Afternoon Roundup: Americans Support Contraception Access Yet Legislators Move The Other Way?

Amie Newman

It's the law for many women: a space to breast-feed or pump at work, but where and how?; Most Americans support access to contraception yet increasingly the political winds are blowing the other way; New Hampshire's parental notification bill and more...

It’s the law for many women: a space to breast-feed or pump at work, but where and how?; Most Americans support access to contraception yet increasingly the political winds are blowing the other way; New Hampshire’s parental notification bill and more…

  • There’s still time to make your nursing-mama voice (or advocate-for-nursing-mamas voice) heard! As part of the health reform law (the one House Republicans are intent on repealing), employers are required to provide nursing and pumping mothers with “reasonable break time” to pump or nurse as well as an appropriate space in which to do so. The Department of Labor is drawing up the guidelines and is asking for public input (what spaces within an office setting are appropriate? what about employees who work in “non fixed space” settings, ie bus drivers, law enforcement officers?). You can and should comment, if you’ve got input! has info on how to do so here. 
  • Please go to and read Sharon Lerner’s excellent in-depth article, “Does Contraception Count as Prevention?,” on the incongruous nature of the harsh political realities we seem to be facing, on the state and federal levels, when it comes to contraceptive coverage and funding of providers like Planned Parenthood, juxtaposed with what most Americans support (greater access to birth control, federal funding for health centers which help facilitate this). 
  • According to, an HIV positive man was sentenced to 50 years in prison for “having sex with a minor and transmitting the disease to her.” The man was aware of his status when he lured her via Facebook; the victim is now only 15 years old.
  • Young feminists take note! CREA, an international, feminist, human rights organization based in New Delhi is organizing it Sexuality, Gender and Rights Institute this year in Istanbul, Turkey. You can find the link to apply and more information here! From the description of the institute: “CREA’s Sexuality, Gender and Rights Institute is an annual, week-long, residential course – begun in 2007 – that focuses on a conceptual study of sexuality. It examines the links between sexuality, rights, gender, and health and their interface with socio-cultural and legal issues. Participants critically analyze policy, research and program interventions using a rights-based approach.”
  • Womens eNews reports on New Hampshire anti-choice Republicans’ efforts to pass a parental notification bill, with other states to likely follow. After thirty years, given the sweeping, extremist anti-choice sentiment amonst Republicans in Congress now, they feel this year will be the year.

News Human Rights

Live from Rio+20, Day Three: “The Voices of Women”

Vicky Markham

Today I participated in an extraordinary side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s lives: A Cross-General Dialogue” at the Ford Foundation Pavilion. This event was very intimate, it drew you in, with women’s personal stories for Rio+20 and beyond.

See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

The Rio+20 conference is now entering its last days, final negotiations have begun, and tensions are rising as the challenge to our issues is acute. There’ve been demonstrations, heightened advocacy, and frustration:  while we know the issues of “women, reproductive health and environmentally sustainable development” are integrated in the real world (thus essential to achieving the goals of this Earth Summit),  coming away with anything less than them being central and overarching in the final Rio+20 document would be a major disappointment, and more.  Let’s see what the last days actually bring, things can still change.  Soon the Rio+20 outcome document will be finalized and all will be heading home. Participants here are tired, distances to each meeting venue is great, shuttle-busing from one end of the city to the next. Though it’s not a total hardship, we are in Rio de Janeiro after all, beaches, palms, coastline, and the gracious Brazilian hosts.

Today I participated in an extraordinary side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s lives: A Cross-General Dialogue” at the Ford Foundation Pavilion, co-organized by Climate Wise Women, my own organization,  Center for Environment and Population (CEP), and Columbia University’s Coalition for Sustainable Development.

This event was very intimate, it drew you in, with women’s personal stories for Rio+20 and beyond.  It featured six outstanding global women activists of different generations (from Uganda, Nigeria, Cook Islands, Mississippi/US, Philippines, and Brazil) who shared their colorful personal narratives to help us understand the cross-cutting impacts of climate change and other environmental issues on their lives.  In conversation they discussed the importance of women’s empowerment and reproductive health, and new, innovative connections among women of all ages for practical implementation of the Rio+20 outcome and beyond.   

