I joined the Field Team of Population Connection as the Advocacy Fellow during one of the most exciting times of the year, just two weeks before Capitol Hill Days (CHD) — a four-day event where participants spend the weekend in Washington, D.C., learning about the impact of U.S. policy on global reproductive rights, then head to Capitol Hill to meet with their senators and representatives to advocate for increased funding for and access to reproductive health care. This year, 404 activists from more than 25 states attended — our largest event yet!
The event began Friday with the presentation of the 4th annual Empower Her, Empower Humanity award to Representative Jacky Rosen, of Nevada’s 3rd district. As a champion for reproductive rights, she believes that government has no place getting between a patient and her doctor. Jacky supports pro-choice legislation and has fought against attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.
After the award was presented, I met participants, each with a different story about what led them to attend CHD. They all shared one important commonality, however: the desire to support reproductive rights nationally and internationally. I met a medical student from North Carolina studying to become an OBGYN. She was particularly concerned about restrictive abortion laws in North Carolina, where openly talking about sex, contraceptives, and abortion is often taboo.
On Saturday, participants attended workshops to hone their advocacy and grassroots organizing skills. I had the honor of introducing Melvine Ouyo, the Clinic Director at Family Health Options Kenya (FHOK). In her session, she described the negative impact Trump’s Gag Rule has had on her clinic. The Global Gag Rule is an executive order, reinstated and expanded by Donald Trump, that defunds foreign nongovernmental organizations that advocate for access to abortion, provide abortions, or refer patients to safe abortion services. The clinic where Melvine works provides cervical cancer screenings, contraceptives, family planning counseling, testing and treatment for HIV/AIDS, and other basic healthcare services. She must either forfeit the U.S. funding that supports these services or compromise her integrity by not disclosing the full range of reproductive healthcare options available to patients, despite abortion being legal in Kenya. To continue accepting U.S. funds would mean not being able tell her patients where to receive safe abortion care and would increase the number of unsafe and potentially deadly abortions. Melvine declined to abide by the Global Gag Rule. As a result, the clinic where she works lost U.S. funding.
A participant born in Mombasa, Kenya, stood up during Melvine’s session to concur that there aren’t adequate reproductive health options in Kenya, and to report that, in fact, one of the only clinics in her hometown was closed due to a lack of funding.
In her powerful keynote address, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, known as “Dr.T,” discussed the detrimental impact of Trump’s Global Gag Rule as well as the importance of family planning services in South Africa, where she lives and practices medicine. She encouraged us to become co-conspirators rather than merely allies. It is not enough simply to act in solidarity with oppressed groups — we need to take action. Her address left the room of over 400 people chanting “Amandla! Awethu!,” which translates to “Power! It’s ours!”
Sunday’s workshops focused on turning advocacy into action by engaging members of Congress. My favorite workshop, led by Ambalika Williams and Lisa Shannon, was a how-to on using storytelling as a form of advocacy. Ambalika shared her personal story of barriers she faced while trying to receive health care and taught us how we can use our own stories to appeal to the emotions of policy makers to help them understand why we need their support. When policy makers don’t face the same problems as marginalized communities, being able to share a personal story is a way to evoke understanding and compassion that can lead them to change their stance on issues or support causes.
Lobby Day began Monday morning as activists headed to Capitol Hill to meet with 156 congressional offices. Representative Mike Kelley of Pennsylvania’s 3rd district refused to meet his constituents, but that did not stop them from hosting a meeting with a cardboard cutout of his likeness, which we streamed over Facebook live.
Each participant brought a unique perspective and a different story about why reproductive rights are important to them. This opened my eyes to the injustices faced by marginalized communities. One of the most important skills I took away from the weekend was learning how to contact my representatives and senators and use my voice to combat the detrimental impact of Trump’s Gag Rule. Being one of the most impactful advocacy events I’ve attended, I plan on attending CHD annually and would highly recommend it to anyone who cares about reproductive rights for women and people locally, nationally, or internationally.