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7/29/2014 - Supporters March for Marissa Alexander in Jacksonville

Hundreds of supporters from all over the United States marched to the Duval County Courthouse in Jacksonville, FL yesterday to demand that all charges against Marissa Alexander be dropped. Chants heard on the way to the Courthouse also underscored growing demand for State Attorney Angela Corey's dismissal.

Free Marissa Now and Sister Song, Inc. are leading a week-long mobilization on Alexander's behalf. The Standing Our Ground Week of Action kicked off Friday, July 25 and will continue through August 1. Satellite participants in the week of action have shown their support for Alexander using the #StandingOurGround and #SelfiesForSelfDefense hashtags.

Alexander, an African American mother of three, fired a warning shot after being strangled and threatened to death by her estranged husband in August 2010. A restraining order was in place at the time of the incident. Alexander's husband, Rico Gray, has a well-documented history of domestic violence against Marissa and other former partners. Alexander was once hospitalized because of injuries sustained in an incident with Gray. Nevertheless, Florida's mandatory minimum sentence for "pulling the trigger during a crime" is 20 years. Alexander could face up to 60 years in prison for allegedly endangering Gray's life and the lives of her two stepsons.

"Today, it's Marissa. Tomorrow, it's you. And yesterday, it was Trayvon," said poet Staceyann Chin with Free Marissa Now. "We see this as a human rights violation against [Marissa's] right to parent, against her bodily autonomy," Monica Simpson, Executive Director of Sister Song, told WTEV-TV.

Last week, a judge denied attorneys' requests to grant Alexander a new hearing under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. In June, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law that includes warning shots under "Stand Your Ground," but it will not retroactively apply to Marissa Alexander's case. Free Marissa Now and Sister Song intend this week's action to coincide with Alexander's retrial, which was previously scheduled for this month. A Florida appeals court ordered a new trial for Alexander after finding the lower court had issued improper jury instructions on self-defense.

Alexander is now set to be retried in December.


7/29/2014 - Extensive Female Genital Mutilation Study To Be Conducted in the US

The Obama administration plans to conduct a large study on female genital mutilation (FGM) to try to assess how many girls and women in the US are at risk, and how many have already experienced, FGM.

According to experts, FGM tends to take place during summer break when parents take their daughter outside of the country for the practice.

Jaha Dukureh, a 24-year-old woman who grew up in Gambia, experienced FGM there, and then child marriage in the US, started a petition that gained more than 220,000 supporters. Dukureh, whose campaign was backed by The Guardian, says her half-sister died from complications of FGM. The successful campaign called on the Obama administration to conduct a report on the statistics of FGM in the United States.

Catherine Russell, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, attending the Girl Summit in London last week, indicated that the study would be conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The Summit, hosted by the United Kingdom and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and attended by more than 600 people, aimed at mobilizing global efforts to end FGM and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) within a generation.

In her petition, Dukureh says: "Many in the US hear about FGM and think it only happens in far away lands. Unfortunately, this is far from reality. I hear from girls every day that were born here in the United States who have been through FGM. These young women are your average American teenagers -- some of them you know, some of them you went or go to school with. And there are many more girls in the US that are at risk of being cut. The practice of FGM is illegal in the US but girls are being taken to other countries, usually their parents country of origin where they are cut in what is now known as 'vacation cutting.'"

The Obama administration has set up a preliminary working group for FGM prevention and action. Its first step is to examine the extent of FGM in the US and explore ways to eliminate the practice. The practice of FGM on girls under 18 has been a crime in the US since 1996. Last year, President Obama strengthened the law by making it a crime to transport a girl outside of the US for the purpose of FGM.

Sometimes referred to as female genital cutting or female circumcision, FGM is the removal or cutting of part or all of a woman or girl's genitals. The practice, which is medically unnecessary, can lead to serious health issues such as infection, illness and death. FGM still affects up to 140 million women and girls worldwide.

Video via Change.org and The Guardian.


7/29/2014 - Three Anti-Abortion Extremists Sentenced In Mississippi

Last night, three of four anti-abortion extremists were found guilty by a Jackson, Miss. court for activities carried out during protests against the state's last-standing abortion clinic, Jackson Women's Health Organization (JWHO).

Roy McMillan was found guilty for obstructing the sidewalk entrance to a Mississippi clinic. McMillan is already subject to a federal injunction that bars him from entering a certain radius of the clinic. Harriett Ashley was found guilty for obstructing the sidewalk entrance of the abortion clinic and for failing to obey a police officer. Ashley cannot attempt to make contact with the clinic or use the clinic sidewalk. Chet Gallagher was found guilty for interference with a lawful business. Gallagher was also barred from making contact with the clinic and charged a $500 fine.�Charges against Cal Zastrow, a fourth defendant and anti-abortion activist, were dropped last night.

The Feminist Majority Foundation's National Clinic Access Project (NCAP) Executive Director, duVergne Gaines, was in Jackson City Court last night for the proceedings. "This was a huge victory," Gaines said. "These extremists were held accountable for obstructing access to the last remaining clinic in the state of Mississippi, the Jackson Women's Health Organization," she said. "They have, literally, laid siege to this facility for the last two years since we learned its fate was in jeopardy because of Mississippi's TRAP law." Gaines continued, "We're thankful for the police department's vigilance in enforcing the law."

