Speaking of Women's Rights: 06/13

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

New Perspective, A New Insight

by Megan Veith

“[DOMA] is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
Justice Kennedy

The news that the Supreme Court officially struck down Section 3 of DOMA today marks a joyful and exciting moment in the history of the LGBT equal rights movement. Despite yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act and revealed the Court’s continuing denial of the extent of discrimination in the US, the Court took a stand against some of the hatred and intolerance that has been infecting our society. The Windsor ruling includes powerful language and imposes a high legal standard that will be crucial to other equal rights cases in the future. For example, Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion for the Court, was explicit in his condemnation of DOMA. He declared that DOMA “imposes a disability … by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.” He also reiterated the harmful effects of DOMA, not just to same-sex couples who are denied a plethora of federal benefits, but also to the children of same-sex couples, stating that DOMA humiliates them and “makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family.” In essence, the Court concluded that DOMA imposed disadvantages and stigmas upon same-sex couples and that this is a direct affront to a State’s right to define marriage.

While many people are thrilled about today’s ruling (and rightly so), we must nonetheless take a critical look at the direct implications of this ruling and how it will take effect. It is important to realize that this ruling only applies to federal benefits and does not require all states to legalize  marriage for same-sex couples. A common question people are asking is how this ruling will affect same-sex couples that are legally married in one state, but then move to another state that does not recognize their marriage.  As of today, only 13 states and the District of Columbia have extended marriage to same-sex couples.   The fight for full equality must continue, state-by-state.  However, the Court’s decision is still an important step in ensuring that same-sex couples are not forced into a “second-tier marriage.” Let us hope that the Supreme Court and other courts around the U.S. continue to support equal rights for all people. With strong advocacy and a desire for a change, the time will soon come when all states recognize that love is love, no matter who you are.

Megan Veith is currently a legal intern at Legal Voice. She just finished her second year at Georgetown University Law Center, after graduating with her Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Washington. Megan is a strong advocate for women’s rights and is thrilled at the opportunity to fight for equality for all people at Legal Voice.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The more things change … Sexual harassment and assault know no borders.

Legal Voice Legal & Legislative Counsel

I’m here in Cairo, Egypt, looking through my guidebook, which includes a short section of Arabic words and phrases.  Of course there’s “Yes / aiwa” and “Thank you / shokran.”  And after the sections on “Directions” and “Shopping,” there’s “Useful phrases.”  Not far after “I am hungry” and “What is your name?” is this: “Don’t touch me! / sibni le wadi!”

One of my interpreters, a young woman named Aya, was shocked and saddened to hear that.  She said wistfully, “You should have seen what Egypt used to be like, before the revolution.” While things weren’t necessarily entirely rosy then, either, it turns out knowing that phrase in today’s Egypt might well be solid, practical advice – particularly for a female traveler.

We are now two years after the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak ended in 2011 after a mostly peaceful revolution.  Like all revolutions, Egypt’s brought high hopes for transformative, political change.  For one thing, the participants included people young and old, rich and poor, men and women, Muslim and Christian - and for a time, the country seemed to have transcended those many divides that can make collective action difficult.

Now, the country is again a-buzz and talking ‘bout a revolution.  June 30 will mark one year of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, which remains a disappointment to many.  “Have you signed the petition?” activists ask one another, referring to a petition calling for early presidential elections (essentially, a vote of no confidence).  Mass protests are planned for June 30, and many are talking about their hopes that the people can force Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood party, to leave office, just as Mubarak did two years ago.

One thing that’s changed since the revolution for the worse – quite dramatically – is the incidence of sexual harassment, defined to include everything from dirty looks, repeated invitations to go out despite refusals, verbal harassment, unwanted touching, and rape.  An April 2013 report by the United Nations reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women had been subjected to sexual harassment. Over ninety-nine percent

That means that statistically, pretty much every woman in Egypt has been subjected to sexual harassment.  Indeed, in my group of visitors, several of us were subjected to unwanted touching by a young boy simply walking down a street (an example of yet another disturbing aspect of the already disturbing UN report, as many of the harassers are boys under age 18).

