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.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Women Athletes ROCK!

By Sarah MacDonald

Today is National Girls and Women in Sports Day, a time to acknowledge the achievements of female athletes and recognize the positive influence of sports participation for women and girls.

Last year alone saw some incredible "firsts" for women in athletics: unstoppable pitcher Mo’ne Davis made headlines as the first girl to pitch a shutout in Little League World Series history, and went on to be the first Little League baseball player to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. Former WNBA player Becky Hammon became the first full-time female assistant coach for the NBA, while Michele Roberts was named executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), becoming the first woman to lead an American union of male athletes. Amélie Mauresmo was hired to coach Andy Murray, one of the top tennis players in the world, which made her the first female to coach an elite male tennis player.

Even with the incredible achievements of women in athletics – including Mo’ne, Becky, Michele, and Amélie – we are still battling an overwhelming amount of discrimination and harassment for girls and women in sports. So today is also a time to talk about the progress we’ve yet to make. 

Professional cheerleaders are lobbying for basic employment protections like worker’s compensation insurance and overtime pay. Women soccer players in this summer’s Women’s World Cup are being forced to play on artificial turf (an inferior material to the natural grass on which male players compete) after organizing body FIFA essentially ignored their gender discrimination lawsuit. And female athletes are routinely asked questions – usually moments after an awe-inspiring achievement – that focus on fashion, beauty, and motherhood rather than their sport, performance, or athletic abilities (see: Twirlgate).

Legal Voice has a long history of protecting equal access to athletics. In fact, you could say our organization is built on sports: in our very first case, Blair v. WSU, we won equal access to sports facilities and programs for the women of Washington State University and set a national precedent. Since then we’ve helped the Alaska Firebirds hockey team gain equal access to ice time, successfully advocated for school districts to change slow-pitch to the more competitive fast-pitch softball teams (increasing access to scholarship opportunities for girls), fought policies that exclude girls from playing on boys’ teams based solely on their gender, and more.

Back in 1972 Title IX gave women and girls equal access to education programs and activities, including sports. We are steadily enforcing Title IX by monitoring our region for equality in athletics to ensure every girl has access to the sports she wants to play. But here’s how you can help:

- Know the facts! Did you know that Title IX requires equality in every facet of athletic participation, including equipment, practice facilities, and the quality of coaches? Or that a girl must be allowed to try out for the boys’ team if her school doesn’t offer a girls’ team in that sport?

- Start a team! If your school or athletics league doesn’t currently offer a girls’ team in a certain sport, ask the administrators what it takes to start one. Sometimes you can make positive change simply by bringing inequality to the attention of decision-makers.

- Be the best! Don’t let anyone stop you from playing the sport you want to play. Show the world what it means to do something “like a girl” by being the best you can be! Better yet, remind yourself or a loved one to never give up with a fabulous Legal Voice “Fights Like a Girl” t-shirt!

We’ll continue to work for your right to play. So go out and show them what you’ve got!

Sarah MacDonald is Marketing & Communications Manager for Legal Voice where she strives daily to keep you in-the-know. While she's never been a particularly athletic individual, she eagerly awaits being selected to participate in the Puppy Bowl.

Photo courtesy of Danny Ngan Photography.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

It's Time to Move Beyond Roe

By Janet Chung

At 42 years, measured by standard reproductive age (ages 15-44), Roe v. Wade is reaching an advanced age. But rather than this anniversary marking advances sufficient to end the need to fight for this most basic right – the right to decide whether, when, and how to bear and parent children – it sometimes feels closer to marking the end of Roe.

Women comprise more than half of the U.S. population. Over 99 percent of women of reproductive age who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method. One in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Simply put, a full range of reproductive health care is an essential part of primary care for women.

Yet increasingly, women’s access to reproductive health care has been eroded by restrictions. During the 2014 state legislative session alone, state lawmakers introduced 341 provisions aimed at restricting access to abortion. Earlier this month, during the first few days of session for the current Congress, lawmakers introduced five different bills restricting abortions, including a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks that was scheduled to be voted on today. (House Republicans scrapped that vote yesterday evening, but will instead vote on a bill that restricts taxpayer funding of abortion, which disproportionately impacts low-income women.)

These bills are not only anti-women, but also often infused with disrespect toward communities of color. Another new federal bill would ban sex-selective abortions, cynically claiming the title “Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act” (Arizona’s similar law is even more cynically named the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act). Already on the books in seven states, these bills don’t combat any form of discrimination, but rather, are based on, and perpetuate, racist and anti-immigrant stereotypes about women of color and their communities.

Currently, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 87 percent of U.S. counties do not have an abortion provider, and 35 percent of women aged 15–44 live in those counties. In Washington State, 64 percent of counties had no abortion clinic (2011 data), and from 2008 to 2011, Washington experienced a 10 percent decline in overall providers (from 50 to 45). Nonhospital providers estimated in 2005 that nearly two in 10 women traveled 50–100 miles to access abortion services, and almost one in 10 traveled more than 100 miles.

And the restrictions on reproductive health care access are not limited to abortion care. It’s already the case that in many communities, independent clinics have had to fill the gap in comprehensive reproductive services for women. For example, while Planned Parenthood is best known for providing abortion services, those account for about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s activities, which include contraception (35 percent), STD testing (also 35 percent), and cancer screening and prevention (16 percent).
Further accelerating the segregation of women’s health care from “general” health care is the rise in mergers between religious and secular hospital systems. Because Catholic policy forbids providing certain services including contraceptive counseling and care, sterilization, as well as abortions, access to comprehensive reproductive care often falls victim to corporate dealmaking.

