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3/27/2015 - Security and Women's Rights are Essential to Afghan Recovery

President Ashraf Ghani and a delegation of some 70 plus Afghan leaders came to the US this week to urge Congress and President Obama to extend the deadline for removing support troops from Afghanistan. Afghan public opinion polls have shown that Afghans' top priority is currently security.

"Many Afghan women leaders, as well as other Afghans, have also expressed their concern over security and safety. They fear that pulling virtually all American troops would send the wrong signal to the Taliban and the gains Afghan women and girls have won would be lost if the Taliban was emboldened," said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation and President its sister action organization, the Feminist Majority. "This is why we recently began a Shoulder-to-Shoulder campaign with Afghan Women and Girls Campaign urging President Obama and members of Congress to extend the deadline and keep the remaining US support troops in Afghanistan."

"This is no time to pull out virtually all support troops when women and girls are making progress and the new unity government, pledged to democracy, women's empowerment and rebuilding the nation, is trying to move forward," Smeal continued. "We applaud President's Obama decision to delay the 2015 removal of US troops from Afghanistan."

At the beginning of this week President Obama changed the timeline for removing US support troops. Instead of removing some 5,000 of remaining troops in Afghanistan by December 31, 2015, as had been previously planned, the President announced the US will keep some 9,800 troops through 2015. At this time, he has not changed his decision to remove all troops by December 31, 2016.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's address yesterday to a Joint Session of the United States Congress commended the decision by President Barack Obama to delay the withdrawal of US support troops in Afghanistan and to allow the current level of troops to remain through the end of 2015.

President Ghani's address highlighted the extraordinary progress that Afghan women have made since 2001 when, under a system of gender apartheid, women and girls were not allowed to attend school, hold a job, receive medical care, or even go outside of their homes without being covered from head-to-toe and accompanied by a male relative. Ghani pointed out some of the current gains of women such as today some 3 million girls are in primary school; women's maternal mortality rate, although still high, has been dramatically reduced; and some 38 percent of the voters were women, despite threats of violence, in the recent provincial and presidential elections. He pledged "to increase to parity the number of women graduating from high schools and colleges."

Ghani said women's rights were a central foundation block for Afghanistan to recover from some 40 years of war. He said women's rights were not only a "matter of rights, important though they are. It is a matter of national necessity," he said. "No country in the modern world can be self-reliant with half of its population locked away, uneducated and unable to contribute its energy, creativity, and drive to national development."

3/27/2015 - Senate 'Vote-A-Rama' Passes Amendments for Equal Pay, Pregnant Workers, Paid Leave, Benefits for Same-Sex Couples

A bipartisan majority of Senators this week voted in favor of budget amendments that show growing momentum for paid sick leave for employees, social security and veterans benefits for same-sex couples, equal pay, and fair treatment for pregnant workers.

The votes, though significant, are symbolic. None of the amendments are binding. The bipartisan votes, however, show the popularity of these policy proposals and signal that both Democrats and Republicans realize that these issues are a priority for the American public.

One amendment to the budget resolution tracks the Healthy Families Act, sponsored in the Senate by Patty Murray (D-WA) and in the House by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-3), which allows employees to earn seven days of paid sick leave. Prospects for passing the Healthy Families Act were seen as slim in the GOP-majority Senate, but Thursday's 61-39 vote in favor suggests bipartisan support is possible.

Sens. Pat Rooney (R-PA) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) surprised the measure's supporters by voting in favor - backers of the paid sick leave amendment did not expect the measure to receive 61 Senate votes. Wisconsin has banned paid sick leave laws on the local level, but Philadelphia has recently changed to mandate employers give workers one hour of paid leave for every 40 hours worked.

Another amendment, which passed 56-43, calls to establish a "deficit-neutral reserve fund relating to promoting equal pay" that would apply largely to preventing sex discrimination and would prevent retaliation against employees who discuss wage information. A similar but stronger version of this amendment (vote 82), which tracks the Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-3), was rejected 45-54. Vote 82 would have allowed for punitive damages and limited the "other than sex" exceptions to the 1963 Act.

The Senate also unanimously passed a resolution calling for reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers - just one day after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Young v. UPS which set out a legal roadmap for pregnant workers discriminated against in the workplace to vindicate their rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Additionally, the Senate "Vote-A-Rama" supported an amendment to the budget that would give same-sex married couples access to Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and Social Security benefits.

