How to Support a Survivor

•April 9, 2014 • 1 Comment

April is sexual assault awareness month.  Sexual assault is a massive epidemic in the United States: 1 in 4 women will survive an attempted sexual assault over the course of her lifetime, and 1 in 3 women will be the victim of violence by an intimate partner or a stranger.  This means that survivors are all around us, and the odds are that someone you know will be a survivor of sexual or intimate partner violence over the course of his or her life.  The first time a friend disclosed to me that they had been assaulted, I didn’t know how to respond-~-this is unsurprising, because it’s a difficult subject, and it can be hard to know exactly what to do.  This is what originally inspired me to become a rape crisis-counselor, and after working with survivors, I thought I would put together some advice for others who may eventually be in the position of supporting someone who has survived this kind of trauma.

1. Tell the person you believe them.  One of the scariest things for survivors is the fear that people will not believe them when they disclose what has happened.

2. Don’t ask a lot of questions.  There are two reasons for this: the first is that asking a lot of questions could come across as you not believing the survivor, like they need to prove to you that it really happened; and the second is that talking through the details of an assault can be triggering for a survivor, and he/she/ze may not be ready to talk about those details or relive what happened.  Let the person tell you what they are ready to share, and be accepting of it.  Definitely do NOT ask questions like “what were you wearing” or “were you drunk”.

3. Validate their experiences/emotions.  Survivors may be struggling with any number of emotions: anger, resentment, etc.  Recognize and acknowledge the validity of those feelings.  Remind the person that it is okay to feel the way they are feeling.  These emotions are normal, and people need time to process them.

4. Remind them that it is not their fault.  We live in a society that often blames victims for the things that have happened to them.  They may feel that they should have known better, should have walked away sooner, should have been able to fight back.  This is not just something that happened to them, though: this is something another person did to them, and it is only the perpetrator’s fault.  It is never the victim’s fault.

5. Ask them what they want or need.  Everyone processes and handles things differently, and different people will need different things in order to cope with thient, fear, etc.  Remind them that it is okay to feel what they are feeling, and tell them that you are there for them. s kind of trauma.  Try to remember that an assault takes the power away from the person: one of the best things you can do is give the person as much control over their situation as possible.  Ask them if they need to talk, if they need help exploring options, if they want to prosecute, if they need medical help.  An assault can be a very difficult thing to process, and the person may not know what they need at first, but be supportive, and try to help them once they can articulate what it is they need.  And remember, everyone needs someone in their corner.

6. Respect their decisions.  Many survivors do not feel comfortable reporting their assaults or disclosing to other people.  Respect these decisions: don’t try to shame the person into reporting or out of reporting, and don’t disclose on their behalf without their permission.  Being assaulted is highly stigmatized and it is important that you not violate the person’s trust by violating their privacy.  Even though they may choose a course of action you would not have selected in their shoes, always remember that trauma is a very personal experience, and that you cannot make these decisions for them.

7. Be mindful of potential triggers.  The person may articulate to you that certain things trigger them-~-a specific song, a specific smell, a particular date that marks an anniversary-~-and those are things you can be aware of.  Try to avoid introducing potential triggers when you can.  It’s understandable that you may not know all of a person’s triggers, but try to reduce casual or especially joking references to rape or assault, try to encourage those around you to avoid making those kinds of references, and check in with the person if they seem shaken or are likely to have been exposed to a trigger.  Triggers can impact people in different ways, but it’s important to let the person know that they are safe, and help them ground themselves if they have been triggered.

These are fairly general pieces of advice, but all important things to remember.  Survivors face a lot of obstacles and a lot of stigma in confronting their trauma, and disclosing can in and of itself be a difficult experience.  Try your best to make the person feel safe and to respect any boundaries they need to establish in coping with their trauma.  It may not seem like much, but establishing a safe space for a survivor in the context of your relationship with them can make a big difference and create a potential lifeline if someone needs help.

In addition to the things I just covered, you can also offer support resources to individuals who may be in need of additional assistance.  If you or someone you know has experienced a sexual trauma and needs support, please contact RAINN’s online anonymous chat hotline here.  You can also call RAINN at  1-800-656-HOPE, or call the DC Rape Crisis Hotline, which provides to support to survivors not just in the DC area but across the country, at 202-333-7273.