Instead of further restricting access to basic reproductive health care, lawmakers should be working to increase access.
As the President stated earlier this week in his State of the Union address, surely we can agree it's a good thing that unintended pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.

Support for improving reproductive health care access is widespread. For instance, a poll commissioned by In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda initiative shows overwhelming support in the Black community, across ideological and generational divides, for not just abortion rights but also comprehensive sex education and access to contraception. It is time not only to defend Roe, but move beyond it.

In her novel A Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood famously depicted a dystopia in which women were valued and segregated based on their reproductive capacity. Maybe we aren’t quite there yet, but only through proactively expanding protections can we reverse this trend toward a separate and unequal health care system for women. Washington can start with ensuring that every woman has access to coverage for contraception and abortion care, regardless of who her employer is, and ensuring that hospital systems can’t restrict providers from providing the care their patients need. Equity demands no less.

Janet Chung is Legal and Legislative Counsel at Legal Voice, based in Seattle, Washington, where she works to advance reproductive and economic justice for women through advocacy, litigation, and legal rights education. She is a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.

Photo courtesy of William Murphy.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Everyday Sexism: Kids' Edition

By Chloë Phalan

Everyday sexism alert! The other day I was perusing the greeting cards at a local drug store, looking for a birthday card for my nephew who was turning three. He’s a doll—so fun and cheerful and bright! I was looking for a card that would make him smile, make him feel special, and have room for a packet of stickers. The section full of brightly colored birthday cards for kids offered only two choices for a 3-year-old: “Birthday Boy – 3” read one tag, and “Birthday Girl – 3” read the other. Guess which was which! I’ll give you one guess!

I think you could have gotten that one even if the pictures were in black and white. The messages are pretty clear:
Boys, you’re strong and smart and generally awesome—feel good about yourself for being YOU.
Girls, you’re pretty and sweet—feel good about yourself for pleasing others.

Yes, this was my experience at just one store. And yes, they’re just birthday cards. Kids open them, maybe shake them out for any dollar bills (or stickers) that may be inside, a grown-up makes them read it, and then in to the recycle bin they go. But the messages kids get from friends and family—the questions you ask, your tone of voice, your compliments, the games you propose, the chores you assign, the gifts you give, and yes, EVEN THE CARDS—is a huge piece of the personal-identity puzzle kids are constantly working on. A puzzle that shows them a picture of who they are, who they will grow up to be, and where they stand socially.

As “Suz” says in this piece, “All children are born a seed. These seeds carry in them all the predispositions we house in our genes, a massive tree with branches sprouting off at all sides. But from the moment that pink or blue swaddling hits our skin, those branches begin being pruned. What should little girls look like, do, be? What about little boys?”

And the pink and blue surely doesn’t stop with swaddling blankets. Gendered messages are propagated in toy stores, many of which have segregated aisles for “girl toys” and “boy toys.” The girl aisles are overwhelmingly pink, and promote the idea that girls are domestic, maternal, and princesses-in-the-making; the boy aisles are predominantly blue, black, and silver and feature toys that indicate boys as strong and destructive, as well as scientifically and mechanically inclined.

Dinosaurs? That’s a boy thing. Cooking and baking? So girly. Cars and trains? Boys only, through and through. But according to who?

A few young people are challenging the “girl toy” v. “boy toy” status quo, and I tip my hat to them (and their families!):  

Six-year-old Parker Dains penned a letter to ABDO Publishing Company, creators of The Biggest Baddest Book of Bugs, after she read (and loved!) the book, but flipped it over to discover it was part of the company’s Biggest Baddest Books for Boys series. In her letter she recommended that the company change the series to Biggest Baddest Books for Boys and Girls because “some girls would like to be entomologists too.” The company listened, and dropped the “For Boys” part of the name. Sweet!

Seven-year-old Charlotte Benjamin took issue with Lego’s portrayal of girls. Not only was she disappointed that there were “barely any” Lego girls in the kits, but the ones that were included didn’t really do much. “All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks,” wrote Charlotte. “I want you to make more Lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun, ok!?!” YES.

Twelve-year-old McKenna Peterson wrote a similar letter to Dick’s Sporting Goods after flipping through the company’s basketball catalog and noticed a glaring lack of females in the publication. “There are NO girls in the catalog,” wrote McKenna. “Oh wait, sorry. There IS a girl in the catalog on page 6. SITTING in the STANDS.” Burn.

It’s not to say that it’s impossible to find gender-neutral greeting cards, toys, and books. (Technically, that “boy” card was generic, but still filed under “Boy”, so…) It’s also not to say that there is anything wrong with a girl loving the color pink or a boy loving the color blue. But there is really no need to choose that for them.

In the end, I found a card with happy animals and a message that read, “Wishing you a stupendous birthday!” It took about five additional seconds to find it—five seconds that I commit to taking each time I make a choice for a child in my life. I take the time to ask myself not just ‘will it hold stickers' but also 'am I telling them what they should be, or am I telling them what they can be?’

Chloe Phalan is Program Assistant at Legal Voice, where she works to advance justice for women and girls by scheduling meetings and keeping files properly labeled.