Although she spent more than a decade attending university, Anu Kumar says the most important tool of her trade wasn’t honed in a classroom. Instead, Kumar says, she developed it as a young Fulbright Scholar in the Northern India as she talked with impoverished women, discovering how their reproductive choices steered their entire lives.
In all she does, Kumar is guided by empathy.
“It’s the ability to think about how would this feel if it were me. How would I feel if I were them? It’s not that hard.”
A WORLDWIDE OUTLOOK
As executive vice president at Ipas, a Chapel Hill-based non-governmental international organization focused on reproductive freedom that works to expand access to safe, legal abortion, Kumar spends a lot of time imagining herself in other women’s shoes. One focus of her work is removing the stigma of abortion in developing countries a job she says saves lives and families.
“In clinics in countries like Ghana and Zambia we are finding things like women who have abortions are treated differently, are asked to wait longer, and are not given pain medications,” Kumar said. “It can be fairly punitive. These women are treated poorly, verbally abused, they may even be charged more.”
Ipas lead an effort in Ethiopia that has turned the tide of improved women’s health by providing family planning and abortion services to hundreds of thousands of women. Although she is beyond proud of this effort, Kumar worries that while other countries move forward, the outlook for women in the United States becomes more bleak by the day.
Since the World International Conference on Population and Development Women in 1994, twenty five countries have made abortion laws more liberal. The United States is among a small minority of countries that have increased restrictions. Through her research, Kumar says she has found that a woman’s power over her reproductive health is at the root of her ability to make healthy decisions.
PLANTING SEEDS OF CHANGE
As a young woman Kumar looked to her mother — the first woman in her family to attend university— for advice. The university professor told her daughter to take the path of least resistance; she said the work you love will be the work you can do, and that anything less than something you love will be a struggle.
“So I didn’t actively choose to pursue a path of equality in rights,” Kumar explained. “I was just drawn to that. It excited me.”
After finishing a master’s degree in anthropology, Kumar studied maternal and child health in the Masters of Public Health program the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Guided by empathy and a vast curiosity about the global effects of poverty and reproductive limitations on women, she quickly became a leader in her field. After working for both the World Health Organization and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, she returned to North Carolina to continue her work on the global stage.
A MOTHER’S PERSPECTIVE
Although she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t passionate about women’s health, Kumar says parenthood, specifically having a daughter, challenges her to continue her work.
“My daughter is starting to find out that things she takes for granted are not to be taken for granted.” Kumar said. “It’s just occurring to her that there are places in the world where women don’t have the ability to live to their full potential. What is she going to do about it? I want to inspire her to do something, to make a difference.”
Kumar says she sees her work as part of a bigger, multi-generational picture. Her grandmother grew up in purdah in North India and had, at most, a sixth-grade education, and she never worked outside the home. Kumar’s mother attended graduate school and became a leader in her field, but was always expected to put family first and to sacrifice more than a man would in the same position.
Seeing the progress her mother made inspired her to take it a step further, and encourage her daughter to do the same, Kumar said.
“I am the first woman in my family to earn a PhD and fully expected to have both a career and a family,” she said. “These changes are true not just for me, but for other members of my family. So from purdah to fighting for women’s rights in three generations, with each generation doing what it could to make life better for the next. What will the next generation bring?”
BRINGING IT HOME
Although her professional work is global, Kumar keeps North Carolina in focus. As a board member for Lillian’s List, a state non-profit focused on empowering women, she works for gender equality on a local level. She says that while the poverty and inequality in other countries may seem stark, women in the Tar Heel state face many of the same challenges as those in third-world countries.
“Sadly I see things playing out here as they do in the developing world,” Kumar said. “North Carolina has taken a major step backwards in terms of the rights of the poor in our state. What we know globally, and this pertains locally, is that the more you restrict women’s access to health abortion care, the higher chance of unsafe procedures and risky behavior.”
During her time in graduate school, Kumar spent a summer working in migrant worker camps in Johnston County. She says she was stunned by the level of poverty in her adopted home state. She believes that if more people could witness the diversity of experiences, they would work harder for equality and would support laws and policies that would give all men and women the same opportunities.
“You don’t have to go far,” she said. “You just have to step out of your own comfort zone and think about what life is like for others. That’s the needed mindset. It’s not, ‘How can I make myself more comfortable?’. It’s, ‘How can I make other people not just more comfortable but be able to live and thrive?’.”