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3/7/2014 - Senate Blocks Military Justice Improvement Act

The US Senate blocked passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). The 55-45 vote on the bill, sponsored by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), reflected a bipartisan majority, but MJIA did not receive the 60 procedural votes needed to break a filibuster and progress.

"I always hoped we could do the right thing here - and deliver a military justice system that is free from bias and conflict of interest - a military justice system that is worthy of the brave men and women who fight for us," said Senator Gillibrand in comments delivered after the vote.

MJIA, S. 1752, would have removed the prosecution of sexually violent crimes in the military from the chain-of-command and given the responsibility to independent military prosecutors. It was originally an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 (NDAA), but Senator Gillibrand re-introduced it as a separate stand-alone measure. The Armed Services Committee and the Pentagon heavily opposed the bill.

Senator Gillibrand also thanked the effort and commitment of those who had helped her champion the bill, including especially survivors of sexual assault in the military. "We owe our gratitude to the brave survivors who, despite being betrayed by their chain of command, continue to serve their country by fighting for a justice system that will help make sure no one else suffers the same tragedy they did Their struggles, sacrifice and courage inspire me every day. They may not wear the uniform anymore, but they believe so strongly in these reforms that for a full year now, they marched the halls of this Congress, reliving the horror they endured, telling their stories, in hopes that no one else who serves our country has to suffer as they did. Tragically, today the Senate failed them." The Senator vowed, however, that "we will not walk away, we will continue to work harder than ever in the coming year to strengthen our military."

After voting against MJIA, the Senate then voted to advance the Victim Protection Act of 2014, which would expand upon reforms passed last year - such as prohibiting defendants from using evidence of their good military character to fight charges - but would continue to allow commanders to handle sexual assault within their ranks.

President Obama in December called for a year-long review of military sexual trauma and the steps being taken to reduce it. The 2014 NDAA also included provisions to address military sexual assault. Under the 2014 NDAA, an individual in the military who sexually assaults another will face dishonorable discharge, and commanders will not be able to overturn jury decisions. Legal assistance will be provided for victims, and retaliation against a victim will be punished.


3/7/2014 - Study Finds Continuing Gender Gap in Medical Research

Although 20 years have passed since the government instituted legislation requiring adequate female representation in medical studies, a recent study finds that a significant sex and gender gap still persists in medical research.

"Sex-Specific Medical Research: Why Women's Health Can't Wait" by researchers at the Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Jacobs Institute at George Washington University Hospital finds that scientists still fail to account for differences between males and females. This discrepancy persists through all stages of research and affects the ability of general practitioners to provide proper care to women.

According to Dr. Paula Johnson, one of the authors of the report, studies either fail to include enough women or fail to break down the results by sex. This is particularly problematic because diseases and medications impact men and women differently. "The science that informs medicine routinely fails to consider the impact of sex and gender, and this occurs at some of the earliest stages of research -- from animal to human studies," said Johnson.

In response to this report, presented at the Women's Health Summit in Boston on Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren has publicly stated her intention to push for new laws that would create greater oversight for federal agencies and ensure greater representation of women in medical research. She aims to mandate that the number of women represented in a study is proportional to the number who have the disease.

Feminist scholars and advocates in the 1970s and 80s had pointed out that women (and even female animals) were excluded from most clinical studies and lobbied for a change in the prevailing practice. When this medical research gender gap gained public recognition, women's health advocates, feminist activists and scholars, and women members of Congress fought hard for change. In a hard won victory, President Bill Clinton signed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act of 1993, mandating that women and minorities be included in clinical studies funded by the NIH. The FDA also reversed a policy that women of childbearing age could not be in clinical trials for drug approval, and the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established women's health offices in 1994, as reported by Mary Jane Horton in the Ms. magazine Winter/Spring 2014 issue.


3/6/2014 - Michigan State University Under Federal Investigation for Handling of Sexual Assault Cases

The US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is currently investigating Michigan State University (MSU) for its potential mishandling of sexual assault cases.

A student who was allegedly sexually assaulted in an MSU dorm room in August 2010 by two student athletes filed charges against the university under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex. Campus police investigated the alleged rape and brought information to the county police department, which declined to prosecute. MSU has not provided any information to the press concerning whether or how the student's charges were addressed through any on-campus disciplinary process.

Occidental College professors Caroline Heldman and Danielle Dirks report in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Ms. magazine, that 1 in 5 women in the US will experience a rape or an attempted rape at some point during her years in college. Unfortunately, many universities have mishandled sexual assault cases and now face investigations, most recently the University of California at Berkeley. To improve this situation, President Obama recently created an inter-agency task force to develop recommendations for universities to prevent campus rape and for federal agencies to hold accountable schools that do not adequately address sexual violence.


