Category Archives: Government

Shouldn’t Voting Be Easier?

By Nora Kenty, WLP Intern

Tomorrow, on October 1, Pennsylvanians will be flocking to the State Capitol in Harrisburg to encourage the House of Representatives to pass SB 37, also known as the Online Voter Registration Bill.  This bill, aimed at modernizing the state’s problematic election system, would not only facilitate voter registration for those who are eligible, but it would also improve accuracy of voter rolls, provide additional security, and save tax-payer dollars.  In a world where many people can pay their bills online, communicate with family members over the internet, and even grocery shop on the web, it makes sense to bring voter registration into the 21st century.  Eleven states already offer paperless options for voting registration.  The bill also proposes early voting options without an excuse, and alterations in the processes for reviewing absentee ballots.  In the face of efforts to disenfranchise voters around the country, Bill 37 is pushing for increased ease of voting and more widespread access for all sectors of the population.

After the Supreme Court ruled to dismantle the Voting Rights Act, many states jumped at the opportunity to bolster their Voter ID laws, making it especially difficult for their poor and elderly citizens to vote.  Despite the obvious disenfranchisement occurring, proponents of Voter ID laws argue that the policies prevent (nonexistent) voter fraud, and anyone can get an adequate ID and vote.  This is simply not the case.

Dorothy Card is an 84-year-old woman living in Texas.  In remembering the first presidential election in which she exercised her right to vote, she says, “Truman, I guess I voted for him.” Now after sixty years of participating in United States elections, and playing a part in politics that the women before her fought for long and hard, Dorothy’s political participation may come to an end.  The culprit is the new Voter ID law in Texas!

Dorothy hasn’t driven in 15 years, so she no longer has a driver’s license.  She dutifully went to her local Department of Public Safety to obtain a voting ID, but because she lacked a photo ID she left empty-handed.  So she went home and called the county courthouse to get a copy of her marriage license, a document that would have enabled her to get the ID.  Officials there could not locate it for her, so she asked if the county administrator would write a letter explaining this.  They did, and she brought it to the DPS Office .  Still they refused to give her the ID.  So Dorothy’s daughter, a legal assistant, stepped in and asked what documentation was needed, and helped her mother obtain it.  Dorothy went back to the DPS a third time, and was denied again.  This is exemplary of what Rachel Maddow called a “dangerous, million-step process, newly instituted for you to exercise a right that used to be really easy.”

Only once local media outlet KTRK was alerted to the story did public officials step in and tell Dorothy they would be granting her the voting ID.

This story is fraught with what-ifs:

What if Dorothy hadn’t had the resources to drive to and from the Department of Public Safety three times?  In Pennsylvania, nine counties do not have a single PennDOT center that provides an ID that can be used for voting.

What if Dorothy, like so many women, had to take care of her children on her own in addition to working several jobs, leaving her with no time to make the fruitless trips?  In Pennsylvania, 75.4% of single mothers with children ages 0-17 were also in the labor force.

What if a local news outlet didn’t pick up the story, prompting the DPS into action?  According to the ACLU of PA, “regardless of who analyzes it or how it is analyzed, the number of registered voters without the ID required to vote is in the hundreds of thousands.”  Dorothy’s story will hopefully shed light on the problem as a whole, but it is the system that needs to be changed rather than tackling voting ID’s on a case-by-case basis.

Voting in a U.S. election is a privilege, but it is also our right as citizens.  There should be no what-ifs in the process.  If elected officials can work to take the right to vote away from American citizens, what’s next?  In 2010, only 39% of the 53 million unmarried women in the U.S. were registered to vote at all.

Pennsylvania SB 37, the Online Voting Registration bill, is currently in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.  Passing this bill could help change the voting statistics by making it easier for citizens to exercise their right.

Action: contact your representative in the Pennsylvania House and ask them to support SB 37 to make voting more accessible.

