Category Archives: Women’s Rights & Women’s Health

Out of Jail, Out of Work, Out of Luck

“I apply for jobs everywhere and it starts off good but then they see my CORI [Criminal Offender Record Information] and come up with a reason not to keep me.”

“I tried to get jobs left and right but no one will hire you [with a CORI]. I ended up going on Social Security [disability] for my addiction.”

“Nobody’s gonna hire a large black woman in a doo-rag.”

“I’ve been in so many job training programs I think they should hire me to teach the program.”

“I worked for a couple of weeks doing office work for a tow truck company but that ended when the boss asked me to give him a blow job for $200.”

“I pretty much always worked but after 17 years working as a CNA [certified nursing assistant] I have neck and back pain caused by a lifetime of lifting. Maybe I could do something else but I’m not qualified.”

“My husband threw me out of a truck.  I had neck surgery to repair the damage but the surgery made my speech sound slurred. I can’t get a job with slurred speech.”

“After I got out of jail I found a job pretty quickly. The boss knew about it and treated me badly because he knew I wouldn’t quit because I couldn’t get another job with my CORI. I was there about six months. Then, some money went missing from the registrar and the boss accused me. So I quit.”

“I want to work but right now I have to take care of my family. They all have problems. My mother, my brother, my daughter – they all depend on me.”

“The only jobs I can get are crappy jobs – the kinds of jobs where the boss gives you a few hours here and there and only tells you at the last minute when to come in.”

“The job was okay but then the manager started messing with me, not giving me enough hours, giving the good shifts to his friends. Then I found out that I need to work thirty hours a week to get benefits [EITC – Earned Income Tax Credit]. If I complain he’ll probably come up with a reason to fire me.”

“I finally got a job thanks to Annie Dookhan [the Massachsuetts crime lab chemist who admitted to falsifying evidence].  My record cleared through Annie Dookhan but 10 years of my life were ruined.”

Over the past decade I have followed the lives of 47 Massachusetts’ women with histories of incarceration. Their lives have taken a multitude of twists and turns, good times and bad times. Some have managed to secure housing, stay away from drugs, and avoid jail. Some have not.

In contrast to their varied housing, health, criminal justice, and family paths, not a single woman has been steadily employed throughout the past ten years.  At a time in which the federal and many state governments are advocating and implementing work requirements for recipients of food stamps and Medicaid, the women’s utter lack of success in the realm of employment is particularly worrisome.

Gendered Obstacles to Employment

Struggles with employment for formerly incarcerated Americans are well documented. An Urban Institute study found that employers were least likely to hire former prisoners compared with other disadvantaged groups, such as welfare recipients).  In another study, Robert Apel and Gary Sweeten found that young adults who were incarcerated following their first conviction were significantly less likely to secure employment than similar young people who were convicted for the first time but were not incarcerated.

Studies also show that previously incarcerated women face particularly stiff obstacles in finding and retaining employment, though little research has looked at why.  Interestingly, the same patterns seems to holds true following substance abuse treatment: Research suggests that men make greater gains in work income and are more likely to be employed post-treatment compared to women post-treatment.

In addition to the disadvantages of having a criminal record — disadvantages shared by formerly incarcerated men — the women deal with sexual abuse and exploitation, the need to balance work with family responsibilities, and the low-wages and erratic hours typical in “pink ghetto” jobs such as waitressing.

Why This Matters

First, recent research finds that, as of 2010, people with felony convictions account for 8 percent of the overall population and 33 percent of the African-American male population. Many of these nineteen million people encounter the same barriers identified by the women quoted at the top of this article. Second, many millions of Americans work in the same sorts of at-will, temporary, part-time jobs that present insurmountable obstacles to steady employment for the women I know.

Criminologist Shadd Maruna explains that meaningful work provides formerly incarcerated people with a ‘‘sense of empowerment and potency.’’ Indeed, jobs that individuals experience as rewarding may serve to decrease the motivation to commit crime.

In American culture the importance of work goes beyond material rewards.  As Eve Bertram demonstrates in The Workfare State: Public Assistance Politics from the New Deal to the New Democrats  “Work has always held a vaunted role in American political culture … as a moral imperative, a social obligation, and a source of economic security.”

Political theorist Judith Shklar further makes the point that “The dignity of work and of personal achievement, and the contempt for aristocratic idleness, have since Colonial times been an important part of American civic self-identification. The opportunity to work and to be paid an earned reward for one’s labor was a social right, because it was a primary source of public respect. It was seen as such, however, not only because it was a defiant cultural and moral departure from the corrupt European past, but also because paid labor separated the free man from the slave.”

For the women I have come to know jobs become a sort of holy grail – proof not only that you are able to do what good citizens are expected to do in America but also that others see you as good enough to hire and pay.

Unfortunately, most of the jobs held by the Massachusetts women turn out to be cheap Grail imitations. Even when they landed jobs and were not quickly fired, they typically experienced their jobs as exploitive or even abusive, and eventually  quit.

Are There Solutions?

Complicated problems need complicated solutions.

State and federal governments need to remove legal barriers such as lifetime bans on receiving certain occupational licenses that are faced by people with felony convictions or criminal records.

Raising the minimum wage has been shown to reduce recidivism. Incentivizing employers to hire permanent, full-time workers rather than just-in-time scheduling would likely lead to stronger social contracts between employers and employees, and give workers both hard proof and symbolic assurance that they are valued at their jobs.

