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Actor, #MeToo activist Ashley Judd praises Canada’s support for global reproductive rights

Actor Ashley Judd meets a refugee boy in Juba, South Sudan, June 28, 2018.

Sam Mednick

Actor and prominent #MeToo activist Ashley Judd is praising Canada for its support of global reproductive health and rights amid a massive financing gap created by the Trump administration’s funding ban on organizations that mention abortion.

In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Judd, a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations reproductive health and rights agency (UNFPA), said Canadian taxpayer dollars are changing the lives of women and girls in the developing world. She recently saw the effects of some Canadian foreign aid investments during a trip to war-torn South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011 after two decades of conflict.

“Canada’s money in particular is making an enormous difference in the quality of everyday life for these girls and women, I saw that myself,” Ms. Judd said in a phone interview near Nashville.

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Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government unveiled a $650-million program for sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide. The funding announcement came less than two months after U.S. President Donald Trump reinstated the so-called global gag rule prohibiting U.S. funding to international organizations that fail to disavow abortion.

Canada has also provided tens of millions of dollars in international assistance to South Sudan aimed at improving access to quality health care for women and girls. Some of that money has helped fund a teaching hospital in the capital of Juba that trains midwives; Ms. Judd visited the facility during her visit to South Sudan.

“At independence, there were only nine midwives in South Sudan and today there are 600 and that’s directly related to Canadian international development dollars,” Ms. Judd said.

South Sudan is in desperate need of 6,000 additional midwives, Ms. Judd said, as it is home to one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Ms. Judd saw the consequences of the midwife shortage when she visited a camp for internally displaced people in Bentiu, a town located in the northern part of South Sudan, and witnessed a fistula-repair surgery at a UNFPA hospital.

A fistula is a hole between the birth canal and bladder or rectum, caused by prolonged, obstructed labour without access to medical treatment. It leaves women leaking urine and feces, and isolated from their communities because of the odour and stigma associated with the traumatic birth injury.

The UNFPA flew surgeons in from Nigeria and Uganda to conduct the fistula repairs in Bentiu, including the one Ms. Judd witnessed. She said the woman who underwent the surgery suffered her fistula during a nine-day labour seven years ago. She said the surgery will transform the woman’s life.

“She will be able to control her urine and her feces, and as a result, she will be able to breathe without thinking about whether or not she is leaking on herself.”

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Ms. Judd also helped midwives deliver a baby at a UNFPA-run clinic in Bentiu with basic tools: a sterile hair cover, plastic gloves, soap, a clamp to cut the umbilical cord and a cloth to swaddle the newborn. The mother named her baby “Ashley,” after Ms. Judd.

She also met with residents of the camp, including women and girls who have experienced sexual violence or rape. She says she was particularly affected by her conversation with a nine-year-old girl who, like her, is a survivor of childhood sexual assault.

“Every time one girl or woman is sitting with another and she says ’me too’ and we have that identification, we lay some of that burden of shame down, we start to heal,” Ms. Judd said.

Ms. Judd was one of the first women to make an on-the-record allegation of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017, helping to propel the #MeToo and “Time’s Up” movement against sexual harassment.

Ms. Judd said the effects of the #MeToo movement are being felt far beyond Hollywood and the Western world. She recollected an impromptu women’s rights march she participated in at the Bentiu camp. Although only 40 or so women took part, she said it was a small but mighty group with a familiar message.

“It was a full-fledged, full-blaze, full-bodied women’s march with very striking resemblance to the women’s marches we saw around the world after the election of Donald Trump. And that does give me hope.”

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