3/6/2014 - US Honors Afghan Doctor as an International Woman of Courage

Dr. Nasrin Oryakhil, president of the Afghan Family Health Association, was among 10 women honored this week by the US State Department with an International Women of Courage award.

Dr. Nasrin, a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology, operated an underground women's health clinic in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, providing urgently needed maternal health services, including emergency obstetric care. "Sometimes in the evening, Taliban members would barge into her clinic and beat her, demanding her to stop working and start praying," relayed Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, presenting the award. "But she continued working, praying only that God would bring change to her country. One night, after the Taliban assaulted her, Dr. Nasrin went on to perform 17 surgeries."

Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Nasrin, directs the Malalai Maternity Hospital in Kabul and founded the first clinic for obstetric fistula repair in Afghanistan there. Dr. Nasrin is a member of the Afghan Women's Network and also leads the Afghan Family Health Association, which provides a variety of services to women and girls, including reproductive health programs, a youth hotline, and shelters for women.

Accepting the award, Dr. Nasrin expressed that "the hope of women around the world one day will be materialized when they find themselves in an environment that truly recognizes and appreciates the real essence of being a woman and a mother."

Since 2007, the US State Department has honored 70 women from 49 countries with the International Women of Courage award in recognition of their work advocating for women's rights, human rights, and peace.


3/6/2014 - Senate Rejects Qualified Obama Nominee to Lead DOJ Civil Rights Division

The US Senate blocked President Obama's nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice.

Senators voted 47-52 yesterday in opposition to Debo Adegbile, a highly qualified attorney who worked in private practice at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison before holding several leadership positions at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, including Director of Litigation, Acting President, Director-Counsel, and Special Counsel, and serving as senior counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee.

Adegbile is a voting rights expert. He has twice defended the Voting Rights Act before the US Supreme Court, including in Shelby County v. Holder, the case in which the Court, by a 5-4 vote, invalidated the preclearance formula - meant to protect against pervasive discrimination in voting - in Section 4 of the Act. The Civil Rights Division enforces the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws that protect the right to vote.

Those opposed to the Adegbile's nomination claimed they were concerned about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal on an appeal during Adegbile's tenure at the organization. Abu-Jamal was convicted of the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer and sentenced to death. After his conviction, NAACP LDF represented Abu-Jamal in an appeal focusing on the propriety of the sentencing instructions given to the jury. A federal court twice sided with Abu-Jamal, finding that his constitutional rights had been violated and commuting his sentence from death to life imprisonment.

President Obama issued a strong statement calling the failure of the Senate to approve Adegbile's nomination "a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant. Mr. Adegbile's qualifications are impeccable. He represents the best of the legal profession, with wide-ranging experience, and the deep respect of those with whom he has worked. His unwavering dedication to protecting every American's civil and Constitutional rights under the law - including voting rights - could not be more important right now."

Barbara Arnwine, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, commented that the Senate vote "reflects a larger and extremely troubling attack on civil rights taking place on the Senate floor and Capitol Hill. The day that a nominee of this caliber is blocked for supporting voting rights, diversity programs in higher education, and the equal protection of all citizens in the criminal justice system, "signals a moment in our history that we as Americans must take a hard look at the direction we as a democracy are headed."

Civil Rights groups also expressed concern about the Senate's improper use of the Mumia Abu-Jamal case to defeat the nomination. "Today's filibuster should concern every person who care about our justice system," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Every person deserves adequate legal representation. Our system won't work if talented attorneys refuse to represent unpopular clients."


3/6/2014 - Three More Texas Abortion Clinics Forced To Close

Three more abortion clinics in Texas have been forced to close this week, thanks to extreme restrictions passed last summer. Texas had 44 abortion clinics just 3 years ago, but only 19 have survived the onslaught of restrictive laws so far. If the laws are not changed or blocked by courts in the next few months, Texas could be down to only 6 clinics in September, a frightening number in a state where there are currently about 70,000 legal abortion procedures each year. The abortion clinic closures, coupled with the closing of some 55 family planning clinics after Texas cut their funding, has already created a crisis in availability of reproductive health services. Already, experts, such as Amy Hagstrom, Founder of the Whole Women's Health, are reporting that some Texas women are resorting to dangerous self-induced or illegal abortions.

"As a result of additional provisions of this law, the number will likely decrease to six as of September 1," Charlotte Taft, the director of the Abortion Care Network said in a statement. "Services will only be in the largest cities. There will be hundreds of miles without any safe abortion care. With a population of nearly 27 million people, this is a state of emergency for Texas women."

