29 August 2008

Comments Invited on HHS Rule on 'Conscience Clause'

The Department of Health and Human Services recently published the final version of a regulation [PDF] that supposedly aims to protect medical personnel’s right to conscience. (Secretary Michael Levitt writes about it in his blog.) Earlier versions of the rules contained a problematically broad, if not inaccurate, definition of abortion that could have easily been interpreted to include oral contraception.

As William Saletan points out, the latest version lacks that incendiary language, but it does not resolve the key problem: that pharmacists and medical providers may still refuse to provide basic oral contraception on the same grounds.

As an aside, according to the latest study on contraceptive usage by the Guttmacher Institute, a full 30 percent of American women regularly rely on oral contraceptives for family planning.

Unfortunately, the proposed regulations could open the door to pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for typical courses of oral contraception and/or denying emergency contraception to women across America.

Proponents argue that a "conscience clause" simply protects individuals from being forced to provide services that contradict their beliefs and that women can just as easily receive the medicine or care they need elsewhere.

Put aside the fact that this argument accepts that some women will be repaid with shame and inconvenience simply for taking responsibility for family planning. For vast numbers of women, it is not a question of going to a different pharmacy, it is a question of getting the care they need or not. The "other provider" argument applies only to areas where medical providers and pharmacies are numerous, and to women who have the means to reach them. For women and families in rural environments, or with limited means of transportation, one pharmacist's act of conscience can translate into another lengthy bus ride, or another $30 spent on gas to reach a pharmacy miles away.

Leavitt has dodged a number of pointed requests, from journalists and advocates, to clarify, once and for all, if the conscience provision outlined in the proposed regulation applies only to "abortion" as it is generally understood or if providers can invoke the provision to deny oral contraceptives to women as well.

The rule is open to public comment until Sept. 20th: let Secretary Leavitt know what you think about his vague terms and their potential impact on women and communities at consciencecomment@hhs.gov or at post online at regulations.gov.

The public deserves better than bureaucratic ambiguity on the matter, especially when the only thing that is clear is that many women will be denied the medical care they need if the rule is adopted as is.

Sara Gould Checks in From Denver on 'The Memo'

On Wednesday I went to a session sponsored by the Women's Media Center and Women's eNews, two non-partisan organizations using the occasion of the Democratic National Convention for a discussion with elected women. Women's eNews has prepared The Memo, a Special Report on the Status of U.S. Women and delivered it to all Members of Congress. The Memo [PDF] covers six central concerns: wages, barriers to employment, poverty, reproductive freedom, violence, and homophobia. I was delighted that six U.S. Congresswomen participated in this session, expounding on their views of the lack of progress that women have made in recent years in relation to these issues, and shining a spotlight on some current legislative efforts to make change.

Let's start with equal pay, apparently the impossible dream for women. Representative Rosa L. DeLauro [CT, 3rd] focused on the pay gap, now at 77 cents on the dollar earned by men. For women of color, of course, the pay gap is much larger. DeLauro reported on the Paycheck Fairness Act that was passed by the House of Representatives on July 31st and is now up for consideration in the U.S. Senate.

Moving to violence against women, Representative Loretta Sanchez [CA, 47th] told us about the horrific violence against women soldiers in Iraq being perpetrated by their "fellow" soldiers. About 19% of the soldiers serving in Iraq are women, and to date some 900 rape cases have been filed by military women against military men.

Congresswoman Gwen Moore [WI, 4th] was eloquent on issues related to women and poverty, focusing particularly on non-payment of child support.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky [IL, 9th] reinforced the need for all of us to remain vigilant on issues of reproductive justice. Did you know that there is a "conscience clause" under consideration that would allow pharmacists who disagree with a woman's right to contraception not to fill a prescription?

Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney [NY, 14th] showcased her book "Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated" to illustrate all of the ways that women's rights have been rolled back in recent years and remain under attack.

And finally, Congresswoman Lois Capps [CA, 23rd] co-chair of the bi-partisan caucus for women's issues, spoke about LGBT issues. She also reported that the caucus, at 75 members, is the largest caucus in the Congress.

