New Jersey Must End the Slaughter of Black Mothers

While touting a more progressive and feminist agenda than his predecessor, New Jersey Governor Murphy signed the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act, which will expand the protections of the state’s existing wage and hour law and amend the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to make discrimination in wages on the basis of any protected class an unlawful employment practice. The law should be applauded as a step in the right direction to fix the state’s pay gap disparity. However, New Jersey falls horrifically short when it comes to another women’s issue: maternal health. The maternal health of New Jersey’s women is one of the worst in the country; pregnancy-related deaths, while they are progressively climbing in the United States, is double the national average in the Garden State. Ranking 47thout of 50 in maternal deaths, according to America’s Health Rankings, a report by the United Health Foundations, in New Jersey 37 women die, on average, for every 100,000 live births. The national average is 20.

The disparities for black women in the state are even more grotesque, with African-Americans in New Jersey five times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy related complications. New Jersey’s maternal mortality remains worsethan that of Mississippi(26.5 deaths per 100,000 live births). While New Jersey has one of the lowest infant mortality, the racial gap between Black and White infants is one of the largest in the country. Black babies in New Jersey are three times more likely to die before their first birthday than White babies.

According to a proclamation celebrating the state’s first ever Maternal Health Awareness Day, the leading causes of pregnancy-related death include cardiovascular disease, pregnancy-related heart failure, embolism, septic shock and cerebral hemorrhage. Other factors include obesity, chronic health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, lack of prenatal care, and drug use.

Members of Murphy’s cabinet have highlighted their concerns about the disparity and have proposed ways to help reduce it. Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the Department of Health Commissioner, and Carole Johnson, Commissioner of the Department of Humans Services, have pledged to improve data collection and modernize government systems to provide more efficient, better quality of care that results in fewer racial disparities in general. They also promised to better coordinate government services to help address housing, transportation, nutrition, and other social factors that have a tremendous impact on the health of vulnerable residents.

Toxic racism, especially in northern New Jersey, plays a significant factor in the inequalities between Black and White women, one that transcends economic or healthcare access. New Jersey only has 15% percent Black population, yet they are the worse off for many of the state’s current health, economic, and criminalization issues. Wealthy, well-educated Black women with quality healthcare experience poorer outcomes than White women, regardless of their economic or social status. Improving the current trends of lack of care for Black women requires greater awareness, but changes in healthcare policy also need to be addressed.

Finally, New Jersey’s Black population is overwhelmingly in poverty, far beyond their White counterparts. The state average rate of poverty is 10.9%. For Whites, it’s 8.3%; for African-Americans the rate is 19.7%. For Black women in New Jersey, poverty is a reproductive rights crisis. Poverty leads to lack of pre-natal care, which contributes directly to one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the United States. New Jersey must address universal access to real healthcare for all. Otherwise, the issue of maternal mortality will continue to besmirch the reputation of the Garden State.

(Infographic Credit: Pix 11)

Pregnant asylum seekers in the UK: Punished for being a woman

Most women asylum seekers are fleeing so-called ‘non-political’ violence. Domestic violence, including within the extended family and community, ranks high. So does religious persecution of women and violence against lesbians. Women flee such violence because they know it’s wrong. When women asylum seekers are criminalized for seeking asylum, they are being punished for the knowledge they have as women. That’s a witch-hunt, and that’s what’s happening around the world today.

Last week, world leaders overwhelmingly endorsed the Every Newborn Action Plan, which calls for a global concerted effort to address infant mortality. This endorsement came on the heels of a major report, also released last week, which notes, “Every year, 2·9 million newborn babies die from largely preventable causes, and 2·6 million more are stillborn.” The report argues that every newborn counts, and, implicitly, that every mother of every newborn counts.

Would that it were true.

Around the world, women asylum seekers learn that not all maternities are equal. For example, in the United Kingdom, a recent study found asylum seekers receiving housing and subsistence support from the Home Office are regularly `dispersed’ to areas outside London. Pregnant women seeking asylum are often dispersed very late in their pregnancies or soon after delivery. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has argued that pregnant women asylum seekers have special needs and particular vulnerabilities and need additional and particular support. The Home Office has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that finding. Women asylum seekers have reported the experience of `dispersal’ is distressing. `Dispersal’ interrupted established maternity care. It left women without social and family support. Because of the day-to-day realities of dispersal and of childbirth, many women asylum seekers gave birth alone. Midwives have reported that they do the best they can, but the `dispersal’ system disrupts everything.

A pregnant woman asylum seeker suffered flashbacks from sexual violence in her home country. She was `dispersed’ in late pregnancy. According to her midwife, “She needed some stability and care because she felt confident with the people who were looking after her and felt she could trust them. The best outcome would have been for her not to be transferred especially at that late stage.”