The law in question, HB 2, passed last summer and has been kept in place after several ongoing court battles. It restricts the prescription of medication abortion, bans abortion after 20 weeks, requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles, and mandates that facilities where abortion is performed meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.

Of these regulations, the admitting privileges requirement and surgical center standards are the most onerous. The admitting privileges requirement is a catch-22 law. The abortion clinic doctors have simply been refused admitting privileges. Doctors are not receiving admitting privileges because of political pressure - and some doctors cannot receive them because they have to be flown in from other areas because of threats to local doctors. What's more, in the rare case of a complication requiring hospital admission, the hospital must admit the patient, whether or not the doctor has admitting privileges at that hospital. In addition, the surgical center standards impose high costs for unnecessary structural and operational changes, and very little time to adhere to them.

The three clinics that closed this week were located in communities with high poverty rates and many uninsured or underinsured residents. Two were in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest areas in the United States, which now does not have even one reproductive health clinic left. Rio Grande women will be forced to travel two and a half hours to reach the nearest abortion clinic. The dozens of clinic closures in Texas have had a significant impact on low-income and rural women who often do not have the money or means of transportation to travel long distances to a clinic.


3/5/2014 - USDA Expands Access to Healthy Food for Low-Income Women And Children

Two million women and seven million children will now have greater access to a variety of nutritious food options, thanks to the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) expansion of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The revision of the program - which provides supplemental food vouchers to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women, and infants and children through the age of five - began in 2007 when fruit and vegetable allowances were introduced, and was finalized last week. Previously, women using the program vouchers could only buy limited basics such as milk, infant formula, eggs, bread and tuna fish, among other items. The comprehensive expansion will allow women to use food vouchers to purchase more whole grain items, yogurt as a partial milk substitute, and fresh produce instead of jarred infant food for older children. It will also boost each child's fruit and vegetable purchase allowance by 30 percent, or $2 per month, and it will give states and local WIC agencies more flexibility to decide what to offer.

"The updates to the WIC food package make pivotal improvements to the program and better meet the diverse nutritional needs of mothers and their young children," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. According to the USDA, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already shown greater health outcomes and lower obesity rates in low-income preschoolers that are possibly linked to these changes.

This is the first comprehensive revision of WIC since 1980, and it coincides with the program's 40th anniversary. The changes are based on more modern nutrition science and recommendations from the National Academies' Institute of Medicine and the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They will be implemented in phases through April 2015.


3/5/2014 - Wisconsin City Council Passes 160-Foot Buffer Zone Ordinance

The Madison, Wisconsin city council unanimously passed a buffer zone ordinance last week to protect people entering or exiting healthcare clinics, including women's reproductive healthcare clinics, in the city. The new ordinance will require a 160-foot buffer zone around all healthcare clinics and a floating 8-foot buffer zone around people entering the clinics, with fines up to $750 for those who violate the boundaries.

"No one attempting to access any type of health care should be greeted with physical confrontation, protesters in their face, or forcing leaflets into their hands," said Janet Dye, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. "Madison's newly passed buffer zone will protect patient privacy and dignity while accessing health care."

Just after the ordinance passed, anti-abortion group, Madison Vigil for Life, filed a legal challenge to the law, claiming that it violates the First Amendment, and asked a federal judge to issue an immediate injunction. The court rejected that request, leaving the law in place pending the resolution of the case.

Clinic safety buffer zones are also a focus of the US Supreme Court this term. In the coming months, the Court will decide the fate of a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot safety buffer zone around women's reproductive health clinics. The Court heard arguments in McCullen v Coakley in January. The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) joined other women's and civil rights organizations to file an amicus brief in support of the Massachusetts law. FMF brought the first lawsuit in the nation on buffer zones to the US Supreme Court in 1994. That case, Madsen v. Women's Health Center, established the constitutionality of an injunction creating a clinic safety buffer zone in Florida.


3/5/2014 - Saudi Women Demand End To Absolute Male Authority

Ten Saudi women are petitioning the Saudi Arabia consultative Shura Council to demand an end to absolute male authority over women.

Activist Aziza Yousef told AFP news agency over the weekend that the activists are demanding "measures to protect women's rights," as well as the right for women to drive, ahead of International Women's Day on March 8. They argue that the restrictions women face in Saudi Arabia, which imposes a strict interpretation of Islamic law, are not based in religious teachings.

Saudi women received the right to vote in 2011, but they are prohibited from driving and from working, travelling, and even performing certain medical procedures without a male guardian. In October, over 60 women drove in an ongoing campaign to obtain the right to drive, the lack of which limits their mobility and economic opportunities.

