned Women for America, Human Life International, Red Familia and Family Research Council, among others, starts today in Amsterdam, Netherlands under the title “Family: More Than the Sum of it’s Parts.”

As in years past, where places like Mexico and Poland were selected as strategic locations for advancing a so-called “pro-family” agenda, Amsterdam is no different.  When it was announced just over a year ago that the Netherlands would be the site of this congress, the progressive approach of the people and government in the Netherlands to open and sincere dialogue and policies regarding the diversity of families and broader sexual and reproductive health and rights were cited as a primary draw. 

In their June/July newsletter, WCF remarked that:

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In 2007, The European left mocked us for having WCF IV in Poland, a socially conservative country. We met their challenge by holding World Congress of Families V in the Netherlands, a nation whose family policies are 180 degrees from those of Poland.  Instead of welcoming a debate on the issues, it seems to be intimidated by our presence in the heart of the European Union, and a bastion of its anti-family policies.

Those sound a bit more like fighting words than an opening for authentic debate. 

The WCF supporters and organizers refer to a very specific and narrow definition of family called the “natural family,” outlined in “The Natural Family: A Manifesto," originally published by the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society:

We see a world restored in line with the intent of its Creator.   We envision a culture — found both locally and universally — that upholds the marriage of a woman to a man, and a man to woman, as the central aspiration for the young.  This culture affirms marriage as the best path to health, security, fulfillment and joy.  It casts the home built on marriage as the source of true political sovereignty, the fountain of democracy. 

Allen Carlson, president of WCF founding organization, the Howard Center for Family Religion and Society, claims that the “natural family” is under attack by a “terrible cloud of ideologies” including “feminism” and “secular liberalism.”  Philip Longman, a speaker at this year’s event, endorses this belief that “secular societies that don’t embrace the pro-natal, pro-family values …will fade away, while societies that learn how to embrace the [traditional] fertility of the [traditional] family will inherit the Earth.” Longman will be further sharing his distorted views on a panel on the second day of the WCF V.

Other scheduled speakers include Anna Zaborska, Member of the European Parliament who spearheaded the letter of endorsement of 100 Members of the European Parliament at the WCF IV in Poland and Steve Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, whose mission is to “debunk the myth of overpopulation, which cheapens human life and paves the way for abusive population control programs.”

In Mexico, Poland, and now Amsterdam, SIECUS has worked with civil society organizations months in advance to deposition the WCF and its sponsors by educating the host country government and media about just how extreme the views of these fringe groups are.  Thankfully, the media coverage in the Netherlands, as well as significant pull back of the Dutch government, so far indicates our efforts are achieving similar success as the WCF V gathers.

So, as the global extreme voices gather in the Netherlands, SIECUS, along with other US and Netherlands–based colleague organizations will be closely following the developments of this congress, and will be posting here throughout the week.  Stay tuned…

Analysis Law and Policy

With Tribal Jurisdiction in the Hands of the Supreme Court, Native Women Rally for Their Rights

Kanya D’Almeida

While protesters on the courthouse steps were united in their resolve to speak out against sexual assault and affirm tribal nations’ inherent ability to protect Native women and children, the feeling inside the building, observers said, was much more uncertain.

When she was 26 years old, Diane Millich suffered an abusive relationship. A member of the Southern Ute Indian tribe, she lived with her non-Native partner on a reservation in southwest Colorado, where in the space of a year she endured over 100 incidents of being “slapped, kicked, punched, and living in horrific terror.”

She made 20 attempts to leave the man, calling every authority she could think of to come to her aid. Again and again, her plea for help came up against the same answer: There was nothing law enforcement personnel could do to protect her, a Native woman, from her white husband. The Southern Ute tribal police lacked authority to apprehend the non-member, while the La Plata County deputy sheriff had no legal grounds for assisting her on tribal lands.

This legal quagmire, she said, fostered in the couple the notion that the husband was above the law. Time and again law enforcement personnel responding to domestic violence calls in her home would leave, having done nothing but explain that their hands were tied. On one occasion, she said, “after a beating, my ex-husband called the county sheriff himself to show me that no one could stop him. He was right; two deputies came and confirmed they did not have jurisdiction.”

Millich initially shared her experience back in 2012, in a House briefing regarding reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the federal law that seeks to improve the criminal justice response to violent crimes against women. This past Monday, she picked up the threads of that story outside the Supreme Court of the United States, where more than 200 people gathered in protest over a Court hearing that advocates say threatens to roll back years of established tribal sovereignty.