Since 2000, there has been a 9% increase in maternal mortality in the United Kingdom. One of the factors pumping the increase is “poorer access to healthcare, especially in some ethnic minority communities and among asylum seekers.”

The criminalization of asylum seekers is an assault on “mental, developmental and physical health,” and it is part and parcel of global mass incarceration. The criminalization of women asylum seekers inevitably means the pain, suffering and often death of women in childbirth as of their children. And who are these women? Women fleeing torture, seeking justice. Punished for fleeing, punished for remembering, punished for needing, punished for being a woman.

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Swaziland closes a pregnancy to prison pipeline

Vuyesihle Magagula is 21 years old and seven months pregnant. In December of last year, her mother, Shell Dlamini, went to Court and had her daughter committed … to prison. Vuyesihle’s boyfriend, Colani Dlamini, then informed Vuyesihle’s father, Zephaniah Magagula, about Vuyesihle’s incarceration. Vuyesihle’s parents are separated.

Vuyesihle Magagula sat for a month in Mawelawela Correctional Facilities for a month. There never was a charge against her. There never was a claim that she had committed any crime or broken any law.

Today, January 22, 2013, the High Court ordered Vuyesihle Magagula to be released from prison. The Court agreed with Vuyesihle’s father that his daughter was of sound mind and had not been charged with any offense. Therefore her imprisonment was a violation of Chapter III of the Constitution of Swaziland, “Protection and Promotion of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.”

The Court also agreed that prison is not a good place for pregnant women.

Prison is not a good place for pregnant women nor for women who have not been charged with a crime.

Swaziland has 12 prisons. Mawelawela is the one for women. The Swazi prison system is full to bursting, with government reports that there’s no more room at that inn. Much of the overcrowding is made up of prisoners awaiting trial. Something like 25% of prisoners are remand prisoners. But they’re treated exactly the same as convicted prisoners, sharing the same cells, occupying the same time. Torture is common, beatings are common, and rape is common as well. Juvenile offenders and juveniles awaiting trial, children, are often thrown into the adult prisons. There aren’t enough beds, and so what is a State to do?

Of the twelve prisons, Mawelawela isn’t the worse. It’s not overcrowded. Around 15% of its prisoners are awaiting trial. Some children are living with their mothers at Mawelawela. They’re not in special wards. As elsewhere, juveniles and `detainees’ are part of the general population. On the other hand, Mawelawela is said to be “clean”. That’s something, right?

Mawelawela may not be the worst place, but it’s not the right place. Prison is not a place for `wayward girls.’ Vuyesihle Magagula is not the first to be sent to prison for `protection.’ Last December, as she sat in prison, His Majesty’s Correctional Services Commissioner, Mzuthini Ntshangase, announced that prison was open to unruly and naughtly children. Send them over to us, and we’ll teach them. Ostensibly, girls like Nomthetho and Tebenguni are given `a second chance.’

A second chance. Swaziland has the world’s highest incidence of HIV, with 43% incidence of HIV among pregnant women. Vuyesihle Magagula is the face of HIV in Swaziland, and, whether or not she’s HIV+, prison is not a solution to anything.

In the last ten years, infant mortality in Swaziland has increased by 26%. Maternal mortality has increased by 160%. And somehow, in this landscape of mathematics and morbidity, prison is a second chance?

Around the world, `troublesome’ and `troubled’ girls, girls like Ashley Smith in Canada, are sent to prison … for their own good. Ashley Smith died while seven guards watched. They were only following orders. Let’s apply the common and juridical sense of the High Court of Swaziland to the world. Prison is not a good place for pregnant women. Prison is not a good place for children. Prison is not a school, mental health facility, or resource for stressed parents and strained communities. Invest in children. Close the prisons, and open schools, clinics, community centers, and libraries. Do it now.


(Photo Credit: pikerslanefarm/Flickr)


Gender equality is so “sticky”, says the World Bank

The World Bank this week issued its so-called flagship report, The World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development. The report proclaims that “gender equality is at the heart of development.” It goes on to suggest that progress has been made, but it’s spotty or mixed … or “sticky”. Sticky? In almost 400 pages, that word, “sticky”, is the only surprise.

According to the report, for the past 25 years, women have been ascending … with some exceptions. Here are just some of the exceptions to the rule of women’s improvements.

There are more schools and more students in schools, but the excluded, the ones who never get formal education or receive very little, are still overwhelmingly girls. Globally, more women have entered the formal labor market, but women still make up the vast majority of low-wage job holders. The pay gap between women and men continues, and in some cases widens.

According to the report, “culture” is still a hard nut to crack. Household culture, faith based culture, community culture, you name it. In rich countries and poor, women are still at risk of domestic violence, by commission and omission. Women are under attack, and the State too often refuses to do anything.

