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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.
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.
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.
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.
The second televised presidential debate in Afghanistan took place Tuesday night. Four of 11 candidates participated in the debate, touching on issues like security, domestic politics, the Taliban, bureaucratic corruption, the economy, and even women's rights.
"The people of Afghanistan have given sacrifices for democracy," said Daoud Sultanzoy, a former member of Parliament. "Every person will have equal rights under the law." Several other candidates have expressed strong, positive attitudes towards protecting women's rights: Zalmai Rasul claims he will require at least 20 percent of the country's central cabinet to be women and Ashraf Ghani claims he will involve religious scholars in defending women's rights and eliminating violence against women.
With the help and support of the U.S. and the international community, Afghan women and girls have made steady progress in every sector of society. Previously stripped of all human rights and forced into a state of virtual house arrest, women are now 27 percent of Afghan Parliament, about 35 percent of all primary and secondary school students, and nearly 19 percent of students attending university. Since US troops will pull out in 2014, the future president and all government leaders must work hard to strengthen women's rights and to ensure that their progress is not once again stripped away by the Taliban.
The April 5 election is the first independent election organized by Afghanistan.
A new report finds that working single mothers, who head up more households than ever across the nation, are more likely to be in poverty than their married counterparts.
The Working Poor Families Project's policy brief "Low-Income Working Mothers and State Policy: Investing for a Better Future" [PDF] found that out of 7.1 million families headed by women, 4.1 million lived in poverty, encompassing 8.5 million children. 39 percent of low-income working families across the nation are managed by a single mother, and that number is heavily influenced by factors like race: 65 percent of African-American low-income working families, 31 percent of Latino low-income working families, and 45 percent of low-income working families of other races are under the helm of single women.
For many working single mothers, their economic challenges are compounded by various factors. Education is becoming more and more unattainable for low-income women, especially women of color, and most single mothers are unable to complete their education due to their resposiblities at home. Congress' cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) make it more challenging for single moms to get by, as do state-by-state failures in the Temporary Asisistance for Needy Families program. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, many of them lacked health insurance to cover medical costs as well.
Most of all, these women - a majority of whom are employed full-time - face discrimination and pay inequity in the workplace and are siloed in lower-wage fields. According to the policy brief, "even full-time hours are not enough to lift families out of poverty."
Although the brief only outlines state-level policy recommendations to combat a rising number of economically disadvantaged families in the nation, including increasing access to education, Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, and raising the minimum wage, federal-level policies could also have a big impact on the lives of single mothers. The FAMILY Act, which expands paid family medical leave, would help women raising families independently to maintain employment if their children become ill. President Obama also encouraged employers across the country to pay their workers equally without regard to sex or gender in his State of the Union speech this January, which would help low-income women of all races, especially women of color, and strengthen the economy.
The New Hampshire Senate voted 15-9 Wednesday to pass a bill that would create a 25-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, with 4 Republicans joining all 11 Democrats in the chamber to vote in its favor.
Buffer zones are critical in protecting patients from verbal and physical harassment, violence, and anti-abortion protesters who may block their path into a clinic. Since the beginning of 2013, clinic patients in New Hampshire have filed over 60 complaints that detail harassment and intimidation.
"New Hampshire cannot afford even one act of violence toward a woman and we should not tolerate the current harassment happening outside reproductive health care facilities in our state," said Sara Persechino, the policy and community relations director for NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire, in a statement. "This commonsense legislation is a step in the right direction for protecting patients seeking safe, legal abortion care from violence, harassment, and intimidation."
SB 319 now moves to New Hampshire's House.
The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCullen v. Coakley on whether local governments can create safety buffer zones around reproductive health clinics in January, but a verdict has not yet been announced.
In a major victory for Afghan women, President Hamid Karzai yesterday refused to sign Afghanistan's controversial draft Criminal Procedure Code into law. According to a presidential spokesperson, the President has indicated that he will not sign the bill until the Ministry of Justice amends Article 26.
