STUDENTS PETITION FOR WOMEN’S HEALTH ON NATIONAL DAY OF SERVICE
For Chante Harris, the highlight of the National Day of Service was holding a sign in front of CVS, shouting, “FC2, my boo!” to people passing on the street. (Clarece Polke)
WASHINGTON — Like many Americans across the country, Elyse Preston and her classmates pitched in to volunteer in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service Saturday.
The event, which honors the memory of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., also kicks off inaugural weekend, where 600,000 to 800,000 people are expected to descend on the nation’s capital. For the two dozen students from American University volunteering at The Women’s Collective, or TWC, however, the experience was a little different.
“When I signed up to volunteer for the Day of Service this morning, I had no idea I would end up in front of CVS holding signs, advocating for female condoms,” said Preston, who expected a day of filing, organizing the office and sending letters to representatives.
Instead, the college sophomore helped The Women’s Collective petition its local drugstore to start stocking second generation female condoms (FC2) for D.C.’s Ward 5 residents. She also helped to film an AIDS awareness public service announcement.
“This was the perfect opportunity to get involved with an organization that’s doing really great work among issues that affect women,” she said.
Preston also said it was a unique introduction to her first year participating in the Day of Service. The initiative, one of the largest initiatives at TWC, is to push for mainstream usage of female condoms. This includes having them readily available in drugstores and pharmacies, along with traditional male condoms.
Chantil Thomas, program associate at TWC, said political activism and advocacy should be part of the conversation surrounding the inaugural weekend, and that there’s strength in numbers.
“As it is inauguration weekend, you have women here from all over the world,” Thomas said. “So, to have those discussions and conversations during this time while everyone’s here, why not talk about it?”
According to a 2010 report by D.C.’s Department of Health, approximately three percent of the D.C. population is HIV positive, which is more than the prevalence rate of Ethiopia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. The same report also says that in the U.S., black women make up the largest percentage of women infected with the disease. Those infection rates and numbers, Thomas said, are part of the reason it’s so important to advocate for the usage of the female condom and other preventative measures.
“When you’re talking about your body, and your right to be able to do things with your body…that should concern you,” said Latishia James, youth program coordinator for TWC. “There are lots of people in these political times who would like to continue to police women’s bodies and say what they can and cannot do with them.”
James said that the election campaign last year provided key insight into the perspectives many lawmakers have about women’s issues.
After a series of political gaffes surrounding women’s health and rights during this past election, the awkward national conversation about women that followed became fodder for Saturday Night Live skits and late-night talk show segments.
Neil Kerwin, president of American University, said he hopes the Day of Service helps students focus on the needs of the District, and to realize that a lot of America’s major issues exist in their own backyard. Extending a hand and reaching beyond the campus, he said, is key to honoring King’s legacy.
Sophomore student Chante Harris agreed and added that the high AIDS infection rate in D.C. wasn’t tangible for her until she volunteered at the TWC this Saturday.
“Going to American [University], you’re kind of in a bubble,” Harris said. “You’ll never understand the things that are really going on around you and in the community until you step out and serve.”
By Clarece Polke