Every Friday, we send out a weekly roundup of what’s new on Blood & Milk along with articles you may have missed from the archives. We also include an interview with an inspiring woman and this week we’re excited to feature Dr. Anu Kumar. To get the newsletter, sign up here.
Dr. Anu Kumar is the President and CEO of Ipas, an international reproductive justice organization where she has worked for close to two decades. She is passionate about women’s freedom and self-determination, decolonizing health, and the power of collaboration across borders.
Can you please tell me about your current career and how you got there?
I am president and CEO of Ipas, an international nonprofit that works globally to expand access to abortion and contraception. Ipas has 17 offices around the world with approximately 400 staff that are focused on this mission. I’ve been with the organization for almost 20 years and, in my time here, have overseen diverse areas including fundraising, finance, community access, and communications. I’ve written about and introduced new concepts into the sector, including abortion stigma as well as work in new geographies like Mozambique and Myanmar. I started my career at the World Health Organization after finishing my Ph.D. in medical anthropology and Master’s in Public Health. From WHO, I went to the MacArthur Foundation where I got a great perspective on the reproductive health area.
You have written that your life’s work is “making sure that women survive and thrive.” What is one of the most rewarding aspects of this work?
I work with passionate, smart, and creative people all over the world on the very challenging topic of increasing access to abortion and contraception. I love it when we, as a team, sometimes over a long period of time, can make a lasting change. For example, abortion was recently legalized in Hidalgo, a state in Mexico, and Ipas has been working on that for years. It is rewarding to see progress over time.
In your opinion, what is one of IPAS’ most important current programs or undertakings?
Ipas is currently engaged in a multiyear journey to shift power within our organization, working toward being a truly post-colonial, anti-racist INGO. We will transform into a global network with dispersed authority, power, and leadership, yet still be bound by a common vision and mission.
In my role, it’s my job to tackle the patriarchy head-on; to fight the racist, sexist, and colonialist policies and practices that deny women and girls the right to safe, high-quality abortion and contraceptive care. So I think a lot about how I can personally and professionally work toward anti-racism, ending oppression and achieving justice.
On several occasions, you have written and spoken about decolonizing global health. In an ideal world, what would a decolonized health system look like?
I believe white supremacy is a thread that runs through so many of our systems and touches our lives so deeply. It is simply part of the backdrop here in the U.S. and overseas. I think postcolonial global health is a movement as much as it’s a field of study or practice, which ultimately calls for an overhaul of multiple systems, including the health system. But we have to start somewhere and build the world that we want to live in; that’s why we’re shifting power and reimagining the way we work within Ipas.
So I can probably better tell you what I think a decolonized NGO looks like: dispersed decision-making and power, no headquarters in the Western world, resources focused in the countries or communities where the work is done, locally-led, and responsive and responsible to those in the communities closest to the work.
I’d love to hear about a time when IPAS’ work impacted an individual woman’s life. Can you share a relevant story?
Ipas’s work impacts literally millions of women’s lives because we work at the system level, including health and legal systems, and to change social norms at the community level. Systems ultimately serve, or not, individuals.
Here are a couple that come to mind. One individual was a garment factory worker in Myanmar. She took part in a discussion group on abortion, contraception, and sexual health that Ipas Myanmar and a local health network developed to bring information to young women. She got a long-lasting contraceptive method from a local health facility. Before these small group meetings, she had been taking emergency pills after each time she had sex with her boyfriend. Essentially, she got the information she needed, in a safe and supportive place, so that she could be in charge of her own reproductive health.
In Nepal, we worked with community members to turn an old school building in a very remote place in the mountains into a health facility that provides abortion care. Our staff walked for days to get to the village, and individual women actually helped to put a roof on the building, because they recognized the importance of such services and wanted them for themselves and their family members. In Nepal, abortion is permitted by law and is part of the national health system run by the government.
Sometimes systems create incredible harm though, and part of our work at Ipas is working to dismantle those systems, some local, some national and some global. I can think of so many stories where women used ground glass, sticks, bicycle stokes, and other sharp objects to deal with an unintended pregnancy. This happens all over the world because of restrictive abortion laws, stigma, inequity in health care access, poverty, and patriarchy.
What is your personal definition of health?
A multidimensional state of well-being that is physical, emotional, and spiritual. Well-being cannot be achieved if you are hungry, unhoused, ill, intellectually malnourished, suffering from mental or emotional distress, abused, or experiencing any number of conditions that destabilize you. Well-being is hard to achieve and difficult to maintain.
What is one way that you care for and prioritize your own health and well-being?
I exercise regularly. I am a swimmer and find the focus on breath along with the time alone to be relaxing. I also like walking and hiking as a way of connecting with nature and processes that are bigger and have greater longevity than me.
This interview has been edited.