As Black History Month draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his lifelong quest for justice and equality for black people in America. The part of his "I Have a Dream" speech that moves me the most is the section in which he said:
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In each of the 10 countries where I have lived and worked, I could easily replace the word "Negro" with any marginalized population, especially women or girls. From South Africa to Eritrea to Pakistan, my work has introduced me again and again to fearless mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters who defy the status quo and insist on freedoms inherent in them.
As a women's health and rights advocate, I wonder what Dr. King would make of the current status of women around the world. Dr. King was a fierce advocate for family planning and access to contraception. He believed empowering women to be central to advancing civil rights in this country and around the world. I imagine he would be proud of the progress we have made in ensuring access to contraception for American women and their families, yet disheartened by the persistent disparities faced by poor people and people of color in this country. We need only to look at health statistics for women in the southern United States to ponder how far we have really come.
African-Americans face numerous obstacles to obtaining affordable, high-quality health care services. We experience higher rates of reproductive cancers, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections than most other groups of Americans. Among women diagnosed with breast cancer, for example, African-American women are most likely to die from the disease, and African-American women with cervical cancer are twice as likely to lose their lives to this disease as are white women. Early detection and treatment of these diseases saves lives. We must do more to ensure that all women have access to regular exams and health screenings to rule out or detect life-threatening diseases such as breast and cervical cancers and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Likewise, while we have made global progress in improving the lives of women and girls, protests across India last month following the death of a women brutally raped on her way home from the movies, are just one indicator of the overwhelming distance we have yet to go in the fight to end violence against women. I believe Dr. King would be discouraged by the obstacles that remain in the way of justice around the world, but would also find hope in women taking to the streets in India, and the men who have joined them. He fought for human rights and dedicated his life to protecting and promoting the rights of every single person, no matter who they were or where they lived. The best way to celebrate his memory is in carrying on this cause.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
That sentiment is at the heart of what drives me personally to work internationally; and why I am proud to work for an organization dedicated to ensuring that women and men in the African-American community have access to a wide range of preventive health care services. During Black History Month and beyond we will continue to work tirelessly for a health care system that provides affordable, high-quality care and treats all people with dignity -- no matter who they are, no matter where they live.