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Filed under Democracy, Elections, Government, PA Legislature, Voter turnout, Voting rights, women voting, WomenVote PA

Pennsylvania Women’s Advocacy Leaders Condemn Anti-Obamacare Ad

Kate Michelman and Carol Tracy Call for Immediate Stop to Ad

Leaders from women’s rights advocacy group the Women’s Law Project and its action arm WomenVote PA, expressed strong condemnation today about the anti-Obamacare ad from the group Generation Opportunity and has called for its immediate stop.

“We join other women’s organizations today in expressing our outrage at Generation Opportunity’s new online ad ‘Want Creepy Uncle Sam?” said Kate Michelman, co-chair of WomenVote PA.  Michelman continued:

This ad represents a profound violation of a woman’s personal privacy and blatantly uses a woman’s most vulnerable situation – an OB/GYN exam – for political purposes.  It left me nearly speechless for the shocking insult it is to a woman’s dignity.  Further, this ad makes the case for removing government interference in health care, yet is brought to you by the same people who work day and night to insert government into decisions affecting a woman’s right to privacy and access to abortion and contraception.

Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project and co-chair with Michelman of WomenVote PA, said:

This ad is beyond offensive.  The strange Uncle Sam character is not just creepy; it is menacing and, with a leering grin and speculum in hand, it a clear depiction of sexual violence.  Those media outlets choosing to run this ad should be forewarned: the gender gap will undoubtedly grow larger with ads like this and women will be watching.  We believe this ad should be removed from circulation immediately.

The ad produced by conservative group Generation Opportunity and funded by the Koch Brothers, depicts a horror-movie version of Uncle Sam rising from between a young woman’s legs at her doctor’s office and assuming the doctor role himself — a satirical jab at President Obama’s government being allowed to “play doctor.”

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Filed under Government, Health Care, Health insurance, Women's health

IRS Ruling a Victory for Married Same-Sex Couples Across the Country!

Tara R. Pfeifer, WLP Staff Attorney

The Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department announced yesterday that the federal government will recognize the marriages of legally married same-sex couples for all federal tax purposes, regardless of where those couples reside.

This landmark ruling comes on the heels of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor in which the Court overturned a key provision (Section 3) of the Defense of Marriage Act.  Section 3 defined the terms “marriage” and “spouse” for purposes of federal law as pertaining only to legal unions between one man and one woman.  Yesterday’s announcement clarifies that when it comes to evaluating the federal tax status of same-sex married couples, it is the “place of celebration” – where the wedding took place – that controls, not the state where the couple resides.  Thus, same-sex couples that marry in one of the states where same-sex marriage is legal, such as New York or Massachusetts, but reside in Pennsylvania will be recognized as married by the IRS and Treasury Department for federal tax purposes.

Pursuant to this new policy, all federal tax provisions where marriage is a factor, including filing status, IRA contributions, child tax credits, gift and estate taxes, etc. will apply to all legally married same-sex couples.  The Treasury Department further announced that, under the policy, refunds can be filed for the prior three years’ returns (2010, 2011, and 2012). According to Jacob Lew, Treasury Secretary, this interpretation “provides certainty and clear, coherent tax filing guidance for all legally married same-sex couples nationwide.  It provides access to benefits, responsibilities and protections under federal tax law that all Americans deserve.”

While there is still significant progress to be made to achieve marriage equality rights in Pennsylvania and most other states, yesterday’s ruling is a tremendous victory and step forward for married same-sex couples.

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Filed under Federal Court, Government, Internal Revenue Service, LGBTQ, Marriage Equality

PA Dropped More Than 9% Children, Pregnant Women & Families from Medicaid!

Aly Mance, WLP Intern

According to a new national report covered by the Philadelphia Inquirer, there has been a dramatic drop in Pennsylvania’s Medicaid enrollment.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation report, Pennsylvania dropped more than 9 percent of children, families, and pregnant women from Medicaid over the past year.  This percentage is nearly triple that of any other state in the country.  Pennsylvania’s total Medicaid enrollment also dropped 5.3% during the time period of the report, June 2011 to June 2012.  This is the sharpest drop in any state in the past 5 years.  Meanwhile, in other states, Medicaid enrollment is on the rise.

