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Ashley Judd: Women’s rights key to ending poverty

Third World poverty will never end until women have the freedom to regulate their own fertility, said actress and activist Ashley Judd. “A woman’s body is not the property of any church, state or other human being,” the outspoken star said.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

The cycle of Third World poverty cannot be broken until women have the freedom to regulate their own fertility, said actress and activist Ashley Judd, who recently returned from a three-week humanitarian mission to Rwanda and the Congo.

“A woman’s body is not the property of any church, state or other human being,” the outspoken daughter of country music star Naomi Judd and half sister of Wynonna Judd told TODAY’s Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb Monday in New York.

Judd, who is a global ambassador for Youth AIDS, a program sponsored by Population Services International, said it took her three weeks to recover from the emotional trauma of her trip.

“When I come home from a trip like that, I am in such a state of grief and mourning,” she said. “There’s a lot of good news, but I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t grieve and mourn as well.”

Judd’s time in the poverty-racked Democratic Republic of Congo — democratic, she said, in name only — was particularly wrenching. The country has the highest fertility rate in the world, she said, with 6.3 live births per woman, and also the highest maternal death rate in the world.

“Those deaths are agonizing,” Judd said. “They are from malaria. They are from diarrheal disease — all preventable and treatable, every single one of them. And it is so devastating.”

‘The hardest thing’Even more devastating, she said, is leaving so many children in so much need behind when she returns to the United States.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever done is walk out of an orphanage,” Judd told Kotb and Gifford. “That gets me every time.”

Judd has two movies in postproduction, “Crossing Over” and “Helen,” but she never mentioned them. She’s in New York to address the United Nations on Wednesday on the problem of human trafficking — slavery. And she was much more eager to discuss the endemic problems of poverty and reproductive rights than her own work.

Judd, 40, said her social conscience was awakened early on. “I had some sort of an ‘aha’ moment in college at the University of Kentucky,” she said. “I became a rabble-rouser. I was constantly organizing — campus-wide walk-out-of-classes, doing whatever I could to stir the pot. And that’s when I really became sensitized to international issues.”

But then Judd went to Hollywood to be an actress, establishing her credentials with roles in such movies as “A Time to Kill,” “Double Jeopardy” and “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” It wasn’t until 2003, when she was filming “Twisted” in San Francisco, that she finally realized she had to do something to help others.

The movie involved a lot of night shooting, and Judd said she’d come back to her room exhausted. “I was so tired, I was getting in a cold shower — I was forgetting to make the water hot,” she said. At first, she felt only annoyance, but then, she said, “I just got fed up with my own self-pity. ‘How dare I be so traumatized by this cold shower when x-number of billions of people on the planet don’t even have access to safe water, much less piped water.’ ”

Calls to actionBy chance, she got a call that week asking her to be the global ambassador for Youth AIDS. Bobby Shriver and Bono also called at the same time, urging her to get involved.

Since then, she’s traveled around the world, trying to raise awareness and bring real help to real people.

Judd said that Rwanda has made remarkable progress since the genocidal campaign of Hutu against Tutsi that left as many as 1 million people dead in 1994. Under a progressive government which she said is free of corruption, the country is trying to raise the standard of living of its people and has outlawed ethnic discrimination.

“Rwanda is absolutely beautiful, and quite an extraordinary story in terms of the healing and reconciliation and progress they’ve made,” Judd said.

But Rwanda has also experienced a population explosion in the 14 years since the civil war that claimed so many lives. “The entire population subsists on 80 cents a day,” Judd said. “Overpopulation is a huge issue. They have their agriculture to the very peaks of all their mountains. They’re hungry. There are families I met who only feed their children every other day, because that’s all the food they have access to.”

Cycle of poverty
Judd said she also visited India, where she saw firsthand the cycle of exploitation that many women who are the victims of human trafficking are caught up in.

“I was in a brothel in Mumbai last month, and there are lots of babies who are born in brothels because the madams, the pimps and the owners want their sex workers to have one to two children because that traps the women in a cycle of poverty and keeps them in the brothels,” she said.

Kotb asked Judd how she answers critics who ask why Hollywood stars travel abroad to attack poverty when there is so much of it at home.

“I think one can make a very persuasive argument from a variety of different angles — human rights, human dignity,” she replied. “From the other angle, it’s really about political stability and political instability. Poor countries are unstable countries.”

But the bottom line, Judd said, is reproductive rights for women: “The fewer the children, the healthier the family, the better chance of getting an education.”

The better chance of breaking the cycle.