Making it easier for workers to report racist comments and behaviors as well as sexual harassment and exploitation at work — and coming down harder on abusive bosses, managers and co-workers, would remove some of the most serious obstacles the Massachusetts women report.

Even if we as a society were to do all of these things, many of the women I have come to know have suffered too much pain, too much abuse, and too many hits to their self-confidence, sense of autonomy and ultimately their ability to work steadily even in an ideal place of employment. And these women are not a few outliers.  Criminal justice and economic policies of the past decades wreaked havoc with the occupational potentials of millions of Americans.

To begin to repair that damage we need a new New Deal. I’d like to think that at municipal, county, state and federal levels we can come together to create programs along the lines of AmeriCorps — groups of people working for pay at public projects that build communities and preserve the environment while providing workers with the feeling that they are making meaningful contributions to society. This idea is not a panacea, but it makes a whole lot more sense than sending the millions of formerly incarcerated Americans into the frayed margins of the lowest-wage market.



Pinktober 2017

I’ve written about the commodification and cute-ification of pinkwashing in earlier posts, as well as issues around the cultic glorification of “survivors,” the profits to be made in pinkwashing, and perhaps most troubling — increasing inclinations to present breast cancer as if it is a normal life stage for women. Here are the links to those articles:  Pinktober: A Consumer Dystopia and Pink Ribbon Extravaganza and Pinkwashing: It Really Can Get Worse

This year I’m just going to share a round-up of the latest images that have crossed my screen.

The Sexification of Breast Cancer

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The Commodification of Breast Cancer

These seem to be advertising make-up and nail polish, much of which, according to the most rigorous research, actually is carcinogenic. Particularly important to point out the serious health risks endured by women working in nail salons.

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Lethal Breasts: A theme I haven’t seen much in the past – the idea that women’s breasts are lethal – to women!Image result for breast skeleton pink ribbon


Save the tata's!!!


If breast cancer doesn’t kill you, walking around in these might:

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This year you can join the “Vape for Breast Cancer” movement

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Or just go about killing yourself the quick way


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The guys want to get in on the pink weapon action too! 

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I definitely feel safer knowing that “Lumberton Police Chief Danny Sullins and his officers, including (from left) Sgt. Chad Wilson, Off. Dale Tinsley, Lt. Joey Breaux, and Sgt. Kenneth Powell, have taken the “pink challenge” made to Hardin County.”  In case you’re wondering, that’s the same Lumberton that made national headlines for a particularly gruesome case of beating a man to death.

Medicalizing Healthy Breasts, or Just Plain Weird?

I’m not sure how to categorize this one but it does give me a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach.

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On-going Zika Crisis in Brazil: Lessons for the U.S.

A report released this week by the Human Rights Watch documents the ongoing tragedy of Zika in Brazil. The Brazilian government has declared an end to the national public health emergency. Yet pregnant women are still becoming infected with the Zika virus, babies are coming into the world carrying the effects of Zika, and families will continue to care for their Zika-affected children for years to come. More broadly, the social, economic and environmental conditions that gave rise to and then exacerbated the Zika outbreak in Brazil have not changed. Sadly, many of these conditions are present in the United States as well. And while Zika has not wrecked havoc in the continental US (Puerto Rico has experienced significant Zika outbreaks), these same conditions are fertile ground for a multitude of public health disasters.

Environment and Infrastructure

I spoke with Margaret Wurth, a children’s rights researcher who spent a year interviewing nearly fifty women and girls who were pregnant or gave birth in two of the states most affected by Zika. She learned that Brazilian authorities warned women to spray their homes with insect repellant and to cover open water jars, “but there is only so much as individual can do.” In communities with erratic water supplies, people have no choice other than to fill tanks with drinking water. But these same tanks can quickly become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The Human Rights Watch report also describes, “Untreated sewage flowing into open, uncovered channels, storm drains, roads, or waterways.”

Wurth recalls meeting a pregnant sixteen year old who did everything she could to protect herself and her fetus. She wore long sleeves, doused herself and her home with insect repellent and covered water jars in and near her house. She did not know, however, that Zika can be transmitted sexually. And she could not, of course, single-handedly clean up the standing water and sewage in her favela.

In the United States most communities have covered sewage disposal systems and household running water. Yet the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the country with a D+ in wastewater management in 2017. Their assessment is that more than $105 billion is needed for wastewater funding. With Congress stalled and no real plan for investing in infrastructure, this kind of funding seems unlikely. And while some states have reasonably good water and sewage systems, in other states – most notably Alaska and Mississippi – significant numbers of households lack both.

Reproductive Health and Rights

One in five of Brazilian mothers raising children with Zika syndrome are under the age of twenty. These young women were unlikely to have access to birth control. Given Brazil’s prohibition on abortion, women may turn to dangerous “backstreet” abortions. A young woman who especially touched Wurth’s heart underwent a clandestine abortion at the age of thirteen; she had become pregnant as a consequence of rape. Wurth met women who had used caustic acid to induce abortion. Facing the terror and the stigma of bearing a child with Zika-syndrome, these women risked their lives. Not all survived.

In the United States access to contraception and abortion are increasingly under attack. The Republican health care bills would further reduce access to reproductive health care through defunding Planned Parenthood and removing birth control from the list of basic services insurance must cover.