Each of the convicted defendants has a notorious past in clinic aggression and intimidation. Chet Gallagher was fired by the Las Vegas, NV Police Department after participating in an Operation Rescue demonstration in uniform, using his uniform to gain access to a clinic, then destroying clinic property. Gallagher later served time in prison for those offenses. Another defendant is a supporter of justifiable homicide. Harriett Ashley has ties to anti-abortion extremists that have championed justifiable homicide of doctors, clinic workers, and supporters.

Over the past two days, NCAP has been training local volunteers, clinic escorts and legal observers countering the Operation Rescue/Operation Save America protests aimed at JWHO. Patients visiting the facility were able to safely enter the clinic despite dozens of anti-abortion demonstrators who staged a service outside of the clinic on Sunday.


7/29/2014 - Women Just Won Big In Mississippi

Feminist Majority Foundation leaders are elated by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding a preliminary injunction against a Mississippi TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider) law that would have closed the only abortion clinic in the state. FMF congratulates the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Jackson Women's Health Organization (JWHO) for this important win.

"This is a major victory for the women of Mississippi and potentially for the women of the United States. The Mississippi TRAP law would have closed the only comprehensive women's reproductive health clinic in the state and necessitated women driving hundreds of miles to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion. For women who could not afford to travel out of state, this ruling literally saves lives," said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who encouraged the founder of the JWHO, Susan Hill, to establish the clinic. Hill opened JWHO to ensure that low-income women in Mississippi could access a full range of reproductive health services.

"Although we celebrate this ruling," continued Smeal, "we cannot rest until this law and all other TRAP laws are permanently struck down."

DuVergne Gaines, Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation National Clinic Access Project said, "As leader of the Feminist Majority Foundation's clinic defense team, I am here in Mississippi, and we are elated by this federal appeals court decision today as well as with the local convictions yesterday of three anti-abortion extremists in Jackson City Municipal court for interfering with access to the Jackson clinic."

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Mississippi state law requiring doctors at the only abortion clinic in Jackson to have admitting privileges at a local hospital was an unconstitutional burden on women's right to choose an abortion. This decision means that the Jackson Women's Health Organization will remain open despite state legislative attempts to make Mississippi an abortion-free state.


7/29/2014 - Women Just Won Big In Mississippi

Feminist Majority Foundation leaders are elated by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding a preliminary injunction against a Mississippi TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider) law that would have closed the only abortion clinic in the state. FMF congratulates the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Jackson Women's Health Organization (JWHO) for this important win.

“This is a major victory for the women of Mississippi and potentially for the women of the United States. The Mississippi TRAP law would have closed the only comprehensive women’s reproductive health clinic in the state and necessitated women driving hundreds of miles to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion. For women who could not afford to travel out of state, this ruling literally saves lives,” said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who encouraged the founder of the JWHO, Susan Hill, to establish the clinic. Hill opened JWHO to ensure that low-income women in Mississippi could access a full range of reproductive health services.

“Although we celebrate this ruling,” continued Smeal, “we cannot rest until this law and all other TRAP laws are permanently struck down.”

DuVergne Gaines, Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation National Clinic Access Project said, “As leader of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s clinic defense team, I am here in Mississippi, and we are elated by this federal appeals court decision today as well as with the local convictions yesterday of three anti-abortion extremists in Jackson City Municipal court for interfering with access to the Jackson clinic.”

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Mississippi state law requiring doctors at the only abortion clinic in Jackson to have admitting privileges at a local hospital was an unconstitutional burden on women’s right to choose an abortion. This decision means that the Jackson Women’s Health Organization will remain open despite state legislative attempts to make Mississippi an abortion-free state.


7/28/2014 - Study Proves Texas Laws Have Significantly Reduced Access to Abortion

The Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) released a study in the medical journal Contraception finding that access to abortion has been significantly reduced since the state enacted it omnibus anti-abortion law HB2.

The study, released last week, details the striking impact that HB2 has had on abortion access in Texas. The researchers collected data on abortion services for the first six months after one of HB2's four provisions, which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic, went into effect in November 2013. They found that the abortion rate decreased at an unusually rapid rate of 13 percent, likely because of the large number of clinic's that closed or stopped providing abortion care. In May 2013, there were 41 facilities providing abortion throughout the state, but 20 of those clinics have now either closed to stopped providing abortion services.

When another provision requiring facilities to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers goes into effect this September, the researchers predict that the six or seven facilities that already meet the standards are the only ones that will be able to remain open. But less than one-fourth of abortion procedures took place at an ambulatory surgical center during the research period, so they do not expect those clinics to be able to handle a four-fold increase in abortion procedures.

"There is no evidence that any of the provisions [of HB2] has improved the safety of abortion in the state," said Daniel Grossman, the lead researcher and an obstetrician-gynecologist and Vice President for Research at Ibis Reproductive Health, in a statement. "They have just made it harder for women to access the services they want and need."

Smaller cities and rural areas have been hit the hardest. All of the clinics in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have closed, restricting access to reproductive health care so much that some consider it a human rights violation. The number of women of reproductive age living over 200 miles from a clinic providing abortions has increased from 10,000 in May 2013 to 290,000 in April 2014. That number is expected to increase to 752,000 when the ambulatory surgical center provision goes into effect. Such great distances can force women to delay care, because they cannot afford the higher costs of travel and lodging or the time they have to take off work, and because they may not have access to reliable transportation. Many women have already been forced to resort to illegal abortion methods, such as obtaining abortion-inducing drugs on the black market.

HB2 was passed by the Texas legislature in a special session in July 2013, after earlier being defeated by a filibuster. Its two other provisions ban abortion at or after 20 weeks post-fertilization, and require providers to use the Food and Drug Administration's outdated protocol for medical abortions.