On Feminism, Relationships, and How We Aren’t Fish

•April 7, 2014 • 1 Comment

Gloria Steinem famously stated that, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.

Years later, we still invoke this saying as a reminder that women don’t need men.  And I’ll grant you, we don’t.  Feminism’s work in teaching women that our worth is not reliant on men has been among the most important parts of the movement, and it has been instrumental in opening doors to discussing and then tackling problems like labor force participation and domestic violence.

Women may not need to base their self-worth or social value on men, but the reality is that men are a part of women’s lives, and feminism needs to talk about what that actually means.  Feminism has done a great job of explaining to women that is okay to not be in a relationship, that relationships do not define us, but there’s a gap there regarding how relationships can or should function in our lives, and that’s what I really want to talk about.

During her now-famous commencement speech at Barnard College, Sheryl Sandburg remarked that whether you commit to a partner, and who that partner is, is one of the most important decisions a woman makes throughout her life.  That comment is what finally caused me to start thinking about the realities of relationships for women.  A woman whose partner is supportive, who contributes significantly at home, is going to make it possible to meaningfully engage and advance in the workplace.  A woman whose partner is absent, or who does not contribute at home, or who demeans her aspirations, presents a barrier to professional successes.  A woman who desires children needs a partner who wants them as well, and a woman who does not want children needs a partner who supports that decision, if she chooses to have children at all.

The truth is, relationships are an important part of many people’s lives.  No person is an island, and everyone eventually develops a social support structure that facilitates their success or at least their survival.  Those people may be family members, they may be friends, they may be colleagues, but they may also be (or include) significant others, and those relationships do matter.  The fact that we’ve spent so much time and energy advocating for women to be able to define themselves outside of their relationships with men, outside of romantic or sexual relationships altogether, has caused feminism to neglect another important subject: what relationships should look like, and what role they can play.  I’m not talking about identifying relationship violence or talking about consent, although those things do matter.  I’m talking about relationships as a significant force in shaping our lives, and how that fits with the rest of feminism.

I actually previously touched on this subject with my open letter to my fifteen-year-old self, in which I discussed knowing what you deserve in a relationship and finding a partner who supports your vision of yourself.  I’d like to expand upon that here.

The role a relationship plays is, I believe, directly related to what one should expect from a relationship, but I’ll start with the issue of expectations.  Feminism has attacked the widespread problem of dating violence, but I think the truth is we aren’t doing enough to help women see that what we deserve is more than just to not be abused.  We deserve to be actively respected, and we need to be able to talk to our partners about what we want, how we want to handle our relationship, and how we feel when our needs aren’t being met.  Relationships need to be about a fulfillment of those needs, not just a socially-derived fantasy of being with someone instead of being alone.  For all that feminism has done to advocate for women’s independence, the reality is that a fear of being alone is still real for many people, and that’s something that definitely needs to be addressed.  But on top of that, we haven’t done enough to teach women what they feel is demeaning.  I think it’s worth recognizing that nothing is demeaning unless it makes you feel demeaned, and no one can decide that for you, not even feminism.  But feminism should be teaching women to critically examine how they feel about particular aspects of their relationships, and how to articulate those feelings to our partners so that we can resolve problems we have, or walk away if they are intractable.

But this feeds into what I think is the greater conversation, the idea that relationships can be spaces of empowerment.  Yes, a person should have her own goals, but they have to be the goals she sets for herself-~-and whether that’s pursuing a PhD, or teaching in a school, or working as a doctor, or staying home with her kids, women should be able to work towards the future they see as the best path to their own happiness and fulfillment.  These goals are not in conflict with things like relationships or marriage-~-though they are sometimes painted as such (especially by those who oppose feminism), I think the truth is that relationships and careers are complementary.  Having a partner who is emotionally supportive, who acts as a sounding-board for your ideas, who makes your life less stressful, can be a major help in pursuing other goals.  Having a partner who can keep a living situation financially feasible while you are pursuing a graduate degree or transitioning to a new phase in your career can provide stability and make it possible to take advantage of other opportunities.

It’s a metaphor, go with it.

