Lois Abraham and Jane Roberts

(WOMENSENEWS)–One sweltering day in Mali, Jane Roberts encountered a woman in labor riding a donkey to a local clinic, where she knew health workers would help her deliver her baby safely.

Lois Abraham and Jane Roberts, co-founders, $34 Million Friends of UNFPA

For Roberts, this expectant mother is a reminder of the urgency of her work with Lois Abraham to raise financial support for the United Nations Population Fund, the organization that maintains the Mali clinic.

Abraham and Roberts have raised over $1.5 million to support the fund since 2002, when President Bush refused to release the authorized $34 million U.S. contribution.

At that time, Abraham, a lawyer practicing in San Francisco, Calif., and Taos, N. M., and Roberts, a retired French linguist and teacher from Redlands, Calif., were unknown to each other. But each had reached the same decision: She had to do more than write a letter to her congressional representative. Each contacted the fund, asking what she could do. After the fund’s staff connected them, they quickly decided to raise the $34 million themselves.

The two women have “given their hearts and souls,” to the project, says Roberts.

They began raising money through letters to newspapers, e-mail, lobbying, lectures and appearances. This spring, they announced they were expanding their efforts to Europe.

The statistics are startling: 40 women per minute seek an unsafe abortion in the developing world, primarily because they lack access to family planning facilities. The fund operates in more countries than any other agency and it only goes where it is invited. The fund, “doesn’t impose cultural values,” says Abraham. “By working with the culture, you set the groundwork for change to be long lasting.”

In November, Abraham visited Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor, to see for herself what a portion of the $1.5 million had funded. In just one short morning visit to a fund-subsidized hospital, she saw a father bring in his daughter–a rape victim–for counseling and treatment, and a woman deliver her baby with the aid of a medical specialist brought in by the fund. Additionally, the fund has provided 80 motor scooters for midwives so they can quickly reach women in remote areas and it has equipped the hospital with two-way radios so doctors remain on-call.

“It is amazing what a little generosity can do,” says Abraham.

Byllye Avery, president, Avery Institute for Social Change

Byllye Avery

Byllye Avery, president of the Avery Institute for Social Change, has dedicated the last 25 years of her life to improving the health of African American women.

As the founder of the Washington-based Black Women’s Health Imperative, the 66-year-old Georgia native has concentrated on reducing the health disparities between African American women and other women.

The Black Women’s Health Imperative–formerly known as the National Black Women’s Health Project–is a leading authority on black women’s health issues. It takes a holistic approach by addressing psychological and spiritual concerns, as well as physical ones, Avery says.

With a membership base of almost 140,000, the Black Women’s Health Imperative uses health education, research, advocacy and leadership development to deliver health programs to more than 19 million black women and girls in the United States. Avery says that violence at home and in the street–too rarely discussed in the black community–are among the leading health concerns faced by black women.

Black women “all participated in a conspiracy of silence,” she says.

The Black Women’s Health Imperative has made outreach a priority. Through television programming, church meetings, conferences and networking with other organizations, it has worked to publicize some of the neglected health concerns of black women. Now, Avery is delighted to note, when black women come to discuss health issues, they bring children, cousins and aunts. In this very personal form of contact, the word is spreading.

Building on her work at the Black Women’s Health Imperative, Avery founded the Avery Institute for Social Change in 2002 to address the health concerns of people of color. It is currently focused on the provision of affordable healthcare for all people in the United States.

Avery’s commitment to black women’s health began at home. When her daughter turned 11, the icing on her cake read, “Happy Birthday, Happy Menstruation!” Avery wanted her daughter to know “factually and emotionally” what it meant to have her period. Not satisfied with educating just her own daughter, Avery conducted a workshop on childbearing and menstruation for girls and boys in her daughter’s elementary school.

In 1974, she co-founded the Gainesville Women’s Health Center, a first-trimester abortion center. Four years later, she co-founded Birthplace, an alternative birthing center where families could deliver their babies with the aid of a certified midwife. While Avery was knee-deep in women’s health issues, however, she realized a significant group of people were underrepresented–black women.

“White women were defining health in their own perspective, which was usually focused on reproductive issues,” says Avery, recipient of the 1989 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for Social Contribution. “We needed to come together as black women to define the issues most affecting black women.”

Tillie Black Bear, executive director, White Buffalo Calf Woman Society

Tillie Black Bear

Tillie Black Bear, the executive director of the South Dakota-based White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, the first shelter established for women of color in the United States, helps 300 women and 600 children each year end the violence in their closest relationships.

In addition to heading the society, established in 1978, Black Bear worked with women’s historian Sally Roesch Wagner to produce a poster series featuring the life experiences of female Native American elders from the nine Dakota/Lakota Nations in South Dakota. The series touched various aspects of the elders’ experience, from the racist sting some felt from in-laws of European-descent to the difficulties of working in war-time factories and caring for families while their husbands were gone.

