Change Starts with Choice: A Global Approach to Reproductive Health

By Victoria Milanzi, Media Monitor, Malawi Institute of Journalism under UNICEF, and Jess Jacobs, Maverick Collective Member, Co-Founder of Invisible Pictures, Actress and Advocate for Women and Girls

Young people who choose their health decisions often grow into adults who take charge of their lives. This is how change happens. For actress, speaker and advocate Jess Jacobs, choice and change start by ensuring women and girls worldwide can access sexual and reproductive health services when and how they need. But as she shares, solutions are not a country-by-country process. What happens in one part of the globe shapes and shifts the realities in places philanthropists like Jess devote their time and resources. Jess offers insight on how the next generation of philanthropists can ignite change by starting with choice.

Victoria Milanzi: How do we examine adolescent-centered reproductive health solutions and access from a global perspective?

Jess Jacobs: A U.S. administration shift [and reinstatement of the Mexico City policy] can topple years of work and effort in an instant in countries that rely on the U.S. for reproductive health funding. Similarly, a political change in a country in West Africa or Southeast Asia can impact the fight for access and rights, and the future of the country’s youth—all of which reverberates outward. Uncovering and applying reproductive health solutions cannot be approached as a zero-sum game. My Maverick work in Côte d’Ivoire is innovating how young people access modern contraception. It is leaving us with lessons that we can apply to all types of advocacy and philanthropic work in the U.S. Moreover, the impact and outcomes of work in the U.S. can influence how we approach uncovering solutions in Côte d’Ivoire.

VM: How can the ability to choose one’s own health decisions equip the next generation of women to contribute to their country and to social change?

JJ: We usually think of the word [choice] in terms of choice in what to do with one’s own body, which is an intrinsic element of reproductive health work: ensuring that women everywhere have bodily autonomy and the ability to choose what care best suits their needs. However, when those kinds of choices are available to women, it makes the concept of choice available to women in other arenas of life. When a woman has control over her life, she is able to change the narrative for herself—and fellow women—by creating a life built upon her own choices. Choice is not about disrespecting elders or altering family traditions. It is simply allowing an individual to follow her own interests and desires and decide for herself what is right for her. Making her own choices brings her one step closer toward building the life she envisions for herself.

VM: How can we evolve philanthropy to address the health challenges of our times?

JJ: The issues we face worldwide today are growing exponentially. Our solutions need to match that momentum and growth. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for traditional philanthropy, or that government dollars aren’t crucial to scaling effective programs. Rather, it means that we need to also listen to new voices and constituent voices, integrate our values and skills with our dollars and be willing to risk bigger and better.

VM: What does listening to new voices mean to you? It means taking a participatory approach to program development using a process like Human Centered Design.

JJ: It means taking an empathetic, “put-yourself-inother- people’s-shoes” kind of approach with the constituents themselves as the leading voices. It means bringing the skillset one has built over the course of one’s life and career to his or her philanthropy. Whatever the philanthropist brings to the table can be incredibly valuable as we all seek innovative approaches to chronic inequalities and challenges.

VM: What questions should the next generation of donors be asking?

JJ: The next generation of individual donors has the opportunity to lead the way by taking risks and funding new solutions to old problems. What kind of change do we want to see? What comforts are we willing to give up to facilitate this change? How can NGOs involve voices and philanthropists not trained in traditional development into their work? Answers to these questions have the potential to bring about the exponential change that is critical in addressing the global challenges we’re facing today.

VM: This November, the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) will honor you as the Future is Female Award. Tell us what this means to you.

JJ: I feel grateful to ICFP for this immense honor, and to Population Services International and the Maverick Collective for the opportunity to be a part of a youth-powered program. But most of all, I feel grateful to the women in Côte d’Ivoire for so generously giving their time, energy and insight in order to build the most effective program possible. Really, this award is about them. Every effort requires financial capital, and it is so meaningful to me to equip this team with needed resources. We are all part of this effort to ensure women worldwide—in Côte d’Ivoire, the U.S. and abroad, have access to the care they so rightly deserve. This is just the beginning.

Banner photo credit: Maverick Collective

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