Denise Dunning

2016 Winner

Position: Founder and Executive Director
Organization: Rise Up

Denise Dunning is the founder and Executive Director of Rise Up, which advances health, education and equity for girls, youth and women everywhere. Rise Up leaders have advocated for the passage and implementation of 124 laws and policies impacting the lives of 115 million girls, youth and women globally. Dr. Dunning teaches courses at the University of California San Francisco, previously worked for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and served as a Fulbright Scholar in Honduras. She is a renowned global speaker whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post. She is now writing a book about girls’ empowerment globally.

“Denise advances access to quality family planning globally through advocacy in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the US. Denise is founder of Rise Up, an NGO that successfully advocated for 53 laws & policies impacting 115 million girls, youth, women.”

– Nancy Deyo, Senior Advisor of External Affairs at Rise Up

Describe your contributions to and achievements in family planning.

I am the founder of Rise Up, which has advocated for over 100 laws and policies benefiting 115 million girls, youth, and women globally. Rise Up advances sexual and reproductive health and rights by investing in visionary local leaders who advance family planning access and quality. Rise Up’s impacts include supporting Ethiopian leaders to develop apps that enable young people to access youth-friendly family planning services, and supporting young leaders in Mississippi to advocate for school-based comprehensive sexuality education and family planning services.

I have worked in family planning since the beginning of my career. After college I worked at a family planning clinic in Ghana and learned the critical importance of women having control over their own fertility. I worked at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation immediately after graduate school. I have also been named among the ’30 under 30’ for reproductive rights. Currently, I am also on the Board of Directors for EngenderHealth, which champions family planning globally. Additionally, I have been invited to write a blog series for Ms Magazine on family planning issues to share my stories, challenges, and wins in improving SRHR.

What sparked your passion for family planning?

In seventh grade, I wrote a paper on comprehensive sexuality education. In high school, I was a part of a campaign to support youth access to family planning services in Planned Parenthood clinics.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your family planning efforts, and what have you done to overcome it?

There is limited support for country-based advocates advancing family planning, in addition to persecution of advocates fighting for their rights. I am overcoming that challenge by having started Rise Up, which invests in country-based leaders to ensure health, education, and equity for girls, youth, and women everywhere. We train and fund Guatemalan leaders to advocate for comprehensive sexuality education in schools, and support Liberian activists to fight for increased access to SRH services.

What is your (country/region/city)’s biggest challenge in family planning, and how can it be addressed?

Reproductive rights in the United States are under constant attack, and access to family planning is being limited further rather than increased. In Louisiana and Mississippi, we support young leaders like Monica Atkins, who advocates for comprehensive sexuality education and to ensure that all young people can avoid unwanted pregnancy. Using art and poetry, Monica is building a movement of young people who speak out for their rights and demand access to the comprehensive sexuality education.

What do you want to accomplish in the next 5 years?

I want to expand Rise Up’s work to enable young people around the world to stand up for their right to family planning services and information.