As a victim of domestic violence, Black Bear, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation/Rosebud Sioux Tribe, attended a 1978 two-day symposium hosted by U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held in Washington on wife battery. After an impromptu gathering in the restroom of the convention’s hotel, Black Bear and a group of fellow attendees, who dubbed themselves the “the Bathroom Sisters,” pledged to give domestic violence a national voice.

That year, Black Bear and other Bathroom Sisters formed the National Coalition against Domestic Violence to educate the public about domestic violence through advocacy and education programs. (The coalition was instrumental in passing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, aimed, in part, at curbing domestic violence through intervention services and education.)

A few months later, Black Bear formed the South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and was a founding mother of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, Inc., the oldest shelter for rape and domestic violence victims abused on Native American reservations.

Black Bear, diagnosed with lupus in 1978, is currently on the list for a kidney transplant. She receives dialysis treatment for end-stage renal failure, but still works full-time at the shelter. Black Bear says she has drawn strength from the women’s empowerment movement of the 1970s.

“As women, we all thought we could do anything in those days,” she says.

Christina Bruning, president, Women’s Business Exchange

Christina Bruning

Christina Bruning, a project manager for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is president of Women’s Business Exchange where she helps women to network locally, nationally and globally.

In May, Bruning was one of the leaders joining a U.S. delegation that went to Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to network with women in areas of business, leadership, health care, education and family.

“It was all about making connections,” she says.

Now, Bruning is working closely with Katrin Sulg, president of the Tallinn, Estonia, club of the Young Business and Professional Women organization, to bring a delegation of 15 women from Estonia to the United States to promote mentoring and leadership development in the Baltic nation still coping with its transition from a Soviet republic in 1991.

Bruning and Sulg made contact at a roundtable discussion in Estonia emphasizing networking and mentoring. Sulg remembers how Bruning embodied the lesson of the session by creating an Excel spreadsheet of contact information at the end of the meeting so that everyone could keep in touch. To Sulg, it was an important assurance that the relationships begun at the meeting among the 15 women participants would continue.

“Business is about building relationships, not about handing out business cards,” says Bruning, quoting Donna Nunn, founder of Women’s Business Exchange.

Bruning joined the organization in 1995 and served on the board in 1996. In 2003, she was elected board president. As president of Women’s Business Exchange, Bruning presides every second Thursday at a monthly breakfast featuring inspirational business leaders and networking opportunities.

To Sulg, Bruning has become the embodiment of a concept that she only learned about two years ago. “I was looking for a mentor,” says Sulg, “I am glad I finally found an answer.”

Shahnaz Bukhari, founder of Progressive Women Association Pakistan

Shahnaz Bukhari

Shahnaz Bukhari works out of her Islamabad home organizing resistance to the Pakistan law requiring that, for a rape charge to be proven, either the rapist admit the crime or the victim produce four male Muslim witnesses willing to testify the act was indeed forced.

Under the same law, if a rape victim makes the charge but can not produce the witnesses, she will be found guilty of adultery, a crime punishable by death by stoning.

This campaign is the most recent launched by Bukhari to end culturally and legally sanctioned violence against women in Pakistan. In turn, her home has been raided by police, she has been imprisoned and she routinely receives death threats.

In 1984, Bukhari, a clinical psychologist with a Master’s of Science from Punjab University, Lahore, returned to Pakistan after living in Saudi Arabia for seven years. While in Saudi Arabia, Bukhari worked as a private family counseling psychologist. Looking at her homeland with new eyes, she realized that “no one was providing services to the victims of violence.”

Now, in addition to advocating the change in the nation’s rape laws, Bukhari also actively investigates “stove deaths,” in which a husband or his relatives drench a wife with gasoline or kerosene and set her aflame. These incidents usually occur in the family’s central quarters, and the families usually blame faulty kitchen stoves. Less than 1 percent of these women survive, says Bukhari.

“I have seen all of these women with my own eyes,” says Bukhari who has met over 4,700 victims in person–most of whom survive for no more than a week.

In 1985, she founded the Progressive Women Association Pakistan to fight for women’s rights at the local level. Eventually, Bukhari opened up her home and founded the safe house, AASRA–meaning shelter in Urdu. AASRA provides women with medical and legal support and also offers shelter to those with nowhere else to go.

Over the last nine years, Bukhari and the Progressive Women’s Association have uncovered over 5,675 stove-death victims as part of the 16,000 cases they have documented of violence against women.

Bukhari doesn’t wait for victims to come to her, she goes in search of them. In 1989, after reading about a woman who had been hospitalized for bruises in an Urdu newspaper, Bukhari went to visit her. Aasia Ayub had been arrested on the charge of robbery. Once at the station, several policemen repeatedly thrust a rod–covered with cayenne pepper–into her genitals. Ayub was so traumatized by the event she had lapsed into dementia.

After meeting Ayub, Bukhari went on to lobby for all-female police stations and, in January 1994, under Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first all-female police stations were created.