Indeed, 48.9% of respondents in the UN report said incidents had increased since the 2011 revolution.  Some allege that Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is paying thugs to target and attack women as part of its efforts to intimidate women from participating in protests, as well as to promote an extremist anti-women agenda.

To complicate matters, although there are laws prohibiting sexual harassment and sexual assault, since the revolution (in which police and their abuses were a particular target of the protests), there has been little enforcement because the government has been in such chaos.  And even before the revolution, reporting an incident of sexual harassment or even sexual assault to the police was a dicey proposition that was likely to result in victim-blaming at best, or at worst, other harm by police or the perpetrators.  

For example, we heard of one woman who was assaulted (thrown so violently that she broke a car window), and when she reported the crime, her assailants filed a claim of prostitution against her.  Ultimately, the charge against her was dismissed – but only because her family agreed to pay for damage to the assailant’s car.

It’s ironic that women, who have been active participants in the Egyptian revolution aimed at gaining all citizens political rights, have in some ways suffered even more post-revolution.  In addition to increased widespread public sexual harassment, after the revolution, the army infamously used violence to intimidate women protestors – for example, by detaining them, assaulting and harassing them, and forcing women to go through intrusive body exams and “virginity tests” – so-called examinations by army personnel.

I admit that at first, upon hearing of these statistics and practices, I thought, “Oh, we in the U.S. are so much better off than Egypt.  We have changed the culture so that it is widely known what sexual harassment is, and that it is not to be tolerated – for example, through developments in employment law.  And we have (mostly) functioning governments and agencies to enforce the laws or to lobby for changes.”

But then I left my comfortable enlightened, feminist, progressive bubble, and thought of the still-widespread problem of unremedied campus sexual violence.  And of the sexual assault epidemic in the military.  And cases like the Steubenville rape of a drunk 16-year-old by football team members, who took and circulated photographs – and how even people who ought to know better (such as Serena Williams, recently) seemed to blame the victim in that case.

So here in post-revolution Egypt, it’s hard to know where to even start to combat sexual harassment, when not only are there the same underlying problems and misperceptions, such as victim-blaming, but there are so many other problems layered in as well.  The laws need enforcing, but there is no functioning or trustworthy enforcing agency; there’s a religious political party in power that doesn’t think women should participate much in society outside the home sphere; there’s widespread unemployment that leads to groups of angry young men with time on their hands; and so on.

The good news is that there are several groups in Egypt working actively to combat sexual harassment and assault.  One such group, HarassMap, is working, as one representative there told us, “not to solve individual cases or answer the question why do people do this, but to address the phenomenon of sexual harassment.”  The problem, according to HarassMap, is that there are no consequences for sexual harassment – not only from law enforcement, but from bystanders and others in society.  The group accepts reports of harassment through all means – online, calls, Facebook, Twitter, text – and records the time, place, and type of harassment on a map.  With this data and with a business outreach program, they are working to identify safe areas for women. They also have projects to educate about myths of sexual harassment (e.g., “If harassment is due to poverty, why do CEOs harass?” and “If harassment is due to women’s provocative clothing, why are veiled women harassed?” etc.).  Other HarassMap programs include crisis response to gang attacks on women, training volunteers to do outreach and education, and a nationwide campaign (donations accepted here) to change the perceptions associated with sexual harassment and create a positive association with standing up to harassment.

Another Egyptian project, Scandalize a Harasser, began when a woman was being harassed in traffic by another car’s occupant, and decided to create a Facebook page and post his picture.  The first night she posted it and went to sleep.  The next morning, over 5,000 had already “liked” her page and soon thousands more viewed and circulated it, until it morphed into a site where others can speak out about incidents of harassment.

These programs bear similarities to programs in the U.S. and elsewhere, such as the Green Dot program, which seeks to use mapping to identify safe places where positive actions to prevent and oppose sexual harassment have occurred, and Hollaback!, which started in New York as a project to support people who have been subjected to street harassment to speak out, and now operates in 22 countries.

