Parashat Lekh L'kha

Hagar & Reproductive Health

There is nothing more empowering than to be seen--like Hagar was--for who one is and what one truly needs.

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AIDS and reproductive rights go hand-in-hand. Women often do not have the power to negotiate sex, safer sex, or contraception within their sexual relationships. In some communities, a woman's request to her partner to use a condom is seen as proof of infidelity.

An Issue of Gender Discrimination

Addressing these problems requires seeing them as more than straightforward public health issues and instead as issues of gender discrimination. Women all over the world are deprived of basic information on contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. This denial of potentially life-saving assistance and information is, remarkably, reinforced by the U.S. government's Mexico City Policy--often called the "global gag rule"--which excludes from U.S. government funding any non-governmental organization that provides or even promotes services related to abortion. 

As Jews engaged in social justice work, we have an obligation to emulate God's relationship with Hagar. How extraordinary it is that, at the very beginning of our foundational narrative, the Torah includes a story about the mistreatment of a marginalized woman--in particular, the exploitation of her sexuality and reproductive capacity.

By including it in such a prominent place, the Torah is telling us that God cares about those "outside" the Jewish community, that our lives as Jews are connected to those of the "stranger," braided tightly together like the lives of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar. 

With knowledge of the startling statistics, we have an obligation to respond, to truly see the women of our global community. These women must be full partners in designing programs for change and in deciding the changes they want to make and how they want to go about making them. 

There is nothing more empowering than to be seen like Hagar, really seen, for who one is and what one really needs. As God saw and protected Hagar in her vulnerability and exploitation, so must we. When we see our women partners as they see themselves, we are doing the work of El-Roi.

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Carol Towarnicky

Carol Towarnicky is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.