In Brazil, government efforts to educate about Zika are disproportionately aimed at women, implicitly absolving men of the responsibility to prevent transmission or to help raise children living with Zika-syndrome. “Mothers are overwhelmingly the primary carers for kids with Zika syndrome. It’s very challenging. They can’t continue working or going to school. They often need to travel long distances and fight with agencies and officials to get the services they are entitled to,” according to Wurth.

In the United States family planning is similarly delegated to women, especially in communities that do not allow comprehensive sex education in schools. An abstinence-only curriculum does not prepare young men to be responsible sexual partners. And, like in Brazil, American mothers – especially low income mothers – face suspicion when they request government services. Republican demands that food stamp and Medicaid recipients work at paying jobs will hit hard at mothers of disabled children.

The Way Forward

There are measures that should be taken in the short and long terms to prevent future outbreaks of diseases like Zika, and to support those who are most affected. Developing and maintaining safe water distribution and sewage systems in all communities is crucial. Women and girls need access to the full range of medical services, including contraception and abortion. Men must be educated to shoulder their share of the responsibility for sexual safety, family planning and child rearing. And families and communities must be able to rely on ongoing support to care for ill and disabled individuals.

It’s unclear if the Brazilian government’s declaring the Zika crisis over was naively optimistic or blatantly political. In any case, it is eerily reminiscent of the declaration that “America has the best health care system in the world” when all data show health care in the US ranking last among developed nations. There are important lessons for the US both in the underlying causes of the Zika disaster in Brazil and in the Brazilian government’s response. We ignore them at our own peril.

The GOP’s Comprehensive Plan to Undermine Women’s Health Care

(Published June 20, 2017 in the Huffington Post)

As Senate Republicans continue to craft a healthcare bill behind closed doors, a Trump Administration’s reported plan  would exempt many employers from including contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans. While the Administration has framed their executive order as a protection of “religious freedom,” it is just one part of a frightening new wave of policies that will particularly harm women.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, millions of Americans will lose health insurance under the American Health Care Act (AHCA), already passed by the Republican House of Representatives. Low- and moderate-income Americans will lose the most because the plan decreases insurance subsidies and will eventually eliminate the Medicaid expansion.

This is especially troubling for women. Consistently, year after year, American women earn less than men. And according to the Department of Labor, women are more likely than men to be among the working poor. At the same time, women use more medical services and spend more on health care than men. They make more visits each year to primary care physicians and are more likely to take at least one prescription drug on a daily basis.

Under the House version of the AHCA and the Trump Administration’s order, women’s access to care through their insurance will decline. The bill eliminates the Affordable Care Act’s requirements for insurance plans to cover “essential benefits” like birth control and maternity care. Worse yet, this move will reduce the largest health safety net for women in the country. The Republican House plan singles out Planned Parenthood, prohibiting federal funding for one year after the law goes into effect.

Reduced access to birth control will lead to more unwanted pregnancies. Yet under the Republican House bill, qualified health plans cannot include abortion coverage except for pregnancies that present life-threatening physical risks and pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest. Not only does this reduce access to a needed medical procedure, but it also leaves questions about how to determine if a pregnancy is life-threatening or how to confirm if it’s a result of rape or incest. And it could potentially force women to prove—to the satisfaction of an insurance company—that she indeed was raped. This would certainly delay performing the abortion. Delays, in turn, present health risks to women.

The Republican House bill does allow insurance to pay to treat “any infection, injury, disease or disorder that has been caused or exacerbated by the performance of an abortion.” But legal abortions performed by a qualified medical provider in a suitable medical setting are extremely safe. While it is unlikely that the House’s intent is to encourage illicit abortions, this provision seems to acknowledge that an increase in unsafe abortions may be a consequence of the policy.

The Administration’s order and the Republican House bill will have devastating effects for women’s health in the United States. Our maternal mortality rate is already the highest among all developed countries.  And while this rate is decreasing in nearly every other nation, it continues to rise in the U.S. Our high maternal death rate is in part the result of unplanned pregnancies – more than half of all pregnancies in the U.S. – and a health system that makes accessing care difficult, especially for new mothers. The President’s order, together with Congress’s “repeal and replace” bill, will only lead to more tragedy. Now, the Senate has the chance to take out these harmful provisions and reaffirm the value of women’s health.

Maternal Health and Rights Deserve Their Own Day


This post is part of a blog carnival. Mothers, activists, healthcare professionals and researchers around the world have come together to ask the UN Secretary General to recognize April 11 as the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights. Please join by using #IntlMHDay

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Maternal health and rights are inextricably connected.

Without rights to safety and bodily autonomy, women may be prevented from carrying and raising children whom they dearly wish to nurture.

Without laws guaranteeing women’s right to choose when or when not to be mothers, they may be forced to endure pregnancies that endanger their health and well-being.

Without rights to clean water and air, adequate nutrition and stable housing, women may enter pregnancy already in poor health. Women whose health is compromised are more likely to suffer miscarriages, complications during birth, low birth-weight babies, infections during the post-partum period, insufficient milk and heightened rates of maternal and child death.

Without rights to paid maternity leave women may not have the financial resources to properly nurse infants or allow their bodies to heal after childbirth. And without access to appropriate, respectful and high quality health care, mothers may become too weak, tired, discouraged or sick to advocate for their rights and for the rights of their children.

The U.S. Healthcare “Non”-system


Maternal health in the United States — to be blunt — is not good. The US ranks 61st in maternal health standards, by far the worst rank among all developed countries. And among 25 of the wealthiest capital cities surveyed around the world, Washington, D.C. has the highest infant mortality rate, with babies from the District’s poorest wards dying at much higher rates than the city’s already high average.

The United States lacks a system of universal health care access. Although the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has expanded Medicaid eligibility for women and men living in about half of the states, local governors and state legislatures in the other half of the country have refused federal money to expand Medicaid in their states. Especially in the states that did not expand Medicaid, women may find that they get healthcare coverage temporarily while they are pregnant. This means that women’s health may not be optimal going into the pregnancy; there may be delays in prenatal care because they cannot afford to pay for the doctor visit to “prove” pregnancy; or that their eligibility ends too soon after birth or miscarriage. This sort of policy conveys a clear message that women’s health is not important in and of itself, but only insofar as the woman’s body is a baby-carrier.

Kim (all names used in this post are pseudonyms), a young Illinois woman, worked hard to balance college and her job. Though she managed to support herself, she could not afford health insurance, “I also tried to apply to public aid for a medical card [Medicaid], but they were telling me I have to have a child. They said that’s what I need in order to get help through the system. They make me think that they’re stupid, because, I mean, you have people out here like me with no kids and trying to go to school and trying to do the right thing, and I think we should also be helped. I was like, ‘Child, are you serious?!’”

In quite a few states, the eligibility threshhold for Medicaid is more generous for children than for adults. In these states, babies and children may be are eligible for healthcare coverage even when their mothers are not.


Jamie, a married woman in her early thirties, was diagnosed with gestational diabetes during her first and only pregnancy. The Illinois doctor told her that gestational diabetes put her at risk of developing type 2 diabetes later on. Her son was born with special needs, so Jamie left her job to stay home and take care of him. She and her husband were able to arrange Medicaid coverage for their son, and her husband was covered through his job, but the household income was too high by a couple hundred dollars a month for Jamie to be eligible for Medicaid. However, their income was too low for them to afford to pay for her as a dependent on her husband’s insurance. Jamie did have a few good years during which she would get her blood sugar tested at free health fairs held at churches and parks. Today, she has full blown diabetes.

The absence of a comprehensive healthcare coverage system creates a dangerous roller coaster for women.

This often seems to happen in Mississippi, for Alisha’s tubes were tied shortly after she gave birth. The reason for this, Alisha explains, is that the doctor encouraged her to get her tubes tied while she was still entitled to Medicaid by virtue of the pregnancy. A few months later, when she began menstruating, she experienced profuse bleeding. By this time, however, her Medicaid eligibility was over and she was not able to afford a medical assessment or treatment. “It started with the heavy, heavy bleeding and the days lasted longer,” Alisa explains, “And then it started with it going longer and longer into periods being heavier and harder for me. Sometimes I just lie on the floor and push real hard until it’s time and then get up and get on the toilet and then the blood clot comes. So I have periods like that now.”

Mothering in the Shadow of the Correctional System 


The health challenges faced by low and moderate income American women are exacerbated when they are caught in the correctional system. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world – and the gap between U.S. rates and those of the next most incarcerating countries are even higher for women than for men.

At this time, more than one million women are under the control of the United States correctional system. Most of these women are mothers of minor children and the majority of these mothers lived with their children before entering jail or prison.

According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, doctors sterilized as many as 148 women inmates in California prisons during the five-year period from 2006 to 2010. Women can be shackled during labor or delivery in most U.S. states. Incarcerated women struggle to obtain routine prenatal services, and the majority of newborns are separated from their incarcerated mothers immediately following birth.

Kristin from Massachusetts went to prison for the first and only time in her life immediately after giving birth to her second child. (The state kindly allowed her to wait to start her sentence until the baby was born.) At her request, her married brother and his wife took custody of her eight year old son and her newborn baby. Shortly afterwards, the brother and his wife found it difficult to cope with behavioral problems the older boy began to exhibit when his mother was taken away. At Kristin’s initiative, the department of Social Service (DSS) placed him with foster parents who seemed well able to care for the boy. A year later her son was placed with a single man in his forties who has asked to adopt the boy. Kristin is suspicious of his motives in wanting to adopt a ten year old with special needs and cannot understand why the Court feels that he is a preferable parent to her – even after she finished serving her sentence for a non-violent crime. There is no record, evidence or even accusation that she ever abused or neglected her children, and the boy desperately wants to come home with his mother.


With all of this going on, Kristin found out that she was pregnant. This was an unplanned pregnancy, for at 41 years of age she thought that her childbearing years were over.

By the time, Kristin was able to see a doctor, who showed her ultrasound images of the fetus, SHE felt that she could not have an abortion. The various lawyers and social workers involved in her custody cases are outraged at her decision to continue the pregnancy, seeing it as “irresponsible”. Caseworkers have threatened that by going through with this pregnancy rather than having an abortion, she will “lose any chance” of regaining custody of her other children.

Kristin’s loss is not a rare event. Across the country in Idaho, a friend watched Child Protective Services rip a baby from the arms of a woman who had just given birth. This woman’s child was taken from her because her drug use was seen as a danger to her children. “She asked for help,” her friend explains, “She failed her drug first test, but passed every one since. She is clean and committed to staying that way.” To make matters worse, CPS deemed the woman’s family members as unacceptable to take the child because they do not live in the same state. She has no money for a decent attorney and is looking at a hard road ahead. “Today I will watch them rip her three year old son from her arms too,” her friend says, “The baby was born with no drugs in the system. A perfect healthy 7 pound 3 ounces bundle of love. I’m sad and mad today.”