Each of our elected representatives was asked for their view of the role that the media plays in reporting on women's issues. To a woman, they stressed the need for the media to develop a taste for reporting on solutions and not only on problems. Women's advocates at every level are proposing viable solutions to many issues faced by women and their families, but the media seems to look only for stories that focus on the problems.

Sara K. Gould
President and CEO
Ms. Foundation for Women

28 August 2008

Ms. Foundation Grantee Calls for ICE Raid Moratorium

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials rounded up almost 600 assembly plant workers on Tuesday in the small, rural town of Laurel, Mississippi in the largest raid on a single workplace in U.S. history. Local communities are reeling in its wake, as families have been torn apart, the plant’s operations suspended, and a climate of fear has settled over surrounding towns.

Upon surveying the humanitarian crisis the raid has created, Ms. Foundation Grantee Mississippi Immigrants' Rights Alliance (MIRA) is calling for a moratorium on such actions and asking supporters to join them in contacting federal legislators [find yours here] to demand a stop to the attacks on immigrant families and workers.

Of the 600 or so workers caught up in the raid, approximately 100 have been allowed to return to their homes to care for children or for other humanitarian reasons. Over 475 individuals, however, are being held four hours away in a federal facility in Jena, Louisiana where they await deportation hearings.

In addition to providing legal assistance and coordinating volunteer lawyers to provide services to the detained workers, MIRA is working with local organizations to provide basic necessities to families. Since breadwinners have either been detained or confined to their homes, many families now lack even access to food. MIRA has set up a relief fund to support affected families and the work of volunteers at http://www.yourmira.org/.

27 August 2008

Lulu Reports From the DNC

Lulu Roller, our colleague accompanying Ms. Foundation President Sara Gould in Denver, provided a quick report on their stay before Thursday's panel at the Big Tent Denver, What Women Want: Journalists and Activists Connect Stories and Solutions.

Lulu and Sara attended the Lifetime Networks event to promote its "Every Woman Counts" effort. Lulu reported that host Idina Menzel's performance was "amazing." Menzel described the event on her website as uniting:
...delegates, elected officials, political leaders, campaign staff, advocates, and Every Woman Counts Coalition partners to celebrate women's leadership and encourage more women to be involved in the political process, as voters and future candidates. Throughout the evening, women will be able to register to vote at the Every Woman Counts bus, which will be parked out front.
Lulu noted that Lifetime Networks President Andrea Wong spoke of the importance of young women understanding how powerful their voices were and how voting is a essential way to express their views. Wong, speaking at an earlier Democratic Women's Caucus event marking 88 years of women's suffrage, noted "The women who have blazed the trail have shown us a profound truth, that when women participate, all women make progress."

For more information, see Every Woman Counts and Rock the Vote. Watch the Ms. Foundation's Big Tent Panel, What Women Want: Journalists and Activists Connect Stories and Solutions live online on Thursday 28 August 2008, 2:00 pm EDT, 12 noon MDT.

Ms. Foundation Grantees Commemorate Third Anniversary of Katrina With Calls for Action

On Friday 29 August 2008, Ms. Foundation grantees in New Orleans, Providence and New York City will be commemorating the third anniverary of Hurricane Katrina with solidarity actions in their own cities.

New Orleans
In New Orleans, grantees Safe Streets, Strong Communities and Families & Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) will be part of the Katrina commemoration second line and rally on Friday at 1 pm. The event, "Sankofa: Remembering Storms of the Past, Building a Brighter Future," will "shine a spotlight on the ongoing disaster of bad public policies that continue to stall communities and prevent thousands of residents from returning after three years since Katrina made landfall."

"Neighbors from across the city will stand together with displaced New Orleanians to demand the right to determine our city’s future – a future that supports children and families, not these profiteering corporations," says Norris Henderson of Safe Streets, Strong Communities. "We want to expose the disastrous policies that have been imposed on us without our input or consent and present a better way to build a safe, strong community."
The New Orleans event [more details] is partially sponsored by the Right to the City Alliance, a national network of community organizations working to address access to housing, services and quality of life in urban areas. It is also sponsoring events in eight other cities, including New York and Providence.

New York
In New York, Ms. Foundation grantees FIERCE and CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities are part of the events that will begin at a 2:00pm gathering at Sara Roosevelt Park in Manhattan, Grand Street between Chrystie and Forsyth Sts, followed by a march through the streets of the lower east side and Chinatown, ending with a vigil in front of 1 Police Plaza. At 7:30pm a fundraiser at Judson Memorial Church put on by the Artist Relief Collective and the Nola Preservation Society will close the day.
[For more information on the New York events contact Rob Robinson at Picture the Homeless 646-314-6423 or Brenda Stokley at the New York Solidarity Coalition with Katrina and Rita Survivors 212-969-0449.]

Starting at 3:30pm at the offices (340 Lockwood St., Providence, RI) of Ms. Foundation grantee Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE), the commemoration will feature local musicians, performers, and community leaders. A second-line style march through Providence's hurricane evacuation route will make stops along the way to highlight issues -- criminalization, gentrification, immigrant rights, foreclosures, and education -- that are affecting Providence, New York, and New Orleans and other communities across the country . The events are sponsored by DARE, Olneyville Neighborhood Association, and City Life/Vida Urbana (Boston).
[For more information, contact 401-351-6960 or 401-228-8996.]

The commemoration of the anniversaries of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita show both the scale of the challenges ahead and the strength of the grassroots leaders and local organizations working to seek a just and sustainable recovery.

21 August 2008

An Email from Sangeeta on 'Trouble the Water' in New Orleans

From: Sangeeta Budhiraja
Sent: Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Subject: "Trouble the Water" in NOLA update.

Hi all,

Scott Roberts, Skyy Roberts, Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Tia Lessin, Carl DealI'm back from NOLA and wanted to send out an update on "Trouble the Water." As you know, the Ms. Foundation supported the "sneak preview" of the film at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) on Sunday afternoon. The New Orleans screening was organized by Amnesty International and co-sponsored by some of our grantee partners, many of whom were in attendance, including Safe Streets, Strong Communities, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, and the Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies.

I spent significant time over the weekend with the Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, Editor T. Woody Richman, as well as with Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts, the couple who are featured in the film. Danny Glover, who joined the film later as Executive Producer, also attended and participated in the post-screening panel. Tia spoke before the film about the Ms. Foundation's Katrina Women's Response Fund and acknowledged the importance of our support in bringing this film home to New Orleans. And Emily Ratner, from the New Orleans International Film Festival, added a later appreciation to the foundation for "trusting the folks on the ground to do an event that does right by our people, with an understanding of how rare and empowering that is."

The screening was both powerful and emotional, especially given that much of the audience were family members of Kimberly and Scott, or families and communities from Lower Ninth Ward who were featured in the film. During the post-screening Q&A, Kimberly gave one of the most insightful and thorough analyses of poverty I've ever heard.

Sangeeta Budhiraja, Kimberly Rivers RobertsI was also able to attend Kimberly's CD release party on Saturday night at the Blue Nile, which was packed with community and family showing their support. As evidenced by the film, and from the time I was fortunate to spend with her, I can say that Kimberly is a visionary who exemplifies our theory of change in the deepest way. As a young Black woman living in poverty who is now using her voice to inspire and empower young women and make change at all levels, Kimberly holds the answers to a just recovery in the Gulf Coast and beyond, and the solutions to political and social systems of inquality - answers and solutions that come directly from her and her family's lived experience (with violence, HIV/AIDS, the criminal justice system, racism, misogyny, and poverty). She is an example of the difference affording someone access to power and the opportunity to use her voice can make. She made connections with our grantees at the screening, and many of them have asked her to speak with their constituencies about her experiences and about healing, resiliency and hope. It is clear that Kimberly and Scott will continue to use their voices and visibility through this film to give back to their community.

