The Legacy of Jennifer Schlecht and the Tragedy of her Loss

The global reproductive rights community is reeling with the tragic and untimely death of Jennifer Schlecht on November 6, 2019. A devoted and dedicated friend to women and girls everywhere, Schlecht had spent her entire career fostering family planning efforts for women across the globe. In recent years, she directed special attention to the need to provide family planning services for women drawn into humanitarian crises.

Jennifer Schlecht with her daughter Abaynesh. The child’s name means “you are the Nile” in Amharic. (Photo credit: Women’s Refugee Commission)

In April of 2018, Jennifer Schlecht took a new position as Senior Advisor on Emergency Preparedness and Response at Family Planning 2020. For Family Planning 2020, housed under the umbrella of United Nations Foundation’s activities, Schlecht collaborated with CARE on these issues as well as the Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crisis.

Asked when she joined FP2020, What sparked your interest in family planning? Schlecht responded:

Family planning is key to empowerment. No matter where you work, I find this to be true.

Schlecht came to this newly structured position from her work on Sexual and Reproductive Health at the Women’s Refugee Commission, where she had worked for seven years. In these positions Schlecht, who was a highly respected leader in the fields of international relief and development, traveled extensively to advocate for reproductive services to women in various countries, among them Kenya and Tanzania. In a statement by Women’s Relief Commission Executive Director Sarah Costa honored Schlecht, “She brought joy and light to all who knew her and was an unyielding champion for the rights of displaced women everywhere. Most of all, she was a phenomenal mother who loved her daughter with all she had. Our hearts are broken today and our prayers are with Jenn and her family.

Just a year ago at the International Family Planning Conference held in Kigali from November 12-15 Jennifer Schlecht was interviewed on video for Reproductive Health Matters:

Women who are displaced have the same reproductive health needs as other women – if not more. They have a right to access to family planning……I love the fact that we have had so many amazing panels….But the most thrilling part is to actually see how it is raised. So, to hear the topic raised in plenaries, to hear it being discussed in groups that have not typically engaged in this space. I think there is an increased acceptance or understanding that crises are not something that happen there or to other people. This is a human condition, a circumstance, our operating environment. And it excites me to see that it is being discussed in that way. It opens so many more opportunities for all of us.

All week colleagues, fellow workers in the international reproductive health community, neighbors and friends have been paying tribute to this remarkable and vibrant leader who has worked relentlessly for the rights of women and girls.

Executive Director of FP2020, Beth Schlachter issued a statement: “She was a leader in the field of family planning and humanitarian response, and chose to work from New York so she could have more time with her darling daughter…….We are utterly devastated.

Women Deliver, Executive Director Katja Iversen @Katja_Iversen tweeted: We were horrified by the tragic news and devastated by the loss of Jennifer Schlecht, a WD friend and fellow advocate for girls, women, #genderequality and #SRHR. She improved 1000s of lives, and her memory will live on. Our thoughts are with you and her family.

A tweet from DOCTORS OF THE WORLD@_MdMUSA “The Doctors of the World/MdM Int’l Network mourns the loss of Jennifer Schlecht. We will remember her for her tireless work improving women’s lives throughout the world. Our condolences to her family and many colleagues in the FP community @unfoundation @FP2020Global @IAWG_RH

November 9th community member Esther Spindler @Esther_Spindler tweeted: Purple balloons on empty benches tonight in Marcus Garvey park remembering the life of Jennifer Schlecht & her daughter, who died at the hands of brutal domestic violence. Feeling saddened, shocked, enraged & that we’ve failed our neighbor and colleague. She posted a photo.

The tragedy of Jennifer Schlecht’s death – a woman who fought for the number one issue in women’s lives, reproduction – was that she was taken out by the number two issue that confronts many women of all socio-economic strata: domestic violence. On the very day she planned to go to court for a restraining order against her husband, he murdered her with a large blade. He then killed their six year old daughter. Finally, he hanged himself.

It is well documented that the most vulnerable time for women in intimate partner violence situations is when they attempt to leave or have left the abusive partner. Murder rates rise substantially. At the time the woman is particularly vulnerable, and, as well, often the children. Wendy Mahoney, executive director for the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence explained in a 2017 article “Domestic violence is all about power and control, and when a woman leaves, a man has lost his power and control.” She claimed the danger rate to be 500 times greater. Such unnerved loss of control was the case with Schlecht’s spouse, Yonathan Tedla. He had days earlier threatened, he was not going “to lose” in a divorce battle.

Better education and awareness about the various stages of intimate partner violence are clearly critical for all segments of the society to understand. Domestic violence is a public health issue. Stepped up education, programs and social pressure for change are necessary. The Center for Disease Control outlines some of this in a report from two years ago.

A British criminology expert, Dr Jane Monckton Smith, has found that there are eight stages leading up to such killings. She studied 372 intimate partner killings in the United Kingdom to define this pattern of escalation in the violence. Through domestic violence groups, police forces and health providers learning these steps can help to save lives in the future.

With our hearts heavy here at Philanthropy Women, we believe Jennifer Schlecht’s death needs to serve as moment for growth. Our community needs to come together and find more solutions to domestic violence. We need to more find ways to make it safe for women to share when they are being abused or threatened, and give them more options to remove themselves from the situation.

The United Nations Foundation, founded over two decades ago by Ted Turner, has a long track record in advancing programs for women and girls. Reproductive health has been central to their mission from its inception. In 2013 they started The Girl Declaration with 25 non-governmental organizations. Maybe a new goal initiated through the foundation can be to eradicate the 38% of women’s homicides worldwide that the World Health Organization has identified come from intimate partner violence.

Rest in Peace, Jennifer and Abaynesh. Rest in Power, Jennifer and Abaynesh.

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Author: Ariel Dougherty

Ariel Dougherty is a teacher, filmmaker, producer and mentor for women directed media/culture of all stripes. SWEET BANANAS (director, 1973) and !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION (Producer, 2010) are among the hundreds of films she has worked on. She writes at the intersections of women-identified media, especially film production, women's human rights, and funding for film. Currently, she is working on a book entitled Feminist Filmmaking Within Communities.

One thought on “The Legacy of Jennifer Schlecht and the Tragedy of her Loss”

  1. In honor of the late Jennifer who devoted her entirely career to support women and girls in crisis situation
    To commemorate Jennifer and her beautiful daughter Abaynesh, Generation Guiders CBO will launch JENNIFER SCHLECHT MEMORIAL COMMUNITY LIBRARY in Kenya.

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