All of these programs have one thread in common:  speaking out.  In Egypt, people learned from the 2011 revolution how very powerful speaking out can be.  Let’s hope that women’s voices and experiences will not be silenced, and that ultimately, whatever government takes root, that it will truly be transformative so that not only is there a functioning civil society, but that it ensures justice for all.

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world …

(The Beatles, “Revolution”)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

They make a pill for that! (But they might not give it to you)

by Jessica Hille

You can’t watch TV without seeing a commercial for a pill of some kind. Some help you sleep. Some help you stay awake. Some make you stop sneezing. Some make you enjoy sitting in a bathtub in your back yard (apparently). Pills for men and women, like decongestants, and pills specifically for men, like the famous/infamous Little Blue Pill, are generally accepted without much controversy in our well-medicated society. Pills specifically for women, however, spark intense debate and inspire strict government regulation.

Consider the provisions in the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”) that require health insurers to cover all FDA-approved contraception, making it available in many cases without a copay.  This long overdue policy should be a no-brainer.  Instead, it’s being challenged in dozens of lawsuits across the country.  The fact that access to contraception has been shown again and again to improve maternal and infant health and lower teen birth rates seems irrelevant to those who continue to view women primarily as wives and mothers. (Note: There is NOTHING wrong with being a wife and/or a mother. The problem comes in the requirement.)   

Then there are the ongoing battles over providing over-the-counter access to Plan B.  In 2011, the Obama administration announced that the Department of Health and Human Services would overrule the FDA’s recommendation to allow over-the-counter sales for Plan B without age restrictions.  The Administration’s perplexing stance received the criticism it deserved. In April 2013, a federal judge ordered the FDA to make Plan B available over the counter without age restrictions, saying the restrictions are “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.”  The Obama administration dropped their appeal of the decision just this week.

In Louisiana, the state legislature just passed a bill to ban what anti-choice extremists are calling “telemed” abortions, where doctors prescribe drugs used for medication abortions by video call. The restriction will make it much harder for women who live far from the state’s three cities with abortion clinics.

And now there’s the so-called “female Viagra,” a drug being developed to stimulate a woman’s sex drive. All these pills for women, dealing with sex and its consequences, evoke tremendous responses both in support and opposition. Some believe that contraception, particularly when combined with libido enhancers for women, will lead to promiscuity, lack of romance, and the end of civilization as we know it. If the robots and the zombies don’t get us first, sex-crazed, babyless women certainly will.  

Here’s a simple idea:  Women deserve to be able to access safe, effective medications that are integral to their health and their ability to control when and if to have a baby. Women, like men, also deserve fulfilling sex lives they can enjoy for a lifetime without being labeled unnatural nymphomaniacs. For health care and justice, we need a refill. 

Jessica Hille just finished her internship with Legal Voice.  She's just finished up her LLM inLaw and Policy at the University of Washington-Seattle. She is moving to Bloomington, Indiana to start a PhD in Gender Studies this fall and hopes to use her legal and advocacy background to promote gender equality and reproductive justice theory and policies.

Monday, June 10, 2013

50 Years of the Equal Pay Act: We’ve Had Enough of Not Enough

What would you do with an extra $11,000 a year?

Because if you are a woman, on average, $11,084 is how much less you make than a man doing the same job.  In other words, a woman is paid 77 cents for every dollar a man is paid for the same work.  And Seattle has the dubious distinction of the largest pay gap among the U.S.’s 50 top metropolitan areas; Seattle area women are paid only 73 cents for every dollar.

It’s been fifty years after President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law.  At the glacial pace at which the wage gap has been shrinking – just a half-cent per year – it will take nearly another fifty years to close the wage gap.

We’ve had enough of not enough.

Today, we at Legal Voice call for action to end the practices and close the loopholes in existing laws that contribute to women making on average only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men.  We and a coalition of other organizations are kicking off the Equal Pay Today! Campaign to work toward eliminating these practices that contribute to the wage gap:

  • Less pay for the same job: Women are paid less than men in nearly every occupation.  Studies that show women were offered fewer job opportunities and lower pay, even when they had identical resumes as men.   To close the wage gap we must address discrimination in pay and promotions on the same job.

