Speaking of Women's Rights: 03/15

Monday, March 16, 2015

My Dreams

By Sun Huijun

My dreams have been changing as the time goes by. The dreams before I came to Seattle were to expand my global vision and change my lifestyle. I made it. Now, one of my new dreams is to take action to protect women’s rights. 

I have worked as a practice attorney since 2008 in China. At that time, no more than 20% of attorneys were female at my former law firm. I worked hard, so I was considered as a tomboy. One of my co-workers thought that it was hard for a female lawyer to get married. “Why?” I asked. She said lawyers’ professional characteristics made you have stronger opinion. Generally, Chinese men would not like to have a wife who is stronger than him. I kept silent. I did not want to argue about the topic.

I decided to come to the U.S. to study a new culture, including the language, business practices, and legal system. On the first day of 2013, I arrived in Seattle, and my status changed from a lawyer to a student. My lifestyle was totally changed. I enjoy the studying experiences here. By studying and traveling in the U.S., I not only have achieved my former dreams, but also added one more dream—to do something related to protecting women’s rights. I decided to take action to accomplish this new dream. Legal Voice inspired me.

On February 4, 2015, when I was on the way to volunteer with Legal Voice, I read a story on a Chinese news website about the first lawsuit in China about terminating parental rights. The Court made the decision because the facts of the case were extremely horrible: a father abused and raped his 11-year-old daughter. I was emotional when I read the report—how hard of a time the girl will confront in the future! The girl’s mother, who has mental issues, is divorced from her father and remarried to another man. Her father was sentenced to go to prison. Her neighbor would like to foster her, but the government is still considering if it is suitable for her to live there. I can’t imagine how hard it will be for this little girl to heal.

I want to emphasize that this is the first lawsuit in China about terminating parental rights, and it didn’t happen until just this year. Similarly, China still does not have a sound legal mechanism against domestic violence, though the first anti-domestic violence law is supposed to be issued this August. In reality, when someone is suffering from domestic violence, it is so hard to get the protection from the police. If she/he calls the police, usually, she/he receives the answer “That is your family issue, we cannot deal with that.” Or “That is not our business, but you can sue and go to court.” 

Compare with the lawsuit case I read at Legal Voice about terminating parental rights. A woman who had suffered from domestic violence lost custody of her children due to, among other reasons, her “poor partner choice” and because “her history as a victim of domestic violence put the children at risk.” This means her status as a domestic violence survivor was used against her. Legal Voice got involved with the appeal of this case because, if she loses custody of her children, other women may not dare to call the police when they suffer domestic violence. Because they may be afraid of having their parental rights terminated, too.

I saw the above two cases on the same day. I did some research then. I saw the big legal gaps in protecting women’s rights and against domestic violence in China. There are some legal provisions related to protecting women’s rights, but they are general principles. Women need more specific laws to outline their protections. This is a serious issue. We cannot just wait for the legislature to make laws to protect women’s rights—we can get involved. 

These two cases made me think of another case I took before I came to Seattle, and the first time I wanted to do something to protect women’s rights. Before I came to Seattle, a client came to my office. She was 30 years old and looked very nice. She was educated and was an accountant. She wanted to divorce. I asked her to introduce her situation. She could not help crying. After she became calm, she told me that her husband showed how he loved her before they got married, and even after they married. But that changed when she had their daughter. He wanted to have a son. His parents wanted to have a grandson instead of granddaughter. He did not care for their daughter and did not live at home anymore. I couldn’t help but wonder how many women were suffering the same thing in China. What could I do to protect women’s rights, including my own? I took the case and tried my best to help her and her daughter. She divorced her husband, and now lives with her mother and her daughter. 

I wanted to do something to protect women’s rights, but I felt alone at that time. But now I know that I am not alone: a lot of people are striving to protect women’s rights. So now, when I go back to China, I want to do more research, let more people know which rights women have, join the women’s federation, take pro bono cases related to women’s rights, and more. 