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We were honored by the attendance of two outstanding global leaders on these issues, Nilcéa Freire, Ford Foundation’s Brazil Representative and gender expert, and the Honorable Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ). Tracy Mann, Director of Climate Wise Women (CW2) moderated, and guest speakers included: Ulamila Kurai Wragg, Executive Director, Pacific Gender Coalition, Rarotonga, Cook Islands; Constance Okollet, Chairperson, Osukuru United Women’s Network, Tororo, Uganda; Sharon Hanshaw, Director, Coastal Women For Change (CWC), Biloxi, Mississippi, USA; Esperanza Garcia, Co-Founder, International Youth Council, President of Philippine Youth Climate Movement and youth leader at the Columbia University’s Coalition for Sustainable Development; Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, Nigeria, Visiting Advocacy Fellow with Population Action International (PAI) in Washington DC and a member of the “Elders+Youngers” Initiative of The Elders around Rio+20, and; Ana Paula Sciammarella, Human Rights Attorney and Member of the Network of Brazilian Women.

Tracy Mann set the scene,  emphasizing the importance of integrating formal, high-level, international negotiations like Rio+20 with the compelling personal stories of women who experience environmental impacts like climate change in their own villages and communities around the world.  She pointed out how older can teach young, and young can teach older, a theme of today’s event. As each of the women’s stories unfolded I felt like I was sitting around a campfire on a Pacific Cook Island beach or Ugandan village thatched meeting house…the women themselves were colorful in their bright gold, shocking pink, and bronze fabrics, Pacific Island and African prints, and their stories were even more so.

I felt like I was with family – my mother, grandmother or younger extended-family female member – telling me of their life’s experiences and challenges in some exotic setting, and how they personally felt about the issues now being debated at the seemingly more remote, formal Rio+20 negotiations down the road.  While these issues on the surface may seem disparate, they showed us they are not, but very much intertwined in daily life on a Pacific Island coastal village, African farming village, or American town, and that all our lives are acutely affected by global negotiations like Rio+20.  

Sharon Hanshaw, an American-south activist who lost her home during Hurricane Katrina, pointed out, “We ‘Climate Wise Women’, and all of us here, are demographically distant, but so alike” and described how her life changed since the storm, prompting her to organize and legitimize local women for a say in decisions about how climate change affects her family and community.  

She reflected on several themes the group collectively shared:

  • “Climate change has brought us women activists together, it’s our commonality for action because although demographically different, we found we are so alike.”
  • “We didn’t know that what was happening to us – the severe storms, the drought, the flooding, the change in seasonality – was actually climate change. Now we know, we are more informed about the issues, and we’ve organized to do something about it.”
  • “We used to call it weather, storms, now we know to call it climate change.”
  • “We are all one voice to change how we think about green space, and women’s equality, they go hand in hand. We know it, now we want our leaders and negotiators to know it. We are leaders too, we deserve a legitimate place at the decision-making table.”

Constance Okollet, a self-described peasant farmer from Uganda was resplendent in her opulent yellow dress, and her calm and story-telling drew you in, “Come to me, I have stories to tell” made one want to spend the day doing just that.  She talked about the stark difference between the Uganda village of her youth with distinct seasons, dense vegetation and abundant water and animals, to now, where there were no more seasons, and the plants, animals and water are sparse, gone, or far afield.  She learned that what she was experiencing for the most part was due to climate-change induced severe weather, the extremes of flooding and prolonged drought.  She decided to do something about these changes and became a grassroots women’s organizer in her village because, she said, “Climate change is gambling with agriculture, our main source of food and income, and causing spread of diseases like cholera and malaria…Our vulnerable communities need a voice, and I am the voice.”

The Honorable Mary Robinson’s message was powerful, pointing out that women’s stories like those heard today should be at the core of UN debates, such as Rio+20.  She said, “It is essential that these women’s voices come out, be part of the UN debates. They put a human face to climate change, the face of climate change is a peasant farmer from Uganda, or a slum dweller in Brazil.  Climate change is hurting our poorest communities, our most vulnerable, and they are not responsible for climate change. Those most affected are not responsible yet bearing the brunt of its impacts. She had two messages here at Rio+20: we need to come at this from a human rights issue, and these issues of importance to women don’t get raised, they need a critical mass of women who come together. That’s why this group of Climate Wise Women and those like them are critical.”

