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.
What are the implications of the Bush administration’s denial of funds to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)? — Name not provided
In 1969, the U.S. was integral in the formation of UNFPA, recognizing the importance of providing women’s health care. Since 2002, the U.S. has withheld $161 million from UNFPA. The denial of funds strips the moral, political, and financial weight of the U.S. as an ally of women in the international community. While USAID provides some funds internationally, it only supports areas that are strategic to U.S. growth. UNFPA provides funding without bias, but at least 60 countries supported by UNFPA have been left without any U.S. government support.
Can you tell a first-person story of the impact that the Bush administration’s policies regarding reproductive rights have had on women in other countries? — Carlotta Tyler, Salem, Mass.
Bush has been overwhelmingly opposed to women’s empowerment in all foreign-policy matters. His defunding of UNFPA, in particular, has a direct impact on the health and dignity of women. For 10 days this month, I had the fortune of hosting Agnes Pareyio, a leading activist against female genital cutting (FGC) in Kenya. Though proud of her Maasai heritage, Agnes knew that certain traditional practices in Kenya that led to her genital cutting were harmful and unnecessary. With support from UNFPA and V-Day, Agnes educates her community about the dangers of FGC. She started the Tasaru Girls’ Rescue Center, where she houses girls escaping FGC; 68 girls reside there now. She also created an alternative rite of passage into womanhood instead of FGC, which many parents now voluntarily allow their daughters to participate in; 680 girls have gone through the program. It is programs like Agnes’, to protect women and prevent female genital cutting, that the Bush administration’s policies are not supporting as a result of its defunding of UNFPA.
I had my first child at 23, and my third at the age of 30. I am now 50 years old, and my mate and I have recently, accidentally, blissfully conceived! What is the updated info regarding risks related to childbirth later in life? — Valerie Moore, Denver, Colo.
It is wonderful that your children came into your life and that you warmly received them. Let me say up front that I am not an expert on childbirth later in life, though I do know that these later-in-life pregnancies are fairly common. That being said, I urge you to talk with your OB-GYN immediately if you have not already done so.
I consider a person’s ability to decide the number and spacing of their children to be a human right. This right is denied to millions of women around the world because they lack money and access to health care and are often devalued by their community. Women are often in a position of having more children than they would choose, and many women die in childbirth because they lack access to quality care. You may be surprised to know that 200 million women want but cannot get access to contraception. UNFPA’s vision is a world where all women are as delighted with their pregnancies as you seem to be, and where women have access to safe, quality care alongside access to contraception to ensure that every pregnancy is safe and wanted.
Can you explain UNFPA’s current role in China? — Name not provided
UNFPA currently concentrates its assistance in 30 Chinese counties that have experimented with ways to improve service and give clients control over reproductive decisions to bring them in line with human-rights principles. UNFPA’s program places greatest priority on reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention.
UNFPA’s program in China was developed with the express purpose of moving China away from coercion in family planning. As a condition of assistance, all birth quotas were lifted in the counties where UNFPA operates. As a result, Chinese women have begun making their own decisions about contraception and fertility. Between 1998 and 2003, knowledge of modern contraception methods doubled to more than 85 percent; female sterilization declined by 16 percent and contraceptive prevalence reached almost 90 percent; the abortion rate declined from 1.8 percent to 1.1 percent; the percentage of women aged 25 to 39 who had a gynecological checkup went from 32 percent to 68 percent; knowledge of how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and strategies for preventing transmission increased dramatically; and infant and maternal mortality rates declined.
If being an environmentalist is driven by the desire, among other things, for healthy human beings, isn’t supporting abortion on demand an anti-environmentalist position? — Jim Scarantino, Albuquerque, N.M.
UNFPA is the U.N. women’s health agency and supports critical services — such as safe motherhood, family planning, and the prevention of violence against women — in over 140 countries in the world. It does not promote abortion as a method of family planning.