7/28/2014 - Wisconsin Will Not Enforce Contraceptive Coverage Law If Employers Raise Religious Objections

Citing the recent United States Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance (OCI) announced that it will no longer be enforcing the contraceptive benefit rule for employers with religious objections.

Current state law in Wisconsin requires companies with insurance plans to cover services including outpatient care, preventive treatment, prescription drugs, and FDA-approved contraceptives prescribed by a healthcare provider. According to OCI, however, the state will now allow employers with religious objections to birth control to opt out of providing coverage. Instead, insurers will have to provide separate contraceptive coverage to those employees who seek the coverage.

An OCI spokesman claimed that the change was required after the Hobby Lobby decision, but legal experts from the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) issued a legal memo last week explaining that "Wisconsin state law is a separate legal requirement on insurance plans in the state that is not directly affected by the Hobby Lobby decision."

"It appears that the Wisconsin Commissioner of Insurance is making up a new standard that does not comply with either state law or federal law," said Gretchen Borchelt, Senior Counsel and Director of State Reproductive Health Policy at NWLC.

Borchelt also warned that the change in contraceptive coverage could limit accessibility of birth control for some women in Wisconsin. "Putting the burden on the employees by forcing them to seek out and ask for a plan that covers contraception stigmatizes a critical health care service, ... raises concerns about privacy, and could be an insurmountable barrier for some women."

Wisconsin State Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison) called the OCI announcement another attempt by Republican Governor Scott Walker to inhibit access to birth control. In an interview with Wisconsin Radio Network, Rep. Taylor said that Governor Walker, "had no authority to unilaterally decide that this administration is not going to enforce a law passed democratically through the Legislature."

In 2011, Governor Walker included a provision in the biennial budget bill that would have repealed the state's Contraceptive Equity Law, which mandates contraceptive coverage in certain insurance plans. That provision failed along with a legislative attempt in 2013 to create a religious exemption.


7/25/2014 - Women's Equality Party Launched in New York

In November, voters in New York may elect the first Women's Equality Party ticket. Former New York State Representative Kathy Hochul, NARAL Pro-Choice New York, and the National Organization for Women-NYC announced last week they were launching efforts to create a Women's Equality Party ballot line in the state.

"The women's equality party will send a loud message that women are paying close attention this election cycle, said NOW-NYC President Sonia Ossorio. "Elected officials should understand that women's economic empowerment can be a driver for our economy. Our health and safety matter. What happens to women, happens to families."

The new party - which will have current Governor Andrew Cuomo on its ticket, along with Hochul as candidate for Lieutenant Governor - plans to support initiatives that are important to women, including the 10-point women's legislative agenda that the New York State Legislature failed to approve before the close of the 2013-2014 session. That legislative package included stronger laws against gender-based workplace discrimination, tougher laws on human trafficking, resources for victims of domestic violence, and an abortion provision that would match the language of Roe v. Wade.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York welcomed efforts to create a Women's Equality Party. "We will never see our needs addressed without representation that understands and reflects the reality and totality of women's lives," the organization said in a statement. "The Women's Equality Party is a visible reminder that New York State's women can't be discounted or dismissed."

Supporters of the Women's Equality Party must secure 15,000 signatures by August 15 before the party can appear on the ballot. The Cuomo-Hochul ticket will already appear on the Democratic, Working Families, and Independence party ballot lines. New York election laws permit major party candidates to appear under a third-party's ballot line if organizers of that party endorse the candidate.


7/25/2014 - Senate Foreign Relations Committee Passes Disabilities Treaty

By a vote of 12 to 6, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed to recommend ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to the full US Senate.

"One hundred forty six nations and the European Union have ratified the Disabilities Treaty, but it will require American leadership to ensure the treaty's protections become a reality," said Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. "The treaty embodies the highest of American standards. From the U.S. Constitution, it borrows principles of equality and the protection of minorities. From the Declaration of Independence, it reflects the unalienable right to pursue happiness. From the Americans with Disabilities Act and other landmark accessibility laws, the treaty enshrines the concept of reasonable accommodation."

The treaty, among other things, reaffirms the need for fundamental human rights for all people with disabilities, and highlights the need to recognize and respond to discrimination against those with disabilities.

Every Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of the treaty, as well as two Republicans: Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and John Barrasso (R-WY). Voting against the Disabilities Treaty were Senators Bob Corker (R-TN), James Risch (R-ID), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Rand Paul (R-KY).

Two-thirds of the Senate, 67 Senators, must now vote in favor of the treaty before it can be ratified by the United States. The Senate previously, in 2012, failed to vote to ratify the Disabilities Treaty, by a vote of 61-38 against. All 38 opposing votes were cast by Republicans; seven voted in favor. More than 120 countries have already ratified the UN treaty.

Supporters of the Disabilities Treaty will gather on Tuesday, July 29, at 12:15pm on 3rd Street, NW between Pennsylvania Ave, NW and Maryland Ave, SW in Washington, DC for a march and rally for ratification.


7/24/2014 - From Passion to Progress Briefing Brings Together Feminist Leaders and Hundreds of Young Activists

Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) staff, two congresswomen, and over a hundred DC interns came together yesterday for FMF's Intern Student/Activist briefing in Dirksen Senate building to discuss how to put a women's rights agenda into action.

Over plates of donuts and cups coffee, participants listened to a succession of engaging and passionate speeches from congressional and feminist leaders: Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA), Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and FMF President Eleanor Smeal. Each of the speakers focused on the need for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution, stressing how an ERA remains relevant and important in the light of the US Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby - that prioritized corporations over women's health and rights - as well as the continuing scourge of violence against women and the severity of the gender wage gap.

The all-star feminist lineup also addressed the crowd with their own experiences in the feminist movement and passions that keep them fighting for gender equality. "I was you once," said Rep. Speier, as she encouraged the audience to take this briefing as an opportunity to become involved, and become activists for equality. Eleanor Smeal reiterated this point, discussing how the current generation is the one that will have to continue their legacy, and although "we fight to get something passed, and then we spend the next decade or so to try and keep it on the books," equality is always goal worth fighting for, no matter how many generations it takes. Congresswoman Maloney, too, said that the students and interns sitting in the room are the next generation of feminists and activists.

Practically unprecedented in hill briefings, FMF's own interns where the primary facilitators of the event, as they spearheaded an informative and empowering panel on several modern issues facing women. Campus leadership and government relations intern Yemisi Miller-Tonnet echoed the congresswomen and Smeal in calling for action on the ERA, saying "It's up to us now to pass the ERA.:

Jennifer Lee, FMF government relations and education equity intern, followed Yemisi, discussing campus sexual assault. Campus sexual assault is a hot button issue for many college students across America, and Lee reiterated how important campus activism around this issue is, saying "The time is now, and everyone here has the right to demand more from their college or university."

Intern Paige McKinsey, who is on the education equity, government relations, and global health and rights teams at FMF, gave a passionate speech about international family planning. Mckinsey gave many devastating statistics, several from her own summer research, saying that fully funding international family planning would only cost 1 percent of our current defense budget. "I think we can spare the change," she added, pushing for increased investments in the well-being of women around the world.

The final panelist, government relations and global health and rights intern Kathleen Wilson, discussed CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has yet to be ratified by the United States. She reiterated how "it's important not just to our women, but to women all over the globe."

The FMF interns on the panel eloquently and succinctly addressed the topics they had been researching all summer, in the hopes that the crowd would be inspired by one (or all) the topics enough to adopt it as something they could be advocates for, and bring back into discussions with their representatives, on their campuses, and in their offices. Judging by the crowd response and the questions following the panel, the briefing had inspired more than a few people; questions were asked on how to engage others in the feminist discussion, and participants asked panelists for advice on how to do so, as well as ways to start feminist groups in their communities.

Take Action! Get more involved through the FMF's Choices Feminist Campus Leadership Project or by signing up for FMF action alerts. You can also support the continued work of the FMF by donating today.


7/24/2014 - Feminist Leaders and Activists Rally for the Equal Rights Amendment

This morning, Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Jackie Speier (D-CA) led a solid crowd of Equal Rights Amendment activists and supporters just beyond the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Congressional leaders cited the Supreme Court's rulings in Burwell v.Hobby Lobby and McCullen v. Coakleyas key reasons for calling the rally. "Recent Supreme Court decisions have sent women's rights back to the Stone Age," Rep. Speier said in a release issued on Tuesday. "Justice Scalia reminds us that the Constitution does not prohibit discrimination based on sex and that corporations have more rights than women do," she continued.

Leaders of national gender equality groups addressed the crowd, including Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal; Terry O'Neill, President of the National Organization for Women; Dr. E. Faye Williams, Chair of the National Congress of Black Women; Desiree Hoffman, Advocacy Director for the YWCA; and Jessica Neuwirth, Director of the ERA Coalition.

The representatives shared stories of constituents whose experiences reflect the need for a constitutional amendment that explicitly protects against sex-based discrimination, particularly in light of court decisions that leave victims of sexual violence with limited legal recourse.

Leah Meredith, a former GEICO employee, told the crowd about her own fight to resume consideration for a promotion after she learned she was pregnant. "I kept up my work really hard, despite a physically trying pregnancy," Meredith said. "I was very sick, and in the last trimester, I could hardly walk." Despite her commitment to maintaining her work, she heard nothing further about a promised promotion until she was going on maternity leave. "I got called in for my meeting, but instead of hearing about my promotion, I was advised I wouldn't be getting it."

As it stands, the U.S. Constitution makes no explicit reference to "women" or the rights of individuals on the basis of sex. The Equal Rights Amendment has been introduced in every Congress between 1923 until it passed in 1972. Thirty-eight states are required to ratify the ERA before it can become a constitutional amendment. Thirty-five states ratified the Equal Rights Amendment by the June 1982 deadline imposed by Congress. Congresswoman Speier has introduced a resolution in the House that would abolish that deadline, and require only three additional states to ratify the amendment before it could become part of the US Constitution. Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) have introduced identical legislation in the US Senate. Earlier this year, the Virginia State Senate and the Illinois State Senate passed measures to ratify the ERA.

Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal said she's encouraged by the momentum around the ERA. "In the 2014 Virginia state legislative session, the Senate approved the ERA. In late May of 2014, the Illinois Senate approved the ERA by a 60 percent majority. The Equal Rights Amendment will come up in the veto session of the Illinois House in November, and Illinois could become the 36th state to ratify the ERA," she said. "Moreover, the Equal Rights Amendment will be on the state ballot of Oregon in November 2014. The Oregon measure will amend the state Constitution to include an Equal Rights Amendment with wording similar to the federal ERA that was approved by Congress in 1972," Smeal continued.


7/23/2014 - UConn to Pay Over $1.2 Million in Sexual Assault Settlement

The University of Connecticut (UConn) will pay $1.28 million in settlement fees for a sexual assault lawsuit brought against the university by five sexual assault survivors.

The federal lawsuit was brought by five women after four of the women had filed complaints with the Department of Education (ED) alleging that UConn had mishandled rape cases and failed to take action on reports of harassment, in violation of Title IX. As part of the settlement, the women have agreed to request suspension of their ED complaints and not to make any disparaging statements against the university. UConn has not admitted any wrongdoing, and is not obligated to make any institutional policy changes as part of the settlement. The university has, however, created a new Special Victims Unit within the campus police department as well as an assistant dean of students for victim support services since the litigation was filed.

Despite the settlement, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will continue its UConn investigation, as three other current or former students - who were not plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit - had signed onto the original ED complaint. OCR is currently investigating 66 other colleges and universities to review their handling of sexual assault cases.

This case doesn't even come close to being the first campus sexual assault case that has gotten media attention. Earlier this year, Michigan State University, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley and Penn State all went under investigation after student sexual-assault survivors filed charges.

In response to growing concerns about the handling of sexual assault on campuses, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was formed. Its first report was filed in April of this year. The report states that one in five women is sexually assaulted during their time in college, and calls for steps to be taken to prevent sexual assault: conducting surveys to assess the problem, engaging men in the fight against sexual violence, responding effectively when a student says they were assaulted, and making enforcement efforts more transparent.


7/23/2014 - 100 Days: Vigils Held To Support Rescue of Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls

100 days ago today, more than 270 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram. This week, groups around the world are holding vigils to show that they have not stopped supporting rescue efforts and still want safety for these girls.

People from all over the world are joining together to voice their support for the kidnapped girls and to demand that child labor, child marriage, child trafficking, female genital mutilation (FGM), and other forms of abuse are abolished globally.

A list of vigils and Thursday's moment of silence can be found at the Bring Back Our Girls Facebook page. The moment of silence is to show support for the rescue mission for the kidnapped girls.

"You can [observe the moment of silence] at work, at home or wherever it is suitable for you at a time of your comfort," Bring Back Our Girls says on their event page. "You can do it yourself or with friends and family. Let's again show the world and the girls that we care."

At least 2 of the kidnapped girls have allegedly died, and several may be ill, the AP reports. The girls are still believed to be in the Sambisa Forest on the northeastern border of Nigeria. USAID has provided funding for counseling for the families of the abducted girls and for the girls who have managed to escape.

Eleven parents of the abducted girls have died since the kidnapping. Seven of them were killed by insurgents in attacks on a separate village. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who recently met with Chibok families, has made it clear he does not want to attack Boko Haram as a part of a rescue operation because it could be too dangerous for the kidnapped girls, and he also does not want to open up negotiations with the terrorist group.


7/23/2014 - Campaign Against Colorado Personhood Initiative Launches

Women's rights organizations, medical groups, and religious leaders joined several activists yesterday at a rally on the steps of the Colorado state capitol to launch a campaign against a new personhood initiative on the state's November ballot.

The No on 67 campaign opposes Amendment 67, otherwise known as the Brady Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would change the definition of "person" and "child" in the Colorado Criminal Code and Wrongful Death act to include "unborn human beings." A similar initiative was on the ballot in 2008 and 2010, but it was defeated both times by a wide margin.

If passed, the amendment would have extreme repercussions, banning abortion in all cases, emergency contraception and birth control, and possibly in-vitro fertilization. Under a similar measure, a woman in Wisconsin was arrested after she sought early prenatal care and told health care workers about her prior use of painkillers and her attempts to stop use on her own.

"Amendment 67 is bad medicine for women and for Colorado," said Dr. Ruben Alvero, a speaker at the rally. "It would allow the government and the courts to violate the sanctity of doctor/patient privacy, and allow government access to women's private medical records."

The amendment is yet another thinly veiled attempt at "personhood" led by Personhood USA. Supporters claim that the measure will help pregnant women get justice if crimes committed against them cause them to miscarry. However, Colorado already has a law, the Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act, that addresses that very issue. Instead, women's rights advocates worry the language in Amendment 67 could harm pregnant woman by opening up to criminal investigation of any woman who has an abortion or miscarries.

A similar measure will be on the ballot in North Dakota this November, as well as a measure in Tennessee to amend that state's constitution to declare that there is no right to an abortion in the state.


7/22/2014 - Louisiana Pro-Choice Community Stands Up Against Operation Rescue

Saturday, Operation Rescue/Operation Save America launched an aggressive week-long siege against reproductive health clinics and abortion care providers in southern Louisiana.

The annual siege is expected to run through Saturday, July 26, but already, several dozen Operation Rescue protesters have moved these forceful assemblies to doctors' private residences, riling neighbors in the process with their megaphones, explicit and invasive signage. "It's an encroachment on my right as a neighbor. I've spoken to the police here. I feel like they have more of a right than I do as someone who lives here to spout all of this hatred whereas I'm supposed to just roll over and take it," one neighbor told WDSU-TV following raucous demonstrations at a doctor's home just outside of New Orleans. The protesters returned to the doctor's home on Sunday, distributing flyers with doctors' photographs and other identifying information. Neighbors, however, were outraged by these tactics and a group of about 20 came out, some with signs, to support the doctor.

"Hundreds of residents, students, and pro-choice volunteers from local community organizations have turned out in Louisiana to support doctors, clinics, and patients," said duVergne Gaines, Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation National Clinic Access Project (NCAP). "The Feminist Majority Foundation has been on the ground training volunteers and thanks to our joint efforts, the clinics have stayed open and all patients are being seen."

The Feminist Majority Foundation, in collaboration with the New Orleans Abortion Fund and the National Abortion Federation, has been on-site coordinating volunteers. Training sessions led by the FMF National Clinic Access Project (NCAP) have drawn scores of students, clinic escorts, and legal observers who are countering the week of extreme anti-abortion protests.

A new Planned Parenthood facility in New Orleans, which is still under construction, has been targeted by the demonstrators. The local Catholic bishop has organized boycotts of contractors working on the unfinished facility.


7/21/2014 - Detroit Maternal Death Rate Is Triple the US Average

Women in Detroit are dying from pregnancy-related complications at about three times the US average, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Twenty-six women died in Detroit over the period 2008-2011 as a result of pregnancy or childbirth, and Detroit has the highest rate of infant mortality among major US cities, with 13.5 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births.

According to Dr. Priya Agrawal, executive director of Merck for Mothers (an initiative launched to reduce maternal mortality), popular opinion in the US suggests maternal and infant death happens only in developing countries, but data proves otherwise, with US national rates increasing, even as maternal mortality rates worldwide decline.

"[Americans] don't think women are dying [from pregnancy] in the US, let alone that the rate is going up," Dr. Agrawal said.

The US is one of just eight countries where the number of maternal deaths increased between 2003 and 2013, according to a recent study published in The Lancet. That study found that in 2013, for every 100,000 births in the US, about 18.5 women died, even though it is more expensive to give birth in the US than anywhere else in the world.

Experts attribute the high maternal death rate in Detroit to a mix of chronic health conditions, which African-Americans suffer more often. African-Americans are up to four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women, and almost 83 percent of Detroit's population is black or African-American, according to US Census data.

Poverty also plays a critical role in the city's high maternal and infant death rates. Detroit is the poorest major city in the country, with about 40 percent of the population living under the poverty line. Poorer individuals in the US often struggle to get the access to health care they need. And black women in the US are currently twice as likely not to receive prenatal care than white women.

Detroit also has a shortage of primary care physicians, some of whom do not accept Medicaid. Still, the recent expansion of Medicaid in the state - made possible through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) - will help provide necessary preventive health services that will help ensure that women can manage health conditions before and after pregnancy.


7/21/2014 - White House: Corporations Must Inform Employees About Refusal to Cover Contraception

The White House clarified on Thursday that closely held for-profit corporations refusing to provide contraceptive coverage will be required to inform their employees.

The clarification is a response to the Supreme Court's ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell. The decision allows closely held, for-profit corporations to refuse to provide health insurance coverage for contraception - a key component of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) - if the corporation's owners claim that providing coverage would violate a sincerely held religious belief.

"We are making clear that if a corporation like Hobby Lobby drops coverage of contraceptive services from its health plan, it must do so in the light of day by letting its workers and their families know," said a senior Obama administration official.

Just last week, a minority of Senators blocked a bill that would have reversed the Hobby Lobby decision and required all for-profit companies to provide contraceptive coverage as required by the ACA, regardless of owners' religious objections. The Protect Women's Health from Corporate Interference Act failed to gain the 60 votes needed to move to a floor vote, although it received the support of 56 Senators, including every Democrat and three Republicans: Susan Collins (R-ME), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).


7/18/2014 - Research Analysis Finds Covering Contraception is Good for Business

In a new round-up of private sector and public sector research, Guttmacher Institute dispels the myths surrounding the cost to businesses of insurance coverage for contraception. "Providing comprehensive coverage of contraceptive methods and services is not only sound public health policy," Guttmacher states, "but also a savvy business decision."

Guttmacher counters claims that covering contraception costs corporations. The evidence strongly suggests that the cost of covering all methods of contraception is outweighed by the savings accrued from preventing unplanned pregnancies. The one-year cost of contraceptives ranges from $100 to $600, while the cost of prenatal care, delivery, and newborn care can cost $20,000 or more. Previous research by Guttmacher also found that public funding for contraceptive services in 2010 led to public savings of $10.5 billion.

Having insurance coverage for contraception also increases worker productivity and encourages better use. Women without insurance who do not like their form of contraception but are stuck with it are more likely to use it inconsistently or incorrectly. Having insurance allows them to choose the best method for them.

"Removing cost as a barrier to use can significantly improve the effectiveness of contraceptive use by allowing women to pick the method that is best suited for their particular needs and circumstances - especially when it comes to highly effective methods like the IUD and implant that have high upfront costs," Guttmacher states.

Currently, 30 million women have access to birth control without co-pays or deductibles because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, the Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell that "closely-held" corporations could not be required to provide health insurance coverage for methods of contraception that violate the corporation's sincerely held religious beliefs. A bill to reverse this decision failed in the Senate Wednesday.


7/18/2014 - Nigeria Secures $15 Million Grant from Norway to Reduce Maternal Mortality

Norway has provided a $15 million grant to the Nigerian government to help the country reduce maternal and child mortality. The grant comes days after the Nigerian Demographic Health Survey of 2013 results spotlighted persistently high rates of child marriages and maternal deaths across the nation.

Nigeria currently accounts for 13 percent of the world's maternal deaths, with 36,000 women dying in pregnancy or childbirth each year. The Nigerian Health Ministry is currently working to carry out the Harmonized Country Plan of Priority Interventions (HCPPI) with the intention to save the lives of an additional 420,000 mothers and children by 2015 at a total cost of $650 million, but was facing a significant challenge funding the program. With Norway's help, the program will now flourish.