Our current discourse of empowerment places women’s abilities to pursue careers and hold positions of power/authority as the gold standard for being empowered, often at the detriment of other aspects of women’s lives. As a result, women who prioritize their relationships often feel alienated from the movement, like they aren’t living up to these goals, like they aren’t fulfilling the dreams that feminists of the past fought and sacrificed for.  But for many people, relationships are important, not because the Patriarchy told them they need a man, but because people desire companionship and emotional support, and they may find this in their intimate partners.  I would argue that empowerment needs to be about more than just pure economic or legal opportunity: it needs to be about women being able to access their own security and happiness, and relationships can be a part of that equation.  Letting women feel ashamed for prioritizing their relationships, or sending a message that romantic relationships are not important, is often incongruous with women’s lived realities.  It’s time to start constructing a narrative that places women’s desires and needs at the forefront, and recognizing that all roads which lead women there are legitimate paths to walk.

I’ll just conclude with this: women don’t need men like fish need bicycles.  We need men like we need bicycles-~-that is to say, we don’t actually need men, but relationships with men (in keeping with Steinem’s metaphor) just might make getting where we are going faster, easier, or more fun, and sometimes, a bicycle (or a relationship) is a cool thing to have.


Dear MRAs: We Wouldn’t Date You Anyway

•April 5, 2014 • 1 Comment

Pardon my reduced professionalism in this post.  This post is meant to be more colloquial and does not reflect the views of anyone other than the author.

Recently the Feminist Majority Foundation (an organization where, incidentally, I intern) hosted its annual National Young Feminist Leadership Conference.  Then, on Thursday, I saw that a blog called The Other McCain (I’ll let you process that name) published a post called “Feminist College Girls Go…well, Ok, Not ‘Wild’ Exactly, but My Point Is…”.  And I read it, even though I knew that it would make me angry, and to be honest, it did.

This post contained every mean idea and misconception that men’s rights activists hold about feminists.  The author mocked the concerns that young feminists expressed about a lack of queer representation at the conference, and poked fun of the issues that were discussed, including environmentalism and combating rape on college campuses.  He mentioned these problems dismissively, as if the absolute epidemic that is sexual assault on college campuses were a joke, a massive conspiracy by feminists.  And of course, he mocked the feminists themselves, saying we were at best “moderately attractive”, if you “like the Chubby Nerd Girl look”, and saying that we were all man-hating lesbians who would grow up to own a lot of cats.

Thanks, bro.  I can see why you’re having trouble in the dating market.  Don’t worry-~-like you, I am here to help.

Ladies and gentlemen who identify as feminists, I sometimes do get upset by people like the author of The Other McCain.  But that needs to end, because my getting upset is exactly what people like this author want.  They want a reaction, because the world is starting to question whether or not white, straight cis men should just be given our attention simply for being white, straight cis men.  It’s for this reason that I haven’t linked his original post to my blog (though I trust you could find it if you wanted to).

The truth is, no one should be worried that calling themselves a feminist will limit their options in the dating market.  It’s true that some guys will be turned off by that label, but I’m not convinced that anyone who identifies with feminism truly wants to date a guy who will treat her like she’s less worthy of consideration than he is, who does not think her ideas are valid or worth hearing, or who judges women solely on how they look.  Feminists come in all shapes and sizes, and I’m not really concerned about men who assume that all women must be what they consider to be unattractive-~-that is, anyone without a tiny waist, big boobs, and perfect hair-~-to be unworthy of his time or to be less valuable, which is how he clearly views the women at the conference.

There have been men on this blog who have told me that finding the kind of man whom I have said I as a feminist would want to date is impossible, that those men do not exist.  They are wrong.  I refuse to capitulate to the idea that to be a man is to be arrogant, dismissive and disrespectful of women, narcissistic, and unwilling to have meaningful discussions.  I refuse to accept that masculinity is fundamentally mutually exclusive with respect, sensitivity, caring, and honesty.  There are many men who embody those traits; there are even men who identify as feminists.  They exist (I know, I found one, and for all the angry MRAs who came on this blog to tell me I’d die alone surrounded by cats…the joke’s on you) and women should refuse to settle for anything less than a partner who will actually treat her as an equal, not a subordinate.  If the dating market is self-selecting (and to some extent it is) then the reality is not that feminists will end up alone, it’s that we will end up with men who respect us for who we are as people and for the values we espouse…and they’ll be better men than the one whining behind the front of The Other McCain.

