“Lawyers Who Have Made a Difference” – Managing Partner Heidi Reavis Featured in the Federal Bar Council Quarterly for Her Work in Human Rights and Documentary Film

Pete Eikenberry of the Federal Bar Council profiled Partner Heidi Reavis, who with her husband, Steve Engel of Engel Entertainment Inc., produced a human rights documentary film about obstetric fistula to inform people about the affliction, its simple cure, and the free hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where it now is being treated. The below article was featured in the Federal Bar Council Quarterly.

Millions of women across over 40 developing countries suffer a tragic childbirth injury called obstetric fistula. The women are simply unaware they need a C-section, and are remote from medical assistance. When they go into obstructed labor, tragedy ensues; the baby cannot be saved and the mother suffers internal injuries, rips, and tears. When such a woman loses her baby, soon afterwards she can lose her husband and family as well, and become a pariah in her community. She is physically injured, uncontrollably leaking urine or feces or both, and starts to stink. With no means of support, she may also lose her home, the rest of her family, and her self-respect, and eventually become homeless. Yet, the problem can be fixed with just a few stitches.

In 2007, Heidi Reavis and her husband Steve Engel borrowed money on their apartment to produce a human rights documentary film, A Walk to Beautiful, about obstetric fistula to inform people about the affliction, its simple cure, and the free hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where these women and girls can receive treatment and a new life. It has probably saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of young women and made countless other women’s lives worth living.

A Walk to Beautiful was featured in over 35 international film festivals, was broadcast on national television, and was distributed publicly. The film received scores of coveted international awards, and Heidi was awarded an Emmy for the film’s “excellence in production of a film for a television documentary.” Heidi has gone on to co-executive produce (without compensation) numerous additional human rights documentaries and important public service announcements, most recently as an executive producer on the film, Missing in Brooks County, about the dramatically high rate of fatalities and missing persons in Mexican/U.S. border crossings.

Heidi has also been chair of the WCC (Women Creating Change) formed in 1915 as the Women’s City Club of New York. It gave early impetus to the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920. (My granddaughter, Hayden Lamson, who assisted with the interview, is entering Smith this year, from which Heidi and her mother graduated.)

Hayden: I am currently in a biomedical class focusing on reproduction, birth control, and reproduction technology. What can you say about the subject?

Heidi: A column in The New York Times by Nicholas Kristof about a free hospital in Ethiopia inspired Steve and me to produce A Walk to Beautiful. The hospital offers surgery to “close the hole” – a childbirth injury that women and girls get from obstructed labor, resulting in a tear that causes them to leak urine and feces for the rest of their lives. Obstetric fistula (“fistula” meaning a hole in Latin) results from women going into labor without knowing they require a C-section, and living too far from the roads and the medical attention they need. Usually, the child dies, unable to exit the mother. After days of futile labor and extreme exhaustion, often the woman dies too.

In many developing countries, women and girls do the heavy labor – carrying water, sticks, and stones, while the men tend to animals and serve other village functions closed to women. Once a girl is able to walk, she is often given physically heavy and demanding tasks which over time inhibit her physical growth. This pattern leads to girls “growing short,” from the constant external pressures on their skeletal frame – a condition which can be fatal when a genetically larger baby is fighting to exit its dis-proportionally smaller mother.

In cases where the pregnant mother is young and still in her own growth period, the fetus will still develop at a relatively normal rate and size regardless of whether the mother is as yet too small to give birth. Without a C-section when the mother goes into labor, the infant trying to get out causes great internal pressure and friction, and a puncture (or “fistula”) is created between the pelvis and the bladder or rectum of the mother. When the baby cannot exit, it suffocates and dies; if the mother manages not to die of exhaustion or blood loss, sometimes she wishes she had. These once-hopeful women and girls who suffer from untreated obstetric fistula are thus sentenced to lives of misery and poverty, with gross leakage, physical and psychological isolation, and early death – often by suicide.

