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World Views: Jane Roberts on ''34 Million Friends'' (May 21, 2012)
International political economist Mitchell Smith joins Zach Messitte, Joshua Landis, and Monica Sharp to discuss the Greek financial situation, and what last week's suspension of Ratko Mladic's trial says about the difficulty of trying war criminals.  Later, Jane Roberts joins the program.  She started the 34 Million Friends campaign in 2002 to raise money for the United Nations Population Fund.

ZACH MESSITTE, HOST: Jane Roberts, thank you for joining us on World Views.

JANE ROBERTS: Thank you very much.

MESSITTE: Tell us, what is 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund, and when did you start it, and why did you start it?

ROBERTS: Well, in 2002, the Bush Administration, to my great dismay, refused to release $34 million to the United Nations Population Fund, which is known by the acronym UNFPA.  UNFPA does invaluable work in the world, according to [Former Secretary of State] Colin Powell.  They try to save women’s lives in childbirth.  They offer family planning.  They work against AIDS.  They work against gender-based violence in all its permutations.  So, I was shocked, and dismayed, and at 3:00 a.m. on July 23, I decided to try to ask 34 million Americans to take a stand for the women of the world with $1.  And nearly 10 years later, we’re nowhere close to $34 million, but hundreds of thousands of people have stepped up, and we’ve raised a lovely $4.2 million.

MESSITTE: Now, you write in the book 34 Million Friends of Women of the World that the two most important issues are the fate of girls and women, and the second, which is intertwined with this first one, is the issue of population and development.  Why are these issues the most important issues in your opinion?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, to me gender inequality is the moral challenge of the age.  Hillary Clinton, at her hearings to become Secretary of State, said, “Of particular concern is the plight of women and girls who comprise the majority of the world’s unhealthy, unschooled, unfed, and unpaid. “  [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon said, “In women, the world has the most significant, but untapped, potential for development and peace.”  Well if this is true, I think women’s equality is at the very core of any hope for people, the planet, and peace, and virtually all Americans practice family planning.  It is such a gift of the 20th and 21st Centuries.  It allows women choices, it allows families choices, and women being able to voluntarily choose when to have children, how many children to have – it’s very empowering for them, and for their communities.   There are about 78 million more people on the planet every year because of the huge numbers of adolescents on the planet today - 1.4 million coming into their reproductive years.  And there’s a severe lack of contraceptive services, of family planning services, especially in the poorest countries.  So, to me, it is just crucial that not only do the countries themselves, but the U.S. step up and realize that women’s health, education, and human rights should be way at the top of the world’s agenda.

MONICA SHARP: Jane, the first of the Millennium Development Goals seeks to cut in half the number of people who are living in extreme poverty.  How does reducing gender inequality contribute to this goal, and what role does family planning assistance have in reducing gender inequality?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, if we actually accomplished Millennium Goal Number One, two thirds of the people it affects would be women.  Women comprise two-thirds of the extremely poor, as defined by the U.N.  They also are two-thirds of the world’s illiterate, so Millennium Development Goals Two and Three both have to do with children’s right to education and women’s right to education.  Imagine if you were illiterate, how constrained your world would be.  I have a little booklet from an elementary school in Senegal.  It says on the front, “Little girls have as much right to food, education, and healthcare as little boys.”  We all should be shocked that this needs to be said, but it does in many areas.  The Millennium Development Goals are actually geared somewhat towards women, I think, which is good.  Number Five, which is to me the crux of all of them, is "Improve maternal health."  And not only saving women’s lives in childbirth, but also a big emphasis on family planning.  In fact, Target Two says, “An unmet need for family planning compromises the achievement of all the other goals.”

SHARP: Do you believe that having a critical mass of women in leadership positions in government and business would change the nature of public policy discussions when it comes to issues like family planning?

ROBERTS: Yes, I do.  Surprise, surprise [laughs].  I really think there needs to be balance, and I really think that if there were equality in all realms of civil society – I’m talking about government, the economy, legal – everything, I honestly think that priorities might change, budgetary priorities might change.  Governments have got to put more money into health and education.  Even in our own country, sometimes we get away from these basic issues, and when you prioritize health and education, usually people make good choices.  Countries are more stable.  Where gender equality exists, you find that the countries are more prosperous, more stable.  Where it doesn’t exist, you find instability.  You find increased poverty.  To me, supporting women is really a win-win for everyone.

MESSITTE: Let me talk about our country for a little bit, because there are people who look very differently at the role of the United Nations in our country.  In particular, there are people who have been very critical of the United Nations Population Fund, and part of the reason why I think you started your drive was because of them.  Now I want to talk to you a little bit about that, and get your reaction to some of it.  The 1985 Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of an agency that, “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion, or involuntary sterilization.”  Now citing this Amendment, and China’s one child policy, this is why President Bush defunded UNFPA from 2002-2008.  Now President Obama restored that funding when he became president, and yet, still this fall in the House of Representatives, the Foreign Affairs Committee voted 23-17 to cut off funding to UNFPA.  So, why?  Tell us, where does this come from?  And this is not an insignificant part of the United States population that believes this, right?  This is not some fringe part; this is the mainstream part of the Republican Party.

ROBERTS: That’s right.  No other country, none of our allies has ever even contemplated defunding UNFPA.  To me, this is a very ugly political move repeated by President Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.  It’s all political.  Everybody admits that China has not followed strict human rights rules and regulations.  They have had coercive abortions and sterilization in certain areas.  Colin Powell, by the way, before he announced that this $34 million was not going to be released, he had testified before Congress that UNFPA did, his exact words, “invaluable work in the world.”  So to me, to tell you the truth, he sold his soul a little bit.