The Shura Council, appointed by the King, advises the monarch but cannot legislate on its own.


3/4/2014 - FDA Broadens Access to Emergency Contraception Over-the-Counter

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last week that generic versions of Plan B One Step will now be available over-the-counter to women of all ages.

The FDA removed age and point-of-sale restrictions on Teva Pharmaceutical's Plan B One Step in June 2013, but the agency also gave Teva a three-year protection from generic competition, meaning that generic versions of the emergency contraception (EC) could only be obtained behind the pharmacy counter and only be obtained without a prescription by women over 17 years old. By retaining these restrictions, the FDA effectively limited access for low-income women and girls.

Kathleen Uhl, Acting Director of the Office of Generic Drugs in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research announced the policy shift, stating that the FDA would lift the restrictions on generic competitors of Plan B One Step effective immediately. Although generic pills will have a label indicating the medicine is intended for people 17 and older, ID is no longer a requirement for access.

"This is a significant leap forward in obtaining full over-the-counter status for emergency contraception and we commend the FDA for this decision," said Jessica Arons, President and CEO of Reproductive Health Technologies Project. "EC can be used safely and effectively by people of all ages and it should be available without unnecessary and arbitrary barriers."


3/4/2014 - Marissa Alexander Now Faces Up To 60 Years in Prison

Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who was imprisoned for firing warning shots against her abusive husband, will face up to 60 years of prison during her re-trial in July.

Alexander was initially sentenced to 20 years for firing warning shots during an altercation with Rico Gray, her estranged and formerly abusive husband. Nobody was injured when Alexander fired the shots into the air, although according to Alexander, Gray was threatening her life at the time. Alexander's initial sentence reflected three 20-year sentences to be served concurrently, but Florida state prosecutor Angela Corey will now seek to sentence Alexander to consecutive sentences totaling 60 years in prison.

"Remember that this entire case boils down to a woman defending her life from her husband who attacked her, strangled her, threatened to kill her, whose beatings have sent her to the hospital and likely caused her to have premature labor," said Sumayya Fire, a Victim Advocate with Free Marissa Now. "Now [Alexander is] facing the very real possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison for that act of self-defense. That should send a chill down the back of every person in this country who believes that women who are attacked have the right to defend themselves."

Corey unsuccessfully prosecuted George Zimmerman for murder charges after he killed Florida teen Trayvon Martin, but her stance on Alexander has angered many advocates and Florida residents. Like Zimmerman, Alexander is being prosecuted under the state's infamous Stand Your Ground law, which allows Floridians to resort to deadly violence when they believe their lives may be in imminent danger, and qualifies such actions as self-defense even if no attempt to retreat was made. Unlike Zimmerman, Alexander has been unable to persuade officials in her case that she was acting in self-defense, despite Gray's own admission that he has previously threatened her life.

A Florida appeals court in September ordered a new trial for Alexander after finding that the trial judge had issued improper jury instructions on self-defense. Alexander, who has three children, was released on bail last year.


3/4/2014 - Students File Two Federal Complaints Against UC Berkeley for Mishandling Campus Sexual Assault Cases

Thirty-one current and former students filed a federal Title IX complaint against the University of California at Berkeley last week, alleging that the university had discouraged reporting of campus sexual assault, failed to inform victims of their rights, and had mishandled sexual assault cases being heard through the school's disciplinary process. The complaint comes after a student government ruling last April of no confidence in the university's sexual assault policies as well as an investigation into four public California universities by the state auditor.

This is the second complaint filed by Berkeley students against the university. An earlier complaint, filed by nine students in May 2013, alleged that the university was purposefully under-reporting sexually violent crimes on campus in violation of the Clery Act. The US Department of Education has yet to respond to the students' May complaint, prompting, in part, this most recent complaint, which now includes 22 new student and alumni testimonies.

"Neither the Department of Education nor UC Berkeley have made the efforts necessary to address the pervasive culture of sexual violence on our campus," said Sofie Karasek, one of the students who filed the complaint. "This is not only disappointing; it is also dangerous for the students who attend college here, and is representative of a larger problem: the federal government is not adequately enforcing its own laws."

Occidental College professors Caroline Heldman and Danielle Dirks report in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Ms. magazine, that 1 in 5 women in the US will experience a rape or an attempted rape at some point during her years in college. "But there's hope and evidence that this situation is changing, as a reinvigorated campus anti-rape movement is burgeoning across the country," they write. "The tools of this movement - Title IX complaints, the Clery Act, group lawsuits and social media - have effectively brought school mishandling of sexual assault and rape into the national discourse."

