Shanshan He: Leading the Way for Young People

It all started when I hadn’t seen one girl for a couple of months. I was told her boyfriend had broken up with her because she was pregnant. Then the rumors started. “She borrowed money, she is probably going to take an abortion.” “She should be expelled from school.” “Her parents were angry and they beat her.”

I felt sad that young people weren’t being given the chance to receive comprehensive sex education at school and learn how to protect ourselves. I was outraged that when a girl found herself in these circumstances, people and society simply criticized her behavior rather than providing help and supporting her.

When I first participated in an event hosted by UNFPA in 2014, I was astonished to learn the tremendous number of adolescent girls giving birth every year – 7.3 million in developing countries. In China, 4 out of every 100 unmarried girls aged 15 -24 become pregnant, and almost 90% of those have an abortion.

Taking into account the huge population in China, I cannot imagine how many young people are suffering due to a lack of information and biased gender attitudes.

What youth leadership means to me

I started to volunteer at the China Family Planning Association (CFPA) – an IPPF Member Association – as a youth peer educator. I travelled to different provinces and cities providing training on sexual and reproductive health and rights to young people.

Next, I worked with Dance4life as an international trainer. I delivered Journey4life – a programme designed to build young people’s social and emotional competences so they are able to make healthy choices about their lives and feel confident about their future.

Through my interaction with different generations, I gradually realized that leadership is something that happens within yourself. You feel confident about your life, can see a different world, and are empowered to make changes.

Shanshan He, IPPF Board Member

Being a young leader at IPPF

20% of IPPF’s board must be represented by young people under the age of 25. I was elected to the board of my Member Association, the East and South East Asia & Oceania Region, and the global board. I attend meetings, participate in discussions and vote on the important matters – just as any other member.

My fellow youth representatives and I struggled when we first entered this unfamiliar territory, and had a difficult time finding our position.

Were we supposed to comment and participate solely on youth-related issues? Or should we engage with all the matters and discussions? When we speak, which hat are we wearing – young people who receive services, young activists on the ground, or youth leaders shaping the rules?

We learned that we could define our role. It was important to keep reminding ourselves of our focus and shifting hats to ensure more young people are truly represented.

We didn’t elect a chair among the youth representatives. Instead, the youth meeting is chaired by all the members in rotation. We also share the reporting and presentation responsibilities. This shared leadership approach avoids power dynamics and makes sure we don’t forget why we are all here.

Having been through the journey in IPPF, I realized that there is no point waiting until we ‘grow older’ to be a leader.

Leadership has nothing to do with age or gender. We are the leaders, now and in the future: here and beyond!

Campaigning for Care & Compassion in Ireland

I’m 23 years old and I grew up in a particularly rural and conservative part of Ireland.  

The only time I ever heard the word ‘abortion’ mentioned in school was when we were doing a play in the Irish language. There was a scene where the characters were discussing abortion. I remember asking the teacher what the word translated as. She replied, “It means murder”.

I know now that if you break the translation down it would be similar to the word for a fetus. It doesn’t literally translate as murder. But that was how it was explained it to us.  

I studied reproductive biology at university and did my dissertation project in an abortion clinic in 2017. This involved interviewing doctors and nurses working in the clinic in Edinburgh about their relationship with their patients. I saw how the patients were talked about with such respect and compassion. It really brought home the stark contrast of how women in Ireland were treated.

This spurred me into action. I decided to go home and help with the Yes campaign, ahead of the 2018 referendum. Legislation is how social change is made and how rights are created.  

It was exciting to be part of a big campaign. My colleagues have been in this fight for decades, but they’d never had a national referendum like this before. For the first time ever, they said it felt like everything was to play for.

The pressure was immense because it felt like every woman in Ireland, both past and present generations, was counting on us to get this right.  

My role involved researching policy briefs or answering questions for journalists, such as abortion rates in Switzerland and Portugal after their referendums. I was also answering the phone to women ringing the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) in floods of tears, saying, “I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do”.   

For decades, every single day, women experiencing an unintended or crisis pregnancy have been ringing the IFPA to access information and counselling. Trying to calm each woman, telling her what we could do, hearing her relief and hoping I’d made a bit of difference to her just made it all incredibly real for me.   

Many people found the No campaign posters distressing due to their incredibly negative and violent language, for example, ‘a license to kill’. I think that negativity backfired for the No campaign, as I think the Yes campaign was seen as more sensible.

I think recent scandals in the Catholic church played a role too because the No campaign was using messaging like, “Oh yes, the 8th Amendment has led to an island where we really treasure our children”. This felt tone deaf in a country where there have been so many child abuse scandals in recent years.

I also think it drove people away from the No campaign because it clearly wasn’t based on the reality of the Ireland we’ve all been living in. No campaigners displayed a kind of moral snobbery which felt like preaching. It might have worked on the Ireland of another lifetime, but not now.  