I share both the sadness and the anger. If there were any evidence that removing children from mothers like Kristin actually benefited children or mothers, I might feel differently. But children put into state foster care systems tend not to do well: they typically move from placement to placement, each time switching schools, doctors and caregivers. They are more likely than other American children to be overmedicated with cocktails of psychotropic prescription medication. And while some mothers may respond by trying as hard as they can to stay off drugs and to jump through every hoop demanded by every caseworker and judge involved in the case, some mothers become so despondent that, as one mother who lost her children told me, “After that happened I just gave up. When I had my kids, I admit, I sometimes used [drugs] but I always kept it under control – just small amounts on a Friday night, never in front of them, never got so high that I didn’t take care of them. But once they were gone I was off and running. There was no reason to try [to refrain from drug use] anymore. I stopped taking care of myself. I never cried so much in my life.”

Concluding Remarks

While the brief stories presented in this post have to do with women whose mothering experiences are particularly harsh, once we understand the political, legal and economic contexts of mothering in the United States, we understand that these personal experiences are shaped by the same social forces that shape maternal health for all women.

Around the world maternal health is constrained and encouraged by both formal and informal social institutions. In the United States, mothering increasingly has become a matter of legislative policy and judicial control. The lack of universal healthcare coverage, narrowly limited coverage for pregnant women, abortion restrictions, mass incarceration, prosecution of women for prenatal harm, removal of children from mothers who use drugs, welfare (TANF) limitations on childbearing, and the authority of family courts in child custody decisions are manifestations of a broad cultural consensus that the State has legitimate powers to decide what constitutes maternal health, who is entitled to health-enhancing conditions and services, and who counts as a good enough mother.

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Get Involved!


Forward this post to everyone you know.

Click here to learn more about how to get involved in the movement to urge the UN to declare April 11 as International Day for Maternal Health and Rights.

If you live in Massachusetts, let your legislators know that you SUPPORT HB 1382: An Act to Provide Community-based Sentencing Alternatives to for Primary Caregivers of Dependent Children Convicted of Non-violent Offenses. If you live in other states or countries, find out about — or initiate — similar legislative efforts.

Click here to learn about or to donate to Families for Justice and Healing.


I thank Terri Sterling, Amy Agigian, Maureen Norton-Hawk and Cortney Holmes for suggestions, stories and support.

A Feminist Sociologist’s Thoughts on the Zika Virus

Courtesy of Independent 1.23.16

The emergence and spread of the Zika virus is worrisome on many levels: the impact of global warming on the spread of infectious and mosquito-borne diseases (see “Getting Dumped On: Snowmaggedon, Women’s Health and Human Rights“); indiscriminate aerial spraying of poisonous chemicals — especially in poor regions — whether well-intended or not; and the reality that the poorest families in Brazil and other countries disproportionately bear the burdens of global warming and are disproportionately exposed  to Zika virus due to living in crowded neighborhoods, reliance on public water pumps that often are surrounded by pools of standing water, and lack of adequate public health resources.

A related set of worries are products of structural gender inequalities: prohibitions on abortion in countries and US states at the same time as women are being warned not to become pregnant because of the presence of the Zika virus (see “Pregnant Bodies as Public Property“); the power of ‘rape cultures’ in which women may not be able to control access to their own sexuality and fertility (see “Fighting Rape Culture: Real Tips“); and a problematic history of public responses to viruses (such as HIV-AIDS) that may be spread through sexual contact, especially when the virus initially impacts disenfranchised or stigmatized groups.

In addition to alarm regarding the vectors of spread of the virus, there is cause for concern for the well-being of families affected by Zika virus. Here in the United States, Zika virus-bearing mosquitoes have shown up in Florida and other southern US states where many people are unable to access appropriate medical care because their state governments have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (see “The State(s) of the Affordable Care Act“). Shocked and saddened by the pictures we are seeing in the press of babies born with microcephaly, the US’s continued refusal to sign the International Convention on the Rights of Peoples with Disabilities (see “Disabled Rights“) seems particularly indefensible at this time.

For updated (August 19, 2016) information and further analysis, click here: The Social Implications of Zika

See also this statement put out by the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights: A Feminist Approach in Responding to the Zika Virus

Posted on February 5, 2016

In light of the recent outbreak of the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) and the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network (LACWHN) join the voices of our feminist and women’s rights partners[1] in admonishing regional governments’ limited public health advisories for women. In particular we denounce the calls of countries such as Colombia, Jamaica, Ecuador, and El Salvador, advising women to delay pregnancy until the virus is eradicated, and particularly the call of El Salvador for women to avoid becoming pregnant for a full two years.[2]

Governments must recognize that when combatting the Zika virus, any public health strategy that does not have human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) at its core, will be limited in its impact and sustainability, while also creating massive grounds for human rights violations.

As a region, Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by: high rates of unplanned pregnancy, where upwards of 56% of pregnancies are unintended;[3] high levels of sexual violence; limited access to contraceptives and sexual and reproductive health services; and restrictive laws on abortion, where in some cases such as El Salvador, abortion is prohibited under any circumstances and women are routinely persecuted and even criminalized on suspicion of having abortion.[4] Moreover, women who are young, from remote or low-income communities, and/or living in other vulnerable situations, disproportionately face multiple barriers when it comes to exercising meaningful decision-making power and control over their sexual and reproductive lives. In such a context, calls for women to simply delay or avoid pregnancy are not only unrealistic but irresponsible and negligent.

