Jane Roberts

(WOMENSENEWS)– Jane Roberts has hit the road again.

“I am going around and I am talking about this idealistic grassroots campaign to save women’s lives, to reduce women’s misery,” she said in a recent telephone interview in California before setting out early this month on a grueling trip across Canada, the Midwest and the East Coast, where she will visit college campuses from Virginia to Maine. On Nov. 4, she spoke at a Columbia University in New York.

Last year, after the Bush administration withdrew all official support for the United Nations Population Fund, Roberts was one of those two enterprising women who set out to prove that U.S. citizens would give their own money to help.

Since then–for the past 14 months–Robert has been in steady, if not constant, motion.

And she seems to feel the sting of the U.S. defunding as keenly now as when she and Lois Abraham–a stranger to her until last year when they simultaneously decided to take action and were brought together by the Population Fund–started their 34 Million Friends of UNFPA campaign.

Giving to Fund ‘Part of Social Contract’

“No other country has ever de-funded UNFPA for other than fiscal reasons,” she said in a recent interview. “The country of Mali, which is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, gives $3,000 a year. It’s just kind of something that you do. It’s part of a social contract and we have reneged on this contract. Lois and I find that absolutely appalling. We think it sends a very negative message.”

The name of the campaign is meant to express the two women’s determination to find the equivalent of $1 from 34 million Americans to compensate for the $34 million cut by the Bush administration. The initials UNFPA come from the agency’s earlier name, the UN Fund for Population Activities.

The perseverance of Roberts, a retired French teacher from Redlands, Calif., and Abraham, a lawyer who practices in Taos, N.M., and San Francisco, has kept the contributions coming in, though they are still far from the $34 million target. More than $1.5 million has already gone to the Population Fund, and some contributors are giving a second time.

A large part of the first $1 million has gone to ending obstetric fistula, a rupture caused by obstructed labor that leaves women incontinent. There are about 50,000 to 100,000 obstetric fistula cases a year, the majority of them in Africa, although there are also cases in Asia, according to the Population Fund. Both women visited clinics where the money is already being spent: Abraham in East Timor and Roberts in Africa.

The 34 Million Friends of UNFPA campaign is encouraged, Roberts said, by institutional support from such organizations as the Sierra Club, Doctors Without Borders, the American Association of University Women and the National Council of Woman’s Organizations. Today, the American Public Health Association, based in Washington, D.C., will present the campaign with an award.

Witnessing Fund’s Work in Mali and Senegal

In between U.S. pep talks, Roberts has been to Europe and to the African nations of Mali and Senegal, where she saw up close the Population Fund’s work, which is to battle against AIDS as well and for reproductive health rights and services for women, who are now being infected with HIV at a greater rate than men in some regions.

Roberts has written a journal of her visit in February to both French-speaking nations, which is posted on the campaign’s Web site, along with photographs.

“You can see a picture of a woman lying on a donkey cart,” Roberts said in the interview. “It was noon; it was 95 degrees; and she was in labor and she was six miles away from the UNFPA clinic when we came upon her on a dirt road. We basically rescued her. The doctor who was with us put her in the back of his truck and took her to the clinic. This is the reality.”

Senegal, a Muslim-majority country under an innovative president, Abdoulaye Wade, has been successful at containing the spread of AIDS and has introduced programs to boost the status of women with the help of the Population Fund.

“When I went to an elementary school in Senegal, sponsored by the UNFPA and the government,” Roberts said, “there was a little writing booklet that all the kids had, where they did their school exercises, and on the front was this message: ‘Little girls deserve as much food, education and health care as little boys.'” It appalls her, she added, that programs like these suffer when the U.S. government withholds funds.

“If you educate women, if you give them even some years of elementary education, they get married later; they have fewer children; they have better hygiene; they learn farming techniques; they learn about family planning,” Roberts said. “A little bit of elementary school education for women and the cost-benefit ratio is off the charts. It’s so mind-bogglingly obvious. When the world takes care of women, women take care of the world.”

Campaign Seeks Widest Participation

Roberts said the campaign wants “the widest possible participation by the American people.” She said that she and Abraham are seeking the support of anyone who believes that a pregnant woman has the right to survive and that women should get prenatal vitamins, sonograms, mammograms and contraceptive choice. Too many women in the world are denied the care most Americans take for granted, she said. “We have so much.”

The campaign has been a tough and sometimes lonely fight, given current the hostility in Washington.

Last year ultra-conservatives in Congress persuaded the White House to cancel an appropriated $34 million in American payments–13 percent of the Population Fund’s budget–and are still blocking a resumption of contributions because of unsubstantiated accusations that the money goes to abortion programs in China.

The two women underscore what polls have shown for years: that U.S. citizens seem to resent foreign aid out of the mistaken idea that the United States gives much more than it does. U.S. citizens often guess that the foreign aid bill–excluding, now, Iraq, which is about $20 billion–is as high as 15 to 20 percent or more of the national income or gross domestic product. In fact it is 0.1 percent of national income annually. In general, Europeans give more than U.S. citizens, proportionately, in foreign-government aid.

“We have very weird idea of how generous we are,” Roberts said.

Barbara Crossette, a former New York Times correspondent in Asia and at the United Nations, is a columnist for U.N. Wire, an independent news service published by the National Journal Group, Inc.

For more information:

United States Committee for United Nations Populations Fund:

34 Million Friends Campaign: