24 March 2008

Grantee Spotlight: Comprehensive Sex Ed Victory in California

One of our trailblazing Sexuality Education Advocacy Initiative grantees, the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ), has just won a big statewide victory. As The Mercury News reports, "After nearly two years of debate and numerous drafts, California's State Board of Education quietly adopted its first-ever set of 'health education content standards' this week." California passed a law requiring comprehensive sex education in 2003, but the Board of Education had yet to issue curriculum guidelines that would guarantee its implementation throughout the state. Now, thanks to the efforts of CLRJ and other advocacy organizations, age-appropriate, medically-accurate, comprehensive sexuality education will more surely reach California's more than 6 million students.

CLRJ's recent achievement comes on the heels of another important win last fall, when California Governor Schwarzenegger signed the Sexual Health Education Accountability Act. The bill, co-sponsored by CLRJ, requires that state funds for community-based sex education are spent on "medically accurate, unbiased, culturally and linguistically appropriate" programs and that they're directed to communities that need them most. The law went into effect on January 1, 2008.

CLRJ is a statewide policy organization that advocates for comprehensive sexuality education as a means to guarantee reproductive justice for Latinas throughout California. As they see it, young Latinas are particularly in need of stronger policy: the birth rate among Latina adolescents in California is three times higher than that of white teens; nationally, the AIDS case rate among Latinas is nearly six times higher than the rate among white women.

For more information on CLRJ's policy priorities and curriculum recommendations, see their policy brief on comprehensive sexual education.

We're sure CLRJ's victory will bolster the efforts of other sexuality education advocacy groups nationwide, and inspire an increasingly successful national movement--supported by the Ms. Foundation--to standardize comprehensive sex education in every state. We shine the spotlight on them this week for their powerful policy win, their fantastic approach to movement building--one of our own core values--and their broader commitment to guaranteeing reproductive justice for Latinas, their families and their communities. Congratulations CLRJ!

The Legacy of War for Iraqi Women

Last week, Nadje Al-Ali wrote a brilliant and scathing analysis in the Guardian of the ways in which Iraqi women have been most disastrously affected by the Iraq War--an especially sad critique given that support for the war among Americans was drummed up using the plight of oppressed Iraqi women who would supposedly be "saved" by the fall of Saddam Hussein and the introduction of American-like democracy.

Instead, Al-Ali argues, Iraqi women have experienced the most devastating fallout from violence:

While men have borne the brunt in terms of direct armed violence, women have been particularly hard-hit by poverty, malnutrition, lack of health services and a crumbling infrastructure, not least chronic power cuts which in some areas of Iraq see electricity only available for two hours a day.

What's more, "70% of the four million people forced out of their homes in the past five years in Iraq have been women and children." Displacement, as we know all too well along the Gulf Coast in the U.S., creates instability and often leads to rises in domestic and sexual violence.

Further, the Islamist militias and extremist groups that have taken control have consistently pushed women back into their homes, enforced strict dress codes and unleashed a flood of gender-based violence against Iraqi women. The "liberation" touted as the inevitable result of Hussein's fall, doesn't look so free. In fact, Iraqi women who were once proud and active doctors, lawyers and teachers claim it is impossible to continue amid the chaos and threats that have now engulfed the region. They risk death if they pursue their public works too boldly--or quite simply, because they are women:

According to a study by the Basra Security Committee, 133 women were killed last year in the UK-controlled city, either by religious vigilantes or as a result of so-called honour killings. Of these, 79 were deemed to have "violated Islamic teachings", 47 were killed to preserve supposed family honour, and the remaining seven were targeted for their political affiliations.

And there is so much more… Al-Ali, the director of the Gender Studies Centre at SOAS, University of London, the author of Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present (Zed Books, 2007), and the founder of Act Together: Women's Action for Iraq, offers a frightening, but comprehensive account of what Iraqi women have been experiencing since the latest U.S. invasion.

While it is impossible to compare the scope and nature of violence experienced by Iraqi women to that suffered by women in the U.S., Al-Ali's conclusions underscore the main point of my recent piece marking the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion: that women are disproportionately impacted by war. In the U.S, women are subjected to rising domestic violence, sexual assault, and even murder by veterans--who are, in most cases, receiving inadequate mental health interventions for their post-traumatic stress. And the economic fallout of the war affects women most acutely.

The heightened incidence of gender-based violence attributed to the war is not separate from the violence that the Ms. Foundation and our grantees are dedicated to fighting day in and day out--it only serves as a reminder of how pervasive violence against women--and all forms of violence--are throughout our society. Just as Hurricane Katrina does not mark the day that a gaping race/class disparity was born in this country, but instead made it undeniably real, the Iraq War reminds us all that gender-based violence, both at home and abroad, is still far too common--and like war, entirely preventable.

Sara K. Gould
President & CEO

21 March 2008

Sexual Scandal of Another Kind

One of the positive side effects of the Eliot Spitzer scandal is that it’s created a bit of media space for oft neglected issues like sex trafficking and sexually transmitted diseases. One of the most depressing side effects, however, is that it delays the progress of everyday governance and legislative innovation. One of our grantees, The Education Fund of Family Planning Advocates of New York State (FPAofNYS), learned this first-hand last week.

As Amy Goodman reported, a group of 1,000 people—including FPAofNYS—gathered on Monday, March 10th at the Empire State Plaza in Albany in hopes of pressuring law makers to pass The Healthy Teens Act (which would guarantee medically accurate, comprehensive sex education).

It became evident very quickly, that Governor Spitzer would not be in attendance. To his credit, Spitzer has proven to be a consistent ally in the movement to get medically accurate, comprehensive sex education in our schools; his rejection of $2.6 million of federal abstinence-only education funding indicated that he would look for more comprehensive alternatives, like The Healthy Teens Act. But, it turns out that our inadequate and unsafe national policy—one out of four young women experiences a sexually transmitted disease, according to recent studies—was not the sexual scandal most forefront in his mind.

FPAofNYS may be discouraged, but they will not be defeated. That’s because they approach social change with the trademark Ms. Foundation philosophy—widen and strengthen your movement, build your skills and celebrate your gifts, and be ready to move when the moment presents itself. It’s sort of our version of the old adage, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.” We don’t just give grassroots organizations cash; we partner with them to build movements and drive policy and culture change that will make our democracy more inclusive and just.

Plus, we suspect that the man (or woman--since women are those primarily responsible worldwide for feeding their families) famously taught to fish in that old adage knew a little something himself. We consider our grantees experts on their own communities and the kind of social change they’re enacting. It is in moments like these (and so many others)—when they’re called on to be resilient and resourceful—that we learn such a great deal from them.

We can only hope that David Paterson, Spitzer's successor, will also be an ally to the growing movement to guarantee medically accurate, comprehensive sexual education--a network of cutting-edge coalitions and organizations across the country, which the Ms. Foundation is proud to support.

Desiree Flores
Program Officer for Health

19 March 2008

Grantee Spotlight: Imprisoning New Mothers in Alabama

Alabama, along with multiple other states, has begun an unjust incarceration campaign against new mothers suspected of drug use. One of our grantees, National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), has offered a thorough and much-needed perspective after The New York Times and Women's eNews covered the crackdown. NAPW writes:
These prosecutions, if upheld would create legal precedent for the finding that women, upon becoming pregnant lose their civil and human rights. If a pregnant woman can be viewed as a child abuser before she ever gives birth, or as a murderer because she can not guarantee a healthy birth outcome, she ceases to exist as a full human being and full rights bearing citizen.
Feministing highlighted NAPW's wise take.

Five Years and Counting: A Call to Pundits and Politicians to Deepen the Conversation

On this, the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, it is critical that we heed the words of Albert Einstein: "The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them."

For over a year, public dialogue about this war has revolved almost exclusively around exit strategy timetables and levels of insurgent violence. Should we stay one year or 100? Are there fewer car bombs this month or last?

Exit strategies and indiscriminate violence must be considered, no doubt. But too often public debate on the Iraq War seems to dwell, in Einstein's words, on the level that created it. A level at which fear dominates and those at the margins of our society--women, low-income people, people of color and youth--are at best, excluded from decision-making processes and, at worst, disproportionately affected by the consequences of war.

As we enter into our sixth year in Iraq, we must elevate our thinking to a level beyond fear and its necessary corollaries--racism, misogyny and economic injustice--to a place where strategy is not owned by the military alone, but is informed by those who should have had a say all along. And we must deepen our thinking to carefully consider the implications of enduring war and occupation on the lives of women, youth and low-income families at home and abroad.

Just look at the state of our nation today. We claim to defend women's human rights, while violating them repeatedly in Iraq and back home. We are in the throes of an economic crisis fueled by trillions of dollars we have spent on a failing war abroad.

So, five years since the the war began, and in the midst of an election year, what kinds of questions should we be asking? And to whom should we be listening?

For starters, the experiences of women whose partners have returned from violence abroad to inflict violence at home, as well as those of women who have reported widespread sexual assault within the military and private security firms, should inform policy decisions that will guarantee the protection of women's rights-and lives. (Alarmingly, The New York Times reports that, since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, there have been 150 cases of fatal domestic violence or child abuse involving U.S. service members and new veterans.) Likewise, economic policy and military budgets should reflect the needs of a low-income, single parent--and so many others like her--who is struggling to support her family, while any hope of relief is siphoned away for a war with no end.

Our increasing interdependence on each other and with the rest of the world demands an approach guided by a vision of a just and inclusive democracy that invites the perspectives and participation of those traditionally excluded from centers of power--including women. Those who are also, not surprisingly, most impacted by war.

In this vein, the media must cover the broader impact of the Iraq war on those most at risk: the woman in Iraq who is afraid to leave her house for water for fear of being kidnapped, the wife of a veteran who sports the bruises of both her husband's anger and the country's callous treatment of young, often low-income men of color in this country who are recruited into the military with cash cards and free lunches.

Similarly, our political leaders must engage in a more comprehensive conversation about Iraq, including the inextricable links between a failing war and a failing economy. In particular, they must take a good, hard look at the real economic fall-out in this country--the trillions spent while so many are struggling to keep their homes, pay exorbitant medical bills, afford school, or just the next meal.

And finally, I and many other social justice advocates nationwide are still waiting for our presidential candidates to inspire us with a vision that will prevent us from returning to this violent, seemingly intractable place. To this end, we want them to articulate a new level of systemic understanding that acknowledges the connections between war and racism, misogyny and economic inequality. We want them to ensure an exit from Iraq that protects the rights and livelihoods of those made disproportionately less secure by war. And we want to be sure that they will incorporate the lived experiences of people across the spectrum of race, class and gender into their platforms and policies during this election season and beyond.

Our democracy, and the rest of the world, depend on it.

Sara K. Gould
President & CEO

06 March 2008

Misogyny and the elections: and it only gets worse...

Charlotte Allen’s article in last Sunday’s Washington Post, “We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?” —a misogynistic tirade that assails women for their supposed lack of intelligence as evidenced by their behavior during the primaries—is so ridiculously enraging that it’s hard to know where to begin. Putting Allen aside for a second—what in the world was the Washington Post thinking? Did Allen’s editor think the tit-for-tat coverage of race vs. gender in the primaries hadn’t become destructive or banal enough? Do he and his colleagues think they’re at a loss for quality opinion writing to fill their pages? If this is the case, we’d be happy to suggest a long list of brilliant women writers who have insightful, substantive and genuinely witty things to say about race, gender, politics and other important issues of our time. The problem is they generally have very little access to the limited op-ed space offered by the Post and other mainstream outlets. And then they get overlooked for debasing drivel like Charlotte Allen’s?

At the very least, we were reassured to read the uproarious responses from thousands of people nationwide (including bloggers at Feministing and Broadsheet) who’ve chastised the Post’s editorial decisions and Allen’s destructive, embarrassing, stereotype-wielding pen.

We agree with much of what’s been said by this slew of outraged writers, but we wanted to highlight a particularly dangerous thread of Allen’s inane argument: that women (and gay men) are inherently less intelligent than heterosexual men. Frighteningly, her argument is zero degrees of separation from the “logic” of other pseudo-scientific rationales for inferiority. Examples that immediately come to mind are the nefarious and profoundly racist book, The Bell Curve; similarly minded comments made by Nobel Prize winner and biologist, James Watson, last year; and claims made by Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard, about women’s innate inferiority in the fields of math and science. These stances were widely rebuked, but they were covered extensively by mainstream media, with a sense that the logic behind them was actually up for debate.

The fact is, as a society, nearly 100 years since the eugenics movement, we’re still not able to quash attempts to justify misogyny, racism and homophobia with pseudo-scientific reasoning. And it’s not just writers like Allen—whose perspectives we might like to dismiss as fringe lunacy—but editors at mainstream publications like the Washington Post who give credence to such arguments. It doesn’t matter that Allen subsequently claimed she was writing with humorous flair, or that the Washington Post changed the title in attempts to appease angry readers. Her comments are still dangerously vile.

Sara K. Gould
President & CEO