"The Tripartite Agreement we have signed today represents one of the many efforts to meet the resource gap," said Nigeria's Minister of Health, Onyebuchi Chukwu. "We have available commitments totaling $121 million currently being mobilized through projects from the Private Health Sector Alliance, UNICEF, GFATM, the Federal Ministry of Health, USAID, and GE Healthy Imagination among other, leaving $299 [million] outstanding."

Nigeria's HCCPI will target three northern states - Kaduna, Kano, and Katsina - and expects to reduce maternal and neonatal death by 40 percent before the end of 2015, saving the lives of 2961 mothers' lives and 19,825 small children.

In allowing for better implementation of HCPPI, Norway's grant will help Nigeria meet the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)by next year. The fourth and fifth MDGs called on countries to reduce the under-five mortality rate by two thirds, reduce their national maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters, and achieve universal access to reproductive health and family planning. In Nigeria, only 9.8 percent of women are using family planning services, and 16.1 percent have an unmet need for family planning services.


7/18/2014 - Law Limiting Abortion Access Under Medicaid in Alaska Temporarily Blocked

An Alaska state court judge this week temporarily blocked a law that created a narrow definition for when abortions were "medically necessary" and therefore covered under Alaska Medicaid.

The law, SB 49, gives doctors a strict list of 21 reasons someone on Medicaid would qualify for a "medically necessary abortion," pulling language from a 2001 decision by the state's Supreme Court which declared that Alaska was required to cover abortion care for women in the Medicaid program when their physicians found them "medically necessary." The law has been criticized for discriminating against low-income women by preventing them from accessing proper abortion care with Medicaid funds.

The politicians who passed this law were playing a dangerous game of keep away with women's health by trying to withhold Medicaid coverage from qualified women, said Brigitte Amiri, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A woman shouldn't have to choose between paying her heating bill and protecting her health. But that will be the reality if this law stands, with the end result that a woman in the state of Alaska will have worse health care simply because she's poor."

This case marks the second time Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest has challenged the law as unconstitutional. They are represented in the current case by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the ACLU, the ACLU of Alaska, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Susan Orlansky of Anchorage. Both times, their lawsuits have caused a temporary block on the law as the challenge continued through legal proceedings.

This decision ensures that Alaskan women facing difficult economic circumstances will not have crucial insurance coverage taken away if they need to end a pregnancy, Janet Crepps, senior counsel with the Center for Reproductive Rights said in a statement. The Alaska state constitution protects women against discrimination in the provision of insurance coverage for the full range of reproductive health care, and we will continue to defend this right against those who seek to take it away.


7/17/2014 - Federal Judge Finds California Death Penalty Unconstitutional

A federal judge ruled California's death penalty unconstitutional, finding that the sentence "serves no penological purpose."

US District Judge Cormac J. Carney, a George W. Bush appointee, issued a strong condemnation of the state's capital punishment system in a 29-page ruling filed Wednesday. Judge Carney criticized the state of limbo the California system creates for those receiving the death penalty, calling it an "arbitrary" and "unpredictable" sentence.

Ernest Dewayne Jones, the plaintiff in the case, was first put on death row 19 years ago. In April 1995, Jones was charged with the rape and stabbing murder of his girlfriend's mother. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Jones trial played out a few doors away from the much-publicized O.J. Simpson trial without drawing comparable fanfare or legal resources, opening up the question of whether poorer defendants are disadvantaged in the system. Judge Carney's decision vacates Jones' death sentence.

California has the nation's largest death row population, but has not executed anyone since 2006, when a federal court found problems with the lethal injection procedure. California voters, however, approved the death penalty in 1972, 1978, and narrowly again in 2012, with 48 percent of Californians voting to replace it with life in prison without parole.

Wednesday's decision is not expected to lead to any immediate changes. A spokesperson for Attorney General Kamala Harris said the office is reviewing the ruling.


7/16/2014 - New Federal Guidelines On Pregnancy Discrimination Align with Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its pregnancy discrimination guidelines this week for the first time in over 30 years. The new language reiterates the policies outlined in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and classifies discrimination against pregnant employees as a form of sex discrimination.

The guidelines were approved 3-2 Monday. The guidelines make it clear that an employer cannot discriminate against a worker based on pregnancy, childbirth or any related medical condition. They also disallow discrimination against someone based on whether or not they have been pregnant in the past, or want to get pregnant in the future.

"Pregnancy is not a justification for excluding women from jobs that they are qualified to perform, and it cannot be a basis for denying employment or treating women less favorably than co-workers similar in their ability or inability to work," EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said in a press release this week. "Despite much progress, we continue to see a significant number of charges alleging pregnancy discrimination, and our investigations have revealed the persistence of overt pregnancy discrimination, as well as the emergence of more subtle discriminatory practices."

In a Q-and-A section on the EEOC's site about pregnancy discrimination, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is explained as banning employers from firing, refusing to hire or demoting a woman if pregnancy, childbirth or any related condition was the reason for the action. The EEOC guidelines were released in part for those who may not have been aware of the cited federal laws, in order to make the requirements better understood and known.

"I think it will make a really big difference," Joan C. Williams, a law professor whose work is cited in the EEOC's new guidelines, told the Associated Press. "This is also the direction the courts have begun to go in, and that's why the EEOC said, 'Yeah, that makes sense.'"

