Anika Rahman, women’s- and reproductive-rights advocate, answers questions
What work do you do? What’s your job title?
I’m the president of Americans for UNFPA. UNFPA, or the United Nations Population Fund, is essentially the United Nations’ women’s health agency. It provides women’s health care and promotes the rights of women all over the world. Working in 140 countries, it is the largest international source of such assistance. Americans for UNFPA is UNFPA’s official country committee in the United States, and we are dedicated to building moral, political, and financial support in this country for the work of UNFPA.
How does it relate to the environment?
My role is to increase American engagement in the promotion of the health and rights of women globally. A large part of this engagement includes restoring the United States’ annual contribution to UNFPA, which is withheld by the current administration.
My work has a symbiotic relationship to environmental issues because so much depends on improving the quality of women’s lives. By empowering women to make reproductive choices and pursue educational advancement through organizations like UNFPA, women are able to make personal choices. It is disproportionately difficult for low-income women to protect themselves from environmental degradation. If women are empowered in their lives, it will lead them to be empowered in their environmental work as well.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently we are launching a communications and advocacy campaign based on the concept that women anywhere can make a difference everywhere. Our plan is to build a global community — a large group of women from all over the world — to support each other so that even small actions add up to big ones. While one woman in a low-income country can improve the lives of all women by sending her daughter to school, one woman in the United States can improve the lives of all women by taking political action — writing to her legislator, signing a petition, or holding a house party to educate friends.
Rather than relying on the current model for global development that relies on Western women giving and women in low-income countries receiving, “One Woman Can” will emphasize our shared responsibility for the health and dignity of women everywhere.
How do you get to work?
I take the subway.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I went to Columbia law school and got a job at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, where I practiced international law. Corporate law was not for me for the long term, so I joined a nonprofit start-up, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (now the Center for Reproductive Rights), where I was the founding director of the international program. I was responsible for the expansion of the center’s global and U.S. foreign-policy programs. Under my leadership, CRLP forged collaborative efforts with women’s rights organizations around the world, and was a strong advocate for placing reproductive rights within the context of international human rights.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Bangladesh and raised there and in Pakistan. I came to the United States to attend university and I now live in Manhattan.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
The worst moment is actually many moments. It’s the pain and helplessness I feel when I witness suffering. Most recently it was women living in a dump site in Cambodia; 80 percent of the women on the site were infected with AIDS, and they were living amidst garbage in small shacks with two or three other families. Despite the vast improvements we are making in the lives of women globally, when I go into the field, the suffering I continue to see is dreadful and it’s the harsh reality that there is still so much work to be done.
What’s been the best?
In 1999, while at the Center for Reproductive Rights, I completed my first human-rights fact-finding report in Peru and was able to deliver justice on behalf of a low-income indigenous woman who was raped and abused within the public health system. Though I never met her, I spent more than three years fighting for her compensation and justice, and the journey reinforced my commitment to the principle of vulnerable people accessing and achieving justice. It was rewarding to be a part of the team approach to human-rights fact-finding, and to know that I helped pave the way to prevent future victimization and ensure justice for all victims, especially those who often don’t have a voice.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
It’s the unnecessary paper that is thrown into bags at the store. Why wrap a pair of pants in tissue, as I’ll only throw out the excess paper as soon as I go home? I often ask the cashier to resist from wrapping the clothes, and they always look at me like I have 10 heads!
Who is your environmental hero?
Whoever came up with the idea of recycling!
What’s your environmental vice?
Takeout. In our “on the run” world, I regret that I so often end up with paper coffee cup in hand and a plastic lunch container to be dumped in the nearest garbage can. At Americans for UNFPA we’ve been making progress in this area, using ceramic cups and plates instead of paper or plastic ones as often as we can.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?
With my three-year-old daughter. We travel together and I try to expose her to different cultures and help her appreciate the world. She’s very artistic, loves animals, and is athletic too! She keeps me busy.
Read any good books lately?
Most of my pleasure reading these days is limited to what my daughter is interested in. Lately it has been English-Bengali books, the Elmer series.
What’s your favorite meal?
Anything South Asian. Usually a combination of rice, dhal, a vegetable, and shrimp or chicken curry.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m easily indignant when I see waste, especially in industrialized countries.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
A beautiful and quiet green field or garden in the sun.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
True access to clean drinking water.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
I wish there were more South Asian actresses to choose from, but in terms of spirit, I’d say Susan Sarandon.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Write, call, or email your legislator to call for the re-funding of UNFPA. Take the time to visit Americans for UNFPA to more closely see the link between women’s health and the environment, and how you can get involved.