The film's newly launched website includes a section called "Take Action" which features information about organizations -- including the Katrina Women's Response Fund -- continuing to work on rebuilding and recovery of the Gulf Coast. The film will also be screened at the Democratic National Convention. The directors, producers and cast will participate on a panel afterwards, along with Ray Nagin, Mayor of New Orleans.

Finally, for those of you who haven't seen the film - please do. It opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles. All my talking about it over the last few months is nothing compared to experiencing it first hand. Once you do, all this will make much more sense and get you as excited as I have been, I'm sure.

Thanks for reading!

Sangeeta Budhiraja
Program Officer, Building Movements
Ms. Foundation for Women

Top photo: (from left) Scott Roberts and Kimberly Rivers Roberts do a television interview, while directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal watch.

Bottom photo: (from left) Sangeeta Budhiraja and Kimberly Rivers Roberts.

(from left) Sarah Covert, Tia Lessin, Carl Deal, Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Scott Roberts, Sangeeta Budhiraja, Danny Glover, Emily Ratner.

(from left) Carl Deal, Tia Lessin, T. Woody Richman.

(from left) Carl Deal, Danny Glover, Tia Lessin.

19 August 2008

'Trouble the Water' Screens in New Orleans, Opens in New York City

"Trouble the Water," an award-winning documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has been praised for putting central focus on the experience of people on the ground -- in particular, an aspiring rap artist, Kimberly Roberts, who videotaped the disaster from the perspective of her family and neighbors as the storm ravaged the Ninth Ward.

The movie, which opens in New York City on 22 August, had its New Orleans premiere on Sunday 17 August with support from the Ms. Foundation. The event, attended by several Ms. Foundation grantees, marked the third anniversary of the storm and celebrated the people of the region who helped to make the film and who continue -- three years out -- to seek a just and sustainable recovery. The film will also be shown at the Impact Film Festival, bringing socially-themed documentary and dramatic films to the national conventions of the Democrats in Denver and the Republicans in St. Paul.

Dennis Lim, in an article in the Sunday New York Times, [The Angry Flood and the Stories in Its Wake] explores how the film brought the voice of the grassroots to the fore:

"Trouble the Water," which won the grand jury prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and opens on Friday, is one of the best reviewed of these movies. It is also perhaps the one that most shrewdly navigates a problem that to some extent bedevils all filmmakers who take on this fraught subject: how to reconcile their outsider perspectives with the experiences of those who lived through the hurricane.

When the "Trouble the Water" directors, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, headed to Louisiana in early September 2005, they were planning to document the return of National Guard troops from Iraq and had no intention of filming anyone directly affected by the hurricane. But that changed when Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal met an African-American couple, Kimberly Roberts and Scott Roberts. Ms. Lessin said she and Mr. Deal, who are white, instinctively recognized that they had found their new subjects in these charismatic former residents of the Ninth Ward.

"All we had been seeing in the media were images of helpless victims or of looters," Ms. Lessin said. "Those were the two archetypes. Kimberly and Scott were neither. They were survivors, and they were putting everything they had into protecting themselves and their community."

As it happens Ms. Roberts, an aspiring rapper and new owner of a secondhand camcorder, had also been taping events as they unfolded. "I wanted to prove to people what was happening," she said. "It was spontaneous."

The decision to give pride of place to Ms. Roberts's raw first-person footage and to grant the Robertses a guiding role in the documentary was both generous and astute, a way for Mr. Deal and Ms. Lessin to avoid telling too much of the story across the divides of race and class.

"Trouble the Water" opens at two theaters in New York City:
IFC Center (starting 22 August)
Imagenation (22 August - 7 September) Online tickets.

For viewing locations outside New York, see the distributor's web site.

View the trailer:

06 August 2008

AIDS at Home: Revised Stats Signal Need for Revised Strategy

On Saturday, the Center for Disease Control released a long-awaited report on HIV incidence in the nation. The message it carried was far from good: since the mid-nineties, they’ve severely underreported the number of new HIV infections occurring each year.

The revised annual infection rate is 40 percent higher than previous data suggested. The CDC says it has under-counted the number of new HIV infections by approximately 15,000 people a year, meaning that around 225,000 more people than originally thought are living with HIV. The previous estimate was around 1 to 1.1. million.