Article 26 would prohibit relatives from testifying against each other in all criminal proceedings, including in cases of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. After the law passed the Afghan Parliament, Afghan women's rights groups launched a strong campaign to stop its enactment, including a public protest in Kabul on Friday.
Our tireless advocacy for the last few weeks paid off," said Manizha Naderi, Executive Director of Women for Afghan Women. "This is what we wanted - for the bill to go back to the Ministry of Justice for revision." Her sentiments were echoed by Samira Hamidi of the Afghan Women's Network, comprised of over 100 women-led organizations: "Who says advocacy and lobbying does not work? It does and we have seen results!"
2/19/2014 - Iowa House Votes to Ban Telemedicine Abortions
Last week, the Iowa House passed a ban on telemedical abortion within the state. The Iowa Board of Medicine last year voted to ban the practice, but a state court judge, finding no evidence that telemedicine abortions were unsafe, temporarily blocked the Board's new rules, allowing the practice to continue.
Iowa's telemedicine abortion program allows women to consult with doctors through video technology before being prescribed the abortion-inducing pill. It has been heralded as a safe and effective form of reproductive health care since its implementation five years ago, and allows women living in rural areas to obtain the medication without having to travel.
"Since 2008, more than 5,000 Iowa women have accessed medication abortion delivered through telemedicine, with zero serious complications reported," said Erin Davison-Rippey, a policy analyst for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. "The bottom line is, HF 2175 only makes it more difficult for a woman to access safe, legal care, and every woman deserves to have access to safe health care, regardless of her zip code."
The bill has yet to pass the state senate, but opponents of the legislation are hopeful that the Democrat-controlled body will kill it before it can become a law.
The telemedicine abortion ban is part of a wave of anti-choice legislation in Iowa, which includes an effort to create a cause of action for abortion distress.
Officials in Texas have forced a Houston abortion clinic to close and suspended the license of the clinic's medical director and only abortion provider for failing to comply with a new admitting privileges law.
The law, which survived a court battle over the past year, requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. Officials decided to close the Affordable Women's Medical Center after two unannounced inspections of the facility revealed that Dr. Theodore M. Herring Jr. did not have admitting privileges, so he "unlawfully" performed over 250 abortions. Although Herring, who has been a licensed doctor for almost 40 years, created a plan to correct his lack of admitting privileges over several months, it was deemed inadequate.
Proponents of the law claim it protects women's health, but admitting privileges have no rational relationship to improving patient care, treatment, or outcomes, and place an undue burden on women seeking abortion services in Texas. And in Texas, the law did not provide enough time for doctors to obtain admitting privileges.
"This is part of a statewide effort, through medically unnecessary provisions, to drive providers out of business," said Fatimah Gifford, the spokeswoman for Whole Women's Health. "Between clinics forced to shut down and actions like this, the law is having a huge effect on access to abortion."
The Supreme Court refused to block the law in November.The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on its constitutionality, but it has not issued a ruling yet.
Texas has grown increasingly hostile to reproductive rights and access over the past few years. Women's health clinics that offer abortions have been excluded from state funding for women's health, and they have been required to abide by Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers (TRAP) that are impossible to follow, causing many to close.
After the Kansas House voted in favor of a bill that would offer legal protection to individuals and businesses who wished to deny services to gay and lesbian individuals and couples - particularly those wishing to get married, - the Senate decided Friday that they would not approve it.
"I believe the intent of the House was to protect religious liberties," said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita. "We respect that, but the business implications are going to harm the practice of employment in Kansas." She added, "Public service needs to remain public service for the entire public."
If signed into law, HB 2453 would allow the refusal of government services to same-sex couples, as well as private services such as access to stores and medical services, making LGBTQ people effectively second-class citizens. Despite the Senate's announcement, some are afraid that the bill may be slightly amended and then passed.
2/18/2014 - Uganda President To Sign Anti-Gay Legislation
The president of Uganda, Yoweni Museveni, released a statement Saturday saying he planned to sign the sweeping Anti-Homosexuality Bill that passed the nation's parliament in December.