On the other end of the spectrum, the vote Yes posters appeared in rural communities for the first time, which I think was very powerful for people who might have felt quite isolated or just hadn’t talked to anyone in their community about abortion before.

In the final weeks leading up to the vote, the most important conversations were happening at the school gates or at kitchen tables over cups of tea.  

It still feels like a dream that we won. It wasn’t until they called out the two tally boxes from my home village and I heard Yes passed there by 57% that I realized what was truly happening. That’s when I knew it wasn’t just Dublin and the cities. The whole country was behind us. This realisation made me cry. It made me very proud to be from rural Ireland. 

I went to Dublin castle to celebrate. At one point, the crowd spontaneously started chanting Savita’s name. Even in a moment of celebration, we all remembered her death, and that felt very emotional.

I recall watching some kids playing, and their mothers were standing hands on hips just watching them, and they were all wearing repeal jumpers. One of them was pregnant and there were two men there with their child too. For me that was such a beautiful symbolic image of how far Ireland has come. 

For me, abortion is about motherhood at the end of the day. It’s about allowing us the right to be the best mothers we can be, if and only when we decide to do so.

Read other personal experiences like Áine’s on the Irish referendum.

As of January 2019, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) provides early medical abortion up to 9 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion care is free for women living in the Republic of Ireland.

In Conversation with Natasha Salifyanji Kaoma

Allow us to introduce you to Natasha Salifyanji Kaoma! Natasha is a Zambian medical doctor and the founder of Copper Rose Zambia – an organization working to advance adolescent sexual and reproductive health.

We sat down with Natasha to talk about starting her own organization, the taboo around menstruation and abortion, and how she takes care of her own wellbeing in her work. 

“I noticed a menstrual hygiene problem in my school. Not because the girls couldn’t afford the products, but most people didn’t know what was going on with their bodies.”

It can be incredibly challenging to work on issues considered to be taboo, sensitive or ‘controversial’, but Natasha clearly isn’t going to let societal norms in Zambia – or anywhere else in the world – stand in her way. 

“I believe that women, if empowered, can change the narrative of the African continent.”

This video was made possible through a generous grant from SayItForward.org in support of women’s advocacy messages.

The Victory of Imelda Cortez in El Salvador

Content note – this post refers to sexual violence.

I hope that by now you might have heard the name Imelda Cortez. On Monday, the 20-year-old from El Salvador was found innocent and released from prison following almost 2 years in custody awaiting trial.

Imelda was repeatedly raped by her stepfather for 6 years. She became pregnant without realising, suffered an obstetric emergency but delivered a healthy baby. There was no evidence indicating that she had attempted to end the pregnancy or harm her baby. Regardless, she was charged with attempted homicide and faced up to 20 years in prison.

Yesterday, a judge dismissed all charges against Imelda and she was allowed to return to her family. 

This is an amazing victory in a country widely considered to have the most extreme abortion ban in the world. But Imelda’s story is a reminder of the misogynistic justice systems we live in.

This joyful news deserves to be celebrated. But we must also continue to fight for justice. Justice for the dozens of women who remain in prison in El Salvador, and for all of the women around the world facing death, imprisonment and irreversible psychological damage as a result of extreme abortion laws. 

Imelda’s attorney, Ana Martínez, said: “This vulnerable young woman survived sexual violence only to be pursued for a crime she did not commit. Imelda goes home to her family today and will finally be able to meet her daughter and attempt to rebuild her life. We wish the same, and soon, for the women still jailed for obstetric emergencies. The women of El Salvador deserve better.”

And they do. There are at least 20 women currently imprisoned in El Salvador, accused of attempting an abortion. But what I want to share with all of you is that these outrageous cases are not exclusive to one country. This is happening all around the globe. 

I live in Mexico, and every day one woman is reported to the authorities for having an abortion. Every single day! In the past 10 years there have been 228 women sentenced, 83 in pre-trial detention and 53 in formal imprisonment. Mexico’s sanctions for abortion depend on the state penal code, but vary from 15 days up to 6 years in jail. Fines go from 20 to 300 times the national minimum wage.

Sometimes people ask me, how will one blog post make a difference? This week, Imelda Cortez’s victory answers that question.

Our voices matter, our voices have an impact on society, and our voices really can help to change the world. I invite you to join me in using yours!

Standing outside the courtroom, Imelda’s grandmother Julia had a message for all those who helped to put pressure on the government of El Salvador: “I give thanks to everyone, every single person, who has fought for Imelda’s freedom today. When I was visiting Imelda in prison she would tell me how grateful she was for the many, many women fighting on her behalf, even though they didn’t know her personally.”

Join us in speaking out against injustice to help every woman who has been deprived of her human rights. We won’t stop fighting for girls and women’s freedom. We are not going anywhere.