My personal view is that it is critical for women to be empowered and to have the ability to make choices fundamental to their lives. Women need to have the ability to decide whether or not to engage in sexual activity and have children. We also deserve to live our lives free of violence. Empowering women is critical to a strong environmental policy because, as one of the most vulnerable groups in the world, women often lack access to a clean environment.
When will women’s rights include the right to give birth to their children instead of feeling pressure from elitist groups like yours to do away with their own? When society reaches a point where we are truly supportive of women, this inhumane practice will stop and we will instead teach women how to care and feed themselves and their children. This is still a man’s world where women are expected to do as they are told for their own good. — Carol, Dallas, Texas
UNFPA and Americans for UNFPA are founded on the vision of empowering women. As a lifelong advocate for women’s equality, I agree that it is a man’s world, and I look forward to a day when it is both a woman’s and man’s world. But this can only happen if we educate women, empower them to get jobs, and support them in their life goals and life choices. That is the beauty of empowerment. An empowered woman need not listen to me, to you, or to anyone else — she will make up her own mind. That is what humanity and equality are all about.
The earth was never meant to support the population as it is now. My suggestion is population control and controlled breeding of humans. Where are we going to put all the people now that oceans are rising and starvation and thirst are imminent? And how do we cut back population growth? — Carol Edger Magill, Georgetown, Ontario, Canada
I share your concern for the environment. However, it is important to recognize that the environmental footprint of a person in the U.S. is 10 to 15 times that of someone in sub-Saharan Africa. A person’s environmental impact is dependent on how we consume and live our lives. It is about the excessive number of cars and the lack of recycling, and not just about the number of children people have. In both eastern and western Europe we see that population growth is declining, but a European’s environmental footprint is heavier because of the relative industrialization of this region. It is misguided to always think about the number of people without looking at the impact of each person’s environmental footprint, particularly the footprint of those in industrialized countries.
One thing I believe in is a man’s right to abortion. Once a child is conceived in the womb, the woman has full control of what happens next; the man has no rights whatsoever. Do you support that since a woman has 99.9 percent of child-bearing rights, the woman should then bear 99.9 percent of all the care, education, and nurturing of the child? — John Bailo, Kent, Wash.
I find it interesting that I have received many questions about abortion despite the fact that it is not an issue I discussed, and despite the fact that UNFPA does not promote abortion as a method of family planning. Internationally, the terms “reproductive health,” “reproductive rights,” and “choice” encompass a huge array of women’s health problems. Two hundred million women have an unmet need for family planning, and 2 million girls are at risk each year of female genital cutting. And, I’m sure that when you hear that 529,000 women die each year from preventable pregnancy-related causes, you can see that women have the right to adequate reproductive health care. It is UNFPA’s important task to help overcome these overwhelming issues.
Do you believe that abortion will reduce the population and thus the CO2 entering the atmosphere? Maybe we should all hold our breath for one minute a day to reduce CO2 emissions? What lunacy! — Gary H. Bauer
I have never even thought of abortions and CO2 emissions in the same breath! I agree that it is absolute lunacy to discuss abortions as reducing CO2 emissions! Emissions correlate to industrialization. The world could reduce CO2 emissions if we developed cleaner technology and if our corporations were more environmentally conscious.
I am currently pursuing research in cognitive science at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India. I always dreamt of joining the U.N. as an active member while performing something related to the environment. Can you suggest to me how I can become a member of such an esteemed organization while working from my home? — Proshanto Saha, Varanasi, India
Volunteer with U.N.-associated organizations or causes. In Varanasi, there are numerous NGOs working on matters that are of vital concern to the United Nations. Join these groups and learn about the challenges of doing work at the field level. Take time to join email lists and visit websites that will help you stay current on topics that matter to you. Taking the time to visit Grist and post a question shows that you are already doing this. I encourage you to continue to stay active, and welcome you to visit Americans for UNFPA and join our global online community.