It should come as no surprise that the timing of the report coincides with the time when the Corbett administration directed state workers to conduct expedited reviews of thousands of backlogged cases.  The result was a decline of more than 80,000 insured children over several months.  Enrollment in Pennsylvania’s smaller Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) also fell during this time.

In addition, while the state did not change existing enrollment policies, it did report that they were more thoroughly applying existing ones.  The state indicated that this could result in more cases being closed for failure to submit documentation.  Many cases backlogged early in the Corbett administration were closed—the person’s insurance terminated—because of lack of documentation.  Community Legal Services of Philadelphia filed a complaint over the disenrollment and threatened to sue the state, resulting in an agreement to send follow-up letters to more than 100,000 Medicaid recipients who had their insurance terminated for this purported “lack of documentation.”

While other states are streamlining their Medicaid enrollment processes to ensure that people who are eligible for Medicaid receive it, Pennsylvania and the Corbett Administration are trying to attack people who they believe are taking advantage of the system.  These attacks result in people who truly deserve to receive Medicaid being denied coverage.  In recent years, Congress has prohibited states from saving money by making major eligibility changes or imposing new enrollment restrictions in Medicaid programs.  Because Governor Corbett cannot outright cut Medicaid, the biggest item on Pennsylvania’s budget, he and his administration are searching for every back handed way to deny Pennsylvanians the aid they qualify for.  Not only is Governor Corbett refusing to expand Medicaid, he is crippling it, and children and families are suffering the most.

Learn more about healthcare reform, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and how it will affect you.

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Filed under Government, Health Care, Health insurance, Medicaid, Pennsylvania

DOJ Issues Ground-breaking Consent Decree Addressing Gender Bias

By Carol E. Tracy, Esq. and Terry L. Fromson, Esq.

The Women’s Law Project (WLP) commends the Department of Justice (DOJ) on its ground-breaking consent decree with the City of New Orleans, which addresses gender bias in the police response to and investigation of reports of sexual assault and domestic violence.  This consent decree followed the March 2011 publication of the DOJ’s report on its investigation of the NOPD.  The WLP identified the NOPD as one of the many police departments which have chronically failed to respond to rape complaints when WLP testified before a Congressional committee in September, 2010. 

In March 2011, the DOJ released a report (pdf) of its investigation of the NOPD. The report addressed many areas of policing but, for women, the most dramatic component was its landmark finding of gender bias in police practice.    

Specifically, the DOJ found that:

NOPD has systematically misclassified large numbers of possible sexual assaults, resulting in a sweeping failure to properly investigate many potential cases of rape, attempted rape, and other sex crimes. We find that in situations where the Department pursues sexual assault complaints, the investigations are seriously deficient, marked by poor victim interviewing skills, missing or inadequate documentation, and minimal efforts to contact witnesses or interrogate suspects. The documentation we reviewed was replete with stereotypical assumptions and judgments about sex crimes and victims of sex crimes, including misguided commentary about the victims’ perceived credibility, sexual history, or delay in contacting the police.

The consent decree, announced by DOJ on July 24, 2012 includes significant steps towards reforming the NOPD’s response to rape complaints. New Orleans has agreed to clarify its procedures for responding to sexual assault, train officers to appropriately classify crimes and conduct interviews in a sensitive manner, increase supervision, and most significantly, establish a committee that includes community advocates to annually review all sexual crimes classified as unfounded or miscellaneous, as well as a random sample of open investigations of sexual assaults.

Both the report and the consent decree establish benchmarks which other cities with similar entrenched practices should take note of and implement. For over a decade, the Women’s Law Project has effectively advocated or improved police response to sexual and domestic violence in Philadelphia and led the reform effort that resulted in the FBI’s recent expansion of the definition of rape for the Uniform Crime Reporting system.  Following the issuance of its report, the DOJ invited the WLP to share with its staff the strategies that it helped to implement in Philadelphia to bring about reform. WLP is gratified to see that the consent decree incorporates several of these reforms. To read more about gender bias in law enforcement and WLP’s continuing work in this area, please see WLP’s 2012 report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women (pdf).