In fact, “culture” and “economy” have merged … to the detriment of women. In countries with “shining” economic growth, such as India and China, high maternal and child mortality rates continue, as they do in the United States. Rapid income growth has led to higher levels of sex selection. Women are dying in childbirth, and girls are going “missing”. It’s the price of “progress”.

The report calls these “exceptions” “sticky”. They are either “`sticky’ domains” or “`sticky’ problems.” The quotation marks are the World Bank’s, not mine. Sticky? What does that mean? As a term, “sticky” is never defined, although it begs, screams, for some definition. Here’s how “`sticky’ domain” is defined: “Improvements in some domains of gender equality—such as those related to occupational differences or participation in policy making—are bound by constraints that do not shift with economic growth and development. Gender disparities endure even in high-income economies despite the large gains in women’s civil and economic rights in the past century. These outcomes are the result of slow-moving institutional dynamics and deep structural factors that growth alone cannot address.”

That is precisely the sort of sleight-of-hand that feminists have long criticized.  When it comes to women, according to the Bank, the improvements are fine. Growth, like greed, is good. The internal contradictions, the flaws, such as increased violence and broadening poverty, those are not part of growth. Those are … the signs of a backward culture! And the fact that they’re persistent just means they’re … sticky.

“Sticky” was a perfect word choice, because it accurately describes the mentality of this sort of “gender equality and development.” After all, what takes care of persistent “sticky”? A thorough “cleansing”.


(Image Credit: Alberto Barreto / CIPE)

A Better Half: Young Feminists Can Rewrite Half the Sky


In many ways, Half the Sky has occupied much of the consciousness of what can loosely be defined as the newest “generation” of Western feminists. It is assigned routinely in college classrooms. While it has stimulated students in the U.S. to think about women’s issues at a global level, it does so at the expense of feminisms that have, over the past few decades, attempted to recognize and correct abuses of privilege by Westerners conducted in the name of “third world women”.

Looking at the bestseller from the vantage point of a young feminist, one passage captures much of what is problematic about Half the Sky. Discussing ways that readers could get involved, the authors warn, “American feminism must become less parochial, so that it is every bit as concerned with sex slavery in Asia as with Title IX in Illinois… Likewise, Americans of faith should try as hard to save the lives of African women as the lives of unborn fetuses.”

Somehow discussing the obstacles faced by women globally without any mention of colonialism, past or present, Kristof and WuDunn systematically dichotomize the West and “the rest” through such passages.

First, the passage reduces American feminism to an issue that barely begins to shed light on various forms of oppression in many women’s lives today – forms of oppression that are gendered, and also defined by race, class, able-bodiedness, and so forth.

Second, the passage relieves the reader of undertaking any immediate action by creating distance between her (and her apparently post-feminist American existence) and the issues at hand.

Third, Kristof and WuDunn fail to emphasize the importance of Westerners acting as facilitators or supporters of actions led by women at the grassroots themselves. By stepping in, and effectively stepping on local women, to create their own initiatives, the chance for cross-border solidarity is destroyed. This dichotomy reprises the historical legacies of colonial calls to action revolving around purportedly irreconcilable differences between “civilizer” and “uncivilized.”

The passage also argues for a space in global feminism for people who believe that the lives of unborn fetuses are equivalent to those of African women.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, out of the 5.6 million abortions carried out in Africa in 2003, only 100,000 were performed under safe conditions, a direct result of the fact that 92% of female-bodied people of childbearing age in Africa live in countries that have restrictive abortion laws. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 7 maternal deaths in Africa are caused by unsafe abortions. Including anti-choice politics in a book that spends two full chapters on the gravity of maternal mortality seems contradictory, given the statistics. More to the point, it stymies any productive discussion on the struggle for control over women’s bodies and bodily agency as part of all issues examined in Half the Sky.

Throughout Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn refuse to acknowledge any relationships among capitalism, colonial and postcolonial globalized economies, and gendered inequality. For example, at one point they argue, “The factories prefer young women, perhaps because they’re more docile and perhaps because their small fingers are more nimble for assembly or sewing. So the rise of manufacturing has generally raised the opportunities and the status of women. The implication is that instead of denouncing sweatshops, we in the west should be encouraging manufacturing in poor countries, particularly in Africa and the Muslim world.”

Half the Sky argues that sexism is to be found only in far-removed places, that the noble effort of combating sexism in these far-removed places is available to everyone and requires no critical self-analysis or questioning of one’s understanding of women as they exist in their own locality or politics, and that by replacing one kind of oppression with one that benefits industrialized countries, sexism has somehow been defeated.

This cannot become the dominant narrative for young feminists.

And yet it is.

Half the Sky has succeeded in garnering attention towards women’s issues, but its strategies are limiting and ultimately dangerous. How do we retain the momentum and critically, and politically, address the problems?

