Monthly Archives: July 2010

Sexual Assault in the Military: Servicewomen Taking a Stand

woman in military uniformThe Washington D.C. law firm Burke PLLC is preparing to file a class action suit against the U.S. military for failure to properly address sexual assault and rape. Not only is a woman in the military more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire, female soldiers who report crimes committed against them are often harassed and intimidated. A Pentagon report revealed that between 2004 and 2007 “more than half of the investigations [of rape and sexual assault]…resulted in no action. When action was taken, only one third of the cases resulted in courts-martial.”

The horrendous way that the military treats sexual assault and rape survivors may be illustrated through Lt. Jennifer Dyer’s story:

In 2004, after Lt. Jennifer Dyer reported being raped by a fellow officer at Camp Shelby, Miss., she said she was held in seclusion for three days, read her Miranda rights and threatened with criminal prosecution for filing a false report. After finally being given two weeks leave, she was threatened with prosecution for being AWOL when she would not report for duty to the same location where the man she had accused — who was later acquitted on assault charges — was still posted.

Unfortunately, Dyer’s story is not an anomaly. Many women in the military are wrongly treated after having endured sexual trauma.

Over 90% of all females that report a sexual assault are discharged from the military before their contract ends. From the 90%, around 85% are discharged against their wishes. Nearly all of the 85% lose their careers based on misdiagnoses that render them ineligible for military service and ineligible for VA treatment after discharge.

When a soldier is convicted of rape, the punishment is often not fitting of someone who committed a violent crime. The military still allows convicted rapists to be buried with full honors, therein perpetuating “the culture of impunity that allows soldiers to commit sexual violence with little worry of being brought to justice.”

Soldiers who have raped other soldiers are sometimes even allowed to stay in the military. Lance Cpl. Sally Griffiths reported having been raped by a fellow Marine. A statement from the Marine confirmed her story. But even with this statement, the Marine was never prosecuted and stayed in the military, enjoying several promotions.

We have written before about the challenges and dangers that women in uniform face, including sexual assault, domestic violence, inadequate resources to address PTSD, lack of access to abortion and other reproductive healthcare, dismissal because of their sexual orientation and more. This lawsuit is one small step to correcting the many wrongs that have been committed against servicewomen.

As the firm is preparing to file a class-action suit on behalf of sexual assault survivors, they are looking for any “any victims/survivors who may be potentially interested in participating in this lawsuit.” To contact the firm, e-mail Susan Sajadi at ssajadi@burkepllc.com.

Photo from the Library of Congress’s Flickr stream

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Filed under Military, Rape

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Recognizes Star Female Football Player

Sharon Vasquez, a defensive back for the Pittsburgh Passion of the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL), helped the United States beat Canada 66-0 in the first International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship in Stockholm, Sweden on July 3rd.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has a deplorable reporting record on women’s sports, surprisingly gave front page notice to the all-star, publishing a front-page feature in the sports section last Friday.
However, the opening words of the article are dismaying:

When Sharon Vasquez started playing tackle football, her husband was skeptical.

“I gotta see how she does first before I even say anything,” was how she described his attitude.

Six years, one world championship and a defensive Most Valuable Player Award later?

“He pretty much knows that I enjoy it and he’s just, ‘Whatever you want.’ “

An article on a male football player would not address any doubt that his spouse initially had towards his game because men are considered to be default athletes. While they may document the support that the male athlete’s family has given him throughout his career, they wouldn’t write about it as a surprising factor, like this article treats Vasquez.

The media continues to treat women’s athletic news as human interest stories – “soft” news written in a vaguely surprised tone that women can rise to the top of their game in any sport they pursue and that their families may be completely supportive of them. This treatment perpetuates gender stereotypes and is the reason why women’s sports aren’t yet being taken seriously.  Consequently, women’s athletics suffer in reporting – we will probably not see any further news on the IWFL, nor the other women’s professional sports leagues unless 1) the featured player is from a local team, and 2) the featured player has a compelling personal story that makes readers feel warm inside.

We congratulate Ms. Vasquez for her outstanding achievement and for her pioneering role in the promotion of football as a women’s sport, and we look forward to the day when sports sections will cover women’s athletics on an equal basis as men’s sports.

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Filed under Equality, Sports

HB 2400: A Chance to Help Pennsylvania’s Unemployed

It seems impossible that amid all the bickering in the state legislature over budget shortages, there is $273 million sitting on the table, requiring only that the state unemployment insurance system be reformed [PDF]. These federal dollars could be available to the 9.1% of Pennsylvania residents who are unemployed, if only the reforms that 39 other states have already implemented were enacted in the Pennsylvania.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 allocated funds with the stipulation that states wishing to receive their share make specific reforms to their unemployment insurance systems. In fact, 39 states have already enacted qualifying reforms, and 32 states have received full funding.  HB 2400, currently being debated in the state House of Representatives, would make Pennsylvania eligible for full federal funding. Not only would more funds be available to the state, but many more Pennsylvanians would qualify for unemployment compensation; as it stands now, fewer than six in ten jobless Pennsylvania residents receive compensatory benefits.