Although UC Berkeley did not formally comment on the complaint last week, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks issued a statement announcing a new university position created to investigate sexual assault claims and help survivors navigate the reporting process as well as a new policy allowing victims to appeal decisions in their internal cases.


2/28/2014 - Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas Gay Marriage Ban

A federal judge in San Antonio yesterday declared Texas' ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

US District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled that the state's ban on gay marriage deprived same-sex couples of due process and equal protection by stigmatizing their relationships and treating them differently than their opposite-sex counterparts. "Tradition, alone, cannot form a rational basis for a law," he wrote. In his decision, Garcia addressed common tropes against marriage equality, finding that "limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples fails the welfare of children" and that "procreation is not and has never been a qualification for marriage."

"Today's court decisions is not made in defiance of the great people of Texas or the Texas legislature, but in compliance with US Constitution and Supreme Court precedent," Garcia wrote in his decision [PDF], citing the Supreme Court's ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act was found unconstitutional last June and the growing marriage equality movement across the nation.

Garcia issued a stay on his preliminary injunction against a 2003 law and a 2005 constitutional amendment, meaning no marriages can take place following the ruling. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot - who is running for governor - has said the state will appeal. Texas Democrats, however, celebrated the decision.

"Those in control of this state need to stop fighting the future," said Texas Senate Democratic Chairman Kirk Watson of Austin. "They must stop governing by fear. They must stop pretending there's some security blanket in laws that treat others unfairly."

The case was filed by two Texas couples: two women with a child looking for the state to recognize their out-of-state marriage and two men who wished to marry.


2/28/2014 - Female Afghan Parliamentarian Speaks Out About Women's Progress in Afghanistan

Fawzia Koofi, a female member of the Afghan parliament, published an open letter this week to American women, urging them to continue standing shoulder-to-shoulder with women in Afghanistan.

Koofi's letter, entitled "A Letter to My American Sisters," dispels the media myth that women's lives have not improved since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. In the last 12 years, women have made significant gains in Afghanistan. Afghan women have established a strong and thriving feminist movement. They outpace American women in elected office, are visible in the media, and hold jobs in medicine, law, the police force, the military, and more.

"If the world could only see through our eyes," Koofi writes, "they might get a glimpse of the fact that Afghan women have come a long way over the last decade."

This is not to say that the journey for Afghan women is over. "While no one can question the gains made by the Afghan people, especially the women, our achievements remain extremely fragile," Koofi continues. "This is partly due to the country's uncertain political future and doubts about the international community's long-term commitment, especially that of the United States."

Koofi ended her letter by calling on the United States and the international community not to abandon the women of Afghanistan and to "help us a little more in fighting extremism, consolidating our gains, moving toward ending violence against women, and achieving something that all women around the world want: equality for both genders and for all."

This is an important time of transition for the Afghan people and their supporters. It is imperative that the U.S. and the international community ensure that Afghan civil society organizations, including women-led groups, remain strong. In particular, we must continue to support women's advancement and equality in Afghanistan.

TAKE ACTION: Pledge with us to support Afghan women and Afghan women's organizations. Let them know that we are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the fight for women's and girls' equality. And urge President Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would help to protect Afghan women's rights.


2/27/2014 - Arizona Governor Vetoes Bill Permitting Use of Religion as Cover to Discriminate

Stating yesterday that Arizona "Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific and present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona," Governor Jan Brewer (R) vetoed the bill, which would have allowed Arizona businesses to refuse services to individuals based on religious objections.

The bill was strongly opposed by LGBT groups who have seen businesses in other states - such as florists, photographers, and bakers - refuse to provide services to same-sex couples. Members of the Arizona business community also opposed the bill, as did politicians on both sides.

With today's veto, Governor Brewer spared her state from institutional discrimination and economic catastrophe. Make no mistake, there is no better way to doom jobs in a state than by signing license-to-discriminate bills, said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which delivered 65,000 petition signatures urging Governor Brewer to veto the bill. The bipartisan outpouring of opposition to this bill is all the proof you need that this country isn't turning backwards. Governor Brewer did the right thing in stopping this assault on businesses and the LGBT community and we call on her and the legislature--and governors and legislators in other states--to resist any attempt to give license to discrimination.

The State of Arizona began losing money shortly after the bill passed in the state legislature. The Hispanic National Bar Association announced that it would no longer hold its annual convention in Arizona in 2015 over concerns about the law. Other economic opportunities for the state were also threatened: the National Football League announced it would consider moving next year's Super Bowl from Arizona to another state; the Arizona and Lodging and Tourism Association received hundreds of calls from tourists and business travelers intending to boycott travel to Arizona; and several major corporations, including Apple, American Airlines, and AT&T, Intel, and Verizon called for a veto after expressing significant concerns.