So when The Other McCain says that the recipe for being a feminist is to get an abortion, become a lesbian, vote Democrat, and adopt a lot of cats, what he’s really saying is that he has no idea what feminism is about, and he doesn’t care to understand, because he knows that it threatens his status and privilege in society.  Obviously not all feminists get abortions, we just support a woman’s right to make medical decisions only with her doctor; and we’re not ALL lesbians, though some of us are; and we’re not even all Democrats (though some of us are); and we’re not all cat people; and we definitely won’t all end up alone.

As for The Other McCain…I wish him well in his quest to find a woman who has no interests other than maintaining her looks and being devoted to him, since I get the sense that I’ve just described his ideal mate (though I hope not-~-I hope he’ll realize that women have so much more to offer than he seems to give credit for).  I’d advise him to get off his high horse and start treating women as people instead of objects to be evaluated and/or admired, as it tends to make men appear more suitable as partners.  But I’m not threatened, or even all that upset, by the way he talked about feminism.  After all, if people are feeling threatened by the advances your social movement is making, it means you’re making advances…and hey, that was our goal all along.

Rape Culture: It’s Not “Hysteria”, It’s Reality

•April 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

This post is a response to Caroline Kitchens’ opinion piece in Time entitled “It’s time to end the ‘rape culture’ hysteria.”

In her piece, Kitchens’ argues that rape is not at all tolerated in our society.  That rapists are despised and that we have harsh punishments for them.  She refers to sexual violence advocates as “an out of control lobby”.  She uses quotes around the word “trigger” when referring to efforts by students at Wellesley to remove a statue that they were concerned could cause emotional distress to survivors of sexual trauma.  She then points to RAINN, saying that RAINN disputes the idea of rape culture and encourages that the problem be attacked through 1) bystander interventions, 2) encouraging individuals to talk about consent, and 3) making law enforcement deal with rape on college campuses.

And in doing so, she misses the entire point.

So, let’s check our internalized misogyny and look at what’s actually happening and what RAINN is actually calling for.

First, let’s talk about this whole “rape is not tolerated and we always punish rapists” bit.  It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog that this just is not true.  There are numerous reasons for this.  The first is a culture of victim-blaming (and don’t try to tell me it isn’t: we have all heard people say things like “but why was she dressed like that” or “why was she out that late” or “well she was drunk”).  One need look no further than the Steubenville case to see examples of this.  But it doesn’t just end with Steubenville: one can look to examples like the public’s immediate defense of Woody Allen in response to Dylan Farrow’s allegations of childhood sexual abuse, or the Maryville case where the victim’s house was burned down after she reported her perpetrator.  You can see it also in cases of harassment, particularly on college campuses.  You can’t tell me that we never make excuses for rapists, that we always punish them, that we always take these crimes seriously.  Only about 2% of rapists will ever even see the inside of a jail for such a crime-~-so the reality is, we don’t always take this seriously and we don’t always stand by victims.

I won’t really get into this “out of control lobby” argument.  Even if sexual assault advocates were a lobby, we’re lobbying for less sexual assault.  Get on board the human rights train.

This brings me to her triggering argument.  This I think is either ill-informed or just offensive, one or the other.  The reality is that a large number of sexual assault survivors suffer from what is called Rape Trauma Syndrome, a subset of PTSD.  RTS can manifest itself through flashbacks and other physical or mental reactions to things which forcibly bring up traumatic memories.  It is a real thing, and a major reason why activists try hard to take steps like putting trigger warnings on potentially triggering material.  It’s not hysteria, it’s respect for people’s lived experiences and the realities of their needs.

So let’s deal now with the REAL problem with her argument: that rape culture isn’t real, and even RAINN doesn’t think it is.

RAINN is focused on targeting practical potential solutions to the prevalence of rape and since there is no magic button to fix a culture, the reality is that those are concrete steps.  But the quote she provides from RAINN is misinterpreted in her piece.  Here’s the quote:

In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campus. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important not to lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.