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Filed under Gender Discrimination, Government, Rape, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women

The Affordable Care Act Extends No-Cost Preventive Care to Women

Nikki Ditto, WLP Intern

Wednesday, August 1st  is an important day for women’s health. After this date, all new insurance plans must cover certain women’s preventive health services, including contraceptives, without co-pays or deductibles. This represents an essential change in access to health care for women. Women, who have long been subjected to denial of access to insurance coverage for essential health services are more likely than men to forgo needed health care due to cost.  The number of women who can access these benefits will continue to expand as older plans lose their “grandfathered” status and become subject to the ACA’s preventive health services requirements.  For now, many college and university students will benefit if they receive health insurance through their schools, as those plans usually begin their health plan years around the start of the school year.  Other insurance policies that are renewed with substantially different content (usually on January 1st) will also comply with the new law.

Women whose insurance plans fall under the new guidelines will now have access to a number of services that will “keep them healthier and…catch potentially serious conditions at an earlier, more treatable stage,” according to Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. This includes annual well-woman visits, as well as screening and counseling for HPV, HIV, and STIs. Insurance policies will also have to cover testing for gestational diabetes, breastfeeding support, and domestic violence screening and counseling. Perhaps most significantly, women will also have access to birth control and other forms of contraception without a co-pay, though exceptions have been made for religious institutions and self-funded plans. These services add to the no-cost coverage that has already been implemented for pap smears and mammograms.

The Department of Health and Human Services reports that 20.4 million women have been and will be affected by this expansion in coverage. A startling 52% of women “report delaying needed medical care because of cost,” a number that will be decreased under the ACA. The Women’s Law Project (WLP) explained in its report Through the Lens of EQUALITY: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women that “lack of access to the full range of women’s health care has many adverse health consequences.”  Many women are unable to afford contraceptives, which range from $15 to more than $1,000 up front depending on the methodThe contraceptive coverage rule will increase women’s access to these methods of contraception, which will help them plan pregnancies and address other health concerns, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, for which birth control pills are a common treatment.

Controversy continues over the provision requiring employer-provided insurance plans to cover birth control and other forms of contraception, including sterilization. As WLP blogged about today, twenty-four legal challenges are still pending in courts. The ACA already provides exceptions for religious institutions, and allows religiously affiliated businesses to push cost and administration on to the insurance companies. These accommodations, however, have not stopped the debate. WLP has blogged before about lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of the provision on the basis of the First Amendment. As Terry Fromson, WLP’s Managing Attorney, explained, “the First Amendment does not give church leaders any right to impose their beliefs about contraception on women.”

Overall, the implementation of this provision of the ACA represents an important and necessary change to the way we view women and women’s health. Reproductive and sexual health must be seen as central to ensuring the health and well-being of all women, and not as a secondary concern. America will be healthier if women are given better access to the services necessary to care for themselves and their families, and increasing access to contraception is a step in the right direction.

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Filed under Contraception, First Amendment, Government, Health Care, Health insurance, Maternity Coverage, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Women's health

The United States Supreme Court has weighed in: The Affordable Care Act is here to stay.

By Women’s Law Project

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), signed into law by President Obama in March 2010, expands health insurance coverage to more than 30 million people, prevents insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, and ends abusive insurance practices.  On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the law, finding that the individual mandate (which is the requirement that everyone carry insurance or pay a fine) is constitutional under Congress’ taxing power.  The Court also upheld the Medicaid expansion provision (which expands Medicaid eligibility for residents to 133 percent of the federal poverty level) as long as states that refuse to comply do not lose all of their Medicaid funding.