The rapid spread of the Zika virus and its strong association with marked increases in microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities is in many ways new terrain, with new elements continually coming to light, demonstrating a clear need for more research. This uncertainty makes it all the more imperative for governments to undertake from the beginning a holistic, sustainable, and rights-based approach to eradicating the virus and mitigating its effects. Anything less is careless and counter to governments’ human rights commitments under regional and international human rights law.

We thus urge the governments of affected countries both in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as other regions worldwide to undertake a rights-based, reproductive justice, and sustainable development approach towards the Zika virus and any other emerging health issue. Such an approach must be holistic, while recognizing gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment as a cross-cutting priority, in keeping with governments’ agreements and commitments under the 2030 Agenda.[5]

In practice, this approach to combatting the Zika virus must include:

  • Ensuring universal access to a full range of high-quality, voluntary, and user-friendly contraceptive methods, including barrier methods such as female and male condoms, and emergency contraception, as well as comprehensive SRH information and services, including antenatal services to enable early detection of microcephaly.
  • Targeting both men and women in public health awareness campaigns, especially in light of recent evidence that Zika may be sexually transmitted,[6] recognizing that the responsibility for safer sex methods falls on both men and women and cannot be shouldered by women alone.
  • Decriminalizing abortion, and removing all legal and implementation barriers to expand and ensure access to safe, comprehensive, free and high-quality procedures for pregnancy termination, free of requirements for marital or parental consent. As has been flagged by partners,[7] in the context of the many uncertainties and increasing public fears surrounding the Zika virus, calling on women to simply not become pregnant when access to safe abortion is limited or even completely criminalized will inevitably risk driving up rates of unsafe abortion, and ensuing maternal mortality and morbidity. Moreover, restrictive and punitive abortion laws that force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy violate women’s right to be free from inhuman and cruel treatment, as noted by Human Rights Bodies.[8]
  • Supporting pregnant women in Zika-affected countries who decide to remain pregnant to be able to carry the pregnancy safely to term, including access to comprehensive pregnancy, safe delivery, pre- and post-partum care and neo-natal care services; as well as the provision of special needs therapy, health and educational services as needed for children with microcephaly.
  • Systemic policy and programme changes that account for the intersections between climate change and SRHR.[9]
  • Immediate implementation of related recommendations under the Montevideo Consensus as well as targets under the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda, particularly those related to health and gender equality, in order undertake effective and holistic protection measures and help curb the spread of the virus.

Videotaping Strip-Searches: Good Intentions and the Road to Hell

Within the next months, Massachusetts’ legislators are expected to consider an amendment mandating that “Strip searches of inmates, including the videotaping thereof, shall not be conducted by or in the immediate vicinity of a correction officer or other employee of the opposite sex, except under an emergency or otherwise urgent situation.” Massachusetts Bill H.3444, An Act relative to searches of female inmates, comes in the wake of a successful lawsuit filed in 2011 against Sheriff Michael J. Ashe and Assistant Superintendent Patricia Murphy of the Western Massachusetts Regional Correctional Center in Chicopee. This lawsuit was filed on behalf of Debra Baggett and 178 former and current women detainees at the Chicopee Jail. As Jean Troustine explains, the defendants brought evidence showing that over a period of less than two years 273 strip searches had been videotaped, all of women, mostly by men who supposedly did not look.

The proposed law is certainly a step in the right direction. However, allowing the presence of an officer or employee of the opposite sex under an (undefined) “emergency or otherwise urgent situation” leaves the door open for subjective assessments of “emergencies” (for example, the inmate appears upset – a reaction that I’d expect to be fairly common when faced with a strip search) or bureaucratically based “urgencies” (for example, no officers of the matching gender happen to be available.)

Strip searches ostensibly are carried out in order to prevent contraband from entering prisons, yet reports cast serious doubts on the effectiveness of strip searches in that matter. In fact, evidence indicates that the majority of contraband is brought into prisons by prison employees rather than by inmates. Even if a strip search uncovers a bag of heroin or cocaine hidden on the body, that bag is likely to be a drop in the bucket against the background of the larger market of drugs smuggled in by employees. In other words, even if strip searches could be justified in terms of uncovering contraband (which, in fact, strip searches rarely uncover), to the extent that I have been able to see hard data on the matter, the amount of the uncovered contraband cannot justify this practice. In fact, no one really knows how effective strip searches are at keeping contraband out of prisons which is why I urge the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (and the rest of the country, for that matter) to document every strip search: the specific reason for conducting it and what exactly – if anything – the search uncovered.

National studies have found that strip searches often are conducted to establish power more than for real expectations of finding contraband . According to Deborah L. Macgregor, in an article published in the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, women are particularly targeted for these displays of power. It is not uncommon for prison guards to use children as pawns to coerce women to participate in a strip search. For example, women may be threatened with not being permitted to see their children if they fail to cooperate. “Prison and police officers are vested with the power and responsibility to do acts which, if done outside of work hours, would be crimes of sexual assault. If a person does not ‘consent’ to being stripped naked by these officers, force can lawfully be used to do it,” according to Amanda George in the Australian Institute of Criminology.  George cites women’s accounts of strip searches: “We are strip searched after every visit. We are naked, told to bend over, touch our toes, spread our cheeks. If we’ve got our period we have to take the tampon out in front of them. It’s degrading and humiliating. When we do urines it’s even worse, we piss in a bottle in front of them. If we can’t or won’t we lose visits for three weeks.”