While the sheer magnitude of the discrepancy is shocking, its existence is not. As we’ve mentioned before, community-based organizations led by women living with and affected by HIV/AIDS have been calling on the CDC to improve the way in which it tracks new HIV infections and others—from activists to epidemiologists—have criticized the outdated, poorly configured system for years.

The CDC’s surveillance system, which tracks reporting of new HIV cases, hasn’t been changed in more than two decades, leaving many at risk populations under-counted and under-served. This is especially true for women, who frequently acquire HIV differently from men [PDF] and have seen their infection rates rise exponentially since the early years of the epidemic.

CDC surveillance simply isn’t designed to capture how and why more than 50 percent of women get HIV, with grave implications for how prevention programs are designed and funded to address their needs. In fact, because they aren’t thought to be “at risk,” women are sometimes turned away from federally funded testing sites.

The most recent revelation, then, of the underreporting of new HIV cases, is just the tip of the iceberg. Still, it does underscore the urgent need for a much more cohesive, reality-based, well-funded U.S. AIDS strategy.

As the Black AIDS Institute drove home last week in the release of a new report, the current U.S. Administration’s AIDS policy has focused more on combating the epidemic outside the U.S. than within it. This willful neglect has taken a particularly ruthless toll on people of color, especially African Americans.

The Institute’s research starkly reveals how HIV/AIDS rates among certain populations in the U.S. compare to those in developing countries—and consequently, why they should be causing nearly as much alarm:

  • If African Americans represented a country unto themselves, it would rank 16th in the world in the number of people living with the AIDS virus.

  • More African Americans were living with the AIDS virus than the infected populations in Botswana, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Namibia, Rwanda or Vietnam—seven of the 15 countries that receive support from the Administration’s anti-AIDS program.
Let’s also not forget that today, despite extraordinary improvements in HIV treatment, AIDS is the leading cause of death among African American women between the ages of 25-34 and the second leading cause of death among African American men between the ages of 35-44.

Clearly, from failing to accurately assess the hard numbers and true scope of the U.S. AIDS epidemic, to lacking a national strategy grounded in today’s reality to address it—we're faced with a broken system. What’s needed, our Women and AIDS Fund grantees continue to say, is a strategic overhaul that puts affected communities’ unique experiences and leadership squarely at the center of policymaking decisions, and their specific needs at the very heart of treatment and prevention.

Let’s hope the next Administration gets it right.

04 August 2008

Q&A with Amy Sewell on "What's Your Point, Honey?"

Amy Sewell, the creator, writer, and co-producer of the award-winning 2005 documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” has completed her second movie, "What's Your Point, Honey?" Through the stories of three groups of girls and women, it explores when women will become equally represented among candidates for U.S. president. A portion of the movie's DVD profits will support the Ms. Foundation for Women (purchase online). [Update: the video can also be rented or purchased digitally from Amazon.com. Download it today.]

In a recent telephone conversation with Amy Sewell we learned more about the film and its genesis -- namely, her concern for her daughters' future and an interest in the impact of feminism on emerging young women leaders.

Why did you make this film?

Amy Sewell: It started before we ever shot anything for "Mad Hot Ballroom." I was putting my six-year-old twin daughters to bed and one of them told me that girls couldn't ride motorcyles. I asked her why, and she said it was because she had never seen it before. It dawned on me that there may be many other things my young daughters do not see and therefore think impossible. After "Mad Hot" was done that insight returned and I started thinking about doing a documentary about feminism. I didn't quite know how to put it together because to me the topic seemed so big and vague.

Shortly after that I met Susan Toffler and she also wanted to make a documentary on feminism. She had been in the commercial production business for fifteen years and after she left to have a child she felt she had become invisible, and had ceased to exist in that world.