"Gay couples legally married in any state should be entitled to veterans and Social Security benefits identical to any other married couples. [This week], eleven Republicans joined Democrats in recognizing that gay couples deserve equal treatment, regardless of where they live," Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) said in a statement. "We still have work to do to, but this is progress and a win for equal rights."

These budget amendments are mostly symbolic, but provide insight into where Senate members stand on crucial issues. No Democrats voted for the final budget, but the budget passed anyway at 3:28 AM by 52-46.

3/25/2015 - Afghan Woman Beaten to Death for Burning Koran

A 27-year-old woman ‎who reportedly burned a copy of the Koran inside of a riverside shrine in Kabul, Afghanistan was brutally beaten and burned alive on Thursday.

Shocking videos quickly spread on social media showing crowds of men surrounded by hundreds of onlookers assaulting the 27-year-old Farkhunda with bricks and sticks and repeatedly kicking her. The woman's body was then thrown onto the banks of the Kabul River and was burned. Farkhunda's parents told the police and that their daughter was mentally ill and that she had not committed the act intentionally.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior confirmed from his official Twitter account that four suspects had been arrested in connection with the attack, and a report from Tolo News claims that the police have detained 9 men accused of killing and burning woman in Kabul. Kabul's head of criminal investigation said that the officers fired into the air to try to dispel the crowd, but that they "reacted too late." Human rights groups, however, have raised concerns about whether enough was done to stop the mob.

Afghanistan's President Ghani denounced the actions of these men in a statement, saying that "no one has the right to take it upon themselves to act as judge and court, nor to commit violence against anyone for any reason." He ordered an inquiry into the attack to be conducted by the interior ministry together with the Ulama Council - which oversees religious issues - and the leadership of the mosque.

"I would certainly hope the government would be trying to arrest and prosecute everyone who was involved and doing an internal investigation into whether the police response was appropriate," said Heather Barr, a senior researcher for women's rights in Asia for Human Rights Watch.

3/25/2015 - Masked Intruder Attacks Last Abortion Clinic Standing in Mississippi

In the early hours of the morning Monday, a person in a mask wielding what appeared to be a machete attacked the Jackson Women's Health Organization, the last remaining abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi.

The clinic revealed in a post on their website the details of the attack on what is affectionately referred to by staff and community members as The Pink House. "A review of our DVR showed that in the early hours of the morning, a masked intruder came onto our property and proceeded to methodically destroy our cameras. Other damage found indicates they were trying to destroy the power lines coming into the building, no doubt hoping to stop all patient care for the near future." The state-mandated generator for the clinic was also targeted and damaged.

"It angered some of us, it scared some of the staff, but we are a resilient group," said Michelle Colon, Security Director for the Jackson Women's Health Organization, told the Feminist Newswire. She also detailed the strong relationship the clinic has with local law enforcement, and the extra steps the staff are taking to make sure that the clinic is open for those who need it. "We didn't miss a beat. The women of Mississippi and the surrounding states have been coming to the Pink House for 20 years, and yesterday, today, and tomorrow won't be any different. We'll keep doing the good work we've always done."

Clinic violence is a serious problem in the US, and has been increasing despite increase support from law enforcement. In fact, the Feminist Majority Foundation's National Clinic Violence Survey has shown that since 2010, the distribution of old west-style WANTED posters and pamphlets targeting doctors and clinic staff, and featuring doctors' and staffs' photographs, home addresses, and other personal information, have almost doubled from 27 percent to 52 percent. Furthermore, the survey shows that clinics impacted by the most serious anti-abortion threats increased from 26.6% of clinics in 2010 to 51.9 percent of clinics in 2014.

Anti-abortion extremist groups are organizing mass protests and targeting clinics in Mississippi and elsewhere in upcoming weeks. One group in particular, Operation Save America, is led in part by Jason Storms, a man who is an advocate of Justifiable Homicide of doctors, clinic workers, and supporters, along with his father-in-law Matt Trewhella. Operation Save American is partnered with a new extremist group based out of Oklahoma City, OK, called Abolish Human Abortion, which publishes the home address of clinic doctors and encourages harassment through their "Call out the Killers" campaign.