So, RAINN is right: culture alone doesn’t cause rape.  But it does facilitate a mentality that excuses rape, or allows people to write off behavior as something other than rape, even when it is, in fact, sexual assault.  It creates situations that prevent people from feeling or being able to meaningfully report rapes or seek justice-~-those systemic barriers are real.  Rapists do need to be held individually accountable for their actions, because rape culture doesn’t force them to hurt people…but it does permit individuals to commit violent crimes without recognizing them as such, and allows them to get away with it.

Let’s talk for a second, then, about RAINN’s solutions and how they relate to rape culture, shall we?

1) Empowering community members through bystander intervention education

Bystander intervention rests on the ability to recognize problematic situations and step in before a sexual assault occurs.  This means that people need to be able to recognize that individuals may not be able to consent, or that power dynamics may exist that may encourage or facilitate rape.  It means recognizing when people are uncomfortable and being able to say something.  But it also means being able to recognize women’s sexual agency, something our culture too-often ignores.  In short, it means we need to be able to shove aside the ideas of entitlement and permissiveness, and our silence about what it means to be able to consent, and that means rejecting aspects of what we call rape culture.

2) Promote risk-reduction messaging to encourage students to increase their personal safety and promoting clearer education on “where the ‘consent line’ is.”

Our lack of conversations about consent?  They are also a part of rape culture.  It’s not about teaching people that they’re wrong to wear short skirts or to drink-~-though we should be teaching people like how to tell if someone has been slipped a date rape drug, for example.  It’s about teaching people how to draw lines and talk about consent so that these gray areas of sexual permissibility disappear, and people can be safer.

3)  Treat rape like the serious crime it is by giving power to trained law enforcement rather than internal campus judicial boards.

Yes, this is a major fault of universities.  But also, in the absence of an ability to convict, the reality is that when the police won’t do their jobs, like in the Stanford case I’ve previously blogged about, it is useful to allow universities to at least be able to suspend individuals or otherwise punish them in the face of a preponderance of the evidence.

But I’ll leave you with this, because she attacks the idea that we should teach boys not to rape, and argues that men are taught not to rape and to revile rape throughout their lives.  This is true of the traditional stranger-in-the-bushes narrative, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is that boys are not taught to respect no as an answer.  I speak based both on personal experiences and based on statistics: guys will continue to push until a girl capitulates.  It’s the fact that people are taught that silence is consent, even though consent should have to be an active consent.  It’s the fact that people in general are not taught what sexual assault actually is, and as such, perpetrate violations that they consider acceptable because they are never taught that these are violations.  Of men who admit to having committed acts that legally qualify as rape, the vast majority said that what they did was definitely not rape.

Statistics vary, but at least 1 in 12 college men report having committed acquaintance rape in anonymous surveys, and though I can’t find them right now, I’ve definitely seen higher numbers somewhere.  The reality is that rapes are happening, and happening at a staggering rate, without people recognizing them as such.  That is rape culture, and that’s not a hysteria we need to clamp down on: it’s a reality we need to act on, before more people get hurt.

A Farewell to Women’s History Month

•March 31, 2014 • 1 Comment

Just like last year, Women’s History Month (aka, March) got the best of me and I didn’t manage to post NEARLY as much content as I had originally intended.

For example, I had intended to write a post about CEDAW, and the epidemic that is gender-based violence, but I never got to. (Stay tuned, though, it’s still coming).

I meant to write up more profiles in history, but I never got the chance.  I hope to be able to put up that content eventually as well, and why not?  Why should women’s history be confined to one month?  Women have been a part of the history of every society.  We have played a role in numerous social movements, been a driving force behind several of them.  Women’s history shouldn’t even BE a separate subject from the rest of history, and it is my goal to publish the rest of my women’s history month content at a later date.

In case I don’t, however, this blog had meant to post profiles of several more incredible women this month.  I may write up their profiles, but if you’re curious, and you don’t want to wait, and you know I’m writing a senior thesis and may forget about this, they were as follows:

  • bell hooks, a black lesbian feminist writer who helped to pioneer feminist standpoint theory and intersectional feminist theory
  • Harriet Tubman, the famous slave-turned-abolitionist who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad before slavery was eliminated in the United States
  • Frida Khalo, a renowned Latina artist who made significant contributions to her field
  • Nour Inayat Khan, an Indian Princess who risked her life as a spy for the UK/Allies during World War II
  • Meena Keshwar Kamal, an Afghan feminist activist who founded the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, only to be assassinated in 1987
  • Nurul Izzah Anwar, a Malaysian politician who has campaigned for political reform in her country
  • Hawa Abdi, one of Somalia’s first female gynecologists who now runs a hospital with her own money

