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CARE to Congress: Invest in Women and They Will Do the Rest

A group of people cheering outside the U.S. Capitol building

CARE's volunteer advocates take a group photo prior to a full day of meetings on Capitol Hill. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

CARE's volunteer advocates take a group photo prior to a full day of meetings on Capitol Hill. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

Women know how to lobby Congress.

Anyone who doubts the value of spending a day on Capitol Hill should go with Floridians Alexandra Gordon, Dawn Nagy, and Cecilia Gonzalez. These three may be different ages, from different backgrounds, and at different stages of life, but on a beautiful, early-Spring day in the nation’s capital, they arrived to speak with one voice in favor of strong funding for foreign assistance and the lives it can change around the world, especially those of women like themselves, and the girls they once were.


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On International Women’s Day 2023, this Floridian trio are among 40 CARE volunteer advocates from 17 U.S. states and four countries meeting with senators and representatives to advocate for CARE’s priorities on behalf of women, girls, and others in need around the world. The timing of their advocacy could not have been more perfect to bring the FY24 International Affairs Budget to the forefront of leaders’ minds.

Three women and one man engaged in conversation around a table in a conference room
Alexandra Gordon (left) speaks with a staffer for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), joined by CARE's Ansley Vickers (center), and fellow volunteer advocate Cecilia Gonzalez (right). Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

Who brings the voices of the world’s women and girls to the halls of power?

Congress is important because all spending bills start there. (The President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2024 – released March 9 – is important as an agenda-setter, but ultimately, it’s just a request for Congress to make the final decision.) And when CARE volunteer advocates took over Capitol Hill on International Women’s Day, it also marked the kickoff of Washington’s appropriations process – one that promises to be contentious with many House members vowing to cut spending, particularly for global issues.

Still, it’s not hard to be optimistic when meeting CARE’s volunteer advocates. Florida’s Cecilia Gonzalez, 24, is an immigrant from Venezuela who’s passionate about refugees, and who possesses a rapid-fire grasp on her second language of English.


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“As a refugee in this country, I’m privileged,” she says. “I’m one of the few people who escaped the Maduro regime and found a safe home in the U.S. I’m very privileged to speak for those who can’t.”

Cecilia isn’t the only first-generation immigrant walking the halls of Congress with CARE. Josephine Kamara, a native of Sierra Leone, now lives in Rockville, Maryland, and the midday hour found her on a Zoom call with fellow Marylanders and a staffer for Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.)

“I came to this country with two pairs of jeans and five T-shirts,” she remarks. “And here I am walking the halls of Congress, advocating for women and girls around the world.”

Five women having a conversation around a table in a meeting room
Josephine Kamara (second from right) speaks with Molly Cole (head of table), a legislative aide to Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) She is joined by Sithembile Mwamakamba (far right), Kathryn Saffold (left), and Doris Bey (behind Kathryn Saffold). Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

First, rehearse

Once known as the annual CARE National Conference, CARE on Capitol Hill now brings advocates to Washington, D.C. multiple times throughout the year to better reach elected officials when legislative decisions are about to be made. For attendees in March, it’s an intense two days. The first offers an overview of the appropriations process and CARE’s requests of Congress, then concludes with small-group, state-level planning and role-playing ahead of the next day’s Congressional meetings.

Advocates also meet four global women leaders who are creating change in their own communities and visiting the U.S. to share their experiences: Sithembile Mwamakamba from South Africa, Veronica Ngum Ndi from Cameroon, Zarqa Yaftali from Afghanistan, and Claudine Tsongo from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bellamy Young, actor, singer, and CARE’s Gender Justice Advocate, also joins the event, quickly integrating herself with fellow New York advocates during that group’s lively planning session.

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At an evening reception, CARE President and CEO Michelle Nunn and CARE Action Vice President Ritu Sharma remind advocates of the work’s importance, while Claudine Tsongo offers words of inspiration:

“[In the DRC]… we are in a political society where women are not allowed to speak aloud. We hope that you can help us raise our voices very loud. And we think that we deserve that.”

CARE's Rachel Hall (standing) facilitates a training session with volunteer advocates on the first of their two days in Washington, D.C. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE
Bellamy Young, actor, singer, and CARE’s Gender Justice Advocate, shares a moment with Sithembile Mwamakamba from South Africa. Photo: Victoria Chan-Frazier/CARE


The raising of voices begins bright and early the next morning, with 56 Congressional meetings on Capitol Hill that start after breakfast and continue all day long, until close to dinner.

