Awe Inspiring: African American Women Evolving

Andrea Lynch

In Chicago, an organization called African American Women Evolving has spent the past decade pursuing a positive, holistic vision for reproductive health and social justice -- by and for Black women.

When you come face to face with the reality of racial health disparities in the United States — a reality that many women of color confront on a daily basis — it can be hard to stay positive. Since the 1940s, African American women have faced maternal mortality rates three to four times higher than their White counterparts, and today, they are four times as likely to have an abortion as White women. In 2003, African American women were 20 times more likely to be infected with HIV than White women, making AIDS one of the top three causes of death for Black women between the ages of 35 and 44 in the United States. Even within progressive social movements, Black women's needs and rights often get sidelined: the mainstream (White-dominated) reproductive rights movement, for example, has tended historically to focus their advocacy on preserving a woman's right not to have a child by making sure that women have access to contraception and safe abortion, but African American women often struggle with an additional dimension of reproductive oppression: assaults on their right to have a child through scarcity of healthcare, sterilization abuse and racist population control initiatives, which continue to this day.

Amidst these overlapping oppressions, however, Black women have always played a key role in the struggle for reproductive freedom in the United States, even if their contributions have often been made invisible. Today, countless autonomous organizations run by women of color are shifting the historically narrow discussion of reproductive rights to encompass a broader reproductive justice approach — one that includes the multiple dimensions of reproductive health, and that links the struggle for reproductive autonomy with the need to address the social and economic injustices that circumscribe so many women's reproductive decisions. In Chicago, an organization called African American Women Evolving (AAWE — pronounced "awe") has spent the past decade pursuing a positive, holistic vision for reproductive health and social justice — by and for Black women, and based on a deep personal commitment to promoting Black women's health.

AAWE was founded in 1996 by two Black women in leadership positions at the Chicago Abortion Fund (CAF): Toni Bond, who was the CAF's Executive Director, and Winnette Willis, the CAF's Board Chair. The CAF, like abortion funds across the country, helps low-income women obtain safe abortions through negotiated discounts, small grants, and advocacy on removing economic barriers to abortion access. The vast majority of women the Fund serves are African American, and Bond and Willis noticed this imbalance during a review of client data in 1995. In response to that discovery, they convened a series of meetings with Black women who supported the CAF, designed to identify ways that the organization could address Black women's broader reproductive health needs. The meetings culminated in a conference during which, according to Bond, Willis famously commented that she was " ‘in aawe' of every woman at the meeting and the commitment we had to Black women's well-being." AAWE was born.

Despite its small staff, AAWE's vision of reproductive justice has always been both deep and broad, based on a commitment to "full knowledge and total access," and grounded in critical analysis of the intersections between race, class, gender, and reproductive health. For AAWE, achieving reproductive justice means making sure that women have information on "various methods of contraception and some of the harmful side effects, preventing HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), understanding and learning how to chart menstrual cycle, infertility, prenatal care, infant and maternal mortality, menopause, breast care, accessing safe abortions, etc." But reproductive justice also goes beyond strictly reproductive issues, since, in AAWE's words, "woman's ability to lead reproductive healthy lives is closely connected to her ability to overcome other social and economic barriers." To this end, AAWE works not only to educate and inform Black women about their reproductive health, but also to promote and support Black women's activism and leadership on reproductive health and related social justice issues.

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Throughout its history, AAWE's direct link to the women it represents has shaped its holistic approach to reproductive justice, as well as set it apart from many of the higher-profile national organizations working on reproductive rights issues in the United States. As Bond explains,

Quite simply, the women who are representative of the women who face the greatest barriers and disparities are a part of the leadership and decision-making with AAWE. We really look at this work from the standpoint of what does it take for women to be healthy, have healthy families and live in a healthy community. We look at the totality of women's lives, understanding that she is not just a walking uterus, but that other social and economic forces impact her ability to be healthy in all areas of her life.

AAWE works to achieve its mission of helping African American achieve true reproductive justice in collaboration with women's groups, community groups, schools, parent organizations, churches, and other social justice groups in Chicago and across the country. They conduct workshops and advocacy trainings, organize community meetings, convene health conferences, and facilitate sex-positive Safer Sex Educational Experiences©. Their health and wellness center and online factsheets offer information on various topics in reproductive health, and their original research provides cutting-edge information on African American women's reproductive health experiences. AAWE's policy and advocacy work is closely linked to its educational work. Current priorities — which are based on the most pressing reproductive health issues confronting the communities that AAWE serves — include HIV/AIDS and microbicides, the Hyde amendment and public funding of abortion, the feminine hygiene industry and the sanitization of women's bodies, new reproductive technologies, and emergency contraception.

AAWE's campaigns have multiple goals: to disseminate accurate information, dispel myths, spark reflection on how different kinds of oppressions (social, economic, racial, and reproductive) intersect, and advocate for systemic change. For example, the Healthy Vagina CampaignTM came about in response to numerous studies that linked douching to an increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease, STDs, ectopic pregnancies, low-birth weight babies, and cervical cancer. Research conducted by the CDC had revealed that Black women were twice as likely to douche as White women. AAWE followed up with their own research, and their survey of 300 African American women revealed that over half of them douched. In response, the Healthy Vagina CampaignTM aims to inform women of the potential risks associated with douching, as well as advocate for stricter review and regulation of the companies that manufacture feminine hygiene products, based on a critical analysis of the feminine hygiene industry's aggressive marketing tactics, which target women with the false message that their bodies are dirty.