Even as the Arizona measure failed, the US Supreme Court is set to hear arguments March 25 from two for-profit companies that similarly seek to discriminate based on religious grounds. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood are challenging the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), arguing that they should be allowed to refuse to provide insurance coverage for birth control because of religious objections.

"Religion should not be used as a cover for profit-making businesses to discriminate against women," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal, "nor should women be held hostage to their boss' personal religious beliefs."

Tell the Supreme Court to let women, not bosses, make women's personal decisions about birth control and health! Sign our petition, and then join us outside the Court on March 25 to make your voice heard.


2/26/2014 - Libya To Compensate Victims of Rape During 2011 Conflict

Libya's cabinet introduced a decree last week that will recognize women raped during the 2011 uprising as war victims and provide them with compensation. Compensation could come in the form of financial assistance, a safe place to stay, and physical and psychological health care.

While there are no confirmed figures, it is estimated that hundreds of women were raped during the 8-month conflict that toppled Muammar Gaddafi. The International Criminal Court collected evidence that Colonel Gaddafi ordered the rape of women as a weapon against rebel forces.

Rape victims often face stigma in the conservative country, so it is likely that many victims will not come forward. Libya's justice minister Salah al-Marghani said money could be provided to "elevate the status of victims, so they are not looked at as a burden," by sending victim's parents to Hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

The BBC says the decree awaits congressional approval, but the justice ministry will not wait for passage in order to avoid further delays in compensation.

For many victims of war, resources provided by US humanitarian aid ease their suffering; but for victims of war rape care is limited. Survivors of war rape are often denied access to comprehensive medical care that includes the option of abortion, largely because of US policy that is wrongly interpreted to place anti-abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid in conflict zones - in direct violation of international human rights and humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions. Girls and women systematically raped during conflict face increased rates of maternal mortality, permanent reproductive damage, and obstetric fistula, in addition to isolation and trauma. Without access to the option of abortion care, victims are forced to risk their health - either by carrying unwanted pregnancies to term, seeking dangerous methods of abortion or, in many tragic cases, taking their own lives.

TAKE ACTION: Urge President Obama to issue an executive order lifting the ban on abortion restrictions in conflict zones, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.


2/26/2014 - Afghan Ministry of Justice Amends Criminal Procedure Code to Protect Women Victims of Violence

Afghanistan's Ministry of Justice (MOJ) amended a controversial provision of the draft Afghan Criminal Procedure Code - Article 26 - that would have barred relatives from testifying against each other in criminal proceedings, including in cases of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. President Hamid Karzai had earlier responded to concerns from Afghan women's organizations about this provision by refusing to sign the Code into law unless MOJ made changes to Article 26.

The Afghan Women's Network, with over one hundred women-led organizations, came out strongly against the provision, holding a press conference to broadcast their opposition to the bill, and then leading a public protest through the streets of downtown Kabul. Members of the Network highlighted how the law would effectively prevent the government from prosecuting cases of violence against women, embolden perpetrators of that violence, and essentially validate discrimination against women.

This is a victory for Afghan women who have been fighting for better enforcement of laws that make violence against women a crime - including rape, domestic assault, honor killings, child marriage, and baad, the practice of resolving disputes by giving away one's daughters.

Women's rights and freedom from violence will be even better protected if President Karzai signs the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States. The Obama Administration has indicated that failure to finalize the agreement could lead to a complete pullout of US forces and the loss of billions of dollar in international aid. Afghanistan would be left vulnerable to greater influence by the Taliban, who had previously stripped women of all human rights and forced them into a state of virtual house arrest.

TAKE ACTION: Pledge with us to support Afghan women and Afghan women's organizations. Let them know that we are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the fight for women's and girls' equality. And you can urge President Karzai to sign the BSA agreement. Without this agreement, the tremendous gains made by Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban will be in jeopardy.


2/26/2014 - Massachusetts Governor Issues Emergency Regulations Banning Shackling of Pregnant Inmates

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed emergency regulations last week banning the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women.

The regulations will "immediately prohibit the state corrections department from shackling pregnant inmates at the ankle and waist during their second or third trimesters, during labor and childbirth, and immediately postpartum," according to RH Reality Check. They will expire after 90 days.

Deval also urged the state legislature to pass the Anti-Shackling Bill before the regulations expire. It would ban shackling and provide comprehensive health care for pregnant inmates, and it is currently moving through committees.

"Shackling is unsafe and inhumane, and it is shocking that this practice continues in 2014," said Megan Amundson, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts."We applaud the Governor's initiative to prohibit this barbaric practice and join him in urging Massachusetts lawmakers to send the Anti-Shackling Bill to his desk to be signed into law this session and ensure consistent basic medical standards to support healthy pregnancies and deliveries for all pregnant women in the Commonwealth."