These are only a few of the incredible women who have previously or are currently shaping the course of history.  There were others considered-~-Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Indira Ghandi, Sonia Sotomayor, Toni Morrison, Anna Maria Chevez, Mary McLeod Bethune, Aung San Suu Kyi, Juana Inez de la Cruz…the list goes on and on (and there are obviously white women who played a part whom I chose not to include in my list this year).

The reality is that these women did not JUST shape the course of history for women: they changed the course of history, period.  Every glass ceiling that these women broke told young women who looked like them that it was possible.  Every reform that they pushed for impacted not just individual women, but their families and societies-~-everything from education to healthcare to political representation has made a major difference.  When women are able to vote, they are better able to advocate for their children.  When women are educated and able to engage in the labor market, they are better able to support their families and ensure the health and education of their children, breaking cycles of poverty.  When women’s perspectives are incorporated into governance, the issues which impact women become harder to ignore.  Around the world and throughout history, women have been shaping the stories of their home societies.

And those stories are still changing.  Around the world, women are speaking up for their rights and fighting for the futures of their countries.  While Elizabeth Warren advocates for an America where students are able to graduate from college without crippling death, Aung San Suu Kyi fights for democracy in Myanmar.  In Rwanda, the country with the largest proportion of female elected representatives, women are working for peace, stability, and economic growth.  Women are pioneering scientific discoveries and facilitating the development of people, organizations, and communities around the world.  That doesn’t just go for women pursuing or prioritizing careers-~-women still do the majority of the work regarding child-rearing in every country across the globe, which means women are also helping to raise the next generation of thinkers and leaders, people who will in their own time change the story of our world.

Even if you only wanted to tell the story of women as they impacted women, that is a story you would need more than a month to teach.  The battle for women’s rights has looked different and starred different individuals around the world.  Our stories are interconnected, complicated, and important, and the version of history we tell now leaves out far too much.

Women’s History Month may be ending, but my point is this: women’s history is not.  I hope that someday, women’s history will be taught as a part of the overarching narrative of history, that women’s accomplishments will be celebrated equally with men’s, that intersectionality will become the norm instead of something to be applauded.  But in the meantime, I hope that this month has brought you all a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come, and examine how far we still have to go.

Happy Women’s History Month.

Why Family Planning? An International Perspective

•March 25, 2014 • 1 Comment

Family planning has been a cornerstone issue of the feminist movement for several decades, but is also one of the most contentious.  While it’s relatively easy to articulate the logic of equal pay or the harms of domestic violence, there are numerous social taboos surrounding family planning, not the least of which is the fact that family planning often includes the issue of abortion.

Nevertheless, family planning is a cornerstone issue of the feminist movement for a reason.  It goes beyond bodily autonomy-~-though bodily autonomy is certain part of it-~-and it impacts a number of other things that feminists have been fighting for.  I recently published a post about the current, ongoing fight for access to family planning services in the United States, and have previously written on it numerous times, but as Women’s History Month winds down, I want us to consider, for a moment, the implications of family planning not just domestically, but around the world.

In the United States, bodily autonomy is often the focus of the rhetoric surrounding discussion of family planning, and this makes sense in global context as well.  It’s especially important with regards to the unspoken power politics of sex in many parts of the world, where women may not have a say in whether or when they have sex.  In this sense, birth control is a subversive tactic that allows women to reclaim control over what happens to their bodies at least with regards to the consequences of sex, which can be significant for women who might otherwise lack full bodily autonomy.  But it is also important insofar as birth control allows women to make decisions about when they choose to have children, and to control for the consequences of pregnancy.  Spacing out births, and delaying age at first birth, both improve the chances that a woman won’t suffer from complications or die from pregnancy-related causes.  That’s not insignificant, given that over half a million women a year die of pregnancy-related causes, and over 90% of those deaths take place in the developing world (source: World Health Organization).  In fact, a woman in sub-Saharan Africa has a 1 in 13 chance of dying due to childbearing-related complications.