Earlier this year, anti-abortion extremists gathered outside the home of Executive Director of South Wind Women's Center Julie Burkhart, holding signs such as "Prepare to Meet Thy God" meant to intimidate her. Another sign read "Fear Him Who Has the Power to Cast You into Hell," and yet another said "Where is Your Church?" Dr. Tiller was murdered in the lobby of his church in Wichita, Kansas, where Burkhart's clinic is now.

Take Action: Take a stand against extremism today and help defend the last clinic in Mississippi with a donation. Or, support the Feminist Majority Foundation's work to end clinic violence.

3/17/2015 - Vice President Biden Pledges 41 Million to Clear Rape Kit Backlog

Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Mikulski (D-MD) spoke yesterday at a Maryland State Police Laboratory to declare their support for a $41 million budget proposal to combat the national backlog of rape kits.

"Testing rape kits should be an absolute priority for the United States of America," Vice President Biden said, referring to the estimated 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide. "If we're able to test these rape kits, more crimes would be solved, more rapes would be avoided."

"We applaud this budget as the first step in ensuring that survivors who courageously report these heinous crimes can finally obtain justice," said Gaylynn Burroughs, Director of Policy and Research at the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Houston, Texas is testament to the progress that can be achieved when cities have access to the funds for processing rape kits. Houston was one of the first of the major cities nation-wide to clear their backlog of over 6,000 untested rape kits - some of which were more than thirty years old. As of last month, the evidence from these test kits has led to 850 DNA matches, 29 filed cases, and 6 convictions. The $41 million budget is designed to both clear and process the backlog of rape kits, but also to create a more efficient process for testing, so as to avoid more backlogs in the future.

3/17/2015 - Penn State Fraternity Suspended for Facebook Page of Nude, Unconscious Women

A Penn State fraternity has been suspended over the discovery of a private Facebook page with photographs of nude women, some of whom appear to have passed out, as well as photos of drug deals and hazing.

The State College police, the Interfraternity council, and Penn State are all investigating fraternity Kappa Delta Rho and the damaging evidence on the Facebook page, which had 150 members of current students and fraternity alumni. "In response to the discovery of the two Facebook pages allegedly hosted by Kappa Delta Rho, the chapter was immediately placed on full chapter suspension by Penn State's Interfraternity Council," the council said following the fraternity's suspension.

The State College police obtained a search warrant following a tip about the Facebook account, but by the time they searched fraternity members' computers the account had been wiped clean. They did, however, obtain around 20 photographs that had been printed out from the account. According to the Interfraternity Council, the fraternity will be summoned upon completion of the investigation to "undergo a conduct review session."

Colleges and fraternities have been under national scrutiny for accusations of rape and sexual assault, and neglect on the behalf of colleges to act accordingly. The Hunting Ground, an unprecedented documentary opening last month, details the campus rape epidemic and the stories of many survivors of campus rape and sexual assault in their fight for justice. Some colleges are beginning to respond to this epidemic. Just last month, a Yale University fraternity was banned from conducting on-campus activities until August 2016 as a result of violating the university's sexual misconduct code. Similarly, the University of Virginia announced in January new regulations governing fraternal organizations to enhance safety on campus, and required all organizations to sign onto new regulations by Jan 16. Two fraternities, Alpha Tau Omega and Kappa Alpha Order announced however that they would not sign the new FOA.

3/16/2015 - 'No Ceilings' Report Shows Major Gains and Gaps in Women's Equality

The Clinton Foundation "No Ceilings" report reveals data measuring women and girls' participation worldwide over the past twenty years. In many ways, there have been significant increases for women and girls, but there are still massive gaps to be filled and progress to be made.

The "No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project" report contains data collected over the past 20 years, following the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where the 1995 Declaration and Platform for Action made women and girls a priority. The groundbreaking 14th plank of the platform declared "Women's rights are human rights," laying the groundwork for governments worldwide to implement action plans for the goal of full participation for women and girls.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, called the report "encouraging" and "impressive" in an interview with C-Span this morning. Smeal emphasized the importance of data in effecting change. "You can't make progress unless you know exactly where you are," she said.

The "No Ceilings" data-driven approach to gender equality shows that significant gains have been made for women and girls, especially in the maternal mortality rate, which is down 42 percent globally since 1995. Other improvements include global enrollment rates for boys and girls in primary school, which is now almost equal.