Of course, holistic advocacy that is people-centered and grounded in a deep commitment to social justice takes time, and AAWE is up against a great deal. Even in light of the well documented social and economic inequalities and health disparities between Black women and White women across the United States, Bond reports that some members of the Illinois pro-choice community "still do not understand why there is a need for an African American centered organization to work on reproductive health issues when there are other mainstream groups here." Despite these challenges, however, AAWE's impact among its constituency is clear. When asked to point to AAWE's greatest success to date, Bond answers, "It's creation. Every time a new woman comes in contact with AAWE, she is so very happy that we exist."

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

News Politics

Ohio Legislator: ‘Aggressive Attacks’ May Block Voters From the Polls

Ally Boguhn

Efforts to remove voters from state rolls and curb access to the polls could have an outsized impact in Ohio, which has seen a surge of anti-choice legislation under the state’s Republican leadership.

Ohio Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent) said she is worried about the impact of what she called “aggressive attacks” on voting rights in her state.

Ohio voters who have not engaged in voter activity in a fixed period of time, generally two years, are considered by the state to have moved, which then begins the process of removing them from their rolls through something called the “Supplemental Process.” If a voter fails to respond to a postcard mailed to them to confirm their address, they become “inactive voters.” If an inactive voter does not engage in voter activity for four years, they’re automatically unregistered to vote and must re-register to cast a ballot. 

Though other states routinely clean voting rolls, most don’t use failure to vote as a reason to remove someone.

“We have two million voters purged from the rolls in the last five years, many in the last four years since the last presidential election,” Clyde said during an interview with Rewire

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Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) dismissed concerns of the voter purges’ impact during an interview with Reuters. “If this is really important thing to you in your life, voting, you probably would have done so within a six-year period,” he said.

Ohio’s removal of voters through this process “is particularly problematic in the lead-up to the November 2016 federal election because voters who voted in the high-turnout 2008 federal election (but who did not vote in any subsequent elections) were removed from voter rolls in 2015,” according to an amicus curiae brief filed by the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights division in support of those who filed suit against Ohio’s law. 

The DOJ has urged the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a lower court’s ruling in favor of the state, writing that Ohio’s voter purge violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

Since 2012, at least 144,000 voters have been removed from Ohio’s voter rolls in its three biggest counties, Reuters reported. The secretary of state’s office said 2 million registered voters had been taken off the rolls in the past five years, though many had been removed because they were deceased.

Husted contends that he is just enforcing the law. “Ohio manages its voter rolls in direct compliance of both federal and state laws, and is consistent with an agreement in this same federal court just four years ago,” Husted said in an April statement after the ACLU of Ohio and Demos, a voting rights organization, filed a lawsuit in the matter.

In predominantly Black neighborhoods near downtown Cincinnati, “more than 10 percent of registered voters have been removed due to inactivity since 2012,” reported Reuters. The outlet found that several places where more voters had cast ballots for President Obama in 2012 were the same locations experiencing higher percentages of purged voters.

“Some of the data is showing that African Americans voters and Democratic voters were much more likely affected,” Clyde said when discussing the state’s purge of registered voters. 

Clyde has requested data on those purged from the rolls, but has been turned down twice. “They’ve said no in two different ways and are referring me to the boards of elections, but there are 88 boards of election,” she told RewireWith limited staff resources to devote to data collection, Clyde is still searching for a way to get answers.

In the meantime, many otherwise eligible voters may have their votes thrown away and never know it.

“[P]eople that had been purged often don’t know that they’ve been purged, so they may show up to vote and find their name isn’t on the roll,” Clyde said. “Then, typically that voter is given a provisional ballot and … told that the board of elections will figure out the problem with their voter registration. And then they don’t really receive notice that that provisional ballot doesn’t eventually count.” 

Though the state’s voter purges could continue to disenfranchise voters across the state, it is hardly the only effort that may impact voting rights there.

“There have been a number of efforts undertaken by the GOP in Ohio to make voting more difficult,” Clyde said. “That includes fighting to shorten the number of early voting days available, that includes fighting to throw out people’s votes that have been cast—whether it be a provisional ballot or absentee ballot—and that includes purging more voters than any other state.” 

This could make a big difference for voters in the state, which has seen a surge of anti-choice legislation under the state’s Republican leadership—including failed Republican presidential candidate Gov. John Kasich.

“So aside from the terrible effect that has on the fundamental right to vote in Ohio, progressives who maybe are infrequent voters or are seeing what’s happening around [reproductive rights and health] issues and want to express that through their vote may experience problems in Ohio because of these aggressive attacks on voting rights,” Clyde said. 

“From our presidential candidates on down to our candidates for the state legislature, there is a lot at stake when it comes to reproductive health care and reproductive rights in this election,” Clyde added. “So I think that, if that is an issue that is important to any Ohioan, they need to have their voice heard in this election.” 


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