MESSITTE: We’re talking to Jane Roberts, who’s the co-founder of 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund on World Views on KGOU.  Let me just continue with this line just a little bit.  So, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who’s been someone who’s been very outspoken against UNFPA, she this fall told the hearing the following: “Why, when Americans face a struggling economy, skyrocketing deficits, and crushing debt, should our taxpayer dollars go to an organization that supports coercive abortion and is flush with cash.”  One of the things they say is UNFPA has plenty of money to do the kind of things they do, and there are other organizations around the world that are doing this.  Why is she saying this?  Where does this come from?

ROBERTS: You know, I actually wrote to her not too long ago and even sent her a copy of my book.  Not that I thought she would change her mind, or anything.  But we are the richest country in the world – we have a responsibility, I think, for overseas development assistance.  I think the best use of overseas development assistance is education and health, and UNFPA is right there.

SHARP: Wouldn’t you say also, as a rejoinder to her quote that Zach just mentioned, that during a time of economic recession family planning is of critical importance?  We see it in the news all the time.  In the last five years or so, families have been hit extraordinarily hard by this recession.  And a recession means something far different for a family with school-aged children and infants than it might for even a young adult.  I know it’s difficult for young adults to move back in with their parents,  but this is nothing compared to being a family out of work with four kids at home.

ROBERTS: Absolutely right, and it’s true all over the world.  Total fertility rates in the poorest countries are above 4, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa.  The Middle East is very interesting, population-wise.

SHARP: I think also, when we’re looking at those countries with extreme political instability, when you consider a population of adolescent men and young adults, who do not just have a cultural prerogative to maybe fail to plan families as they wish, but also a political one.   You’re increasing stability for decades to come.  You’re setting in motion a cycle where those regions will continue to be unstable.

ROBERTS: Absolutely.

MESSITTE: In your book, you open with a story about a young Kenyan girl who you met at a conference in Washington, D.C.  You write that her story serves as the background for everything that is in this book.  Tell us a little bit about her story, and the stories that you’ve collected as you’ve gone on this campaign over the last ten years.  What stories have added to your passion for the issues?

ROBERTS: Yes, well, Kakenya Ntaiya was a young girl I met, an extraordinary young girl, who when she was five, was affianced to her future husband by her family.  This was traditional, and she was in elementary school, and she loved school.  She wanted to continue on to high school.  Well, many of our listeners have heard of female genital mutilation, which is a basically rite of passage into womanhood in some parts of the world.  It’s done in both Christian areas and Muslim areas.  She had to make a bargain with her father.  He would allow her to not get married, and go on to secondary school, if she would have this cut.  And she agreed.  Education was so important to her.  In her village, there were leaders.  The imam and the village chiefs, she had heard about a young man in her village who had actually gone to America to study.  This was her dream.  So she asked the village if she could have permission, after high school, to come to the United States.  I think she now has her Ph.D., believe it or not.  And she’s married to a Kenyan, and they have a couple of kids, but they live here.  Gender-based violence, which female genital mutilation is certainly a part of this, child marriage is a part of this.  National Geographic magazine just did a whole big story, with pictures that are shocking, of young girls married to older men.  Maybe some of you have heard of the book I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. A young Yemeni girl whose story has resonated throughout the world.  It’s all gender-based violence.  To me, to tell you the truth, it might be a little bit of a radical thought, but I actually think that because access to family planning has been established as a human right in the Cairo Consensus in the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, that actually lack of access to family planning is a sort of violence against women.  Population Action International has put out a DVD called Empty-Handed, where women tell stories of their heartbreak at unwanted pregnancies.  Having to quite school, going to the clinic four or five times with nothing available – this video has a really cute part of it where someone says, “Well, if Coca-Cola can get Cokes to every single village in our country, then why can’t we get contraceptives to every rural village in our country?”

MESSITTE: So, you hear these stories that you relay, and when you talk to people who contribute to your campaign, what are they telling you?  Why are they giving $1 or $2?  What is behind their desire to be part of this mission that you’ve undertaken?

ROBERTS: You know, if you want to reach out to the world’s women, and you want to realize that they really have it tough out there, it’s a beautiful thing to do.  This is a purely grassroots campaign.  For the last 10 years I’ve given my heart and soul to this.  If we have time, I’m going to recite my little poem, because my poem is at the crux of everything I believe, and it goes like this…

MESSITTE: Please, if you have it.

ROBERTS: It goes like this:

WE are 34 million friends
We ARE 34 million friends
We are 34 MILLION friends
Of the women of the world

We are reaching out to the world 
We are going to have our say 
We are reaching out to the world 
Through the UNFPA

Every baby welcome now 
Loved and fed and vaccinated 
Mothers children learning now 
Reading writing educated

Every child a heartfelt joy 
Every child a book and toy 
Every child with wings unfurled 
Whether it be boy or GIRL

No more death while giving birth 
Because a midwife's taking care 
No more mothers in the earth 
Because a midwife's helping there

To AIDS and violence we say NO 
To family planning we say YES 
Human rights are the way to go 
Surely we can do no less

Woman lying on a donkey cart 
Dirt road heat wave and in labor 
Doctor put her in his truck 
Luck that day was in her favor

And all of us who have so much 
One dollar we can share 
To show the women of the world 
That we the people care

We are 34 Million Friends 
And we are going to have our say 
We are reaching out to the world      
Through the UNFPA.

Copyright © 2012 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

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