Baywatch star Alexandra Paul helps women find a voice
By Maria Fotopoulos
International Women’s Day, Earth Day and Mother’s Day celebrate women and honor mothers—those we birth, those who birth us, and the one that provides for us every day of our lives: Mother Earth. So how fares the female half of the world’s population? One country in West Africa recovering from decades of civil war is making noteworthy progress, while here in “first world” United States, women suddenly face threats to long-secure reproductive rights.
In Sierra Leone, Pacific Palisades resident Alexandra Paul, former cast member of the hit ’90s TV show Baywatch, has been working with the Population Media Center (PMC) to take advantage of the popularity of radio soap operas to create positive outcomes in women’s lives.
Always a concerned environmentalist and “populationist,” the actor made a personal choice early on not to have children, and had worked previously with PMC’s Global Population Speak Out program to raise awareness. When PMC again sought her help, this time in casting and teaching actors for their new series in Sierra Leone, she was excited, if not as prepared as she might have anticipated. “I’ve been acting for 30 years but I’d never taught acting, so I had to do my homework,” said Paul of her contribution to what ultimately will result in a 208-episode series of 15-minute radio shows.
The soaps use the “edutainment” methods of Miguel Sabido, who filmed telenovelas in 1970s Mexico to promote family planning and other social development goals. Results there were gratifying: During one nine-month series, contraceptive sales increased 23 percent and 560,000 women enrolled in family planning clinics. Equally important, 2,000 women signed up to volunteer in Mexico’s national family planning program—an idea suggested in the telenovela. Finally, after 40 years of rapid population growth, the fertility rate in Mexico began to slow, thanks to the power of media.
Despite being rich in diamonds, gold and other deposits, Sierra Leone, a mostly Muslim country, has a 70 percent poverty rate and a 6 million population expected to double in 30 years. Forty percent confirm radio is their most important source for all health matters, so for this new project, PMC worked with locals for two weeks prior to Paul’s arrival, writing radio episodes about contraceptive use, gender violence, general reproductive health and family planning, HIV/AIDS, and a serious condition known as obstetric fistula that can occur in difficult childbirth when there is inadequate medical care. The celebrity guest spent her first day on site casting 15 roles from among 70 auditioning actors, many “very talented,” said Paul. Five shows were produced during her stay, and now “PMC will do a lot of testing to see how well their shows play,” she explained.
The Larger Problem
Worldwide, our 7 billion population includes millions of women living extremely difficult lives in the most impoverished areas, and estimates don’t show global population stabilizing until we reach 10 billion. High fertility rates persist in Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America. The human race now adds approximately 78 million people annually—or about 220,000 new babies every day.
The current thinking on how to best improve the lives of females in poor countries and stabilize population is educating girls, empowering women socially and politically, working toward high child-survival rates and giving women the ability to determine the number and spacing of their children. This last has suddenly come under attack in our own country, where the race for a Republican presidential nominee turned into an assault on women, with a platform that would limit access to family planning, contraception and abortion.
Although many Americans feel ambushed by this new war on women, social futurist Sara Robinson isn’t surprised. After all, she explains, women’s control over their bodies via the birth control pill and other modern means of contraception is a relatively new phenomenon, and many men feel challenged by a change to the patriarchal world order. Robinson anticipates a continuing fight for the next 100 years.
How the PMC radio series ultimately informs the understanding of reproductive health and influences behavior in Sierra Leone is a work in progress, but it looks promising. PMC’s past success in Ethiopia with radio shows generated 30,000 letters from across the country, and demand for contraception increased 157 percent.
We might be wise to adopt a similar strategy here in the United States to educate younger generations in the history of women’s rights, lest they take any for granted. They need to be made aware of everything from the efforts of countless advocates who secured women’s right to vote in 1920 (for which many were jailed), to Margaret Sanger’s founding the following year of the American Birth Control League for the support of “voluntary motherhood” (for which she, too, was jailed), which eventually became part of the Planned Parenthood Federation.
As we celebrate various aspects of women in the months March through May, it’s a good time to refocus on the rights of women worldwide to make their own choices regarding the if and when of motherhood, as well as the many ways their choices affect the planet.
* * * *
Who’s Getting Pregnant?
49 percent (about 3.2 million)of pregnancies each year are unintended.
41 percent of U.S. births are to unmarried women.
Abortions among teens declined 59 percent from a peak in 1988 to 2008.
98 percent of Catholic women of reproductive age who have ever had sex have used some kind of contraceptive method other than family planning.
The rate of unintended pregnancy among poor women in 2006 was more than five times the rate among women at the highest income level. A high rate of unintended pregnancies translates into high rates of abortions.
From the first Earth Day in 1970, when world population was 3.7 billion, to now, the population has nearly doubled, to more than 7 billion.
World population grows each year by nearly 80 million people.
Of 130 million youth not in school, 70 percent are girls.
There are an estimated 1,000 maternal deaths daily.
An estimated 100,000 women develop fistula every year; the international capacity to treat this childbirth injury is about 6,500.
Nearly half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, and nearly all unsafe abortions occur in developing countries.
70 percent of people living in absolute poverty worldwide are female.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Guttmacher Institute, The Fistula Foundation, Mother (documentary film), United NationsTags: birth control, population, reproductive rights, third world, women's rights