A Leader in Women’s Health Urges Donors to Lean Into Discomfort

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Dr. Anu Kumar, President and CEO of Ipas, an international reproductive health and rights organization.

Anu Kumar
Dr. Anu Kumar, courtesy of Dr. Anu Kumar

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

That the issues that I have chosen to work on, reproductive health and rights including access to abortion, are ones that will take generations to resolve. I naively thought that since Roe v. Wade was decided well before I came of reproductive age and the public health data were so clear about the health benefits of contraception and abortion for women, families, communities, and countries that logic would prevail and I would simply be running programs to scale up these programs. Little did I know that I would become a warrior for abortion rights!

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

I am working with colleagues to transform Ipas so that it is a more equitable and just organization that builds on the legacy of anti-colonial freedom movements around the world. Individuals and organizations in those movements challenged powerful forces, from Imperial England to Apartheid, and I want our organization to reflect those revolutionary values even as we live in the constraints of being a US registered charity that is very much a part of global aid flows.

3. What inspires you most about your work?

I’m inspired by my colleagues and the people we serve. From Myanmar, where my colleagues are facing a military dictatorship that is hostile to human rights, to Bolivia where anti-choice activists are a constant threat, my colleagues resist and persist. Their steady and strategic commitment to our mission has shown me time and again that we will prevail. We do it for the women and girls that we meet along the way; the 13-year-old girl in Venezuela who became pregnant as a result of rape by her neighbor, whose mother and a teacher helped her to get a safe abortion, and then were put in jail for terminating the pregnancy. Justice inspires me.

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

As a person who identifies as a woman, I have experienced all the discrimination that comes with sexism in the workplace and outside of it. That experience was compounded by being a brown woman. I have also been pregnant when I wanted to be and pregnant when I didn’t want to be so I know well the fear and the joy that can accompany pregnancies. And, I have given birth twice, breastfed my babies, and returned to work with young kids. I know personally the physical and emotional toll being a mother takes and also the happiness and satisfaction it can bring.

5. How can philanthropy support gender equity?

Philanthropy should take on the hard stuff, the risky stuff that governments and corporate donors won’t touch because they’re afraid. A lot of funders support generic women’s rights or women’s empowerment, but shy away from thorny issues like abortion or global work. They want to cherry pick issues that don’t make them uncomfortable or stick to limited geographies that they feel they know. Lean into discomfort. Lean into controversy. Lean into learning. Take a stand and fight like hell. You have the money and the least to lose.

6:  In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?

I see a growing realization that the U.S. women’s movement has much to learn and contribute to the global women’s movement, and I think that is positive. Americans tend to forget what an outsized impact we have on the world. I also see a lot of creativity and flat-out impatience on the part of activists to really move the needle on major issues. And, finally, I see a growing recognition that women of color are effective leaders and need our support, and I am hopeful that we will see beyond the dichotomy of black and white to the many shades of leadership.

More on Anu Kumar:

Dr. Anu Kumar is President and CEO of Ipas, an international reproductive health and rights organization. She provides strategic leadership for staff in Asia, Africa, Central and Latin America — all guided by Ipas’s commitment to working for a world where every woman and girl can determine her own future.

This interview has been minimally edited.

In The News

Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.