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Addressing a crowd on the lawn across from the high court, Millich explained that even when her husband tried to shoot her with a 9mm gun at a federal Bureau of Land Management site where she worked at the time, authorities were unable to prosecute him. In fact, the issue of who had jurisdiction over the shooting was so unclear that investigators used a measuring tape to determine the precise spot from which the shot had been fired.

Because of an amendment to VAWA passed in 2013, Native women can bring criminal charges against domestic abusers in tribal courts. But today, the warren of laws regarding tribal jurisdiction that kept Millich from prosecuting her abuser is in danger of being weakened even further, as the nine justices of the Supreme Court consider the merits of a case known as Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a dispute that arose when a tribal minor alleged that an employee of the company repeatedly molested him in a store on Mississippi tribal lands in the summer of 2003.

The boy’s family sued for damages in tribal court, a move the corporation has fiercely resisted on the grounds that tribal courts lack jurisdiction over non-Natives. A total of five lower courts upheld the tribal court’s right to adjudicate the case, leading Dollar General to appeal directly to the Roberts Court, asking it to define once and for all “the scope of tribal authority to adjudicate tort [civil] claims against nonmembers.”

For decades, tribal courts have exercised the right to do just that, largely as a result of exceptions laid out in the 1981 Montana v. United States ruling, which allows tribal adjudication of tort claims when it comes to consensual relationships and situations that “threaten the political integrity, economic security or the health and welfare of the tribe.”

“This case falls squarely under Montana, as every single [lower] court has recognized, including the tribal district court and the tribal supreme court, as well as the federal district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Mary Kathryn Nagle, an attorney at Pipestem Law Firm who sat in on the oral hearings Monday, told Rewire.

“Ever since 1981, the Supreme Court has had numerous opportunities to say definitively that tribes cannot exercise civil jurisdiction over non-members, but it has not done so. It has never categorically eliminated civil jurisdiction altogether and that is what Dollar General is asking for today—they asked for nothing less than the complete elimination of all civil jurisdiction, because according to them it is simply unconstitutional to make non-Natives answerable to any tribal court jurisdiction when they willingly decide to enter tribal lands.”

Thus, advocates charge that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the corporation could have devastating consequences, particularly for Native women and children.

Organizers of Monday’s protest, including the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, and the Indian Law Resource Center, said that a positive ruling in favor of Dollar General would block the few remaining channels through which Native women seek recourse for domestic and sexual violence at the hands of non-Natives.

Even by conservative estimates, rates of sexual assault among American Indian and Alaskan Native women are staggering. Department of Justice data suggests that Native people “are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races.” Approximately 34 percent of Native women will experience rape and 61 percent will likely be assaulted in their lifetime. The fact that an estimated 86 percent of the perpetrators are non-Native men, according to Amnesty International, heightens the stakes of the impending Supreme Court ruling.

In a stark visual representation of the scale of the epidemic, participants in the protest wore or carried squares of cloth sewn onto shawls bearing the stories of sexual assault survivors as they marched in a circle chanting “Shame on Dollar General.” Later, they laid them down in the lawn across from the Supreme Court building, forming a vast quilt of red and purple fabric.

One of thousands of quilt squares that carpeted the lawn across from the US Supreme Court on Monday reads "It's Not My Fault".

One of thousands of quilt squares that carpeted the lawn across from the US Supreme Court on Monday reads, “It’s Not My Fault.”

“So far we’ve collected over 1,200 quilt squares from survivors around the country, and displayed them 25 times for tens of thousands of people to see,” Rebecca Nagle, co-director of the Monument Quilt Project, told Rewire on the sidelines of the demonstration.

“By stitching our stories together we create and demand public space to heal and we also build public understanding of the United States’ culture and policies that create the current crisis of rape for Native Americans, including the government’s policy regarding tribal jurisdiction,” she said.

In her public address, Nagle said that as a survivor she is tired of being told that she is “broken.”

“I am not what’s broken,” she said. “What’s broken is a racist legal framework that allows violent people to prey on Native women and children with no consequences, the fact that whenever I’m in a group of Native women and we start talking about violence and sexual abuse, every woman in the room has a story … What’s broken is a society built on domination and greed where a corporation’s bottom line is more important than justice for a child survivor of sexual assault.”