There are, however, many areas that still need drastic improvement. The United States is the only developed country that does not offer paid maternity leave, and it is only 1 of 9 countries worldwide that does not provide for paid maternity leave. Equal representation in government worldwide is also lagging, and although the number of women in the United States Congress is at an all-time high, women still only make up around 20 percent of Congress. Furthermore, globally 1 in 4 girls are married before her 18th birthday, and in Niger that rate skyrockets to 3 in 4 girls. Progress is uneven, and women and girls still lag behind -specifically marginalized women.

As far as further progress goes, Smeal is optimistic. "You'd be surprised - just having a goal does help [equality] in many countries," Smeal said. "I'm very excited about what the new goals will be."

3/16/2015 - Attorney General Confirmation Delayed Over Anti-Abortion Provision of Human Trafficking Bill

The Senate hit an unexpected delay in the consideration of nominee Loretta Lynch for attorney general due to the discovery of an anti-abortion provision hidden within a bipartisan human trafficking bill, which has recently reached an impasse.

"I had hoped to turn to her next week, but if we can't finish the trafficking bill, she will be put off again," said majority leader Mitch McConnell on CNN on the delay in Lynch's confirmation. This delay is the latest in a series of interruptions in the more than four months since Lynch's nomination, who would make history as the first black woman to serve as the Attorney General.

The trafficking bill in question is the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, sponsored by Republican Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The bipartisan bill had been expected to pass smoothly through Congress, until Democratic party noticed a small provision of the bill that would effectively strengthen the Hyde Amendment, which bans spending federal dollars on abortion.

"This bill will not be used as an opportunity for Republicans to double down on their efforts to restrict a woman's health-care choices," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). "It is absolutely wrong and, honestly, it is shameful. I know there are a whole lot of us who are going to fight hard against any attempt to expand the Hyde Amendment and permanently impact women's health."

Democrats are hopeful that the trafficking bill can be settled and passed quickly, so long as there is Republican support to remove the language limiting abortion access.

"We can finish this bill in 20 minutes," said Democratic leader Senator Harry Reid. "The only thing that needs to be done is the language relating to abortion should come out of this bill. Abortion and human trafficking have nothing to do with each other."

3/12/2015 - Iowa Supreme Court Hears Telemedicine Abortion Case

The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday contesting a 2013 decision by state regulators to order limitations on the use of telemedicine for women seeking a medical abortion.

Telemedicine is the widely used practice of conferencing with a doctor through a video camera in order to diagnose or prescribe treatment to patients. Two years ago, the Iowa Board of Medicine ruled that doctors must perform in-person examinations before dispensing abortion pills, severely limiting access to the drug for many women in Iowa, specifically women from small towns who cannot travel to urban areas. State regulators claim they are trying to protect patient safety, while those contesting the limitations claim that the move is yet another restriction to women's access to a safe, legal form of health care.

"Telemedicine has become a common practice for many different medical treatments to increase services to people in remote, rural areas," explained Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "Once again a Republican governor is stacking a state medical board with opponents to abortion to restrict access to abortion services, this time by banning the use of telemedicine for the provision of mifepristone, the abortion pill, for very early abortion via the doctor on a telephone video conference and the patient in a rural clinic." Instead the state is trying to force women to travel many miles to a doctor or to have a surgical abortion at a later day. Clearly this is placing an undue burden on women."

The Iowa medical board has made no such restrictions for any other drug administered through telecommunications, a point which was brought up yesterday to the Iowa Supreme Court. Justice David Wiggins asked whether the Iowa board had such specifications for other areas of medicine. "Is there any other standard of care such as this contained in any rule or regulation of the [Board of Medicine] that you're aware of?" he asked the Iowa state lawyer Jeffery Thompson. "Not that I'm aware of," replied Thompson.

Putting the decision into perspective with a lack of restrictions on any other procedure or drug has some thinking that abortion is being singled out for special regulation.

"Can you imagine a state limiting for men access to Viagra in order to so-call "protect" men's health and getting away with it?" asked Smeal.

3/12/2015 - New Law Cracks Down on Domestic Abusers in Brazil

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff signed a new law this week creating harsher penalties for the murder of women and girls connected to domestic violence.

Men who commit the newly defined crime of "femicide," or the killing of a woman by a man because of her gender, can now expect to go to jail for anywhere from 12 years to 20 years. Longer terms have been defined for crimes committed against pregnant women, girls under 14, women over 60, and people with disabilities.