Pregnancy discrimination complaints in the US increased by 71 percent between 1992 and 2011. Many women nationwide, especially those in low-income jobs, are forced to take unpaid leave or leave their jobs altogether during their pregnancy. Almost two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, including 90 percent of those mothers who work into their last two months of pregnancy. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a piece of national legislation currently stalled in Congress, would update and strengthen the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to ensure that pregnant women are not denied necessary accommodations at work.


7/16/2014 - Lower Court Upholds Affirmative Action at University of Texas at Austin

Affirmative action survived a federal appellate court in Texas on Tuesday. In a 2-1 split, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the University of Texas at Austin can consider race in the admissions process.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote, "We find force in the argument that race here is a necessary part, albeit one of many parts" of UT Austin's admissions plan.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACP-LDF) applauded the outcome of the case. The NAACP-LDF represented the Black Student Alliance at UT Austin and Black Ex-Students of Texas in the Fisher litigation. "This decision should stand as a declaration of the ongoing importance and legality of affirmative action efforts that holistically evaluate applicants for admission in higher education," Ifill said.

The plaintiff in the case, Abigail Fisher, first filed suit against the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. Fisher, a white student, alleged that she was the victim of racial discrimination. Fisher argued that the use of affirmative action created an unfair disadvantage, and ultimately led to her being denied admission to the university.

The case was argued before the Supreme Court in 2012. Last June, the Court issued a brief 13-page decision calling on the lower courts to apply a "strict scrutiny" test when considering the merit of Fisher's argument, meaning courts would need to determine on their own if the use of race was absolutely necessary, and that no other alternative could be explored to create a diverse student body. Though supported by a broad majority, the potential for a total overhaul of affirmative action was not out of reach. In separate opinions, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas wrote that they would have supported elimination of affirmative action had they been asked to do so.

Judge Emilio Garza, the single dissenting judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, argued that the UT Austin failed to provide "sufficient evidence that would prove that its admissions program is narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity."

Lawyers for the plaintiff plan to appeal. If an appeal goes forward, the case could return to the Supreme Court.


7/16/2014 - Church of England Votes to Allow Women Bishops

The General Synod, the decision-making body of the Church of England, voted Monday to allow women to become bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, supported the vote, saying he thought the public would find the exclusion of women "almost incomprehensible."

"This is a watershed moment for the Church of England and a huge step forward in making our society fairer," said Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister of England. "Allowing women to become bishops is another long overdue step towards gender equality in senior positions. I welcome the Church of England's decision which means that women can now play a full and equal role in the important work of the Church."

Parliament will now consider the changes. If Parliament approves them, a formal announcement will be made in November at the next meeting for the General Synod. Women can start to be appointed as assistant bishops early next year, and the first woman could be appointed as bishop by next summer.

The General Synod began to ordain women as priests in 1994. Women now hold senior positions and make up about one-third of Anglican clerics. A strong push to allow women to become bishops began in 2005, but a small margin of lay representatives in the General Synod blocked it in 2012. This conflict led to discord within the church, as well as between the church and the government, since it is the official church of England.

Women already serve as bishops in some countries with Anglican Communion churches, such as the United States, Australia, and Canada, while others do not even ordain women as priests.


7/15/2014 - Financial Disparities Between Tipped and Full-Wage Workers Larger Than Ever

A new study shows that the wage gap between tipped and non-tipped workers is the widest it's ever been in American history.

1966 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) created protections to hotel, restaurant and other service employees, but also created a sub-wage for tipped workers with the expectation that an employee's tips, when added to the sub-wage, would match or exceed the minimum wage. In effect, the tipped wage created a subsidy for service employers, exempting organizations that used tipped labor from paying full wages.

According to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), tipped laborers face much more stringent economic outcomes than their full-wage peers. According to the study, the poverty rate among non-tipped workers is 6.5 percent - but among tipped workers, it rests at at 12.8 percent. More than half of the people represented by this overwhelmingly female demographic are more likely to rely on public assistance as a permanent wage subsidy. The authors of the EPI study note that public assistance was never meant to become "part of the business strategy for low-wage employers." They also found that the tipped laborer workforce is currently the largest it has ever been.

In their own research focused on tipped workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) found that one in three tipped workers are parents, and of that number one in six rely on free and reduced lunch programs to feed their children. Poverty rates dramatically rise to 25% among tipped workers who are people of color. However, overall poverty decreases in states with higher minimum wage rates.

The Department of Labor recognizes tipped employees as those who "customarily and regularly" receive $30 or more per month in tips. According to the PolicyMatters Journal, that breaks down to $1.50 a day in tips each month. Employers are required to pay tipped workers $2.13 per hour. An employer can claim a "tip credit" up to $5.12, the difference between the direct wage they're required to pay and the $7.25 federal minimum wage. According to the Department of Labor, an employer should make up the difference if a worker's tips do not cover the difference.

The $2.13 tipped minimum wage has not changed since 1991, when it made up half of the overall minimum wage floor of $4.25. Today, the tipped minimum wage makes up just 29 percent of the regular federal minimum wage of $7.25. The Economic Policy Institute found that the real, inflation-adjusted value of the tipped wage and the federal minimum wage are both lower today than they were in 1966.

Some states and local jurisdictions are moving to raise their own minimum wage. A few states, like Minnesota, Delaware, and West Virginia, are also working to include tipped wage workers in those increases. However, organizations like the National Restaurant Association, the most prominent restaurant industry lobby, have succeeded in defeating many local and federal efforts to raise the tipped minimum wage.