One-third of the money allocated to the state is dependent on simply enacting an “alternative base period.” In the current system, only the first four of the last five calendar quarters are considered the base year from which unemployment compensation is decided. For example, if a resident applies for unemployment compensation today, July 22, 2010, the state will base that person’s unemployment only on the period that he or she worked from April 2009-March 2010, the first four of the last five calendar quarters that the employee worked. So, if a worker wants his or her most recent work experience to be taken into account, she or he needs to wait months before qualifying for benefits. The current base year system especially disadvantages low-wage workers, the majority of whom are female. Domestic violence victims and part-time workers, who are particularly shortchanged by this system because they tend to have irregular work history, are also disproportionally women.  Black women, Hispanic women, and women who head families are more likely to be unemployed and could benefit greatly from this bill.

The other two thirds of the $273 million in federal funds will be available to Pennsylvania once the legislature enacts reforms that will both benefit workers who are only available for part-time work as well as those who must leave a job for compelling family reasons.  Under our current state law, a part-time worker is disqualified from benefits if she or he has refused an offer of full-time employment. HB 2400 would eliminate this disqualification, though it would require that the claimant accept a job of at least 20 hours a week or the average number of hours per week worked in his or her base year. The law would also ensure that domestic violence and sexual assault victims do not need to prove any facts in addition to what she or he already needs to prove under Pennsylvania law to receive unemployment benefits after relocation. In cases where a person quits his or her job due to illness or disability in his or her family, HB 2400 would make sure she or he can collect benefits without having to abide by additional restrictions that are currently in Pennsylvania decisional law.

Some argue that the $70 million a year expansion of unemployment insurance is too much for a state whose UC Trust Fund is already “in the red.” But the reality is that federal funds would pay for the reforms for about four years. It doesn’t make sense not to take advantage of this stimulus money while it is available. In fact, the Pennsylvania state legislature should view this as an opportunity to “test run” these reforms – without putting out any existing budgeted money! If the legislature feels that adjustments need to be made after the four-year grace period in which the program would be paid for, then it should be reevaluated. At present, however, we are selling the state and its residents short by not enacting these reforms.

Passage of HB 2400 would allow Pennsylvania access to $273 million in federal funds that would benefit unemployed workers.  Please contact your legislators and let them know that you want Pennsylvania to get its share of the federal stimulus funds. You can find out who your representatives are and their contact information here.

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Filed under Employment, Government, Pennsylvania

Changing the Dialogue Surrounding Teens and Sex

Today, a piece by Kierra Johnson, executive director of Choice USA was posted on Huffington Post urging us to change the dialogue around teenagers and sex.  Johnson wants us to re-evaluate the discussion about teenage pregnancy: instead of stigmatizing sexually active teens, we should focus on access to sex education that would foster informed decision-making.

A lot of conversation around teenagers and sex has referred to a teen pregnancy epidemic. This is misleading, especially considering that teens have the lowest rate of sexual activity and make up the smallest amount of pregnancies, abortions, and births. Most pregnancies reflected in “teen pregnancy” statistics are, in fact, adults at 18 and 19 years old.  And pervasive abstinence-only environments in schools only preclude informed decision-making and informed sexual practices that would prevent negative outcomes, like unintended pregnancy or the occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases.

Dialogue that refers to a “pregnancy epidemic” and promotes abstinence without mention of effective birth control stigmatizes teens who are already mothers and can isolate those considering sexual activity from accessing resources that could be useful to them in making educated, safe decisions. This stigma is an ineffective mechanism for preventing unplanned pregnancy.

The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) has shown that teen pregnancy campaigns that rely on shame and stigma don’t work…NLIRH suggests that we should support policies that promote access to information and resources but only as “part of a platform to increase women’s ability to make informed choices that are relevant to their lives…”

Giving young people resources and education to allow them to make their own decisions about sex is what made California’s teen pregnancy and abortion rates drop dramatically from the 1990s to 2005. California is the only state never to have applied for a Title V grant that would have funded abstinence-only education. Instead, the state focused on implementing the California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Act while increasing teenagers’ access to family planning services.

California’s Family Planning, Access, Care, and Treatment (Family PACT) program “provides a package of contraceptive and related health services to at no cost to Californians…with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level.” Teens can enroll in the program based on their own income and are able to access services confidentially. In a 2006 study by Guttmacher Institute, California ranked first in “overall efforts to help women avoid unintended pregnancy,” thanks in part to this program and comprehensive sex education.

Johnson’s call for a change in discourse around sex and teenagers is part of the solution in making sure teens are making safe, responsible decisions. Instead of stigmatizing teens who do get pregnant and offering only abstinence as a way to avoid pregnancy, we should be offering young people information and resources to make informed choices. This is a more respectful, and ultimately more effective, way to address the issue. You can read Johnson’s full article here.

