Women’s Rights Advocates Applaud New Executive Director of United Nations Population Fund

Jodi Jacobson

Women's health and rights advocates today applauded the appointment of Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin of Nigeria as executive director of the United Nations Population Fund.

Women’s health and rights advocates around the world applauded the appointment today of Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin of Nigeria as Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the international development agency that assists countries in developing the technical and health systems capacity to improve reproductive and sexual health.  UNFPA, according to its mission statement:

Promotes the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA supports countries in using population data for policies and programmes to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.

Osotimehin, who will replace outgoing executive director Thoraya Obaid whose term officially ends December 31st, is currently Professor of Medicine at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and the African Spokesperson for the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health

He previously served as both Minister of Health and Director General of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Control of HIV and AIDS. Throughout his tenure as Director General of the AIDS agency, he advocated strongly for evidence- and rights-based policies, even as his own government, under pressure from both the Bush Administration and Nigerian clerics, turned toward failed abstinence-only-until marriage programs to secure United States funding. Moreover, he welcomed advocates as partners. In a prior position working on US international policy, I personally had the occasion to meet him in Nigeria and work with him and his staff on advocacy around HIV and AIDS prevention issues. 

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The issue of who would take the lead of UNFPA comes at a critical juncture, when ultra-conservative political and religious groups are seeking to limit or completely eliminate women’s reproductive and sexual rights both in the United States and abroad. Advocates expressed confidence in his ability to meet current challenges.

“Babatunde ‘s appointment comes at a pivotal time for sexual and reproductive rights and health,” said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC). “Dr. Osotimehin brings to the job substantial knowledge of and an impressive track record in health policies, programs and services.”

“The appointment of  Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin as the new head for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to addressing the needs of the world’s women and children,” said United Nations Foundation President Senator Timothy E. Wirth.

“More than 215 million women around the globe want to determine the number, spacing, and timing of their children, but lack access to reproductive health and family planning options,” said Wirth.  He continued:

Poor women and adolescent girls in developing countries tend to be disproportionally denied access to these services. A former Minister of Health of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Dr. Osotimehin has championed reproductive health and rights and global development challenges with a clear understanding of the importance of women and girls in meeting those goals.  This kind of experience will be critical in helping UNFPA continue to meet its mission of making certain that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.

The IWHC statement lauded Dr. Osotimehin for his:

“unparalleled ability to build consensus, between the capital and state governments, as well as inside and outside the government, on multi-dimensional strategies and investments to address several of the country’s most challenging sexual and reproductive health issues.”

“This makes Dr. Osotimehin particularly qualified to lead an agency whose mandate is to promote and protect sexual and reproductive health and rights,” said the statement.

Dr. Gill Greer, Director General of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and Chair of UNFPA’s NGO Advisory Panel, said:

“As a key partner of the UNFPA, IPPF looks forward to working with Dr. Osotimehin to achieve our joint goals of delivering better services and outcomes for women, men and young people.  In particular, our collective pledges to do more to achieve the MDGs and support the new Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health intended to save the lives of 15 million children, prevent 33 million unplanned pregnancies, and prevent the deaths of 800,000 women and girls from pregnancy and childbirth.

“There is a critical need, “continued Greer, “to refocus our efforts on Family Planning to achieve these goals.” 

[The] omission [of family planning] from the first 7 years of investment in the MDGs made it invisible and what is invisible is inevitably overlooked and underfunded. So now we must make up for lost time, lost opportunities and lost lives – not only to address the needs of the estimated 215 million women who are unable to access the modern contraception they need and want, but also to address the needs of the 1.8 billion young people who are approaching reproductive age.

Bene Madunagu of the Nigerian group Girls Power Initiative, also praised his appointment. “We at Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) are overjoyed to hear that Professor Osotimehin will lead this fundamentally important agency,” said Madunagu.  “He has been one of our most unfailing defenders and supporters in the struggle to get the rights of girls recognized and ensure that they have the power to exercise them.”  

“Thanks to visionary leadership from Prof. Osotimehin, GPI is able to work with the State AIDS Control Agencies to make comprehensive sexuality education and health services available to young people,” said Madunagu.  “And my generation of women has also benefited enormously from his devotion to women’s health and rights.”