The bill was originally introduced in 2009 with a death penalty provision for some "homosexual acts," but it was delayed because of international uproar and the threat of a loss of aid from several nations. The current bill does not include a death penalty provision, but it 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.
President Obama came out against the bill in a statement over the weekend. "The Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda, once law, will be more than an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda," he said. "It will be a step backward for all Ugandans and reflect poorly on Uganda's commitment to protecting the human rights of its people. It also will mark a serious setback for all those around the world who share a commitment to freedom, justice and equal rights."
Since the bill was proposed, there has already been an increase in discrimination and violence against gay people. As reported by Jeanne Clark in "Unholy Alliance" in the Fall 2013 issue of Ms. magazine, David Kato, a leader of the gay rights movement in Uganda, was beaten to death shortly after the introduction of the bill. In addition, "The attacks against gays in the country have further demonized condom usage," Clark writes. In a country with frequent condom shortages and discouragement of the use of condoms - in part because the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funding continues to be held hostage to abstinence programs - millions of Ugandans are at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and having unsafe abortions.
President Obama signed an Executive Order Wednesday increasing the minimum wage for new federal contractors to $10.10 per hour.
"It's the right thing to do," President Obama said in an email announcement. "But what's more, companies have found that when their employees earn more, they're more motivated, they work harder, and they stick around longer. You should expect the same of your federal government." The increase will apply to new contractors.
Obama announced in his State of the Union speech in January that he will push Congress to pass the Minimum Wage Fairness Act, which would raise the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 to $10.10 by 2016 in three phases for all US workers. The bill is still awaiting action, but if it passes, 28 million workers would benefit, many of whom will be lifted out of poverty.
With the current minimum wage, a full-time worker earns only $14,500 per year, below the federal poverty line even for a family of two. Fast food workers and other minimum wage earners have been fighting for the past two years to raise the minimum wage even higher to $15, arguing that the proposed $10.10 would still not provide a living wage.
Twenty-one states have taken action on their own and now have higher minimum wages than the federal wage. Virginia may be the next to increase it, after the state Senate just approved a bill to increase the state's minimum from $7.25 to $9.25 by 2015.
2/14/2014 - Afghan Women Rise for Justice at Kabul Protest
Around 100 Afghan women marched in Kabul yesterday to speak out against violence against women as part of One Billion Rising, a global movement to end violence against women and girls.
Calling for "no more violence" and "justice, justice," Afghan women also demanded continued gains for women's equality in the country. "As half of the Afghan population of young adults, Afghan women must have an active role in important historic developments, in the peaceful transfer of political power, for ensuring peace and security and progress in Afghanistan," said the Afghan Women's Network in a statement.
The Network also called for "sustained public campaigning" for women's rights and advancement in Afghanistan. Afghan women leaders have already been organizing to stop the enactment of an article within the Afghan Criminal Procedure Code that would prevent relatives from testifying as witnesses in all criminal trials, including in domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault cases.
Afghan women leaders also expressed solidarity with women internationally in the worldwide fight to end violence against women. "Afghan women, in support of women around the world, say that violence against women must decrease," said Dr. Gulalai Safi, a member of the Afghan Parliament. "We want justice and respect for women."
A federal judge declared Virginia's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional last night, overturning a state constitutional amendment added by voters in 2006 and ruling that Virginia must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
"The plaintiffs [two same-sex couples] ask for nothing more than to exercise a right that is enjoyed by the vast majority of Virginia's adult citizens," Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen wrote. "They seek simply the same right that is currently enjoyed by heterosexual individuals: the right to make a public commitment to form an exclusive relationship and create a family with a partner with whom the person shares an intimate and sustaining emotional bond."
The decision is stayed pending appeal, meaning same-sex couples will not be able to marry until the case is resolved in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The state did not want couples to marry then have their marriages temporarily halted by an appeal, like what happened in Utah.
Because federal courts in several states, including Kentucky and Oklahoma, have voided similar same-sex marriage bans, the Supreme Court is also expected to take up the case soon.
Millions of people will rise for justice tomorrow for One Billion Rising's global V-Day events, including a rally in Washington, DC.