I know it is a long journey, but I will keep going on. When I do this, I know I am not alone. Thousands of people are doing the same thing: protecting women’s rights. Dream will come true; equality will win.

Sun Huijun works at Yingke Law Firm as a partner attorney. She came to Seattle to study at University of Washington. During her studying, she volunteers at Legal Voice as an intern.

Photo courtesy of Sun Huijun.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Support Mothers, Support TANF

By Joshua Turnham

The Great Recession of the 21st Century hit everyone hard, but many people continue to struggle in the recovering economy. Poverty has grown in Washington every year since 2008—now over 14%—and the state is one of only three with rising rates of both poverty and income inequality. One of the (many) problems with our beloved capitalist society is that many people get left behind; this is why we have created various social safety nets to help people that do not benefit from the capitalist successes that others enjoy. Washington State currently has more than 288,000 kids living in poverty, yet the state has drastically cut funding to one of the most important safety nets for kids and families who have fallen on tough times: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

TANF is a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people—particularly women—who struggle on a daily basis to clothe, house, and feed their children. About half of TANF recipients are single-parent families, primarily led by single mothers who need financial assistance caring for their children so they can find or keep jobs. But the current grant amount of $478 per month (for a family of three) is nowhere near enough to help families cover the necessities: the cost of some of the most basic needs—rent, heat, transportation, and health care—has increased statewide by an average of 46% since 2001. Meanwhile, the value of the grant has decreased by 34% percent, thanks in large part to the 15% legislative cut in 2011. Between that enormous cut and the state underspending each year, TANF has been cut, directly and indirectly, by $610 million since 2009, forcing more than 20,000 families off the program and resulting in nearly 55,000 fewer people receiving TANF funds in 2014 than in 2009.

As with most other benefits provided to citizens, various barriers have been erected to separate the supposed deserving from the undeserving poor. With TANF, one significant barrier is the work requirement. In Washington, TANF takes form in the WorkFirst program, through which only those who are actively seeking work are eligible to receive help with feeding their children. Putting aside for a moment the fact that—despite the economic rebound—finding and holding a job is still very difficult for many people, this false dichotomy between who deserves TANF and who does not ignores those whom TANF is supposed to help: the children. Clichés abound on how children are the future, they are always the innocent victims, and how they can’t choose their circumstances, so why do we create barriers for kids to get the resources they need to succeed?

Poverty alone creates huge barriers for young people, especially girls, and TANF is one of the tools we use to help young girls who face these barriers to have equal opportunity and to thrive. For example, several studies show that kids in the child welfare system experience pregnancy, child bearing, and STIs at much higher rates than the overall population of young people. Girls aged 17 and 18 in foster care are twice as likely to be pregnant than their peers in the general population. Young people in poverty who come into contact with the juvenile criminal justice system are more likely than their more affluent peers to be found guilty of delinquency. Unfortunately, girls are coming into contact with police and the justice system at higher rates than ever before, and once a young person has been incarcerated, she often can become stuck in a cycle of poverty and criminalization. If we continue to shortchange kids, we are only going to see more poverty and more kids in jail.

The Washington State legislature is currently considering a bill that would expand TANF eligibility. As of now, a person who receives TANF can remain eligible if they are participating in vocational training or education, but only up to one year—HB 1875 would double that time to two years. The bill has passed the House with 90 votes for and only 6 votes against and is pending in the Senate. This is a nice first step, but if the State only expands the pool of people who are eligible for TANF without increasing overall funding, even this bill will be, unfortunately, a hollow victory. Therefore, it is critical that we continue to encourage and pressure the legislature to support increased funding for TANF.

Join the conversation on Twitter using #84amonth—representative of the $84 in monthly funds that were eliminated in the 2011 cut—to see how you can get involved.

Joshua Turnham is a legal intern at Legal Voice and is in his last semester at Seattle University School of Law. He continues to be awed by blindness to systemic inequality.

Photo courtesy of CIA DE FOTO.