  • Job segregation: Sex role stereotypes lead to women being segregated into female-dominated jobs such as retail sales, home health care, and child care – jobs that pay low wages and are often part-time.  Women remain under-represented in higher paying work traditionally done by men, such as construction, fire-fighting and policing.

  • Retaliation against workers for discussing their pay:  Today, a majority of employees are either prohibited or actively discouraged from discussing their pay.   Policies preventing employees from sharing pay information keep women in the dark about pay differences, limiting their ability to negotiate for higher pay and to enforce their rights under the equal pay laws.

  • Pay reductions due to pregnancy and caregiving responsibilities.  Women experience diminished income throughout their working lives.  Employers pay women less from the moment of hire, deprive women of opportunities to advance, or pushed them out of work altogether by failing to accommodate needs that may arise for women as a result of pregnancy and caregiving.
  • Wage theft:  Being paid less than the minimum wage, being shorted hours, being forced to work off the clock, not being paid overtime, and not being paid at all are pervasive practices across many industries.  Women, especially immigrant women in low-wage jobs, are often the hardest hit by wage theft.

The number of Equal Pay Act claims has not declined over the past 15 years, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that investigates such charges.  So while the Equal Pay Act is great to have in our arsenal, it’s not enough to simply have it on the books if employers' practices continue to violate it.

As an initial step toward more comprehensive change, we’ve asked all 50 state governors to commit to work to close the wage gap in his or her state.  If you agree with us that it’s time for equal pay to be a reality, and not just a promise, join us and sign up here to be a part of the Equal Pay Today! Campaign.

Because who among us couldn’t use an extra $11,000 per year, after all?

Monday, June 3, 2013


by Bethany Kirk

That's the number of sexual assaults that the Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military estimates occurred in 2012. Here’s another: 3,374. That’s the number of sexual assault reports in 2012, up from 3,119 (2011) and 3,158 (2010), but not much higher than the 3,230 reported in 2009. It’s horrifying how many people were sexually assaulted, but it’s also appalling how few were reported. The underreporting is disturbing, but not surprising when you see the news: an officer in charge of a sexual assault prevention program being arrested for sexual assault; the Air Force chief of staff saying that the increase in military rape is a result of the “hook-up mentality” of young women; the fact that only 238 assailants were convicted last year.  The New York Times reports that sexual assaults at the three top military academies are at record numbers and that studies have shown sexual trauma to be the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder among servicewomen. All this after years of promises to step up enforcement and reform military culture. 

Proposals like independent prosecutors, special victim’s counsels, and ending the power of senior commanders to unilaterally dismiss verdicts are a start, but woefully inadequate to addressing larger, cultural problems within the military.

When my friend, Sarah Garcia, joined the military upon graduating from college, I was concerned for her safety. But I was concerned about attacks from insurgents, not attacks from her comrades. It wasn’t long before I had new concerns. Expectations that she had to be either a “cold bitch” or a “slut.” The seeming inevitability of being groped or worse. The calculations involved with a decision to report –personal safety, careers, privacy, desire for justice. This combination of tense expectation with a casual sense of “cost of doing business” is indictment of a military culture that is beyond the aid of mere structural changes.

The thing is, though the military may be an intense example, the “military sexual assault crisis” is seen at all levels of our society. Nationally, almost 20% of women report experiencing rape at some time in their lives. Approximately 54% of sexual assaults are unreported. Out of every 100 cases of rape, only 9 are prosecuted.  The recent Department of Justice report on the University of Montana shows that blame and disbelief often assault survivors. Prominent politicians imbue uteruses with magical abilities to fight off “legitimate” rape.

The internet trolls (and some members of Congress) may see the Department of Defense report as an example of why women should not serve in the military but it appears that our culture does not want women serving in any part of society.  This is not just a military problem – this is a United States problem. And we owe it to ourselves to do better.

Bethany Kirk is a legal intern at Legal Voice. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Settle University and will receive a law degree from the University of Washington in 2014.