Birth control is significant for a couple of other reasons though.  Being able to delay pregnancy doesn’t only have health implications, it has economic ones as well.  Young women who are able to prevent pregnancy are more likely to finish school and find work before they enter marriage or bear children.  Being able to prevent childbearing may also prevent young women from entering abusive or otherwise unstable marriages.  Having children may make it difficult for women to engage in the workforce, particularly during and immediately after pregnancy, and this may make women feel trapped in relationships they would otherwise choose to leave.  Birth control in the United States has been responsible for up to 30% in the increases in women’s wages.  It could have a significant impact on the ability of women to advance economically and socially in other countries.

Many of those same arguments apply to the subject of abortion, also lumped in with family planning.  Abortion obviously is not used to prevent a pregnancy, but it is used to terminate unwanted pregnancies, often early on.  Abortions offer an option for women who cannot afford to have children, or whom would be likely to be abused or otherwise harmed as a result of their pregnancy, to terminate it before such problems can arise.  Abortion also affords women who were unable to access birth control the opportunity to forgo childbearing.  Access to abortion further reduces maternal mortality by offering an option to save the mother’s life in the event of severe complications due to pregnancy.  Its importance is worth recognizing, not just in the United States, but in countries around the world where women may have less access to fertility regulation.

Of all the things that could be done to improve international development, investment in family planning is by far one of the most cost effective.  Uganda’s first lady, Janet Museveni, famously noted that “family planning is to maternal health what immunization is to children’s health”, a cost-effective and targeted way to reduce a major problem in society.  Family planning has helped to prevent over 100,000 abortions and over 54 million unwanted births around the world, allowing women to regain control of their bodily autonomy.  It has also prevented some 220,000 maternal deaths per year-~-and decreases in maternal mortality also coincide with decreases in infant and child mortality and increases in primary school enrollment and children’s health across countries.

Family planning is literally life-saving, and certainly worth investment by the international community.  Unfortunately, even the progress that has been made in this field is not enough.  Some 222 million women continue to experience an unmet need for family planning, resulting in millions of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies each year, which place women’s lives at stake.  Much family planning funding was diverted to HIV/AIDS, an equally worthy cause-~-but one which has ultimately begun to drown out the issue of women’s health.  If you’re looking for a single issue that can genuinely change the lives of women and their families and help to change communities and societies, look no further, because family planning is it.  We can only hope that it remains a priority as the United Nations and the rest of the international community begin to shift towards their new development priorities as of 2015.


Profiles in History: Linda Chavez-Thompson

•March 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Linda Chavez-Thompson is the second profile I’m posting (admittedly belatedly) for Women’s History Month this year.  She’s a second-generation Mexican American who has served as a significant union leader and political activist.  She was the first person of color, and the first woman, to be elected Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO, a position she held for over a decade.

Linda Chavez-Thompson was born in Texas and began her union organizing career doing local work there.  She moved on to work with, and then become a local executive, in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in San Antonio.  She was subsequently elected to the San Antonio Central Labor Council and the Texas AFL-CIO.  She became Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO in 1995, holding the post until 2007.   In 2001, she was elected president of ORIT, the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers, which is the Western Hemispheric arm of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.  In addition to her labor organizing career, Chavez-Thompson has been a lifelong Democrat.  She was a delegate to multiple presidential nominating conventions and was nominated for Lieutenant Governor of Texas.  She also served as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee for several terms.

I know this seems like a short profile, but don’t be fooled: Chavez-Thomspon was a significant Latina in American history.  There have been any number of Latinas who have made significant political contributions-~-and I may actually get more of them posted later this month-~-but the reality is that a lot of politics happen outside of the courts or elected office.  Unions have played a significant role in advocating for workers’ rights, and many of the advances unions have made have helped to make workplaces more amenable to women who seek employment.  On top of that, Chavez-Thompson’s success in the AFL-CIO could be seen as having paved the way for future potential Latino/a leadership within the organization, which is also significant for advancing the rights of people of color.

If her profile interested you, take a moment to look up Dolores Huerta, who worked as a labor organizer focusing on the plight of farm workers.  She founded the National Farmworkers Association and has won several awards for her advocacy of immigrants’ rights, workers’ rights, and women’s rights.


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