Shackling increases the risk of falling and injury prior to giving birth and the risk of blood clots post-partum. Restraints can interfere with medical professionals' ability to care for patients during labor, especially in emergency situations.

Currently, only 18 states have laws banning shackling. Five states have introduced legislation to prohibit it so far this year.


2/25/2014 - Court Rules Against Notre Dame's Contraception Mandate Appeal

In a 2-1 ruling on Friday, the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals for Chicago denied the University of Notre Dame's request for immediate relief from complying with the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) contraception mandate, upholding a lower court's ruling.

The Roman Catholic university filed a lawsuit in May 2012 against the Department of Health and Human Services, claiming that complying with the ACA's contraception mandate would violate its religious beliefs. The government actually exempts religious employers from having to provide contraceptive coverage to its employees; they must only fill out a simple certification that such coverage would violate their religious principles, and a third party administrator will cover the contraceptives instead.

"If the government is entitled to require that female contraceptives be provided to women free of charge, we have trouble understanding how signing the form that declares Notre Dame's authorized refusal to pay for contraceptives for its students or staff, and mailing the authorization document to those companies, which under federal law are obligated to pick up the tab, could be thought to 'trigger' the provision of female contraceptives," Judge Richard Posner wrote in an opinion. The court also found that the university had not shown that compliance created a substantial burden.

The Affordable Care Act has made it much easier for women to get affordable, quality health care coverage that fits their needs. It guarantees that plans cover FDA-approved contraceptives without co-pays or deductibles, cancer screenings, domestic violence counseling, and well women exams, as well as maternal care, mental health care, and pediatric services - among many others. It also does not allow insurance policies to charge women more simply because of their gender.

TAKE ACTION: Over 40 profit-making companies have tried to prevent women from accessing free contraceptives by filing lawsuits, and some have made their way to the Supreme Court. Tell the Supreme Court: My Body, My BC!


2/25/2014 - Ohio Passes Laws Ending or Restricting Early and Absentee Voting

Last Wednesday, the state legislature passed a bill that would eliminate the Golden Week, a 6-day early voting period wherein individuals could register and cast their votes prior to Election Day. It was signed into law on Friday by Governor John Kasich, who also recently approved a law making it more difficult for voters to receive absentee ballots and more likely that such ballots will be thrown out.

In 2012, nearly 60,000 Ohio voters took advantage of the Golden Week. The flexibility provided by this program facilitated voting by elderly individuals, minorities, low-income persons, and others who have limited time or transportation capabilities.

The implications of the new restrictions are multiple. The changes could disenfranchise a large number of people who might now be unable to access polls and participate in elections, such as elderly persons or military members. It will also likely increase waiting periods at the polls on Election Day, deterring voting even further. With Ohio remaining a key presidential swing state, the voting restrictions could have national impacts if they remain in place.

In response to the passage of these laws, the state Democratic Party has already announced an intention to sue to prevent them from taking effect. "This is unconscionable, inexcusable and likely illegal under the voting rights acts," said state Rep. Debbie Phillips.


2/25/2014 - Ugandan President Signs Anti-Gay Bill Into Law

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a controversial anti-gay bill into law yesterday.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, passed by parliament in December, could put people in prison for life if they engage in "aggravated homosexuality," which means engaging in acts where someone is infected with HIV, having sex with minors, or being "serial offenders." People who offer services to LGBTQ people, such as human rights groups, could also face criminal charges and years in prison.

In response, Norway and Denmark have already cut off aid to the Ugandan government, and Sweden and the US are considering a similar response. Homosexuality had already been illegal in Uganda, but this law was the first to prevent NGOs from reaching out to LGBTQ populations, and was the first to include lesbians.

To make matters worse for the LGBTQ community in the country, a Ugandan magazine, Red Pepper, today published a list of the :top 200 homosexuals" in the country. Several prominent activists were included on the list, but the tabloid also named a number of individuals who have not yet publicly identified themselves as gay. Those named may now face a greater risk of violence or criminal charges.


2/24/2014 - Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case to Limit Access to Women's Healthcare Centers

The United States Supreme Court announced today that it will not review a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals protecting the right of Arizona Medicaid recipients to visit healthcare providers who also perform abortions.

Planned Parenthood sued to prevent Arizona House Bill 2800 from taking effect. The law would have prevented doctors and clinics that perform abortions from being Medicaid-eligible providers. According to reports, the law would have stopped Medicaid reimbursements to more than 80 Arizona hospitals and clinics that provide a wide range of women's healthcare services, including birth control, cancer screenings, and STD treatment, and would have impacted thousands of low-income women in the state.

