I never thought I’d get to see Berlin in May, but I’m here. There is a calm in the breeze. The birds are perfectly in sync as they soar freely above the boats. As the sun pierces the sky, I lie at the edge of the water, reflecting on my performance and experiences over the past week at the Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen. It was quite a week. My time was filled with panels, presentations, conference sessions and interviews. My Rise Up colleagues and I were champions, as we utilized this global platform to educate the masses on Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) issues affecting women and girls in our communities.
A few months prior I attended the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) in Bali, Indonesia. I was so excited to be attending my very first international conference. I appreciated the diversity of participants. I appreciated the shared stories and learned experience of my international peers. I appreciated the unifying of SRHR advocates from all sides of the globe. Until of course, I noticed the lack of participation of black and brown people from the United States. Two days prior to the start of the main conference, I attended the ICFP Youth Pre-Conference. Of almost 1,000 global youth, I was the only African American present. Not to be mistaken with the presence of Africans. Nearly every African nation was represented in some way. However, the presence, and importantly, the voices of African Americans and Latinos were nearly nonexistent.
As the days passed and the conference took flight, of the nearly 6,000 attendees at ICFP, there were a total of six African Americans and a group of five Latinos. The next few days became a guessing game of which African nation I was a citizen. When I would share my American citizenship, no one believed me. It was as if African Americans did not exist, and importantly, neither did our problems, our struggles, or our pain. It was a harsh reality for me. The richest nation in the world, the land of the free and the home of the brave couldn’t possibly have problems. Women’s rights, women’s reproductive freedoms and accessibility to reproductive healthcare services could not possibly be in jeopardy in the United States of America. I almost forgot about America’s propaganda machine, which depicts a perfect nation to the rest of the world.
This experience solidified my purpose in this fight for equitable sexual reproductive health. In December of 2014, I was selected as a youth ambassador for SRHR. I became one of 23 youth leaders of the Youth Champions Initiative (YCI), which is a project of Rise Up and the Packard Foundation. The project was originally aimed to focus on Pakistan, India, and Ethiopia, until an executive strategically decided to add the U.S. South. Early on, when my peers decided to fight for SRHR issues such as ending child marriage, ending abuse of women and girls, and promoting education for young girls in their countries, I knew that my fight would be dedicated to reproductive justice.
The complete physical, mental, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls is a right worth fighting for. The many intersectional ways women of color experience reproductive oppression and violence are stories worth telling. The role that institutionalized and systemic subjugation of minorities has played in the lack of resources within my community is unacceptable. And the many bills that continue to flood state legislatures across the South limiting women’s access to their reproductive health needs, deserves to be heard on an international platform.
Bali was an eye opener, and in Denmark, I came with it on my mind. I knew straight off the plane that I was there to lift the voices and experiences of the women and girls in my community who look like me. That everything I said and did for the next week was not only representative of myself, but also 23.5 million other black females living in the United States. And so, it became a thing. Every panel I was featured on, every presentation I made, every conversation I had with princesses, ambassadors and international dignitaries, centered on African American reproductive health experiences.
Thousands of women die each year in America due to complications of illegal abortions. It is easier for women to get a safe and legal abortion in both Pakistan and Ethiopia, than it is anywhere in America. In the national rankings, Louisiana is currently 1st in gonorrhea, 2nd in chlamydia, and 3rd in syphilis infections. The state ranks third highest in the nation for estimated HIV cases. I’d like to believe that Louisiana is in a state of emergency. And yet, our overly conservative, right winged legislators continue to pass bills preventing comprehensive sex education.
This quite often leaves the responsibility to third party community-based nonprofit organizations that educate and advocate on behalf of the community. Working alongside organizations such as Women With a Vision (WWAV), which utilizes a reproductive justice lens to address women’s health education, has helped to me to center the black woman’s voice and experience in this fight. As a member of the Statewide Adolescent Reproductive Health Coalition, I have had the opportunity to work alongside reproductive health advocates to push SRHR legislation, including HB 402, which died in senate committee this session. And under the umbrella of my nonprofit, the Dinerral Shavers Educational Fund (DSEF), I created GIRLS NOLA (Girls Initiative for Reproducing Leaders in Society), a girls’ mentorship and empowerment program, which uses an arts lens to address SRHR issues.
To the funders, stakeholders, and policy makers, I urge you to revert your attention back home. Focus on the number of lives we are losing each year to AIDS and other preventable reproductive health issues. Invest in communities where generations of teen pregnancy continue to contribute to systemic poverty and oppression. Support local initiatives in the deep red states organizing against legislations that are dismantling the rights of disenfranchised communities. And fight alongside those who have consciously taken a stand on the front lines of this movement. In America, our problems may not center around child marriage or access to education, but the deeply rooted systems that infringe upon the rights and freedoms of those most marginalized continue to set our nation back as a whole. May we surpass the misinterpretation of this nation? America is in a state of crisis, too!
Nakita Shavers established the Dinerral Shavers Education Fund in 2007 in memory of her brother to support youth education and creativity. She also helped launch www.SilenceisViolence.org, a site that liaises politicians and their constituents to end violence in New Orleans. Nakita is a graduate of Florida A&M University with a Bachelor in Political Science Pre-law, and a recent graduate of Loyola University’s Institute of Politics. She also holds a Master of Public Administration with a specialization in Non-Profit Management & Leadership.
Rise Up unifies the power of Let Girls Lead, Champions for Change and the Youth Champions Initiative, to benefit 115 million girls, youth, and women globally.