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Filed under Abortion, Contraception, Education, Girls, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Obama Bans Abortion Coverage in High-Risk Pools

The Obama administration has imposed a near-total abortion ban in Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plans (PCIPs), also known as high-risk pools. It is particularly upsetting that the ban affects those covered under PCIPs. Since women who will be covered under these plans are necessarily those who have a serious medical condition, they are “at a heightened risk for needing an abortion for health reasons when compared to the general population.”

PCIPs, which states had to implement by mid-June, are a temporary measure to ensure that those who are “medically uninsurable” receive insurance coverage. In 2014, insurance companies will be forced to sell coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, but in the meantime PCIPs will ensure that those with such ailments as diabetes or cancer have insurance.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – the health care reform bill that passed through Congress earlier this year – only places restrictions on abortion coverage through the exchange. The act does not specify any restrictions on abortion coverage for PCIPs.  For this reason, a debate over whether or not PCIPs could provide abortion coverage ensued. The debate ended when the Obama administration announced that PCIPs will not provide abortion except in the case of rape, incest, or the endangerment of the life of the woman. The administration did not allow for any exceptions for state or private funds covering abortion through the plans.

Pennsylvania has played a central role in the debate. Pennsylvania approved a plan that potentially covered abortion. Though the plan specified that “elective” abortions would not be covered, the term “elective” was not defined and even referenced a statute that “allows an abortion if it is deemed ‘necessary’ by a physician based on ‘all factors (physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the woman’s age) relevant to the well-being of the woman.’  The only situation deemed categorically unnecessary by the statute is sex selection.” Unfortunately, with the administration’s statement, Pennsylvania, like in all states, will not be allowed to provide abortions through its PCIP plan.

Though it is disheartening to hear that a pro-choice president agreed to limit women’s access to abortion, it may still be possible to reverse his decision. You can tell President Obama that limiting women’s access to a necessary medical procedure is unacceptable here.

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Filed under Abortion, Pennsylvania, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Montgomery County Commissioner Questions Whether Undocumented Residents Deserve Prenatal Care

On May 27, a previously uncontroversial initiative to educate and assist pregnant women at a Norristown hospital was threatened. At a Montgomery County commissioners meeting, Chairman James Matthews initiated a discussion about whether or not the program should continue when it benefits undocumented residents.

Didn’t the program’s reputation extend beyond Montgomery County? Matthews asked the county’s infant-health coordinator, Barbara Hand.

It did, she said.

“Does it go as far as Mexico?” he wondered.

Matthews noted that most who benefit from the program are undocumented residents. He voiced concern that programs that benefit more than just U.S. citizens encourages an influx in undocumented workers.

Matthews’s comments represent a change of heart from his previous stance on the issue. When asked before about the fact that the program assists illegal immigrants, he stated, “we’re not going to shut the door on someone who comes in, in that situation.”

It is true that the program primarily serves undocumented residents, who make up a large proportion of county residents who are in need of the program’s services. Health Department spokeswoman Harriet Morton says that since the inception of the program 2,063 women have benefitted from the services it provides, about “‘95 percent’” of whom are undocumented workers.

While Matthews eventually voted for the program and it passed as it always has, it is disturbing that a program to educate and assist pregnant women was questioned merely because it helps people who happen to be undocumented workers. To quote Matthews, it is ridiculous to “shut the door on someone who comes in, in that situation.”

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Filed under Childbirth, Health insurance, Pennsylvania, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Historic Class Action Sex Discrimination Suit Against Wal-Mart

Six current and former female Wal-Mart employees will represent not only themselves in their sex discrimination lawsuit against the retail giant, but “‘all women employed at any Wal-Mart domestic retail store at any time since Dec. 26, 1998.’” This would include over a million women. The plaintiffs argue that their instances of discrimination are not unique, but “that the company’s ‘strong, centralized structure fosters or facilitates gender stereotyping and discrimination.” Their assertion is supported by not only their own stories, but 120 documented incidents from other female employees. If found guilty in discriminating against more than a million employees, Wal-mart could pay billions.

A federal appeals court certified the class-action suit, making it the largest class-action employment suit in U.S. history. Wal-Mart said in a statement that it was considering seeking review from the Supreme Court, but if the Court does not hear the case or hears the case and affirms the lower court’s decision, the lawsuit will continue on behalf of over a million plaintiffs. If it does hear the case and does not certify the suit, then female employees of the chain claiming sex discrimination will have to file individual lawsuits.

Wal-Mart claims that the complaints of discrimination from the six women are not indicative of systemic sexism. The women, however, say that while more than 70% of the Wal-Mart workforce is female, women occupy less than a third of management positions. The plaintiffs claim that, in general, women are “paid less than men in comparable positions, receive fewer promotions and wait longer for promotions.”

We will keep you informed about any updates in this case.

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Filed under Employment, Equal pay, Equality