There must be a way to gain support for feminism that doesn’t rely on easily “marketable” ideas. For now, Half the Sky is the platform we have. We must surround it with other conversations, discussions that press global feminist activists to take responsibility for our actions, including our mistakes. That would be a first step.


Maternal mortality, and it still is news

Causes of maternal death worldwide

Euna Lee and Laura Ling are in prison. Mallika Chopra is haunted by them: “I wanted to share a story about Euna Lee, who along with Laura Ling, has been held in N. Korea for 4 months.  As a mother, the story has been haunting me since I heard it. It haunts me because I can totally relate to Euna’s actions.” Mothers in prison haunt the mothers of the world.

Chopra had dinner with Euna Lee’s husband Michael who recounted the story of how Euna struggled to send him an urgent note: “Euna wanted to make sure that Michael had sent in the registration form for Hana for summer school. Euna had chosen the Korean immersion school for her daughter, but was scared her husband would forget to send in the form! Hearing this story brought tears to my eyes.  Sitting in captivity halfway around the world, a mom is still a mom.” Their daughter Hana is four years old.

Sitting in captivity halfway around the world, a mom is still a mom.

Lisa Belkin read Chopra’s account and was haunted as well: “When a friend of mine was weak with the cancer that would soon kill her, she began leaving Post-It notes around her bedroom for her husband. Thoughts on what to get their two sons for their birthdays. Reminders of playdates that were scheduled for the next few weeks. Suggested grocery lists. A mother is a mother as long as she lives.”

A mother is a mother as long as she lives.

“As long as she lives”. What does that mean in a world in which maternal mortality persists? “Every year some 536 000 women die of complications during pregnancy or childbirth, 99% of them in developing countries. The global maternal mortality ratio of 400 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births in 2005 has barely changed since 1990.”

Improving maternal health is one of the Millenium Development Goals, or MDGs, and it “constitutes the most off-track of all MDGs.” The thing about maternal mortality, about deaths in pregnancy or in childbirth complications is that almost all of them are preventable. Family planning, education, access to maternal and reproductive health care services would do the trick. A bit of money, a bout of commitment, and a dose of recognition that women actually matter would suffice.

Preventable maternal mortality haunts the globe.

Take South Africa, for example, whose Department of Health recently released a report on how the country is failing to save pregnant women and mothers. The report is titled Saving Mothers 2005 – 2007.

According to the report, “38.4% of the deaths were clearly avoidable within the health care system….There were 1519 (38.4%) clearly avoidable deaths within the health system….This is approximately the same as reported in 2002-2004 where the clearly avoidable deaths 36.7%….Four out of five of clearly avoidable maternal deaths were due to complications of hypertension, obstetric haemorrhage, pregnancy related sepsis and non-pregnancy related infections.  The ways to prevent these deaths are known. Specific protocols have been developed and these have been included in the recommendations given in the previous report.  Despite this, the most important avoidable factor is still substandard care. . . .Delay in seeking help was the most common patient related avoidable factor. The exact meaning of this is hard to establish as assessors can only use the data available in the case notes.  If lack of transport or other factors inhibiting the woman seeking help is not recorded in the notes, the assessor will not be able to document them. Independent research has indicated most of the delays are due to the inability to access transport especially at night leading to delay, rather than lack of knowledge or concern by the patient.”

Women’s delays in seeking help is more often than not a factor of inaccessible transport than of the woman’s knowledge or concern. That is, it’s a function of everyday life for poor women, and especially for poor rural women, living and dying in South Africa. Those women, they haunt the trains, the collective taxis, the buses, the side of the road. They haunt the clinics and hospitals to which they never arrived and when they did, they were poorly cared for.

The report’s Conclusion is short, bitter, and to the point. Here it is in its entirety: “The final comment of the 1999-2001 report was “Every woman who becomes pregnant and continues with her pregnancy does so in the expectation of delivering a healthy child and the joy and satisfaction of watching the child grow.  Surely, it is the duty of society and the health care profession to do the utmost to fulfil this expectation?  To this end, the deficiencies identified in this report must be urgently addressed.  The committee are anxious to see clear signs of progress by the next triennial report”.   Unfortunately this, with the notable exception of women dying from complications of hypertension in pregnancy, has not come to pass.  We will have to redouble our efforts.”

This is not just about South Africa nor is it about the `developing world’. This is about the globe. Them that’s got shall get. Them that’s not shall lose. So the Bible said, and it still is news.

Women who die of pregnancy and childbirth complications haunt the world. We mourn their loss, their absence, and honor their lives. Women who die of preventable pregnancy and childbirth complications, on the other hand, haunt our every days and every nights. We must do as they have done. Howl. We must do more than write reports and articles that begin and conclude, “As we said before, and it still is news.”

(Image Credit: Public Health Association of South Africa)