She said one survivor even wrote on her quilt square, “Dollar General, your attack on tribal jurisdiction is an attack on my body.”

While protesters on the courthouse steps were united in their resolve to speak out against sexual assault and affirm tribal nations’ inherent ability to protect Native women and children, the feeling inside the building, observers said, was much more uncertain.

Mary Kathryn Nagle, author of the NIWRC amicus brief on the case, said that the arguments made on Monday were “incredibly difficult to listen to.” Far from focusing on the experience of the survivor, she said many of the judges seemed more interested in Dollar General’s arguments that a non-Native corporate entity could be stripped of its constitutional right to due process by being forced into a tribal court.

“But even when Justice [Stephen] Breyer asked the Dollar General representative to explain what was wrong with tribal courts, they could not provide a single answer, or give an example of an American citizen whose due process rights have been violated in a tribal court,” she said.

She said the notion that tribal courts are somehow inferior to state courts is both offensive and inaccurate, given that tribal systems of government, particularly the Iroquois Confederacy, predate all other forms of government in this country and provide the basis for the U.S. Constitution itself.

Court transcripts further revealed that much of the hour-long hearing was devoted to the question of consent—the cornerstone of the first Montana exception—with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, and others debating whether or not the corporation expressly consented to tribal jurisdiction, despite the fact that Dollar General, in leasing land from the tribe to operate the store on the Mississippi reservation, agreed in writing to be governed by both tribal and federal regulations.

“Never once did a justice ask, ‘What about that little boy? Did he consent to being sexually assaulted on his own tribal lands?’” Nagle said.

Other legal experts called the entire proceeding “dehumanizing and racist.” Sarah Deer, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law who also heard the arguments, said they revolved around the myth that tribal juries—or what Dollar General referred to as “All-Indian” juries—are inherently unfair. “It’s important that we keep our framework around citizenship,” she said. “Because it’s not ‘Indians’ who sit on our juries; it’s citizens of our tribes.”

“The whole thing, the images and the protocols, struck me as being very patriarchal,” Deer told Rewire. “The theme was corporations and their rights—not tribal power or the victims. Granted, the centrality of this case is a mechanical jurisdictional question, but to have no humanity in over an hour of discussions is hard to wrap your head around.”

Significant bodies of scholarship dedicated to the issue of sexual violence against Native women have acknowledged that this very process of dehumanization has contributed to a feeling of impunity among perpetrators that then feeds a pattern of abuse.

In its 2007 Maze of Injustice report, still widely cited given the dearth of current statistics involving Native women, Amnesty International traced the roots of the current rape crisis back to the founding of the United States, when sexual violence was used as a tool of conquest, right up to 1968 when a federal appellate court ruling (Gray v. United States) “upheld a statute under which an American Indian man who committed a rape in Indian Country received a lower penalty if the victim was a Native woman.”

Such legal frameworks that posit Native people as somehow inferior, and which Native lawyers and advocates had assumed were a thing of the past, now threaten to reemerge if the Supreme Court’s June ruling goes in favor of Dollar General, experts say.

“It feels as if all the things I thought had been settled back in the 1990s are back on the table like nothing’s changed,” Deer said. “The abortion battle is starting again, and now this—it’s demoralizing.”

One participant at the rally, a representative of the Cherokee Nation who gave her name only as Cinema, told Rewire that she came to the protest because she could no longer be silent. “I see this case as just one other way in which capitalism and sexism interact, with corporate greed threatening to tear away at our basic human rights. It’s very familiar in terms of how this country was formed—around genocide and the stealing of resources, including people, for profits.”

 CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Diane Millich’s name.

Q & A Human Rights

A Conversation With Four ‘Youth Champions’ of Reproductive and Sexual Rights

Imani Gandy & Zoe Greenberg

From a 21-year-old who first saw the need for sex ed when he was the only out gay man at his Catholic school in Louisiana, to the 27-year-old web editor of one of the most popular love and relationship sites in India, these young activists are leading local sexual and reproductive health and rights movements around the world.

On a brisk morning last week, 19 young reproductive rights activists gathered in a second-floor conference room in Palo Alto as part of the Youth Champions Initiative. They had come to California from Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Mississippi, and Louisiana for an intensive week of sexual and reproductive health training.

Clustered in geography-specific groups for a media training session, the YCI participants discussed the stigma that surrounds sex ed, how to report on rape, and what to do with Twitter trolls, all before noon.