Mrs. Robinson closed by stating that, “We also need women’s leadership on climate justice, and there needs to be a connection between the two, the women leaders at the UN and as heads of state, and the rural women and villagers, so they form a dialogue and input into global decisions about sustainable development, women’s empowerment, and reproductive health.  This connection is essential to bring the reality to this Rio+20 debate, and beyond.”

Esperanza Garcia and Ana Paula Sciammarella both eloquently represented the youth perspective, showing how the younger generation was concerned and highly organized from the local to global levels, for the future, and for their children.  They shook us to attention with their energy, passion and strong messages on involving youth in broader global sustainable development processes.  Ana Paula also discussed the difficulties of displacement faced by Rio favela women by climatic events, and the need for community and a shared platform for women’s voices in the society.

Ulamila Kurai Wragg relayed the Pacific Islands perspective, as sea level rise will likely render them refugees from their small island states.  In response, she mobilized local women and formed the Pacific Gender Coalition to document their perspective, and advocate on behalf of grassroots women in the Pacific region and to the rest of the world. She stressed the traditional gender-based roles in her Cook Islands and Fiji, how their livelihoods rely on the oceans as fishermen and women, and that her peoples’ lives are at stake.  She said, “Whatever happens with climate-caused sea level rise, we have to live with it, probably move from our homes, and I want to tell our perspective.”

Ulah stressed how a formal opportunity and network through organizations like CW2 and others like them was critical, because it helped bring attention to the many women and girls who have important stories to tell and knowledge to impart.  “There are many like me,” she said, “With unheard voices, their views are important to how we govern and treat our natural resources.  And reproductive health is a big part of it, the balance of people and the oceans, the natural environment, it has to be kept. The UN process has to value the gender and traditional-based knowledge, if not, that is a strong sign that something is wrong, it does not reflect the way life really is.”

Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, a youth peer-advocate from Nigeria, became involved because she wanted to become empowered to do something not only in her own country, but on a global scale.  She sees the strong connection between the natural environment and health issues such as reproductive health (RH) and rights, wants to advocate on addressing this connection. She said she was disappointed that RH and rights was not included in the Rio+20 document, and was meeting with country delegates and doing social media around these issues here in Rio. She’s also working with MRFCJ on inter-generational perspectives, bringing home the importance of cross pollination between young and older women, one learning from the other, and working as a team to achieve environmental sustainability and reproductive rights.

She told the BBC yesterday ,“We are more impacted than ever by the effects of climate change in all our lives, and as part of this, we also need access to reproductive health and have reproductive rights, because that provides us with choices and opportunities in our lives.  It’s all connected.”

Nilcéa Freire, of the Ford Foundation in Brazil, was compelling with a story about her 3 year old granddaughter.  She wanted to come to Rio+20 to “see the indigenous people”, and she’s learning about the environment and recycling at school.  Nilcéa said her granddaughter has many opportunities, yet that wasn’t true for girls in the Rio favelas, or the slums of South Africa or Pacific Islands. “We can’t predict the destinies for these girls in particular”, she stated, “Because we are not doing enough to include girls and women in the political power of the planet. When we waste more than half of the people of the planet, by not involving women and girls, we waste our future. That’s why we all need to work on gender-based issues, to increase these voices.”  

Nilcéa’ s closing thoughts left us with a charge:  “By Rio+40, will my granddaughter be able to say ‘We are grateful to our own grandmothers who did a good job for us at Rio+20’ – but will she able to say that?” I for one was not at all sure.

Tomorrow I will blog about a side-event on “The Demographic Dividend and Sustainable Development” co-organized by the US Agency for International Development, Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, and CEP, and look at next steps, including the UK DFID/Gates Foundation’s London Family Planning Summit in July and beyond.  Stay tuned…

Commentary Maternity and Birthing

In All the Debate About Breastfeeding, Where Is the Support For Mothers?

Jessica González-Rojas

In all the debate about breastfeeding and parenting, I know some choices will work for some mothers and not for others. But it is critical that as a society, we have the policies and infrastructure in place to support those decisions.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the back of a rental car on the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, heading towards a gap in the border fence near a sanctuary that a local organizer insisted we MUST see. My colleagues and I were on a field visit to do campaign planning and technical support on reproductive justice, organizing with our local activists that are part of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH). As we approached the visually painful 18-foot steel fence in the Sabal Palm Sanctuary section of the border, I pulled up a jacket over my chest as the border patrol agent was peeking into our vehicle.  I was pumping in the backseat, with my battery-powered Medela pump making that familiar ‘whish-whish’ sound. My nerves calmed once the border patrol agent let us pass without questioning what the heck I was doing attached to that machine.