One Billion Rising "is a global call to women survivors of violence and those who love them to gather safely in community outside places where they are entitled to justice - courthouses, police stations, government offices, school administration buildings, work places, sites of environmental injustice, military courts, embassies, places of worship, homes, or simply public gathering places where women deserve to feel safe but too often do not. It is a call to survivors to break the silence and release their stories - politically, spiritually, outrageously - through art, dance, marches, ritual, song, spoken word, testimonies and whatever way feels right." Last year, one billion people in 207 countries joined the action.
This year, participants in DC are rising specifically for justice for military sexual assault survivors, for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and for the passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). Participants will also rise against human trafficking, campus sexual violence, internet bullying, street harassment, impunity for perpetrators of violence against women, and a variety of other issues.
Eve Ensler, the creator of One Billion Rising and author of The Vagina Monologues, kicked off the DC events with Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Gwen Moore (D-WI) at a reception on Tuesday.
The rally will take place at 12 pm tomorrow in front of the Supreme Court and will turn into a march to the Capitol. Weather permitting, Upsetting Rape Culture will display The Monument Quilt - a quilt with thousands of stories of survivors of violence - on the Capitol's lawn.
The Virginia Senate voted to pass a bill yesterday that would repeal a law mandating medically unnecessary ultrasounds for women seeking an abortion.
SB 617 tied with a 20-20 vote based on party lines. The new Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam broke the tie to vote in favor of the bill.
"Women--and men--from across Virginia have been clear: they're done with politically motivated bills that attack women's health," said Cianti Stewart-Reid, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. "Those Senators who stood with women today and voted to repeal the medically unnecessary ultrasound requirement have shown they understand the will of Virginia voters." The bill will now be considered by the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates.
Pro-choice Democrats, including Northam, Governor Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring, and several Senators swept the November state elections, winning with the support of women, especially young, unmarried, minority women.
A second pro-choice bill did not pass the Senate Tuesday, losing with a vote of 18-22. SB 618 would have repealed an existing law that bans providers on the federal insurance exchanges from covering abortions.
Two same-sex couples in Texas have asked a federal judge to hear their case challenging the 2005 amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. The couples will appear today in a San Antonio federal district court.
Cleopatra De Leon and Nicole Dimetman, both military veterans, were married in Massachusetts in 2001. Now living in Austin, Texas, the couple was not allowed to jointly adopt a child because Texas law does not recognize the legality of their marriage. Victor Holmes and Mark Phariss have been a couple for 17 years. The two Plano men would like to marry in Texas but were denied a marriage license last fall.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) - currently running for governor of the state - will defend the amendment and has stated that Texas has the right to establish its own marriage policies. The US Supreme Court ruled in US v. Windsor that the federal government could not deny same-sex couples married under state laws the benefits available to married heterosexual couples. It did not address the constitutionality of state laws prohibiting equal marriage.
"Our belief is the arc of equal protection cases points directly to recognizing that people have the right to marry regardless of gender," said Neel Lane, attorney for the plaintiffs. "Gays and lesbians are not afforded access to marriage and all the benefits from it. That is a denial of equal protection of the law. It is unequal when some people are not permitted to do what most others are permitted to do. And there's no basis for denying them that right."
Just this week, US Attorney General Eric Holder released a memo to Department of Justice staff that the Department would give same-sex marriages equal protection under the law, even in states where same-sex marriage is not yet legal. Holder's announcement follows other policy changes at the Department of Defense, Office of Personnel Management, Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security to recognize same-sex marriages on the federal level.
Citing meager wages, dangerous working conditions, and exploitative work practices, Representative George Miller (D-CA) yesterday called on the apparel industry to do more to improve working conditions and support the human rights of workers at garment factories in Bangladesh. "If they don't," Miller said, "their clothing labels may as well read: 'made with violence against women.'"
Miller met yesterday with Reba Sikder, an 18-year-old garment worker from Bangladesh, Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, and multiple members of Congress to discuss not only the dangerous and violent workplace conditions that exist for garment workers, but also what can be done to improve the situation.