The Youth Champions Initiative was inaugurated this year in honor of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s 50th anniversary, with the goal of bringing international young leaders to a Silicon Valley-like incubator focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The goal is for young leaders to meet peers in other countries and learn new strategies to “shake up” the field, according to the program’s executive director, Denise Dunning.

During the incubator, YCI participants heard from SRHR experts (including Rewire’s Jodi Jacobson), visited the offices of Ideo and Mozilla Firefox, and brainstormed projects that would further the work they had begun at home. Innovation is the watchword at the new program.

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“We often say, ‘Why aren’t young people using condoms?’ And then the solution is, ‘Let’s make the condoms bubble-gum flavored,’ as opposed to, ‘Young people aren’t using condoms. What radically different thing needs to happen in our space to change this?'” Dunning told Rewire.

The program is designed to help young leaders think in challenging, fresh ways about their work, while making connections and meeting colleagues. After the incubator, participants can apply for YCI grants to fund their newly designed projects.

Rewire sat down with four of the program’s participants to learn more about their work and what they hope to do in the future.

From a 21-year-old who first saw the need for sex ed when he was the only out gay man at his Catholic school in Louisiana, to the 27-year-old web editor of one of the most popular love and relationship sites in India, these young activists are leading local SRHR movements around the world.

Gayatri Parameswaran is the web editor for, the first website in Hindi to focus on “blush-free information and news on sex, love, and relationships.” Originally from Mumbai, Parameswaran is an Erasmus Mundus Scholar in journalism, with a specialty in War and Conflict Reporting.

RH Reality Check: How did you first become involved in work around sexual and reproductive health?

Gayatri Parameswaran: When I was about 17, I stood very close to a friend who was going through an abortion. It was probably one of the most traumatic times in my life, although I didn’t have to go through it myself. We had to keep it secret, and the stigma around it was really depressing.

Rewire: Was your friend open in talking to you about it?

GP: She was open telling me about it, but no one else knew. We couldn’t tell her parents. We couldn’t tell anyone else.  We found a gynecologist who didn’t require any personal information and agreed to do the abortion. After that, my friend said two things that stuck with me. One was that she wished she had known better. And the other was that she wished there wasn’t so much shame around what she had done.

In India, we really don’t talk about sex; it’s just a taboo subject. Not having information, as clearly illustrated by this case, doesn’t help. There’s no need to have this shame and guilt around everything related to sex.

When I was about 20, I was studying in Amsterdam and interning at Radio Netherlands Worldwide. In 2011, they were piloting a project called Love Matters, targeted to young Indians. I started as a blogger and contributor, and then my role kept growing. Now I’m the editor for the India site.

Rewire: What do you publish?

GP: The most important thing about the website is that we emphasize pleasure. We really believe that sex is about pleasure. That is one of the most important things that people leave out when talking about sexual and reproductive rights. We all know that the reason people have sex is that it’s fun, and it makes you feel good. If we don’t talk about that component of sex, we’re missing out on talking to a lot of people. By implying that sex is about pleasure, and by talking openly about sex being something we do to feel good, we imply that sex is not about violence. It’s not about abuse.

In most states in India, we don’t have comprehensive sex education. We have a “resources” section of our site where people can look up information and find answers to their questions. We want to develop an alternative comprehensive sexuality education guide.

Another important element of our website is “Auntyji,” our sexual, reproductive and relationship expert. She answers a lot of sensitive questions: “Is masturbation a bad habit?” or “Is menstrual blood harmful?” or “I feel like beating my wife. What should I do?” She is very, very popular. We get hundreds of questions every day.

Rewire: What do you do on a daily base?

GP: I coordinate writers, work on partnerships, and think about content strategy. This week, for example, is marriage and wedding week, where all of our content is focused on that topic.

We’re also thinking about new technologies and new ways in which we can reach out to people. The website is currently targeted at urban young people with Internet. So how do we reach people who don’t have Internet? This incubator has made me think about services we can offer—like SMS services—to reach young rural youth.

Rewire: What are your personal goals for your own work?

GP: I wish I could have a conversation openly with my extended family about these things. There is still so much taboo and silence around topics related to sex and sexuality and gender and reproductive health. If I sat in a room for dinner with my cousins and aunts and uncles, and could speak openly about what I do, that would be a great day.

Rewire: What has been your family’s reaction to your work?