Osotimehin has made clear his own commitment to these issues:

“We must invest far more in comprehensive reproductive health services, including those that address problems of HIV, in order to reach the girls and women who are not likely to use separate HIV services for fear of stigma and violence…
 
“…In Nigeria, we are painfully aware that girls and women typically cannot negotiate when, where or with whom they have sex; that far too few have access to affordable health services; and that sex education is not available or accessible to many girls.”

Given the direct threats to women’s lives and health posed by anti-choice groups in every region, he faces serious challenges in his new role.

“As Dr. Osotimehin knows only too well, the task ahead is not an easy one,” said Greer.  “It will require promises to be kept, new partnerships to be made. Civil society’s unique role in delivering this agenda is something Dr. Osotimehin has consistently supported.”

Wirth sees Osotimehin’s appointment as critical to the success of the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health launched earlier this year by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“The strategy ties the health of the world’s women and girls to the achievement of major reductions in infant and maternal mortality, HIV infections and global poverty,” notes Wirth.  “Dr. Osotimehin, in his new position, will have the opportunity to significantly contribute to the success of this global strategy and advance full implementation of the International Conference on Population and Development’s Programme of Action, which emphasizes universal access to reproductive health services.”

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.”

Analysis Law and Policy

‘Whole Woman’s Health’ Breathes New Life Into Voting Rights Cases

Imani Gandy

It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for state legislators to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word. The same goes for, as it turns out, voting rights.

It has been a good summer for reproductive rights advocates. A little over a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt struck down two burdensome restrictions in a Texas omnibus anti-abortion law. The Court’s opinion was so data and fact-driven, it signaled to reproductive rights advocates that science and evidence had finally made a comeback in the courts, especially when it comes to laws that burden constitutional rights.

It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for state legislators to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word.

The same goes for, as it turns out, voting rights.

Conservative legislators across the country have been complaining about voter fraud for years. As soon as the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, states like Texas and North Carolina rushed to enact and implement legislation requiring voter identification, which disproportionately disenfranchised Black and Latino voters. And even though no state has been able to offer proof of any in-person voter fraud crisis—because no such crisis exists—that hasn’t stopped states from continuing to pass laws aimed at slaying the phantom voter fraud demons.

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But there has been a palpable momentum shift in the GOP’s war on voting: Voting rights advocates seem to be winning, with a little help from Whole Woman’s Health.

It may surprise you that Whole Woman’s Health has popped up in cases involving voter ID laws. But since Whole Woman’s Health’s victory in June, four states have seen their voter ID laws either weakened or eliminated entirely. Two of the decisions in those cases, Wisconsin’s and Texas’, specifically reference Whole Woman’s Health.

First, in Wisconsin, a district court judge cited Whole Woman’s Health in a decision weakening that state’s voter ID law. There, District Court Judge Lynn Adelman ruled that voters who were unable to obtain voter ID could still vote by signing an affidavit as to their identity. Wisconsin protested that the court’s affidavit fail-safe provision would undermine the integrity of Wisconsin’s elections, but offered no proof to back up its claim.

“The Supreme Court recently reiterated that where a state law burdens a constitutional right, the state must produce evidence supporting its claim that the burden is necessary to further the state’s claimed interests,” Adelman wrote, citing Whole Woman’s Health. Evidence. Not just baseless, transparently false claims about a law’s purpose, but evidence.

And in Texas, two Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judges cited Whole Woman’s Health in a concurring opinion invalidating Texas’ voter ID law. Amazingly, even a full panel of the ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Texas’s voter ID law disproportionately burdened Black and Latino voters, and therefore violated the Voting Rights Act.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Stephen Higginson acknowledged that combating voter fraud and promoting voter confidence were legitimate state interests, but, he said, again citing Whole Woman’s Health, simply asserting those interests doesn’t immunize a voter ID law from all challenges.

“[A]s the Supreme Court recently reminded [us], that a state interest is legitimate does not necessarily mean courts should ignore evidence of whether a specific law advances that interest or imposes needless burdens,” he wrote for himself and Judge Gregg Costa.

The message from Wisconsin and Texas is clear: If a state is going to claim that a particular law is going to fix a particular problem, that state needs to prove it. Courts will not rubber-stamp laws that needlessly burden constitutional rights without actually doing anything to fix the problem they were supposedly enacted to fix. And that’s a noticeable shift stemming from Whole Woman’s Health.