As we explored what and how to tell a story, we realized we wanted to look ahead, to explore the future of feminism. The only way to do that is to listen to the voices of future generations. So we decided to go after three age groups: tweens, teens, and twenty-year-olds. We found roles for each of the groups and got lucky finding the twenty-year-olds because they were interns in the 2024 Program co-sponsored by the White House Project and Cosmo Girl magazine.

The film tells its story through their voices and shows us where we're headed. We think it worked out magically. The tweens played the role of three little Michael Moores, asking boys their age and people of all ages on the streets of New York questions about the possibility of woman president. The teens show us something about the realities young women face in a society where the commercial culture bombards you with sexualized images. The seven twenty-something women are the focus of the movie, and they provide us with a compelling view of the promise of young women to be the leaders of tomorrow.

The key in the movie is that the goal is not one candidate who is a woman running for U.S. President, but a slate of women running. Then we will, as Marie Wilson notes in the film, "get beyond gender to agenda."

Can you explain the title?

We borrowed it from a Jim Borgman cartoon from January 2007. One of our investors sent it to us, and we saw it and laughed immediately. Documentary film titles have to attract attention and make people wonder. In this movie we wanted to wake people up. We wanted a title that was not sappy, nor angry, sarcastic, or erotic. We wanted to keep people guessing.

We tried many other titles, but nothing seemed to stick like this one. (As we made the film we found ourselves joking about it, turning to each other and asking "What's your point, honey?" The result is that the sting of the message is blunted.) Finally, we're pleased that the result of seeing the film is enthusiasm about seven young women who might become political leaders in the future and the knowledge that if it's not one of them, there are many others out there preparing as well.

What have you learned from the screenings?

We have shown the film in locations around the country, and will be in San Francisco, Columbus, and Asheville, North Carolina, then back in New York City in October. We have sold out in almost every city, and it's been very well received in the press.

I think that many young women do not realize how far we still have to go. They grew up with their mothers working and they are told they have any opportunity out there. They don't see that women still are paid 77 cents to the dollar earned by men, and that the discrepancy is larger for women of color.

One of the responses we have been getting from younger audiences is usually a big “wow." We knew that we did not have a solution to the challenges facing women, but hoped that we could start a conversation between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. We wanted also to mark a moment in time when the political participation of women is still much too low for our representation in the population.

How should someone use the DVD?

Our goal is for someone to buy a copy, and walk up to their local theater and ask "can we show us and bring a group in?" or to assemble in someone's living room and invite thirty friends over and watch the movie together. They can use the viewer's guide, which comes with the DVD -- though I guarantee they won't need it -- to discuss the issues the film raises. You can also watch it at home with a loved one or a friend.

How did you select the organizations supported by DVD sales?

When we made this movie, we realized it was very American, and some of us are very fortunate in this country. When we went out to find the three groups to "pay it forward with," we selected the White House Project, because it is bipartisan, and we want to get all women more involved in the positions of political power; we went to Girls, Inc. to help build the pipeline with their 98 chapters across the country. Finally, I knew I was not doing enough for women who are less fortunate, and I knew that other women are feeling that way, too. So we chose the Ms. Foundation. And if we can get every woman in the country to buy a DVD, and get a few dollars from each one to the Ms. Foundation, wouldn't that be great? The Foundation is going to take those funds to the grassroots groups where women face the intersection of race, class, and gender, and are building change that affects women and their families.

Do you think we will see a roster of women running for president in 2024?

I hope so, though it’s likely it will take that long to see a critical mass of women running for president.

Many young women today don't realize that the personal is political -- it's the sidewalk you walk on, it's your library, it's your firehouse, it's something going on in the community -- and most women are already geared to run for political office, whether it's at the local, state or federal level. I don't think they understand they have so much to offer politics, and so much to bring to the table. The seven twenty-something young women in the film act as role models -- they are doing work in public service -- and that is what a politician does.


The DVD of “What’s Your Point, Honey” has just become available for sale. Amy Sewell and Susan Toffler, the co-writers, co-directors, and co-producers of the film are sharing 30% of the DVD profits with the Ms. Foundation for Women, the White House Project, and Girls, Inc. The DVD can be purchased online.

Image: detail from Jim Boardman cartoon.