As a new mom to a 9-month-old and a new Executive Director for a national reproductive justice organization, I find myself in precarious situations when on work travel. Do I bring my son? Can I find childcare? If not, who will care for my child while I am away? Where will I pump? Where do I store the milk? The quandary leaves me scrambling for resources that range from the kindness of friends, strangers and colleagues, to extra cash to cover overtime childcare costs. Both my partner and I have careers that require a high percentage of travel, leading to a decision to either pump or breastfeed on the road. Since I started my new role in mid-October, fresh off the return from parental leave, I have traveled 21 times to seven cities ranging from Washington, DC to Oakland, California. My son has joined me on a dozen of those trips; some have been quite exciting (White House Holiday Party where, at 4 months old, he was held by the President and First Lady) and others a unique experience (staying at a day-care in the Bay Area with a friend’s son for two days where only Chinese was spoken). At one meeting that provided on-site childcare, my child rotated to almost every lap of each of my colleagues, often chiming in the dialogue with a gurgle or a defiant ‘bah bah bah.’ I’ve nursed on trains, planes and automobiles… one time, performing acrobatic-like maneuvers to wiggle out of a back zippered dress on a shuttle flight in order to position my son to my breast, all while attempting to be “discreet.” I felt the stares of men in suits on that typically infant-free business flight from New York to Washington, DC. Despite the endless stories and struggles of traveling with my infant, I have felt very empowered that, as a new mom, I could ‘juggle it all’—a career I love and am passionate about, a positive and fulfilling personal life, and attempt at being the best parent I could to my precious little baby. But this is not without the anxiety and difficult decision-making that put me at odds with my independent style; I’ve had to plead for help and support in ways I have never done before.

In all the recent debate about attachment parenting, feminism and ‘extended’ nursing, including a New York Times ‘Room for Debate’ feature and a provocative Time magazine cover article, no one talks about the flip side of being a nursing working mama… pumping.  During the daily grind, I have to figure out ways to squeeze in three pump sessions a day (or more if traveling without my son), often excusing myself from meetings to seek a private refuge and attach myself to that darn pump. In addition to pumping in the back seat of a car at the Texas-Mexico border, I’ve pumped at countless random locations, including the U.S. Capitol, bathrooms at bars, funder’s offices, empty conference rooms, cramped Amtrak and airplane restrooms, closets, hotel rooms, and the ladies room at a sports arena during a Miami Heat basketball game. With a horrific gasp, I’ve spilled milk on my office carpet, a hotel bed and a conference room table. While on the pump, I’ve practiced speeches, joined conference calls, responded to emails or looked at photos of my baby (I am told it is supposed to help the ‘let down’… it doesn’t for me).  And speaking of ‘let down,’ how about the race to work with your heavy breast pump bag in tow (and its serpent-like tubing parts), getting the pumps in throughout the day, and the rush home to see your baby and find out what you pumped is just not enough for the next day. My partner would be the bearer of good or bad news, as he applied his biomedical engineering degree to measure the liquid gold to the milligram. Yes, pumping is the very un-glamorous side of the decision to breastfeed.  

But while it comes with the territory and along with the decision to breastfeed (or not), it should be supported. In all the debate about breastfeeding, I feel that it is a personal choice that may or may not work for all mothers; however, it is critical that as a society, we have the policies and infrastructure in place to support those decisions. We should not be relegated to a bathroom or closet because society has not deemed it critical to create private nursing or pumping spaces in public locations. We should not have to feel the burning judgmental stares because we decide to breastfeed on a plane, or anywhere in public. We should not have to hear the banter of folks who are uncomfortable with the idea of mothers continuing to nurse when children are ‘too old.’ We should not have to hear the denigration of mothers who are unable or uninterested in nursing at all. On this mama’s day, we — as a society — need to respect and support the decisions that women and families make when raising their children. We also need to serve as advocates for change at the political and societal level so that the U.S. is no longer one of the lowest-scoring industrialized countries to be a mom, with a dismal breastfeeding policy score of ‘poor’ and the only developed country to not guarantee paid parental leave. Until then, I will continue to keep track of my random nursing and pumping adventures, hoping for one day to turn this randomness into acceptance.

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