President Rousseff said that 15 women are killed daily in Brazil, and that these new strict policies are aimed at defending Brazilian women. Government figures also show a startling increase of 230 percent in the number of women murdered in Brazil from 1980 to 2010.

"This law typifies femicide as a grave crime and identifies it as a specific crime against women. It's a way to talk about this problem, make it visible by giving it a name and increasing sanctions for this crime," Nadine Gasman, who heads the agency United Nations Women in Brazil, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "It has taken us a long time to say that the killing of a woman is a different phenomenon. Men are killed in the street, women are killed in the home. Men are killed with guns, women with knives and hands," continued Gasman.

President Rousseff has demonstrated a particular commitment to the women of the Brazil since taking office in 2011. In 2013, she signed legislation requiring all public hospitals to provide rape victims with certain treatment, including emergency contraception, and screening and treatment for STIs and HIV.

3/5/2015 - Supreme Court Hears Crucial Affordable Care Act Case

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in King v. Burwell, a case that could threaten the ability of millions to access affordable health insurance, including over 4 million women who are currently enjoying insurance coverage.

In King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court will decide whether federal financial assistance under the Affordable Case Act (ACA) should be available to all eligible individuals, or only to those who live in states that have established their own state-based Health Insurance Marketplaces.

Under the ACA, the federal government provides financial help, in the form of tax credits, to middle- and low-income individuals to purchase health insurance through Health Insurance Marketplaces. Some states created their own marketplaces, but 34 states use federally-facilitated marketplaces where individuals and families can buy health insurance. The argument in this case centers on a small bit of language in more than 1,000-page law, that some have interpreted to mean that the federal government cannot give financial assistance to individuals and families in those 34 states.

The outcome of King could have potentially devastating effects for over 9 million people who could lose health insurance coverage if the Court determines that they are not eligible for tax credits. Without those credits, millions of people will no longer be able to afford their coverage, including over 4 million women, approximately one-third of whom are women of color, according to a new report released by Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

"This is an invidious attack on the Affordable Care Act and on the millions of people who have finally been able to afford quality healthcare coverage," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. "We can only hope that the Supreme Court sees through this desperate attempt to gut the ACA and protects the accessibility of life-saving health insurance coverage. For women especially, losing health coverage under the ACA would mean losing preventive care, maternity benefits, and annual well-woman visits, all essential components for women's health."

"Having health insurance coverage also shores up economic security for young people, women, and families who are eligible for the ACA tax credits," continued Smeal. "In the absence of insurance coverage, these folks - already vulnerable - could be financially devastated by a medical emergency."

The decision, however, does not only affect those who benefit from the financial assistance. If the Supreme Court dismantles tax credits in states using federally facilitated marketplaces, insurance rates for everyone in those states could potentially skyrocket. The success of the ACA is premised on three core components: (1) prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions; (2) requiring individuals to purchase insurance; and (3) making insurance affordable through subsidies, in the form of tax credits. If the tax credits are eliminated, millions of people - a good proportion of which are healthy young adults - will be unable to obtain insurance coverage. Having fewer people in the insurance pool will drive up costs, as will having a greater proportion of sicker people.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case by late June.

3/4/2015 - Obama Administration Announces Global Initiative for Girls' Education

The Obama Administration announced yesterday expanded efforts to help adolescent girls worldwide attend and complete school through an initiative called Let Girls Learn.

According to a White House press release, the new effort will build on investments the US already has made in global primary school education and expand them to help adolescent girls complete their education. First Lady Michelle Obama is teaming up with the Peace Corps to carry out the initiative, who will recruit and train about 650 additional volunteers to focus specifically on adolescent girls' access to education. The volunteers will be charged with starting conversations in the communities to figure out what's keeping girls from school, then working with leaders, parents and the girls themselves to come up with ways to remove those barriers.

When girls receive an education, they are more likely to improve their own quality of life as well as the standard of living in their communities. Yet 62 million girls around the world aren't in school, and attacks on girls who are have been on the rise. These facts persist in a global environment where girls' education has come to the forefront as a human rights issue and various nations are taking action to get girls into the classroom.

