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Connie’s daughter Lubona who was born HIV negative / Courtesy of Anne Vyalitsyna
I’ve had an opportunity to pursue my dreams, unlike many people. When I was 15, I lived in Russia. It was the only life I understood, but I dreamed of getting to experience more, of having a chance to create a positive impact on the world—that dream was realized through modeling. As a child, I was raised in a culture where the expectation of women was limited; there were few opportunities for women to pursue a career or achieve parity with their male contemporaries. We were in many ways considered “less than.”
I moved to the United States because I wanted more for myself and for my family. Eventually, my pursuit led to appearances in Sports Illustrated (for 10 years) and campaigns ranging from Prada to Victoria’s Secret to Chanel. I’ve been so grateful, and I continue to feel like the most fortunate woman in the world. Throughout my career, I’ve always felt the need to be a voice for the many women whom have not been given these same opportunities. Far too many girls and women have their dreams cut short because they don’t have access to education, or the tools and services they need to plan their families. What I’ve come to see is that when women can’t plan their families, they simply can’t plan their futures.
With the amazing Connie, the strongest and most empowering woman I have ever met / Courtesy of Anne Vyalitsyna
My perspective came from a life-changing trip to Zambia with RED. In Zambia, I met Connie, an HIV-positive young woman. Connie had already faced many women’s worst nightmare: she had buried three of her children from complications arising from AIDS. I can only imagine the heart-wrenching trauma of burying a child, particularly from a disease that could have been prevented. It wasn’t until she got access to the medication she needed that she was able to deliver her healthy HIV-free daughter, Lubona. Many of the women that I met struggled to feed and clothe their children, many battled with health issues related to HIV, and most had long forgotten any dream other than being able to keep their children alive. It became increasingly clear to me that family planning was one of the keys to empowering women and changing our collective future.
With the local kids in Chikankata / Courtesy of Anne Vyalitsyna
Family planning is a simple and cost-effective solution to save the lives of women and children and help break the endless cycle of poverty. Yet the world is home to more than 220 million girls and women who have no access to family planning. If we were to meet this need, we would cut maternal mortality by 1/3, and infant mortality by 20%. We would make significant progress on all of our global development goals, allowing girls to stay in school, promoting women’s economic empowerment, reducing HIV-transmission, and helping to break the cycle of poverty.
Mobile clinic in Chikankata / Courtesy of Anne Vyalitsyna
Investing in family planning isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing. The investment has a clear return: by investing $4.1 billion we can meet the needs for family planning in the developing world, which in turn can save over $5.7 billion in health and other development costs. The investment will also pay dividends in the future: when a woman has the choice to delay pregnancy, she can stay in school, potentially pursue a career, develop physically, and have the opportunity to more easily create an income. In turn, her children are typically born healthier with significantly more opportunities themselves, and thus begin their lives on a much better path. Investing in family planning is something that we can and must do for us to realize a better world for all of our children.
This World AIDS Day, my ask is that we all contribute our voices to raise awareness of the issue and ensure every girl and woman has a choice.
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