"The apparel industry has created millions of jobs for Bangladeshi women," said Miller. "But your job should not cost you your life. We must call out the clothing brands that manufacture irresponsibly in Bangladesh. Not only are they complicit in driving the race to the bottom that pits countries against each other at the expense of workers, but they are taking advantage of societal norms that do not hold women in equal regard."
Sikder, a survivor of the factory collapse at Rana Plaza that killed over 1,100 and injured 2,500, has been working since the age of 8 and became a garment factory worker at 14. She explained that on the day of the factory collapse, a huge crack had appeared on the side of the Plaza building - but her boss told her if she did not enter to work, she would lose her wages and overtime for the month. Within minutes of entering the building, it collapsed. She was trapped inside for over two days, injured and surrounded by dead bodies.
"My life has been so incredibly hard in the last year," Sikder said, describing how challenging it is for her to cope with the trauma of the incident in finding new work. "My heart breaks even more for all the other workers and families affected by the Rana Plaza building collapse. Because of the accident, I no longer have any hopes or dreams for the future like I did before." Sikder also called on the US government to take action against manufacturers benefitting from the conditions which support the corrupt garment sector in Bangladesh. "Please think about the workers who have lost their limbs, their feet and their hands, and about the families who have lost their sons and daughters, wives and husbands," she said. "Please think about their pain and how they are forced to live."
Although Bangladeshi garment workers have taken independent action to change their working conditions, they have often been met with violence while protesting. In June, President Obama revoked trade privileges with Bangladesh, citing the poor working conditions in factories.
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) released a memo to its employees Monday that same-sex marriages will be given equal protection under the law in all of its programs - even if the marriages are not recognized in the state where the same-sex couple lives. The announcement will allow same-sex couples to enjoy federal benefits through the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, and the US Trustee Program.
Announcing the new policy at the Human Rights Campaign's Greater New York Gala on Saturday, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. also noted that the DOJ would recognize same-sex couples' marital privilege not to testify in civil and criminal cases and allow federal inmates in same-sex marriages to visit and correspond with their spouses and enjoy furloughs during a crisis involving a spouse. "The expansion will include 34 states where same-sex marriage is not yet legal, granting expanded access to benefits and rights afforded to opposite-sex couples to millions of Americans.
"In every courthouse, in every proceeding and in every place where a member of the Department of Justice stands on behalf of the United States," said Holder, "they will strive to ensure that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections, and rights as opposite-sex marriages under federal law."
The DOJ announcement follows other policy changes by the Department of Defense, Office of Personnel Management, Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security, which were prompted by the US Supreme Court's historic decision in US v. Windsor.
Holder went on to relate the victory to those of the Civil Rights Movement. "We are, right now, in the middle of marking a number of 50-year anniversaries of key milestones in the Civil Rights Movement," he said. "And yet, as all-important as the fight against racial discrimination was then, and remains today, know this: my commitment to confronting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity runs just as deep. Just as was true during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation's struggle for LGBT equality could not be higher. And so the Justice Department's role in confronting discrimination must be as aggressive today as it was in Robert Kennedy's time. As Attorney General, I will never let this Department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history. We will act."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called for gender equality to be comprehensively included in the UN's post-2015 goals yesterday at the opening of the 57th Session of Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
"We believe there should be a stand-alone goal or goals on equality and non-discrimination that addresses all kinds of discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of sex," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
In 2000, the UN announced its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- to reduce hunger and poverty, combat maternal and infant mortality, and provide access to universal education and health, among other goals -- all to be accomplished by the end of 2015. It is now creating a post-2015 agenda to expand on the MDGs.
During her remarks, Pillay also encouraged the strengthening of all treaty bodies and celebrated the CEDAW Committee's work so far, especially highlighting the achievements of CEDAW. During its current session, which runs until February 28, the CEDAW Committee will review reports from Bahrain, Cameroon, Qatar, Kazakhstan, Iraq, Sierra Leone and Finland on these countries' implementation of the treaty.