Last year, the world watched as Nigerians took action for over 200 girls who were kidnapped from a school in Chibok by military insurgency group Boko Haram - a group which opposes girls' education. In Afghanistan, USAID has launched programs to support girls' education. Nations like Malawi are taking action against child marriage, and advocates like Kakenya Ntaiya are speaking out against the practice that so often disrupts girls' futures.

In the most recent issue of Ms. magazine, Ntaiya tells her story of escaping child marriage and, ultimately, opening a school for over 150 girls in Enoosaen. "I wanted to see a different future for them," she said in the piece, "[and] school was the place I could achieve that." In the same issue, the magazine profiles the film Difret, which is backed by Angelina Jolie and tells the true story of an Ethiopian girl who was kidnapped on her way home from the fifth grade to be forced into child marriage.

Girls Learn International (GLI), a Feminist Majority Foundation program, educates and energizes US students around the global movement for girls' access to education. GLI pairs its middle and high school chapters in the US with partner schools in 11 countries where girls still lag behind boys in access to education and are far less likely than boys to stay in school past the primary grades. By opening communication between students and managing exchange projects, GLI fosters cultural understanding and fuels activism for girls' human rights around the world.

3/3/2015 - Nebraska Could Become the Next State With Marriage Equality

US District Judge Joseph Bataillon ruled Monday morning that Nebraska's same-same sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. The decision means same-sex couples in Nebraska could get married within a week.

The federal judge issued the preliminary injunction after the case was brought to him by seven same-sex couples in the state. Bataillon called the ban an "unabashedly gender-specific infringement of the equal rights of its citizens."

A state request was issued to stay the decision, but Bataillon denied the move but announced the injunction would go into effect on March 9 to give time for administrative work.

In 2000, Nebraskans voted to adopt a state constitution that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman - they also voted not to recognize civil unions, domestic partnerships or any similar relationship between two people of the same sex.

One of the plaintiffs in the case brought to Bataillon is Sally Waters, who currently has stage-four breast cancer and who wants to see her 2008 marriage in California recognized in Nebraska in order to allow for financial protections for the children she has with her partner.

The office of the Nebraska Attorney General is studying the decision and will present a statement at a later time.

Next week, Nebraska could become the 38th state with marriage equality.

3/2/2015 - Iranian Activist Wins International Human Rights Award for Hijab Campaign

Journalist Masih Alinejad was awarded the Women's Rights Award at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy last week for her activism supporting Iranian women who choose not to cover their heads in a hijab.

Alinejad's Facebook page, "My Stealthy Freedom," has gained international attention and more than 700,000 followers by posting pictures of Iranian women without the hijab. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the government made it mandatory for women to cover their heads when in public or in a governmental building. In the years since then, women have been protesting what one woman on the Facebook page called "our most basic right, our right to choose what to wear."

Compulsory head covering has been protested by Iranian women in varying degrees since the law passed over thirty years ago. Perhaps one of the most severe and dramatic actions against the law came from Homa Darabi, a pediatrician in Iran who killed herself in 1994 through self-immolation in the middle of a busy square, where she tore off her headscarf and yelled messages such like "Death to oppression! Long live liberty!" Darabi had been fired after refusing to wear the hijab, as she claimed it interfered with her ability to care for her patients and be a good doctor. Media coverage for Darabi's protest and death was poor, and sources within Iran painted Darabi as mentally ill.

The human rights award was presented to Alinejad for giving voice to "voiceless" women like Darabi, and for Alinejad's part in "stirring the consciousness of humanity to support the struggle of Iranian women for basic human rights, freedom and equality."

"From seven-year-old schoolgirls to 70-year-old grandmothers, women in Iran are all forced to wear the hijab," said Alinejad in a statement for the Geneva Summit. "Hopefully this award will create an opportunity for the voices of Iranian women who say no to the forced hijab to echo throughout the halls of the United Nations."

2/27/2015 - This Bipartisan Bill Will Hold Colleges Accountable for Ending Campus Sexual Assault

A bipartisan bill aimed at holding colleges and universities accountable for rape and sexual assault cases was introduced in Congress yesterday, spearheaded by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Some of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act's key key provisions include a requirement of confidential reporting systems on colleges and universities, minimum training requirements for campus personnel, and stricter penalties for schools found to be in violation of Title IX or the Clery Act. Senator Gillibrand expressed her confidence in these new provisions, explaining that "for the first time it is in [a college or university's] best interest to solve the problem, and do so aggressively."