Oregonian Rayanne Sautter takes the lead in Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) office, addressing staffers Claire Kaliban and Lavanya Sridharan.

“We truly believe that women are powerhouses of change in their communities,” Rayanne says. “I personally got involved with CARE after seeing people in different countries who didn’t have voices of their own,” explaining that an encounter in Mozambique with an eight-year-old survivor of gender-based violence made a deep impression on her. Claudine Tsongo also speaks up to say that a mere $100 given to a woman in the DRC can help her start a small-scale business, feeding her family and paying for their educations.

At Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) office, advocates hold a standing hallway meeting with staffer Sachin Mathur, since rooms are hard to find as the appropriations process kicks into gear. There, the team gets schooled on inside-the-Beltway lingo, with Mathur informing the group that the budget section they’re discussing is called “SFOPS” for short, or the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs budget. (To clumsily adapt a Ben Franklin quote, in DC, three things are certain: death, taxes, and acronyms.)

Each advocate has a role to play in their Congressional meetings, like New York advocate Nick Hetherington who mentions the tiny size of SFOPS funding (roughly 1% of the $6.8 trillion Federal budget goes to foreign assistance funding), and Bellamy Young highlights the importance of new funding for global health workers, 70% of whom are women. “They are the ‘human tech’ that gets all this [research and development] into the people and helps communities survive and thrive,” she emphasizes.

It’s a two-way exchange, with Mathur highlighting the senator’s commitment to global health – for example, sponsoring the One Health Security Act, which would create an interagency council to provide early warning about the next pandemic.

Meetings with receptive legislators are important simply because it reminds them that there are people in their districts who truly care about these relatively small parts of the Federal budget.

Bellamy Young (right) speaks with Sachin Mathur, a staff member for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), joined by fellow New York delegation members Nick Hetherington (second from left), Tara Mahini (third from left), and Shahram Mahini (fourth from left). Photo: Shannon Olsen/CARE
Shahram Mahini, with daughter Layla and wife Tara, pause for a moment before their next meeting. Photo: Reid Davis/CARE

Voices of the next generation

The New York delegation includes one of the event’s youngest advocates, Layla Mahini, an Iranian American 17-year-old high-school junior from Manhattan, who traveled to DC with parents Shahram and Tara. “We came in not knowing what it would be like. We thought it would be more watch, learn, observe, rather than speaking,” Layla says. “But we are so happy we did it.”

Like many others, the Mahinis interject personal stories whenever they can, with Shahram talking about his experience of moving from Iran to the U.S., via France. Layla mentions that her grandmother still lives in Tehran, making the issue of women’s rights there much more than just a news story for her.

The advocate ranks are multigenerational, but youth is well represented. For Sarah Skaff, a Cal-Berkeley senior and political science major hailing from Alameda, Calif., the advocacy work is a continuation of her interests as a student, fueled by an attorney mother who instilled a passion for women’s leadership.

Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) speaks to attendees at CARE's International Women's Day dinner, at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE
Bellamy Young, CARE CEO Michelle Nunn, and CNN's Laura Coates pause for a snap on the orange carpet. Photo: Getty

Yes, we can

The day concludes with a dinner at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, celebrating International Women’s Day as well as the work of these volunteer advocates. In addition to the scheduled speakers, attendees also hear from Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.), who says:

“When women lead in development, whole nations thrive.”

Will that leadership meet the funding it deserves? At this point it’s too soon to tell. A long budgetary season, expected to run well into the summer, stands between hope and an appropriation.

But a story told by Dawn Nagy of Florida sparks optimism. When she first began meeting with former Congressman Ted Yoho (R-Fla), a fiscal conservative and Tea Party Caucus member, he wanted to zero out foreign aid funding. But after years of relationship building, which included helpful information as well as lifting up the voices of faith-based organizations he respected, the congressman did a complete 180.

“I about fell out of my chair,” she recalls.

This year, with the climate on the Hill favoring austerity, it’s even more important that these advocates stand up and speak up, particularly for a section of the budget which is sometimes assumed to have no domestic constituency.

As Cecilia Gonzalez summarizes: “We’ve got one shot; maybe 25 minutes if we’re lucky. And we have to give it all we’ve got.”

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