While some provisions of the ACA have already gone into effect, other provisions will be in effect by 2014.  This law will improve the lives of women and children across the country, allowing them to access affordable health care.  The ACA benefits women in many ways, including by preventing insurers from using pregnancy, domestic violence, and sexual violence as a basis for denying women coverage (pre-existing conditions), prohibiting the practice of charging women higher insurance premiums than men for the same insurance (known as gender rating), guaranteeing maternity coverage, and ensuring that new insurance plans cover preventive services such as mammograms and pap smears. 

The ACA is constitutional and vitally important to improving the health of American citizens, particularly women.  However, gaps in coverage for health care essential to women remain.  Most notably, the ACA allows insurers to discriminate against women by refusing to cover abortion care, and the Pennsylvania legislature is considering legislation that will ensure that insurance plans sold through the ACA’s state exchanges do not include abortion coverage except in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s determination that states may decline to comply with the Medicaid expansion program without risking loss of their existing Medicaid funding raises questions about whether the federal government will be able to implement the expansion effectively.  If states decline participation in Medicaid expansion, many poor individuals, many of whom are women, will be left without health coverage.  Now the focus is on Pennsylvania to ensure coverage for everyone.

For more information on the ACA and WLP’s work on access to health care, see WLP Health Care Reform and WLP’s Report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women.

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Filed under Government, Health Care, Health insurance, Maternity Coverage, Supreme Court, Women's health

House Passes DHS Spending Bill with Anti-Choice Rider

Elizabeth Wingfield, Former WLP Intern

On June 7, the House passed a Homeland Security spending bill which included a provision that would prohibit Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from providing abortions to undocumented women who are detained. The measure was proposed by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala) and allows for exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the life of the woman. While “the provision is unlikely” to pass in the Senate and become law, Rep. David Price (D-NC), spoke out against the rider, stating that “These abortion riders, while unnecessary, are inflammatory. They’re divisive.”

Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the ICE, said that the agency has not paid for abortion services since its creation.  However, the anti-choice rider would prohibit women from accessing abortion even though ICE has never paid for one. Planned Parenthood released a statement after the bill passed arguing that

Not only is this amendment unnecessary and redundant to existing policy, but it is a clear case of bringing election-year politics into a critical discussion about U.S. homeland security issues. This unnecessary amendment disallows access to the full legal range of reproductive health care for women, including access to abortion services.

The Senate has yet to begin debate on the spending bill and its anti-choice rider but it may do so later this summer.

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Filed under Abortion, Abortion Access, Congress, Government, Health Care, Immigrants, Women's health

And Then There Were None: Pennsylvania Bill to Permit Expert Testimony in Sexual Assault Cases Lands on the Governor’s Desk

Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

House Bill 1264, which provides for expert testimony in certain criminal proceedings, has passed the Pennsylvania House and Senate, and is now on Governor Corbett’s desk. Until this legislation is signed by the Governor and goes into effect, Pennsylvania remains the only state in the country that does not permit juries in criminal trials to hear expert testimony explaining the dynamics of sexual assault. The bill, sponsored by Representative Cherelle Parker (D-Philadelphia) and 61 representatives from both sides of the aisle, will allow expert testimony in criminal cases involving sexual offenses. This legislation permits the prosecution or the defense to call experts who, because of their “experience with, or specialized training or education in, criminal justice, behavioral sciences or victim services,” can help juries and judges understand “the dynamics of sexual violence, victim responses to sexual violence and the impact of sexual violence on victims during and after being assaulted.”

This legislation will help counter the misconceptions juries and judges have repeatedly applied in the past to sexual assault cases. These misconceptions, known as rape myths, “are attitudes and beliefs that are generally false but are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women.” Kimberly A. Lonsway & Louise F. Fitzgerald, Rape Myths in Review, 18 Psych. of Women Quarterly 133, 133-134 (1994). These myths are connected to sexist attitudes about women and distort the dynamics of sexual assault.

Two rape myths, for example, are the belief that rape is rare and that women often lie about its occurrence. Other rape myths include the beliefs that sexual assault victims will actively resist their assailants throughout the assault and that they will report the crime as soon as possible.  Adherence to these myths may make jurors and judges more inclined to believe that a victim’s delay in reporting the assault, her lack of visible physical injuries, or perceived inadequate resistance to the attack indicate that she is lying about what happened.