Joining those announcing the bill were Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, co-founders of End Rape on Campus. "Campus violence does not have a political party, and we need this bill because our students need better than the current status quo," said Clark, reminding the audience that currently one in four women attending college experience sexual assault.

"It's time for our students to be students again- without the challenge of single-handedly holding their schools accountable, and without the fear of sharing their degree with their rapist," said Pino, calling on Congress to pass the bill. "The time to fight is now."

Pino and Clark's stories are told in an unprecedented documentary opening this weekend in New York City and Los Angeles. The Hunting Ground details the campus rape epidemic and the stories of many survivors of campus rape and sexual assault in their fight for justice. It also highlights campus activism that has risen in response to the lack of action taken by colleges and universities to combat sexual assault and support survivors.

Paige McKinsey, president of Feminist United, the Feminist Majority Foundation affiliated student group at Mary Washington University, is one such student organizing around this issue. She is hopeful that her university is taking more notice to the issue of campus sexual assault, but recognizes that there is still a long way to go. "I think that no university right now is doing as much as they could or as much as they need to be doing to support victims and survivors," McKinsey said.

The Act was first introduced to Congress last year, but was not approved. The bill has been strengthened, however, and Senator Gillibrand and the 12 Senators who support the bill are confident that this time it will pass.

2/27/2015 - Houston Is Finally Testing a Backlog of Thirty-Year-Old Rape Kits

The city of Houston, Texas has finally begun testing decades-old rape kits - and in just one week, those have led to hundreds of leads.

Houston is one of the first of the major cities nation-wide to clear their backlog of over 6,000 untested rape kit s- some of which were more than thirty years old. So far, the evidence from these test kits has lead to 850 DNA matches, 29 filed cases, and 6 convictions.Police are continuing to review evidence from the kits to see if charges can be made in other cases. The city was able to process the untested kits with the help of a $4.4 million plan approved by the Houston City Council last year.

"This milestone is of special importance to rape survivors and their families and friends because it means their cases are receiving the attention they should have years ago," said Houston Mayor Annie Parker at a news conference.

Cities across the country possess thousands of untested and unprocessed rape kits. Six years ago, it was discovered that the city of Detroit had over 11,000 untested rape kits in an abandoned police storage unit. Since then, the Detroit police department has been working to eliminate the backlog, and have processed over 2,500 of the kits. In Memphis, there are almost 12,000 untested rape kits. There are over 4,000 in Las Vegas. Last November, Cyrus Vance, the district attorney of Manhattan pledged $35 million to try to eliminate the backlog of up to 70,000 untested rape kits nationwide.

"This is not a Houston problem," Parker said in her remarks. "It's not a Texas problem. It's a nationwide issue that built up over years and years." If Houston and Detroit's example illustrates anything, it's how important it is for the entire nation to work to fix it.

2/26/2015 - If This Bill Passes Federal Law Will Add Consent to Sex Ed Curriculums

Right now, federal law does not require health or sex education to include sexual assault prevention - but that could change with a new bill introduced by Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Tim Kaine (D-VA).

The Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015, which was introduced earlier this month, would require all public secondary schools in the country to include teaching "safe relationship behavior" in order to help prevent domestic violence and sexual assault. Women between 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence, making the bill particularly important in ending an epidemic of sexual violence.

McCaskill, who has also pushed legislation to combat military sexual assault, noted that sexual assault prevention starts young. "One thing we've learned in our work to curb sexual violence on campuses and in the military is that many young people learn about sex and relationships before they turn 18," she said in a recent statement. "And one of the most effective ways to prevent sexual violence among adults is to educate our kids at a younger age."

She was echoed by Kaine. "Education can be a key tool to increase public safety by raising awareness and helping to prevent sexual assault and domestic violence, but many students are leaving high school without learning about these crimes that disproportionately impact young people," he said in a press release. "With the alarming statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and in communities across the country, secondary schools should play a role in promoting safe relationship behavior and teaching students about sexual assault and dating violence."

The Act came after Sen. Kaine met with members of One Less, a University of Virginia group that advocates for rape and sexual assault survivors. UVA's policies surrounding campus sexual assault have been in the spotlight since Rolling Stone released an article about the college's mishandling of a gang rape.