Winner of the 2003 Civil Courage Prize, awarded by the New York-based Northcote Parkinson Fund, Bukhari has made many personal sacrifices for her work. After her Islamabad home was raided by police officers in 2000, she sent her four children to live in the United States to protect them.

In 2001, she was arrested for “abetting an attempt to commit adultery.” In the case, after a woman fled the AASRA shelter seeking escape from an abusive husband, Bukhari was charged for failing to deliver the woman to the authorities. She was tried under nation’s Sharia law and exonerated two years later.

Bukhari remains undaunted.

“I am a born activist,” she says.

Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president, AFL-CIO

Linda Chavez-Thompson

At the age of 10, the woman who would rise to become the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, Linda Chavez-Thompson, earned 30 cents an hour picking cotton alongside her brothers and sisters in the fields of West Texas.

The lessons she learned in those sun-baked fields has stood her in good stead as the high school drop-out rose through the ranks of labor organizations, taking the heat necessary to become the spokeswoman for more than 5 million women represented by the national federation of trade organizations.

She joined the Washington-based AFL-CIO in 1995, when the union decided it needed to diversify its leadership. Chavez-Thompson, a second generation Mexican-American daughter of sharecroppers, fit the bill–and diversify she did.

As the executive vice president, she insisted that affiliate unions include women in the mix among their members and in their leadership. Chavez-Thompson acknowledges how difficult this was, since “men like to hold on to what they have.”

She encourages affiliate union leadership to accurately represent their constituents. For example, if the constituent base is 50 percent women, 50 percent of the union delegates at conventions and events should be women.

Additionally, she worked with the women’s and civil rights departments within the AFL-CIO to create training programs for the current leadership to increase the recruitment of women and minority men to union leadership roles.

As a girl in Lubbock, Texas, in 1944, she worked to provide the necessities her parents couldn’t. “You earn money to clothe yourself in September,” says Chavez-Thompson.

During her ninth-grade year, Chavez-Thompson was forced to drop out of school. Her father could only afford to have four children in school at any one time, so, when it was time for one of her younger brother’s to enter first grade, Chavez-Thompson, the oldest, was forced to drop out.

“My heart was breaking,” she recalls, “I loved school.” But in those days, she says, the attitude was that girls didn’t need an education.

Chavez-Thompson began her union career in 1967 as a bilingual secretary for the local branch of the Laborers’ International Union local branch in Lubbock, Texas. Since her boss didn’t speak Spanish and many of the workers didn’t speak English, Chavez-Thompson became an invaluable intermediary. As Chavez-Thompson familiarized herself with union business, she began to realize how issues such as health care and pay equity made a difference in the lives of workers.

“The job provided a movement that I began to fall in love with,” she says.

Clotilde Dedecker, student activist

Clotilde Dedecker

Clotilde Dedecker, now 16, was a busy high-school sophomore in Buffalo, N.Y., last year. Nonetheless, she found the time and energy to raise $15,000 to fund the building of a school for female teens in Afghanistan.

The Zarghona Middle School, being built outside Kandahar, is in one of the poorest and most dangerous regions of the troubled nation.

“Why not help the neediest section of the country?” Dedecker says.

The school will have five classrooms and some 150 students. Dedecker hopes to sustain a relationship with the students via the Internet. In the near future, students from Afghanistan and New York could begin to learn from each other, she says, by e-mailing their opinions on various discussion topics.

The Buffalo, N.Y., teen began her campaign when she heard an Afghan exile, Susan Safi-Rafiq, speak at the local YWCA commemoration on International Women’s Day in March 2003. Safi-Rafiq said that the cost of building a girls’ school in Afghanistan was $12,000. With that, Dedecker, who loves school, was off and running.

She met with the principals of eight girls’ schools in western New York and five agreed to participate in her project. Representatives of the participating schools formed a coalition, which met regularly throughout the year to discuss fundraising strategies to build the school and ways to develop a sustainable relationship with the Afghan students.

The project was also designed to educate students, faculty and parents about the status of women and girls in Afghanistan.

“It’s so important to be aware of not just world events but what your female counterparts are doing, not just in Afghanistan, but in all parts of the world,” Dedecker says.

Through her growing e-mail list, Dedecker distributed articles published by Women’s eNews along with other information about women in Afghanistan to help drum up interest and support for the project. The coalition’s fund-raising efforts included a dress-down-jeans-day for $1, Burqa netting pinned to shirts representing Afghan solidarity, an annual dance for all the schools in Western New York and the showing of documentaries.

Now, schools in Washington, D.C., and Ohio are also fund-raising to build schools in Afghanistan. Not one to think small, Dedecker says, “Who knows? We may expand into other countries.”

Carline Bennett, a free-lance writer in New York, is a former intern at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

Lois Abraham and Jane Roberts–
34 Million Friends of UNFPA:

Byllye Avery–
Avery Institute for Social Change:

Tillie Black Bear–
South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault:

Christina Bruning–
Women’s Business Exchange:

Shahnaz Bukhari–
Progressive Women Association Pakistan:

Linda Chavez-Thompson–