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Meet Three Grandmothers on the Front Lines of Health Care Movements

These three grandmothers are expanding health care in their communities.

Judy Kahrl
Maine grandmothers lobby for reproductive rights

Judy Kahrl may be 82 years old, but the Maine resident is still concerned with the barriers that surround reproductive health care. “Access to contraception and the ability to control fertility empowers women,” Kahrl says.

That’s why Kahrl founded GRR! — Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights. The group of nearly 100 Maine grandmothers lobbies for access to contraceptives, abortion, and sex education.

The issue is personal for these women, who came of age in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, when access to reproductive health care was severely limited. Kahrl says all group members have stories of sisters or cousins “disappearing” to get abortions or have babies. They don’t want their daughters and granddaughters to face those same barriers and stigmas.

Being a grandmother advocating for reproductive rights has its advantages. Group members, with their “wrinkled faces and yellow T-shirts,” as Kahrl puts it, draw attention from media and legislators in Maine’s capital. Last year the group scored a victory when a bill to expand pregnancy testing, contraception, and STD treatments to low-income residents became law.

“Grandmothers have a lot of power,” Kahrl says.

Mary Lyons
Ojibwe elder takes on fetal alcohol syndrome

Some 22 years ago, great-grandmother and Minnesota Ojibwe elder Mary Lyons received a call: A 6-month-old boy crippled by fetal alcohol syndrome wasn’t expected to live long. Could Lyons, an advocate for indigenous children affected by alcohol, take care of him in his final weeks?

Lyons had fostered many children and had adopted six. The work was emotionally taxing, and she was ready to be done. Yet she knew she couldn’t say no. The baby, Chauncey, is now 22, and Lyons’ adopted child. He’s a testament to her commitment to helping children affected by fetal alcohol syndrome live full lives, and to keeping indigenous families together.

The battle is personal for Lyons: She was one of many Native American children removed from their families and placed in institutions decades ago. Alcohol was one coping mechanism her generation turned to, she says.

That’s why it’s not just children Lyons fights for. A winner of the Minnesota Congressional Angels in Adoption Award, Lyons gives lectures as a United Nations active observer and supports women as a grandmother counselor for sobriety group Women of Wellbriety, International.

“Women, when they rise up together, they can rule mountains,” she says.

Zodwa Hilda Ndlovu
Food and housing for Cape Town HIV orphans

Zodwa Hilda Ndlovu — or “Mama Zodwa,” as she likes to be called — recognized the AIDS crisis in her South African community when her daughter died of the disease and her HIV-positive son committed suicide out of shame. Fear of talking about these issues, she decided, was simply too dangerous.

In 2001, she began running a soup kitchen out of her home to feed children who were left orphaned when their parents died of AIDS. Now named Siyaphambili — which means “going forward” — the nonprofit has turned into a sort of village in Cape Town that provides food and housing for orphans and facilitates healing conversations among families about HIV.

Mama Zodwa, who is HIV-positive, says she does this work so that other people don’t lose their children to shame and hopelessness. She believes open discussion is crucial to destigmatizing the disease and teaching prevention, and grandmothers are in unique roles to affect change as community elders. “In the future, I would like to see everybody treat HIV as a normal disease,” she says, explaining that too often sufferers are cast aside or too afraid to admit they need help. And Mama Zodwa hopes for a day when Africa is eventually free of AIDS.

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