Other crucial voting rights victories this month have, as Stephen Colbert might put it, a Whole Woman’s Healthiness about them.

In North Carolina, while Whole Woman’s Health was not featured in the the Circuit Court of Appeals’ defenestration of that state’s sweeping election law, you can certainly feel its presence.

North Carolina passed its sweeping law after requesting data that showed which voting mechanisms Black people used the most, and then eliminating those mechanisms. For example, the racial data the legislature received showed that Black voters disproportionately used early voting in 2008 and 2012. So, North Carolina eliminated the first week of early voting, shortening the total early voting period from 17 to ten days.

The Fourth Circuit ripped North Carolina to shreds for it.

“Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for a unanimous court, “they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist.”

In other words, North Carolina’s voter ID provision was about as useful at combating voter fraud and promoting voter confidence as the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center provisions in Texas’ HB 2 were at promoting women’s health and safety: that is to say, not very useful at all.

In Michigan, District Court Judge Gershwin A. Drain expressed skepticism at Michigan Republicans’ rationale for banning straight-party voting. Michigan claimed that the prohibition would help “preserve the purity of elections,” and “guard against abuses of the elective franchise.” The state also argued that the law would demand that voters be more knowledgeable about candidates and would encourage voters to make selections based on criteria other than party affiliation.

But Michigan didn’t submit any evidence to prove its claims, and Judge Drain wasn’t buying it.

“Michigan has not demonstrated how straight-party voting has damaged, or could possibly damage, the ‘purity’ of the election process,” District Court Judge Gershwin A. Drain wrote. “There is nothing ‘impure’ or ‘disengaged’ about choosing to vote for every candidate affiliated with, for example, the Republican Party,” Drain continued.

“Moreover, the idea that voting one’s party reflects ignorance or disengagement is, ironically, disconnected from reality,” he continued. “Even if ‘disengaged’ voting was problematic—and it is not—the Court finds that [the law] does nothing to encourage voters to be any more ‘engaged.’”

In North Dakota, plaintiffs challenged a law that required voters to present certain forms of voter ID and that did not have a “fail safe” provision which would enable a person who did not have the required voter ID to vote, which had existed before the law’s implementation in 2013. Plaintiffs claimed that the law severely burdened the Native American population in North Dakota, and submitted affidavits, studies, surveys, and other data in order to prove it. In response, North Dakota submitted nothing—not a shred of evidence that would back up its claim that the voter ID law was necessary to combat voter fraud.

Nothing wasn’t enough for Judge Daniel L. Hovland, who blocked the law.

“The undisputed evidence before the Court reveals that overcoming these obstacles can be difficult, particularly for an impoverished Native American,” he wrote.

Recognizing North Dakota had a valid interest in preventing voter fraud and promoting voter confidence, Hovland ruled that “those interests would not be undermined by allowing Native American voters, or any other voters who cannot obtain an ID, to present an affidavit or declaration in lieu of one of the four forms of permissible voter IDs.”

“No eligible voter, regardless of their station in life, should be denied the opportunity to vote,” Hovland said.

The losses suffered by Republican-dominated legislatures in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, and North Dakota, combined with federal court decisions striking down other voter restrictions in Kansas and Ohio (both decisions pre-date Whole Woman’s Health but certainly fit into a post-Whole Woman’s Health zeitgeist) suggests that judges are, as Mark Joseph Stern put it in Slate, “fed up with being treated like dolts by Republican legislators who lie through their teeth about the intent of draconian voting restrictions.”

Whole Woman’s Health has provided those irritated judges extra ammunition to shoot down unnecessary voter ID laws.

In a post-Whole Woman’s Health world, courts do not have to simply accept whatever lies a legislature decides to tell as “legislative fact.” If when a legislature says “to promote women’s health and safety,” it is nevertheless apparent that it means “to reduce abortion access,” then that law will not, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it in her two-paragraph Whole Woman’s Health concurrence, survive judicial inspection.

The same can be said of voting rights. Courts do not have to accept “to preserve the integrity of elections” as an explanation when the obvious goal is “to keep people of color from voting.”

States can still say anything. But now, it’s more likely that they’ll have to prove it.

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