This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), Rewire News Group is highlighting the ways Asian and Pacific Islander American communities have been at the forefront of the reproductive justice movement throughout its formation and today.
Collectively, we in the United States don’t know enough about the political organizing and feminist movements of Asian and Pacific American (APA) women.
Growing up Asian in the suburbs of Texas, I didn’t learn about civil rights activists Grace Lee Boggs or Yuri Kochiyama, or even about Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Congress and co-author of Title IX, which protects people from sex-based discrimination in public schools. School books and curricula across the country often ignore, erase, or invisibilize the radical legacies of APA activism in the United States. But once you do a little digging, you’ll learn that our communities have a rich history of political activism and organizing—and APA leaders have been on the forefront of the reproductive justice movement since its inception.
This APAHM, Rewire News Group is highlighting five revolutionary activists who have led the fight for reproductive freedom, bodily autonomy, and gender equity.
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Born in 1945 in an Arizona incarceration camp to a Japanese American working-class family, Peggy Saika has been a fierce community advocate involved in Asian American and multiracial political activism for over half a century. Saika began organizing for immigrants’, tenants’, and labor rights in Sacramento, California, where she grew up and went to college, in the late 1960s and ’70s. She went on to support domestic violence survivors, advocate against gender-based violence, and build an APA reproductive justice movement.
Saika’s own experiences with abortion and intimate partner violence galvanized her to advocate for gender equity. From 1978 to 1983, Saika lived in New York City and worked at the Chinatown Health Center, while organizing with groups like the Bronx Women Against Rape (WAR) and the Organization of Asian Women (OAW), a collective of multigenerational Asian American feminists. She returned to the Bay Area and served as the executive director of the Asian Law Caucus from 1983 to 1991, and continued to be involved in grassroots community organizations and movements. In 1988, she helped open San Francisco’s Asian Women’s Shelter, the first shelter for Asian survivors of gender-based violence in northern California. In 1989, she co-founded Asian Pacific Islanders for Choice (APIC), giving APA women a dedicated voice in the pro-choice movement for the first time.
Following the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Saika and 156 other APA women founded the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) in Los Angeles in September 1996. The national nonprofit continues to organize around issues of reproductive justice, immigrants’ rights, and gender equity for APA women and girls.
“How much longer could we be invisible on such a fundamental issue as abortion? We needed to have an explicitly pro-choice vehicle to inject our voice into the movement.” –Peggy Saika
Lisa Factora-Borchers is a Filipinx American writer, poet, and editor of Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence, an anthology featuring the voices of 50 writers, most of whom are survivors. Factora-Borchers was inspired to collect these stories through her experience working with survivors of sexual violence.
The Ohio-based writer is now focusing on “literary activism to complicate narratives about reproductive justice, particularly at the intersection of race, feminism, and faith,” Factora-Borchers told Rewire News Group. “My personal evolution and stand on reproductive justice, particularly abortion, has deepened over the years, especially after working as a legal and medical advocate for survivors of rape, incest, and sexual violence, which positioned me to edit my first book.”
Factora-Borchers has also written for Bitch magazine, TruthOut, and the Feminist Wire, and has worked in editorial capacities for Catapult, make/shift, and Literary Mama. She was the book editor for Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, and is currently a senior features editor at the Rumpus. “I’m now deep in the heart of my second book, a memoir, in which I write into the layers of my personal transformation about gender, violence, health care, abortion, and spirituality,” Factora-Borchers said. “I’ve taken my advocacy to the page.”
“Building relationships with so many strong, articulate, and wise souls solidified my belief that survivors are equipped with their own wisdom concerning their healing, including making their own trauma-informed decisions about reproductive health.” –Lisa Factora-Borchers
APIC, cofounded by Saika, turned into Asian Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health (APIRH), a tiny community organization that hired a young, queer UC Berkeley graduate student named Eveline Shen as an intern in 1998. Shen was hired as an associate director following her internship, and then became a co-director for the organization.
Under her leadership, APIRH transformed into Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (ACRJ), before finally evolving into Forward Together—a multiracial, multi-issue social justice organization with offices in California, New Mexico, and Oregon, for which Shen currently serves as executive director and board president. The organization has been widely recognized for its grassroots initiatives and leadership within the reproductive justice movement. In 2010, Shen and other reproductive justice leaders formed the Strong Families Network, now a home to 200 organizations “committed to making sure all families have the rights, resources, and recognition they need to thrive,” regardless of race, gender, or income.
Recently, Forward Together helped ensure that family planning, abortion care, and gender-affirming health care were all considered essential health services during COVID-19 in Oregon, according to the organization. In New Mexico, the organization has been working to debunk the myth that rural and Native American communities don’t support abortion. And this year marks the tenth anniversary of the nonprofit’s Mamas Day campaign to celebrate all forms of mamahood.
“We know that when you come from a place of love, people are allowed to enter into the conversation by bringing themselves and their loved ones into the fight to keep abortion access.” –Eveline Shen
Sophya Chum is an associate director and cofounder of Khmer Girls in Action (KGA), a community organization in Long Beach, California, that works to advance gender, racial, and economic justice activism by Southeast Asian women and girls.
Born to Cambodian refugees who fled the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime, Chum was raised in Long Beach, where many refugees resettled. In 1998, as a freshman in high school, Chum joined the HOPE (Health, Opportunity, Problem Solving, Empowerment) Project, an initiative of APIRH. Though she originally joined the group on a whim (she filled out the application with the promise of free ice cream), she enjoyed being in community with other Khmer women and talking about the issues they faced. So when APIRH discontinued HOPE in 2002, Chum—still in high school and 17 at the time—founded KGA along with several other members.
During her time at KGA, she’s worked on issues of reproductive health access, electoral engagement, education, and health justice in her community. For example, KGA has fought against forced parental involvement measures in California to protect abortion rights for youth in its community. The group also works across genders, as evidenced by its Young Men’s Empowerment Program, a safe space for young Southeast Asian men and boys to learn, explore themselves, discuss issues of patriarchy and sexism, build brotherhood, and create positive change.
“How do we also think about how young men can support young women in the movement for reproductive justice? And … if young men are supporting these young women, they’re politically conscious and they’re aware of these issues, and it can eliminate and dismantle patriarchy.” –Sophya Chum
Okamoto was galvanized into action during a fraught, transitional time in her life. Her mother had lost her job, and the family was experiencing temporary homelessness. She stayed with friends who lived two hours away from her private high school in Portland, Oregon, which she attended on scholarship. During these commutes by bus, she met homeless women who were forced to use unsanitary alternatives due to a lack of funds and access to menstrual products. Now Okamoto is 22 and a student at Harvard, and PERIOD consists of over 700 registered school and community-based chapters in all 50 U.S. states and in over 40 countries. The chapters help to distribute pads, tampons, and menstrual cups to those in need, push for legislation requiring public schools to provide free period products, and campaign to take down the tampon tax and end period poverty using the hashtag #FreeThePeriod.
In 2018, the 20-year-old activist published her first book, Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement. PERIOD established the first annual National Period day on October 19, 2019. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has committed to sending period products to service providers, like shelters or food pantries, at no cost; it is also raising funds to aid in this work. “We’re distributing 2 million period products just for COVID response right now,” Okamoto said.
“We’re just trying to show people that menstrual hygiene is a right and not a privilege, and that periods are absolutely 100% natural.” –Nadya Okamoto
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify Lisa Factora-Borchers’ biography.