CEDAW is the most comprehensive and detailed international agreement which seeks the advancement of women. CEDAW has been ratified by 187 of the 193 member nations of the UN, but the United States never ratified it.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-NY) Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), which removes prosecution of sexually violent crimes in the military from the chain-of-command, is expected to come to a vote in the Senate this week.
The MJIA, which was previously part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) but will now be voted on as a stand-alone measure as S. 1752 , would move "the decision whether to prosecute any crime punishable by one year or more in confinement to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors, with the exception of crimes that are uniquely military in nature."
Military sexual assault has reached epidemic proportions. An estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact and sexual assaults occurred in 2012, according to a report by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program of the Department of Defense. 25 percent of women and 27 percent of men who experienced unwanted sexual contact said the offender was in their military chain of command, and 50 percent of female victims said that they did not report the crime because they thought nothing would come of their report.
"The men and women of our military deserve better," Gillibrand told The Washington Post. "They deserve to have unbiased, trained military prosecutors reviewing their cases, and making decisions based solely on the merits of the evidence in a transparent way." Gillibrand says she now has 53 Senators who have agreed to vote in the bill's favor. She will need to have 60 to ensure it is not defeated by a filibuster.
The Obama administration has been taking other steps to prevent and reduce sexual assault in the military as well. 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. Obama also called for a year-long review of military sexual trauma and the steps being taken to reduce it in December.
TAKE ACTION: Help us take on military sexual assault in the military. Email your senators to tell them that we must change the current system of handling sexual assault cases.
Around 80,000 to 100,000 people from 32 states marched in Raleigh, North Carolina on Saturday to protest the state's GOP-led legislature's extremist attacks on human and voting rights and vital public assistance programs.
The "Moral March on Raleigh," organized by Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) People's Assembly Coalition, was the "largest civil rights rally in the South since tens of thousands of voting rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act," said Ari Berman, a writer for The Nation who attended the march. Moral Mondays, smaller weekly protest gatherings of activists against the measures, have been ongoing since last year.
Protesters marched from Shaw University to the state Capitol holding signs that called out state lawmakers for enacting restrictive policies regarding abortion, voting rights, labor, and education, among others. In particular, since taking over the state government for the first time in a century, North Carolina Republicans passed extreme anti-choice and voter suppression laws, diverted millions from public education to voucher schools, and cut taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent, among other changes.
The African Union (AU) and the United Nations signed a landmark agreement last week committing to improving the prevention of and response to sexual violence, particularly conflict-related violence, in African countries.
The agreement aims to strengthen national policies, laws, and organizations already trying to combat sexual violence, and to train police forces and peacekeepers on prevention and best responses. It emphasizes the importance of providing rehabilitative services for survivors, countering the severe stigma that survivors of sexual violence often face, and ensuring that crimes are investigated and perpetrators are brought to justice.
"National ownership, leadership and responsibility are absolutely essential if we are to protect women and girls, but also men and boys, from these barbaric crimes," said Zainab Bangura, the Special Representative on sexual Violence in Conflict. She co-signed the document with Ambassador Smail Chergui, of Algeria, Commissioner for Peace and Security of the African Union.
The UN and AU aim to work closely together on curbing sexual violence and other issues, such as economic development. "A solution cannot be imposed from above," Bangura said.
Thousands of people marched to Spain's parliament in Madrid on Saturday to protest a potential new law that would severely restrict women's right to have an abortion.
The law, which was passed by Spain's cabinet in December 2013, would allow abortion only in cases of rape or if the physical or psychological health of the mother is threatened, effectively banning it in all other circumstances. It would toughen conditions for aborting a deformed fetus, and it would require girls under 18 to obtain parental consent to have the procedure.
"I would never have imagined we would find ourselves back here, fighting for something we thought we had won," protestor Maria Pilar Sanchez told Agence France-Presse.
The previous Socialist government legalized abortion before 14 weeks in 2010, but the current ruling party, the Popular Party, often sides with the Roman Catholic Church's conservative views on abortion. The law awaits approval by Parliament, where the Popular Party holds a majority.
Protests were also held in London and cities across France.