In reality, research shows that many rape victims cannot or do not fight back during an assault for a variety of reasons, including fear, immobilization due to being physically restrained, or immobilization due to their own psychological responses to trauma. Thus, many victims do not have visible physical injuries and do not actively resist their attackers during the assault. Furthermore, a delay in reporting an assault is very common, as victims dealing with the immediate aftermath of an assault are in the process of making sense of what happened to them and are figuring out what steps to take. Contrary to a common misconception, there is no “right” or “normal” way for a victim of sexual assault to behave.

Pennsylvania’s enactment of HB 1264 will promote justice for victims of sexual assault by giving lawyers such as prosecutors the tools they need to address these commonly held misconceptions about the dynamics of sexual assault. To learn more about rape myths in the criminal justice system, see the Women’s Law Project’s amicus brief in Commonwealth v. Claybrook and our chapter on sexual violence in our report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women.

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Filed under Government, PA Law, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Rape, Sexual Assault

Hillary Clinton Launches the Women in Public Service Project

Molly Duerig, WLP Intern

Monday, June 11th, marked the official launch of the Women in Public Service Project (WPSP), a program created by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that aims to mentor emerging female leaders from all over the world in public policy and social justice.

 Forty-nine women from 21 different countries were selected through an application process to participate in the project. WPSP kicked off its first annual two-week series of intensive seminars, which will focus on how women can successfully lead and influence the governments and societies in which they live. Participants will also have the opportunity to network with global political leaders.

 The project is sponsored by The U.S State Department and the five remaining “Seven-Sister” schools, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Smith, and Mount Holyoke. The first summer institute will take place at Wellesley College, which is the alma mater of both Clinton and Madeline Albright, the first female Secretary of State.  The other sponsoring colleges, all leading liberal arts colleges, will host the event in the future.

Clinton’s ambitious project will further the pro-women initiative President Obama undertook when he issued the National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security this past December. The Women’s Media Center explained that NAP mandated increased participation of women in the negotiation of peace treaties, as well as a promotion of women’s role in conflict prevention. This program is one that was greatly needed: only 8% of all peace treaties negotiated during the last several years involved women at all.

Furthermore, as State Department ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues Melanne Verveer pointed out, almost half of all peace agreements negotiated during the 1990s failed within five years of their passage. “Peace won’t happen if we leave out half of those who are affected by conflict and will benefit from peace,” said Verveer in support of the NAP.

Her sentiment, crucial to the birth of the WPSP, is shared by many leaders urging increased participation by women in politics. As women continue to be underrepresented in politics, we fail to hear the opinion of half of the population. This leads to a plethora of problems, including imbalanced decisions and a narrow range of expertise and perspective.

Gender equality efforts are underway worldwide. Newly-elected French president Francois Hollande appointed an equal number of women and men to the country’s 34-member cabinet for the first time in history .

Clinton’s hopes are that the WPSP will help this trend to continue on an international level. The project’s ultimate goal is for at least 50% of the world’s elected leaders to be women by the year 2050. Currently, that number is at only 17.5%. According to a Women’s Media Center article, the proportion of women to men in the U.S Congress is only 17%, even lower than the international average of 20% of parliamentary seats held by women. Clinton was quoted as saying she was embarrassed by this statistic. She also stated that, “The World Bank has found that women tend to invest more of their earnings in their families and communities than men do,” adding that “those are the kinds of instincts and priorities we would all like to see” at the government level.

If half of a society’s population fails to have proper representation in politics, the desires and goals of that society cannot be properly met. The WPSP aims to broaden the range of perspectives at the political forefront to include more women, as well as give women the resources and contacts to become effective leaders. Here at the Women’s Law Project, we support and applaud this endeavor. This is a bold and innovative approach to international policy that aims to drastically alter global leadership.

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Filed under Democracy, Education, Events, Gender Discrimination, Government, Women Leaders