A Walk to Beautiful follows the paths of five courageous women who make their difficult journey across the rugged hills of Ethiopia to the free Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa for treatment to stitch their open wounds – after which healing and care, their lives are transformed. The film is inspiring, humoristic, upbeat, and reflects hope. The portrait of Ethiopia is breathtakingly beautiful. In times of war and hostility in nearby areas, we suspended production and regrouped. We assembled a crew of women producers who were skillful, empathetic, and nurtured trust and intimacy with the women and girls they interviewed for the film.

The award-winning feature length version of the film was also converted into a 52 minute television version which was broadcast on NOVA. A Walk to Beautiful has been widely distributed for free to millions of people in an effort to continue informing the world about the issue of obstetric fistula, the usually simple cure, and the free hospital where the subjects of our film traveled at their peril to be treated.

In addition to raising awareness for countless women and girls so that they could seek treatment, the film raised money for the Fistula Hospital and broadened understanding at the United Nations, in the U.S. Congress, in the medical community, and abroad concerning women and girls’ acute maternal and infant health care needs. Indeed, U.S. Congressional legislation to fund the treatment of obstetric fistula in developing countries is currently pending.

The Fistula Hospital has greatly expanded since production of the film. It now also has a free school and offers other support services to the women and girls who make the journey. Remarkably, some of its former patients have become nurses in the field, since they care and know so much about the medical problem and are skilled in treating it. It is amazing to consider how a girl traveling across Ethiopia, on foot in the hope of having her obstetric fistula treated, could now be working as a skilled nurse at the free Fistula Hospital, treating and caring for others with the affliction.

Hayden: That is a great result. Now, what is the mission of Women Creating Change?

Heidi: The Women’s City Club of New York, Inc., now known as Women Creating Change, was founded over a century ago as a progressive and safe place for women at a time of great hostility against our civic participation. Over the decades, WCC has been behind progressive change in New York, both large and small, from improving safe shelters for women, to promoting voting rights, to fighting for civil rights, to supporting women and people of color in political life.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins were early members of WCC. Perkins was the first woman appointed in a presidential cabinet, serving under F.D.R. as his Secretary of Labor over four terms (to this day, the longest serving member of any presidential cabinet). With the support of WCC and its focus on civic participation, women’s rights, and workers’ protection, Perkins was the architect of the minimum wage, fair labor standards, child labor laws, Social Security, and more. I was inspired by these great women and followed in my mother’s footsteps in getting involved with WCC.

WCC’s main mission today is to work with underrepresented and underserved women to encourage and support their participation in civic life, which can also mean political life. For example, WCC helps provide tools for participation on community boards, learning about civic engagement, voter registration, and more. WCC is also focused on making sure women understand the importance of taking the census and exercising the right to vote in their communities.

In addition to being the centennial in 2020 of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote (August 18, 1920), 2020 is also the bicentennial of Susan B. Anthony’s birth (February 15, 1820); so there is a lot to recognize this year, in addition to the 2020 census and the presidential election. The Census ultimately determines the number of representatives each state has in Congress over the next 10 years, determined by the number of people in a state in proportion to the national population. For states, the census unlocks billions of dollars in federal funding.

People have to get counted to be counted. New York State was at its high water mark of House representatives with 45 in the U.S. Congress in 1950. It now has only 27 representatives. This decline in representation has resulted from a combination of low census response in New York, and higher population growth in other states. Also, even though people are stuck at home, the New York State census response rate, this year and historically, is lower than the national average. Since New York State is such a large portal for immigration, we have many new and foreign residents who are unaware of the census, who question or do not understand it, or who are fearful of taking it, particularly in this fraught election year. [Heidi and Steve also produced gratis a free public service announcement on the census which they distributed to tens of thousands of people through social media.]

Hayden: Do you see progress being made in the work that you are doing; if so how?

Heidi: Absolutely, there is progress, particularly in view of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements which have prompted many initiatives for the advancement of women and people of color. However, much of that is topical – not organic or lasting in terms of long term structural change. An idea whose time has come can start a movement. If the women and girls in Ethiopia can reach a free hospital on foot hundreds of miles away, to achieve life changing transformation, we can achieve our dreams too.

Helen Diana (“Heidi”) ReavisRead the article starting on page 24 of the Federal Bar Council Quarterly here.