The grandmothers lobbying for health and reproductive rights

Liza Bayless and Kate Stringer

From a group of pensioner activists to a woman single-handedly running an orphanage for HIV-positive children, meet the grandmothers who are lobbying for women’s reproductive rights


Maine grandmothers lobby for reproductive rights

Judy Kahrl, who lives in Maine, US, may be 82 years old, but she is still concerned with the barriers that surround reproductive health care. “Access to contraception and the ability to control fertility empowers women,” she says.

That’s why Kahrl founded GRR! – Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights. The group of nearly 100 grandmothers in Maine lobbies for access to contraceptives, abortion and sex education.

The issue is personal for these women, who came of age in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when access to reproductive health care was very limited. Kahrl says all members of the group have stories of sisters or cousins ‘disappearing’ to get abortions or have babies. The women are keen that their daughters and granddaughters don’t have to face those same barriers and stigmas.

Access to contraception and the ability to control fertility empowers women

Being a grandmother advocating for reproductive rights has its advantages. Group members, with their “wrinkled faces and yellow T-shirts,” as Kahrl puts it, draw attention from media and legislators in Maine’s capital Augusta. The group scored a victory last year when a bill to expand pregnancy testing, contraception and STI treatments to low-income residents became law.

“Grandmothers have a lot of power,” Kahrl says.


The indigenous elder taking on foetal alcohol syndrome

Some 22 years ago, great-grandmother and Minnesota Ojibwe elder Mary Lyons received a call: a six-month-old boy crippled by foetal alcohol syndrome wasn’t expected to live long. Could Lyons, an advocate for indigenous children affected by alcohol, take care of him in his final weeks?

Lyons had fostered many children and adopted six. The work was emotionally taxing, and she was ready to stop. Yet she felt she couldn’t say no. The baby, Chauncey, is now 22 and Lyons’ adopted child. He’s a testament to her commitment to helping children affected by foetal alcohol syndrome live full lives, and to keeping indigenous families together.

The battle is personal for Lyons: she was one of many Native American children removed from their families and placed in institutions decades ago. Alcohol was one coping mechanism her generation turned to, she says.

That is why it’s not just children Lyons fights for. A winner of the Minnesota Congressional Angels in Adoption award, Lyons gives lectures as a United Nations active observer and supports women as a grandmother counselor for sobriety group Women of Wellbriety, International.

“Women, when they rise up together, they can rule mountains,” she says.


The woman providing food and housing for Cape Town HIV orphans

Zodwa Hilda Ndlovu – or Mama Zodwa as she prefers to be called – recognised the Aids crisis in her South African community when her daughter died of the disease and her HIV-positive son committed suicide out of shame. Fear of talking about these issues, she decided, was simply too dangerous.

In 2001, she began running a soup kitchen out of her home to feed children who were left orphaned by Aids. Now named Siyaphambili – which means ‘going forward’ – the nonprofit has turned into a sort of village in Cape Town. It provides food and housing for orphans and facilitates healing conversations among families about HIV.

Mama Zodwa, who is HIV-positive, says she does this work so that other people don’t lose their children to shame and hopelessness. She believes open discussion is crucial to destigmatising the disease and teaching prevention, and grandmothers are in unique positions, as community elders, to bring about change. “In the future, I would like to see everybody treat HIV as a normal disease,” Mama Zodwa says. She explains that too often sufferers are cast aside or too afraid to admit they need help. She hopes for a day when Africa is eventually free of Aids.

This article was originally published in YES Magazine. Main image: Camden Conference


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