Justice Marshall has described a strip search as “one of the most grievous offenses against personal dignity and common decency.” These searches create “feelings of ‘deep degradation and terror'” and instill psychological reactions that “can be likened to those of rape victims.” The punitive nature of strip-searching is particularly egregious in light of the fact that approximately one third of women incarcerated in Massachusetts have not been convicted of a crime. Rather, they are in jail or prison awaiting trial, typically because they are not able to pay relatively small sums of bail money.

The coercive nature of prison exacerbates the humiliation of strip searches. An estimated 70% of women drawn into the correctional system have experienced physical or sexual violence, and in many cases that includes childhood sexual abuse. Prison procedures requiring the removal of clothing and intimate touching of an inmate’s body are especially traumatizing for women who have suffered abuse in the past. Responses to perceived threats can include alienation, withdrawal, fighting back, extreme outbursts, worsening of psychiatric symptoms or physical health problems, self-injury or suicide attempts, and increased substance use. In the prison context, these behaviors can lead to further punishment, including solitary confinement, and can easily be construed as an “emergency” meriting the presence of opposite sex officers at the strip search.

According to testimony provided by Carmen Guhn-Knight (August 7, 2015) based on interviews with sixty women who were videotaped while undergoing strip searches at the Chicopee Jail in western Massachusetts, “Women with histories of sexual abuse told me of their heightened sensitivity to having their naked bodies video-recorded. They said they returned to their communities re-traumatized, and in some cases with PTSD due to being recorded during strip searches.” Guhn-Knight shares some of the reactions she heard from these women: “Do we have to have the videotape? I don’t want to be videotaped naked. I don’t want to be filmed naked… I don’t want the camera on me.” “Is this going to end up on YouTube? … I’m being filmed while everything’s off? I’m naked being filmed.” “I’m not going to get stripped in front of a camera, that’s pornography.” “[You] take someone’s dignity and then do it again with a camera.” According to Guhn-Knight, “Despite their complaints, these women had no choice in the matter; they eventually removed their clothing themselves or were restrained while an officer removed their clothing.”

While the proposed amendment addresses the gender of the person holding the camera, it does not address the broader problem of video-taping strip searches overall. The taping of strip-searches is ostensibly for the protection of the prisoner; that is, having a record may prevent or at least document abuse during the search. However, the preservation of the tapes opens the door for grievous violations of privacy. In a country in which viewing on-line pornography is widespread (and sometimes unavoidable when unrequested porn sites pop up on screens), women inmates have good reason to fear that the tapes of strip searches may be misused for pornographic entertainment. Doubling down on the harm of the practice of videotaping strip searches, research shows that men who watch pornography are more likely to voice attitudes supporting violence against women and to display dominance and aggression (including choking, gagging and insulting name-calling) toward women while engaging in sexual activity.

Based on my reading of the scholarly literature as well as on my own research with formerly incarcerated women, I believe that the proposed amendment does not go far enough to protect women or men from the pain, humiliation and human rights violations associated with strip searches. I suggest that the law be amended to (1) disallow routine strip searches (2) permit strip searches only in situations when there is clearly defined and documented reason to suspect that the inmate is hiding contraband on his or her body (3) clearly inform all prison staff that strip searches may not be used as a form of punishment or discipline, and institute sanctions against staff who order or participate in strip searches in other than situations where there is clearly defined and documented reason for the search (4) disallow all strip searches by opposite sex officers and employees (5) cease video-taping of strip searches (6) immediately discard all existing video-tapes of strip searches.

Eulogy for Elizabeth, Update

For background on Elizabeth’s murder please read Eulogy for Elizabeth.

Nearly a year after she was murdered by a man against whom she had taken out a restraining order, the newspapers have uncovered a bit more of what happened.

The day before she was murdered she called the police with a request that they get her former boyfriend out of her apartment. She told them she had taken out a restraining order against him. According to the press, “When the two officers arrived, they failed to make the simple computer check that would have confirmed the restraining order she told them she had against him, and should have led to his arrest. They took [him] to a detox facility instead.” He came back the next day (allegedly) and battered her to death.

I can’t know what was going through the minds of the officers when they ignored Elizabeth’s plea for help, when they chose not to believe that she had filed a restraining order against the man she wanted out of her apartment. I can only guess that in their minds she was one more drunk, one more loser, one more woman who doesn’t deserve respect because she has been homeless or incarcerated.

While the Boston police may have invested a great deal of time and effort into educating officers about intimate partner violence, they certainly dropped the ball this time. “Police records show [one of the two responding officers] has had 22 internal and citizen complaints filed against him for use of force, disrespectful treatment, and conduct unbecoming. … [The other officer] has three complaints on his record. … He was the subject of a 2006 lawsuit after he led a car chase that left a 15-year-old boy dead in Roslindale.” Yet according to the Patrolmen’s Association attorney, they are “outstanding officers” who, when responding to Elizabeth’s call, did “the best they could in this situation.”

I could be snarky and say that I’d hate to see the worst they could do in this situation. On second thought, that’s not being snarky – it’s simply stating the truth.

