Feminist Majority Foundation Honors Women’s Rights Leaders


There are
some occasions in our lives that are truly magical, unforgettable, and
visionary. The evening of May 7, 2008 was one of these.

That night,
I was privileged to attend the gala dinner of The Feminist Majority
Foundation’s

Fourth Annual Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Global Women’s Rights in
Los Angeles. One of the illustrious honorees was my colleague and friend,
María Luisa Sánchez Fuentes. She is the executive director of the
Mexico City-based organization for which I am the US representative, Grupo de Información
en Reproducción Elegida/The Information Group on Reproductive Choice
, Mexico’s leading voice for reproductive
justice and access to legal abortion. For many years, María Luisa has
been deeply committed to women’s rights, dignity, respect, and the
decriminalization of abortion in Mexico. She was instrumental in the
incredible victory of April 24, 2007, when abortion in the first trimester
was decriminalized in Mexico City
. Women’s lives have been saved
since that momentous day, as more than 7,000 women have been able to
access quality and safe abortion care.

María Luisa
is one of those unassuming dynamic and inspirational leaders whose openness,
caring, articulation, power, and dynamism are infectious. In fact, May
7 was an evening of powerful leadership. The evening was
filled with the inspiration of many who have worked so hard to make
a difference in the lives of the women of the world.

Founded in
1987, the Feminist
Majority Foundation

(FMF) is the nation’s largest feminist research and action organization
dedicated to women’s equality, reproductive health, and non-violence.
The organization’s premise is that feminists — both women and men — who
believe in women’s equality are in the majority — but the majority must
be empowered. The FMF’s programs focus on advancing the legal, social,
and political equality of women with men, countering the backlash to
women’s advancement, and recruiting and training young feminists to
encourage future leadership in the feminist movement. The FMF consistently
incorporates a global focus in all of its work. Thus, their Campaign for Afghan
Women and Girls
,
launched in 1997, and chaired by the indomitable FMF board member Mavis Leno, is the first of its kind to build
a U.S. grassroots constituency around a foreign policy issue of women’s
rights.

Yet another
indomitable and respected leader who was present and whose vision was
keenly felt throughout the evening was Eleanor
"Ellie" Smeal
,
FMF’s president and one of its founders. Ellie has been a key women’s
rights leader for more than thirty years and is one of the architects
of the modern drive for women’s equality. In addition, Katherine
"Kathy" Spillar
,
another FMF founder, the executive vice-president of the FMF, and the
executive editor of Ms. Magazine, as well as Peg Yorkin, philanthropist,
and co-founder and board chair of FMF, also both welcomed and inspired
the audience to stand up and do more for women.

But the evening
really belonged to the three dedicated award winners who were present
that evening. All have made it their life’s work to serve the reproductive
health needs of women, especially in areas of the world where women’s
rights are severely compromised and where health care is sorely needed.
The honorees truly represent the best and the brightest.

Dr. Nafis
Sadik
became the executive director of the United Nations Population
Fund
(UNFPA) in
1987…just in time for women. Before she became UNFPA’s leader, the
agency was more likely to support coercive population policies than
truly see the larger picture of women’s health, rights, and gender
equity. When she accepted the post of UNFPA’s executive director,
Dr. Sadik became one of the highest-ranking women in the U.N. and the
first woman to ever serve as executive head of one of the U.N.’s major
voluntarily funded programs. Dr. Sadik, a Pakistani gynecologist, made
women’s empowerment and rights primary to the UNFPA mission. With
her dynamic vision and leadership, the agency has also tackled maternal
mortality, the feminization of AIDS, education for girls, and ending
poverty for women and girls. In 1994, she served as the Secretary-General
of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)
in Cairo and was instrumental in reshaping the world’s reproductive
health agenda. This resulted in a 20-year program setting forth guidelines
regarding women’s health, reproductive rights, reproductive health,
education, economic opportunity, gender equity, and development — all
considered to be landmark achievements. Now, as the special envoy to
the U.N. for HIV/AIDS in Asia, she continues to work for the empowerment
and equality of women and girls. She has repeatedly
spoken out
about
the feminization of the AIDS pandemic and the adverse effects of girls
having children at a very young age when they are s "physically, intellectually,
and emotionally underdeveloped."

Dr. Solomon
Orero
, a Kenyan gynecologist, has never fully accepted his country’s
statute outlawing abortion. Kenya has been described
as being one of 69 countries with the
"most restrictive laws" on abortion
.
In fact, according to the February 17, 2002 New York Times, women in
Africa are more likely to die during unsafe abortions than any other
women in any other place in the world. One in 150 abortions in Africa
end in death and the problem is particularly acute in the countries
of East Africa. Despite the numerous obstacles, possessing true vision
and leadership, Dr. Orero founded Kisumu Medical and Educational Trust,
which expands access to reproductive health services. He is able to
circumvent the oppressive abortion law of his country by using a loophole — the
exception allowing abortion to save a woman’s life — to perform safe
and respectful abortions for women and girls who would otherwise seek
out unsafe and life-threatening abortions. He has trained hundreds of
other health care workers to treat the brutal effects of botched abortions
and this has given them the tools to provide safe abortion care — and
save lives — as well. Besides being a provider and educator, Dr. Orero
also continues to fearlessly speak out against Kenya’s abortion law
and the deadly U.S.
Global Gag Rule
,
which has forced the closing of at least eight desperately needed women’s
health clinics in Kenya.

Last year,
following a multiple-year campaign and arduously working to educate
the many diverse sectors of Mexican society, first-trimester abortion
was decriminalized in Mexico City. One of the visionary leaders and
driving forces behind this incredible accomplishment for Mexican women’s
human rights and respect is María
Luisa Sánchez Fuentes
, the executive director of Grupo de Información
en Reproducción Elegida
.
María Luisa has long been committed to issues of women’s rights,
human rights, women’s dignity, and women’s poverty. Placing abortion
on the public agenda as issues of public health, social justice, equality,
and democracy, and declaring illegal and unsafe abortion to be a form
of torture and violence against women, combined with international trends
and international treaties that Mexico has signed, proved to be a brilliant and successful
strategy
that turned
back even the ferocious protests of the Catholic Church. Now,
with this breath-taking victory and "miracle of Mexico City," María
Luisa will continue to work relentlessly to lead GIRE forward in its
next critical efforts. These consist of training more hospital personnel
to provide safe and compassionate abortion care, decriminalizing abortion
in all of the states of Mexico, and turning back the constitutional
challenges to the new law that will be heard this summer by the Mexican
Supreme Court. María Luisa is truly a leader and role model for the
women of her country…and for all of us.

Of course,
all of the awardees are courageous and committed leaders and true humanitarians.
With conviction and compassion, these three amazing individuals have
changed the destinies of millions of women and girls-and saved their
lives. Their award is appropriately named for Eleanor Roosevelt, herself a visionary, humanitarian,
civil rights advocate, and passionate believer in human dignity and
worth. She always believed that her greatest achievement was her work
on the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which she imagined would
become a cornerstone in the
struggle for human rights

and fundamental freedoms for everyone, everywhere. And, in many ways,
it has.

To be surrounded
by inspiration, commitment, brilliance, passion, vision, power, and
leadership is truly spectacular and unforgettable, and gives me hope for
a better world and renewed respect and rights for women and girls.

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