GP: My parents, and my brother—my close family—is very supportive. They understand very well the importance of what I do. That’s not the case with my extended family. I’m not comfortable talking about what I do with them. So I kind of skirt the issue, and say, “Uh, I run a website, it’s journalism.”

Rewire: Has there been anything particularly surprising about your work so far?

GP: None of us at LoveMatters expected it to be doing so well. We have more than half a million people on our social media sites. We are having a global impact in what we’re doing. It started in one room in the Netherlands with three people sitting down and saying, “Let’s talk about sex.” Now it’s become this phenomenal success.

Rahul Kumar Dwivedi is a campaign coordinator and special correspondent for Citizens News Service, a rights-oriented media organization based in Lucknow, India. He currently coordinates Vote for Health, a campaign focused on youth participation and activism around health issues.

Rewire: How did you first become involved in reproductive and sexual health work?

Rahul Kumar Dwivedi: I was born and brought up in a disconnected part of India, and there were several instances in my life when I wanted sexual health counseling, but there was no one I could talk to. I had a feeling that my sexual and reproductive health and rights were being denied.

For example, when I had my first sexual experience at the age of 15, neither of us knew anything about safe sex practices. There wasn’t any time for preparation. When I realized that she might be pregnant—though she was not—the lack of information fueled my anxiety and depression. I thought about the possibility that things could have gone in an unintended way. The guilt slipped towards shame, and I even thought about committing suicide.

When I moved to Lucknow in 2002, I got involved in a youth network called Indian Society Against Smoking, and later joined the Citizens News Service in 2008. Then my own understanding of sexual and reproductive health grew. I started leading Vote for Health, a policy, advocacy, and communication campaign that addresses structural drivers that negatively impact health and development outcomes. We work in schools and colleges. Eventually the Indian Society Against Smoking merged into Vote for Health.

Rewire: Have you faced any challenges when trying to bring this information into schools?

RKD: We find it very difficult to convince school administrations to prioritize sexual and reproductive health issues. They often say that there is no need for such discussions with the young. Rather, they want to talk about less controversial things, like anti-smoking. There is a culture of silence around sex and sexuality. There is an unavailability of safe places, which makes it even more difficult for youth to come forward and demand their rights.

Rewire: How has your work expanded since 2008?

RKD: I’ve gotten more involved with the issues. I organized Rights and Responsibilities Summer Training Camps to identify young leaders in Lucknow and educate them about sexual and reproductive rights. Since 2008, I have conducted at least seven or eight training sessions. That means I have trained more than 100 young people on what policies empower them and how they can seek information.

Rewire: What makes the Citizen News Service unique?

RKD: At the Citizen News Service, we do a lot of policy and advocacy initiatives, and we focus on involving the key populations that are affected. We engage with people living with HIV, people living with Hepatitis C or tuberculosis, people living with diabetes, with women, young people, transgender people, men who have sex with men. We document their voices and disseminate them on social media platforms.

Rewire: What are some of your personal goals for your future work?

RKD: I want to enhance the visibility of young voices. Young voices should be recognized, and young peoples’ participation in these issues should be meaningful, not just tokenistic. Somehow we need to break this culture of silence around sex and sexuality. Until and unless we break the silence, I don’t think there will be any sustainable impact on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

When I grew up, there was limited information available around sexual and reproductive issues. Nowadays there is increased access to information. That is of course good, but there are also caveats. There are now unreliable sources of information, such as pornography. That means it’s even more critical to work on these issues. That is why I am advocating and educating on this issue, and trying to build youth competence. Young people are not only part of the problem, but they are also part of the solution.

Michael Byer is a research and communications assistant at Louisiana Progress, a statewide advocacy organization. He has also helped organize the Louisiana Queer Conference, and was a past intern at GLSEN.

Rewire: What is your involvement in this program?

Michael Byer: I’m a research and communications assistant at Louisiana Progress. Louisiana Progress is a progressive statewide advocacy organization trying to do movement building in order to change Louisiana into a more progressive state. [Laughs] It may be a shock to people that we’re not.

We’re trying to do it on lots of broad levels. A lot of what we do is statewide policy advocacy as well as education by hosting forums. There’s a huge barrier as far as progressive media goes to talking about what is happening. It used to be that there were media who had to come to the legislature and who could put a check on a lot of these things, but there are only maybe two or three reporters now. And so we do a lot of broad-ranging things.