"The men and women of this state have the right to see the health care provider they deem is best for them," said Bryan Howard, president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona. "Thousands of low-income women rely on Planned Parenthood for breast and cervical cancer screenings, birth control, and other basic health care. Politics should never interfere with a woman's access to vital services."

The bill was passed by the Arizona legislature and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in 2012, but Planned Parenthood challenged it before it could be enforced. The Ninth Circuit ruled in August 2013 that the bill violates the federal Medicaid Act requirement that gives patients the freedom to choose their healthcare providers. The state of Arizona then tried to appeal to the Supreme Court without success.

According to Planned Parenthood Action Fund, "since 2011, eight federal courts - six federal district courts and two courts of appeals - have ruled that states may not disqualify Planned Parenthood from providing preventive health services. The Supreme Court has now twice declined to review these decisions." The Supreme Court also recently declined to review another Arizona anti-abortion bill that would have banned abortion 20 weeks after a woman's last menstrual period.


2/24/2014 - Bolivian Court Relaxes Requirements for Women Seeking Abortion

Bolivia's highest court issued a decision last week to remove the requirement that women must obtain judicial authorization in order to have a legal abortion.

Bolivia's constitution guarantees equal treatment to all citizens, including women and indigenous peoples. In 2012, Legislator Patricia Mancilla filed a challenge to the constitutionality of several penal code articles that she found discriminatory against women, leading to the court's decision.

"Once again a Latin American court has ruled that governments should not stand in the way of women seeking legal health services," said Gillian Kane, senior policy advisor at Ipas, a global nonprofit that works to increase women's ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and to reduce maternal mortality. "This opinion follows earlier favorable court rulings from Mexico City and Colombia, and adds to a growing body of national and international jurisprudence that affirms women's rights to legal abortion."

Ipas reported that the Plurinational Constitutional Court's ruling included several important points: the court ruled that the decision to keep or terminate a pregnancy should rest only with the woman and not be affected by the beliefs of judges or attorneys and also said that the removal of the judicial authorization requirement will improve fast access to safe abortion services, among other points. "While this decision is a positive change in Bolivia's punitive abortion laws, it is only a first step," Kane added. "There are still significant legal barriers that many women will not be able to overcome, and we know they will turn to unsafe abortion."

According to Ipas, 95 percent of abortions in Latin America - a region with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world - are done secretly and unsafely, which significantly increases the potential for injury and death for women.


2/21/2014 - Republican Senators Introduce Bill to Limit Benefits for Same-Sex Spouses

Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced a bill last week that would give states the power to decide whether to give married lesbian and gay couples the same federal benefits that heterosexual married couples receive.

The introduction of the so-called State Marriage Defense Act, S. 2024, comes on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that the Department of Justice will provide married same-sex couples with equal protection under the law - even if those marriages are not recognized in the state where the couple lives. According to a press release issued by the Senators, the purpose of S. 2024 is to "protect states from an out of control administration that is seeking to force same sex marriage upon states." Same-sex marriage is now legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and momentum is growing.

"This is just another attempt to undermine the valid marriages of loving same-sex couples," said Fred Sainz, the vice president of communications and marketing for the Human Rights Campaign. "We will works with our allies on the Hill, on both sides of the aisle, to make sure this bill does not pass."

Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX-14) in January introduced similar legislation, H.R. 3829, that was "strongly endorsed" by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.


2/21/2014 - Free Maternal and Childcare Center Commissioned in Nigeria

The government of Nigeria's Delta State commissioned a 100-bed maternal and childcare center at the Warri Central Hospital last week. The center will provide free treatment and medication for pregnant women from conception to delivery and for children from ages 0 to 5, as part of the Free Maternal Healthcare Programme of 2007 and Free Under-Five Healthcare program of 2010.

"These programmes have helped to ensure that all pregnant women in Delta State can access free healthcare throughout the period of pregnancy, delivery and afterwards while our children, below the age of five years, are guaranteed free medical treatment in all public health facilities," said State Governor Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan.

Dr. Kingsley Agholor, the Medical Director of Warri Central Hospital, reported that the government has reduced the maternal mortality rate in Delta State from 456/100,000 births in 2008 to 221/100,000 births in 2011 with the help of these free programs. "The Delta State government has recorded a lot of successes in the reduction of mortality, morbidity and HIV/Aids prevalence in the state through the provision of quality, accessible and affordable health care services across the state," he said.

In his remarks announcing the new maternal and childcare center, Governor Uduaghan also promoted the use of family planning as a means of increasing maternal and child heath.