Elizabeth – I still have your picture on my desk. I still hear your classic Boston-accent voice telling me — less than a month before you were murdered in your apartment — how grateful you were for finally having a home after two decades of shelters and the streets. I don’t believe in an eye for an eye, that’s not the kind of justice I’ll seek for you. But I will seek justice.

Pinktober: A Consumer Dystopia

(Thank you to Lois Ahrens for bringing the pink handcuffs to my attention.)

Each October, as national breast cancer month rolls around, I find myself fluctuating between pink-nausea and pink-rage. The pink ribbon extravaganza, a month-long consumer fest that turns women’s suffering into cold hard cash makes the absence of a national commitment to identifying and eliminating the environmental causes of breast cancer seem that much worse. The sanitized cuteness of pink-ribboned teddy bears makes the slash and burn treatments of the bio-medical cancer industry feel all the more painful. And the pink-painted messages praising “strength” and “optimism” reinforce the “holistic sickening” at the core of many of the complimentary and alternative healing modalities that “explain” breast cancer in terms of poor lifestyle choices, suppressed anger, or denial of one’s true femininity.

This year I’ve collected a few of the new (or at least new to me) egregious efforts to commodify, to normalize, to exploit — and to “cutefy” — breast cancer. Click here and here for more serious analyses. And as always, to learn more about “pinkwashing” and to support the work of Breast Cancer Action, click here.

As you can see in the feature photo, the pinkwashing Olympics have their new champion: the police department of Greenfield, Massachusetts announced on Facebook that for the month of October, they’ll be using pink handcuffs. Officers will also sport pins reading “Arrest Breast Cancer.” Because there’s no problem you can’t solve that way.

The news of this very well-intentioned, probably, gesture comes via CBS Boston and also the department’s own exuberant press release:

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to take the steps to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages and encourage others to do the same.

Many of our community members, including some of our own friends and family members, have been affected by breast or other types of cancer.

Officers of the Greenfield Police Department have “gone pink” in order to raise awareness for the disease! All of our officers have changed their collar pins, which were blue and white state seals to pink and white pins which states “ARREST BREAST CANCER – UNLOCK THE CURE” surrounding a pink ribbon and a pair of handcuffs. Some of our officers have even replaced their on duty silver handcuffs with pink ones and will be using them during the course of their work day.

Help us ARREST BREAST CANCER by spreading the word and by making your own early detection plan.


Remember: when placing a suspect in a light chokehold or frisking them against a vehicle, always ask if they’ve performed a monthly breast self-exam. There’s no awareness like the kind that takes hold in the back of a squad car.

Pink Car
(Photo courtesy of ctpost)

In this era of stop and frisk, rising rates of incarceration among women and continued sexual abuse of women in prison it’s hard to get excited about a pink police car. “In 2006, a Department of Justice (DOJ) study found that women in prison are at significantly greater risk for cancer than their male counterparts. Out of every 10,000 incarcerated women, 831 had cancer, compared to 108 per 10,000 men.” According to the Department of Justice there are over 1,000 incarcerated women who either have or have had breast cancer. To learn more about  the suffering of “breast cancer behind bars” click here.

Pinkwashing has also expanded in the usual commercial way:

(Image courtesy of the Shultz Shoes Website.)

Just what every woman needs to stay healthy: Pink stilettos. Perhaps the message is: Don’t worry about dying of breast cancer when you can kill yourself running for the train in pretty pink shoes.

(Image courtesy of the Hard Rock Hotel Website.)

This year the Hard Rock Hotels are offering “Pink Rooms” with pink bed sheets and an option to purchase pink bathrobes. The activists among us will be relieved to know that we can stop organizing, lobbying, researching and lecturing. All we need to do to eliminate breast cancer is “Get into bed” and “relax for the cause.”  And in case you’re more of a “party for the cause” than a “relax for the cause” kind of gal, Hard Rock Hotels have you covered as well. Who knew that pink margaritas prevent (or is it cure?) breast cancer?


Pink ribbon and other cause marketing can mask conflicts of interest, like when companies promote the idea of cancer research but also manufacture ,disseminate, or sell products that contain toxic or carcinogenic ingredients. I’ve recently seen dry cleaning companies jumping on the Pinktober bandwagon:
(Image Courtesy of

What this and similar ads leave out is that PERC, the solvent used in most dry-cleaning, is a known carcinogen.

(Image Courtesy of

Recent studies also show the harmful effects of working in a nail salon surrounded by fumes from chemicals in nail polish and yet companies are selling nail polish to “promote breast cancer awareness.”

And finally, to take away the sour tastes in our mouths (whether caused by chemo or by pinkwashing): Nothing promotes the health and wellness of women quite like sugar filled candies with cute little pink ribbons all over them.

(Image courtesy of



We Can Do Better

While spending on breast cancer detection and treatment continues to increase, funding for prevention – for learning about the causes of breast cancer – is far less marketable. In past years my home state, the Massachusetts legislature failed to fund research on potential carcinogenic impacts of chemical exposure despite clear findings that there are specific communities in Massachusetts with particularly high rates of breast cancer.

As for me, I’ll skip the pink bathrobes, candy, nail polish and (hopefully) police cars, and spend my money on real research into breast cancer prevention. For more on the Silent Spring Institute click here.

Thank you to Robin Yang and Ashely Rose Difraia for help with this post.