Rewire: When you say you’re an advocacy group, is it specific to sexual and reproductive health?

MB: No, it’s way broader than that. For example, during the next legislative session we’re going to do things on racial profiling, we’re running a version of ENDA (the Employment Nondiscrimination Act) in Louisiana, we’re doing things on foster care and child care, and we may do something on juvenile justice. We are trying to figure out what we’re going to do about sexual and reproductive health during this legislative session too. We’re working closely with the people at Planned Parenthood to talk about what to do there.

Rewire: What inspired you to do this kind of work?

MB: A lot of it was my own personal experience. I went to a Catholic school in New Orleans and was the only out gay kid in my grade. It was an all-male Catholic school. That informed me about how the system I was in—the Catholic school system—was not set up for someone like me to succeed. I had to search for support.

I remember being in our health class, and they were saying, “You can’t have sex until you’re married.” And I remember initially thinking, “Well, I can’t get married. They’re not talking about me. They’re not talking about ways that I can be healthy.” The only time they brought anything up about gay people was when they talked about how gay people were impacted by HIV or how gay people have higher rates of HIV. But there was no connection about what to do about it. No one ever told me how I was supposed to care for myself. No one had ever taught me that. And the only thing they said about sex is if you’re not married, don’t do it.

And so I would have people who would come up to me and ask questions. For example, a close friend came up to me and she said, “My boyfriend and I had sex.” I said, “OK.” And then she says, “I have to ask you a question.” I said, “OK.” Now, she went to an all girls’ Catholic school—Catholic schools are very prominent in New Orleans—and she said, “So if you ‘pull out’ you can’t get pregnant, right?” And I said, “No!” And she slammed her hand on the table and said, “No one ever told me!” So I’m passionate about this because we have been denied crucial information that would give us control over our lives.

Here’s another example: In college, at Louisiana State University, I went to the doctor because I had gotten a call from someone I had slept with saying that he had contracted chlamydia, and that I was the last person he had slept with. So I was freaking out and thought, “What can I do? What are the steps I can take to do something about this?” So I thought I’d go to the health center.

So I’m at the health center and telling the provider about this. She said, “We can get you tested.” I said, “OK, great.” So she said, “You’ll find out the results tomorrow.” Later she calls me and she says, “It’s negative. You don’t have chlamydia.” I said, “OK, great. This is awesome.” And she said, “Yeah, I know. I was surprised too.” And I said, “What?” And she says, “Well, considering you sleep with men.”

Rewire: Well that has nothing to do with anything!

MB: Right. Providers weren’t given ideas about what compassionate care looks like. And so I’m really turned off by going to the people who are supposed to be treating me. Schools weren’t set up to help me. The health-care system and doctors weren’t set up to even react to the things that were happening to me because of this lack of information. And that’s why I’m passionate about this. I got so frustrated and worn down and exhausted by stuff happening on a day-to-day basis. Not just to me, but to friends around me. I have friends who tried to get birth control, and providers would make them take all sorts of tests and would say all sorts of insulting things about the people who were trying to get care.

Rewire: So you’re really focused on providing accurate, reality-based information to people about sexuality education, and at the same time making sure that the people providing that information and care are doing it in a compassionate manner?

MB: Well, we are focused on the legislative level and trying to improve it there. If we can change the conversation at that level, and get people at that level to change and have conversations in their communities, that will lead to broader change.

Louisiana Progress is doing very broad things. We’re doing movement-building at the ground level and then also trying to do it in the legislature because people have written the legislature off. They say, “Well you can’t do anything there. There’s nothing productive that can ever happen there right now because of the makeup of the legislature and because the forces are too strong.” So we’re trying to get small wins because we can only have small wins at this time.

Rewire: Where do you see yourself in five years?

MB: Hopefully I’ll be getting out of law school. But I don’t want to practice; I want to do policy. I like law a lot. Even tweaking very small things has a huge impact on people’s lives. Trying to find little ways that we can have a huge impact. So, for example, at Louisiana Progress last year, one of the finalists for the Youth Champions Initiative was able to pass a bill that made it easier for homeless families to access childcare in Louisiana. It only affected 100 families. That was the target. But it was altering the way we were using a federal grant at the state level. Small stuff like that related to broadening access is something that I hope to be able to do in Louisiana.

What’s frustrating is that the people who could change the state leave. There’s a shortage of people who are committed to broadening access in a lot of the areas we are working in. The people with a lot of resources end up leaving. The people who stay are the ones who are really committed to the area or have family and never left. I want to leave and see how other places work, and then come back.

A big problem is that people don’t know what other people have in other places. If people only knew the amount of public resources that are available in other areas of the country, people would be protesting in the street every night! People would be so angry.

Rewire: What kind of things would you like to see change in Louisiana?

MB: The oil companies in Louisiana have bought the legislature. They’ve bought every statewide elected official. And so people were shocked when a Democrat from Louisiana—Mary Landrieu—was basically acting as the personal spokeswoman for the oil and gas industry, doing the Keystone XL pipeline. Oil and gas companies have been able to get away with so much for a long time, and have been able to buy politics, and have bought a lot of the politicians.

Even in a local school board election in Baton Rouge, Aramark—a private prison company—is contributing to make sure that someone who is pro-charter schools wins the election. We know that charter schools disproportionately punish students of color. We know they punish LGBT students more than non-LGBT students. They will put more people in prison, so Aramark donates to them.

Our politics have been bought. It’s pay-to-play. People don’t realize what is happening: that our state has been bought and sold to the highest bidder, and the highest bidder is the oil and gas companies and other corporations. So anything that happens that’s good is good for them, and it’s not good for everyone at the ground level. So people don’t even realize what’s happening, because everything seems great: We still have our food, we still go to church on Sunday, everything about our lives is the same, even though it’s not. Things have changed dramatically.

Rewire: What do you think needs to change in the sexual and reproductive health field?

MB: In sexual and reproductive health, I think the important thing is that we haven’t trusted people about where they are. If someone says, “I’m LGBT,” we don’t trust them. If a woman says she needs to have an abortion, we don’t trust her.

One of the problems is that there are faith leaders who have taken over the conversation and have said, “This is what God says, and if you don’t do this, or if you talk about it, you’re going against God’s will.” So we need to take back that conversation. There are tons of faith leaders who have been shut up by a lot of what’s happening and have been told that their view is not actually the Christian or mainstream view. They’ve been shut out of the conversation. If we can get them to to show up at places like the legislature or talk about it in their communities, that will have a dramatic impact on a lot of what’s happening in the state.

Neha Mankani is the monitoring and evaluation manager at Aahang, a Karachi, Pakistan-based sexual and reproductive health and rights organization.

Rewire: What does Aahang do?

Neha Mankani: There are two components: We work with teachers to build capacity and provide life skills education in schools and with community workers who talk to the community about marriage, family planning, and nutrition. And the other component involves working with health-care professionals to train their faculty members on the provision of a client-centered approach, and on STIs, and things like that.

Rewire: What got you interested in this line of work? What was your inspiration?

NM: When I got out of undergrad, I just wanted to be in the development sector because it was all I knew, but then I became interested in Aahang because it’s one of the few organizations in Pakistan focusing on sexual and reproductive health, and I was really intrigued about how one works on sexual and reproductive health in Pakistan—I just wanted to know. Then I started working there, and the kinds of things I would see in the field were just so interesting, like being able to train female welfare workers on a better client-centered approach and how to talk to their clients. They would tell us all these crazy stories, like this woman who came for an abortion six times in eight years because her husband kept “renting” her out to his friends. Just in that year-and-a-half that I was initially there, I heard powerful stories. So public health, reproductive health—this is what I want to work on.

Rewire: You mentioned training female welfare workers: Welfare means a different thing to many people in the United States, so can you explain what you mean by that?

NM: A female welfare worker is a community health worker who provides basic primary health-care services and contraception and basic reproductive health services.

Rewire: When you talk about a client-centered approach, what do you mean by that? Is there an approach that is the opposite of that?

NM: Yes, physician-centered is the opposite of client-centered. Client-centered is about talking to people with respect and dignity—asking questions and ensuring that there’s going to be follow-up to treatment protocols and making patients feel comfortable. It shouldn’t be a scary situation for clients; clients should keep using health services.

Rewire: In the United States, abortion is a very taboo issue and I imagine it’s probably the same in Pakistan. Can you tell me some of the challenges you face in trying to do the work that you do?

NM: There’s a lot of challenges working on these topics. In life skills education—that’s what we provide in schools—it’s actually a very neutral curriculum. We don’t really talk about sex. We talk about puberty, communication, negotiation, and decision-making. But even getting that curriculum into rural areas is really challenging, because if people misconstrue what we’re trying to do, we can get shut down.

We’ve had instances where we’ve worked with organizations, and someone in the community thought we were providing sex education, and the programs shut down for a little while.

As for abortion: We have a couple of projects dealing with abortion. And that is really difficult. We always frame it in the context of post-abortion care. We don’t ever really say “abortion services,” because there’s so much stigma associated with talking about abortion and talking about sex. So there are a lot of constraints. I know that we’ve trained providers on provision of post-abortion care services; they’re trained, and they want to do it, but there are such strict policies in place that they’re actually really nervous about it.

Rewire: What kind of policies?

NM: Policies against the provision of abortion.

Rewire: So abortion is legal in Pakistan?

NM: Yes. Abortion is legal in Pakistan, but only under certain circumstances. You can do it for rape, incest, and health of the mother.

Our projects are mostly not about promoting abortion, but about working with physicians to ensure that all the women who are dying of post-abortion complications because of things like coat-hanger abortions—to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Rewire: So you’re not involved in the actual provision side—you’re involved in training people on how to care for women who have already had abortions.

NM: Yes. Like using misoprostol to deal with post-abortion complications. We also do a lot of value clarification with providers because they can’t even do post-abortion care until their values on abortion are clarified.

Rewire: What does “value clarification” mean?

NM: We do these exercises with providers: We make them look at their own values and figure out why they think that way about abortion.

Rewire: So you’re trying to reduce providers’ personal stigma so they’re not transferring their attitudes about abortion to their patients?

NM: Yes. It’s been really effective because afterwards they turn around and say, “There have been a lot of times I’ve turned women away because of something that I thought.” What we do is train them to be able to separate what they think themselves. It’s the difference between being a provider and your personal attitudes.

Rewire: So basically you’re trying to change the way these people think about abortion so they’re not furthering the stigma for women, either by turning them away or treating them poorly while providing care for them?

NM: Yes.

Rewire: Tell me a bit more about why this work is important in Pakistan.

NM: Right now adolescent sexual and reproductive health is a really big issue for Pakistan, for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that the population under the age of 25 is so large, and we really need to take advantage of the demographic dividend before it turns into a disaster.

Also, the schools we work in, where we’re providing comprehensive sex education, are lower- to middle-income schools, and our evaluations have shown us that the work we do is really impacting girls’ lives there. Girls have come back and told us, “After this program, I negotiated with my parents about staying in school for one more year,” or “I convinced my aunt not to get my cousin married at age 16.” We’ve had parents say, “I trust my daughter more, so I let her go out to the market by herself, because she seems more confident and she seems like she knows what she’s doing.” So really interesting things are coming out of this program.

The other part is that we have learning forums to get teachers to share what their experiences have been. Teachers are equipped much better to deal with cases of sexual violence in schools, and they tell us stories about how girls have become more confident and are telling them what’s been happening with them. There are a lot of stories about violence in the home. People will say, “My neighbor came in and abused me,” or “This person would touch me, and I never had the confidence to talk to anyone about it before, but now I’m telling you.” The teacher can intervene and make sure the girl gets what she needs.

Rewire: So it’s beyond just health care. It’s more of a holistic approach.

NM: It’s a package.

Rewire: It’s also a feminist approach, in terms of teaching girls about their own liberation and teaching them to be confident.

NM: Right. It teaches them to say, “This is what I need, and this is why I think I need it. We do a lot of work on early marriage prevention, and the strategy we’re taking is to go to schools and empower these girls, and give them the skills they need to talk about these things with their families. Even just bringing it up with their families, that’s a critical step—to say, “You know what? I don’t want to get married at 15.” Sexual violence, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment are other things that these girls have become better equipped to deal with.

Rewire: Did you find in your own life that there was a struggle to get advanced education? Was there any push-back from your family?

NM: No, there wasn’t any push-back really. That’s also been interesting for me—to think that these things have been really easy for me, but it’s not easy for a lot of people.

It’s really interesting that in Pakistan there aren’t that many in the development sector and there aren’t that many people who have a solid enough background to be able to work on it properly. That’s why I feel like it’s really important to keep working on it.

Rewire: What do you want to be doing in five years?

NM: I am really interested in maternal health. So I’m going to be in training to become a midwife. I’m going to start that in a few months. And then I want to combine my maternal health technical knowledge with my public health knowledge and develop programs with the proper technical skills.

The above interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.


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