2/26/2015 - President Obama Pushed for Immigration Reform at a Florida International University Town Hall

President Obama attended an immigration town hall at Florida International University yesterday to discuss immigration policy. It marked the first time a president has ever visited the FIU campus.

Obama spoke largely about his two biggest promises for immigration reform: that undocumented persons contributing to the community should get priority for staying here in America, and that his Administration will focus on "deporting criminals, not families."

President Obama was joined at the town hall meeting by Eric Narvaez, an Army veteran who returned home after fighting for his country to discover that his mother was facing deportation. "I love this country," he told Obama, "but I'm facing another war - trying to keep my mother here." The President thanked him for his service, emphasizing that his administration is not prioritizing people like Narvaez's mother for deportation.

"The message I want to send today is that we are not prioritizing people like your mother for enforcement or deportation," the President responded. "We are prioritizing felons, criminals, gang members - people who are a threat to our communities - not families who have lived here a long time."

"People that are here to better themselves, to better our country, that pay their taxes, that do the right thing - why not keep them here in America?" asked FIU student Alian Collozo, echoing the President's sentiment.

President Obama later mentioned that his executive actions are a short term solution, and that a long-term solution must come out of Congress. He has, however, promised to veto any bill out of Congress that would cripple Homeland Security over immigration issues.

FIU President Mark Rosenberg opened the town hall meeting. "We live immigration in this community," he said, "so this is the appropriate place to have this conversation."

2/25/2015 - Obama Just Vetoed the Keystone XL Pipeline, But The Fight Isn't Over

President Obama used his executive powers to veto the highly contentious Keystone XL pipeline construction proposal yesterday. The veto marked the third of his entire presidency.

"The Presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously, but I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people," Obama wrote in his veto. "And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest -- including our security, safety, and environment -- it has earned my veto."

Vetoing the pipeline has been a long fight. Two years ago, the Sierra Club organized a rally of 50,000 people to protest the construction of the pipeline.

"Keystone XL is a dirty and dangerous pipeline," Mara Crowley of Energy Action Coalition said at the Sierra Club protest. "It's literally going to cut our country in half, carrying a very dangerous fuel, and it will cause runaway climate change."

This veto, however, doesn't mean that fight is over. While the veto has stopped pipeline construction from being forced through legislation, the project is going back to review in the State Department, where it has been for the past six years. From there, Secretary of State John Kerry will make an official determination, "which will likely sway the President's final decision."

2/25/2015 - Malawis Parliament Voted Unanimously to End Child Marriage

The Malawian Parliament voted unanimously last week to ban child marriage, an important move for a country with one of the highest child marriage rates in the world.

The legislation raises the minimum legal age of marriage to 18. An estimated 50 percent of Malawian girls becoming child brides, and approximately one in eight girls are married by 15.

Women's rights activists are optimistic for what this new law may mean both for Malawian girls and for the development of the country. "This law is very important because of the number of girls who drop out of school because they are going to get married, and because of the high number of girls who are dying when they are giving birth," said Jesse Kabwila, who was advocating to get the bill through Parliament.

"What marriage does to the kids is it really destroys their future, it destroys their hopes, it just turns them into something they are not supposed to be," Kakenya Ntaiya, who avoided a child marriage after being engaged at age five by opting instead to undergo the brutal process of female genital mutilation, told Ms. magazine in their Winter 2015 issue. Ntaiya now runs the Kakenya Center for Excellence in Enoosaen, which currently is home to over 150 girls. "I wanted to see a different future for them," she continued, "[and] school was the place I could achieve that."

Child marriage is a global problem, specifically in regions of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. In Niger, three-quarters of the country's girls are married before they reach 18. This bill in Malawi furthers recent progress on the issue of child marriage, which the world has begun to recognize as a human rights violation.

Last summer,the African Union launched a historic campaign to curb child marriage. "In 2012, the first International Day of the Girl was marked with a UN call for commitment at the local and governmental levels to end the practice. A new film," Difret, tells the true story of an Ethiopian girl who was kidnapped in the fifth grade to be a child bride. The successful movie, backed by Angelina Jolie, is also profiled in the most recent issue of Ms. Girls Learn International, a program of the Feminist Majority Foundation, has also joined the effort to end child marriage, including attending the 58th UN Commission on the Status of Women.

2/24/2015 - FMLA Update Will Expand Protections for Thousands of Same Sex Couples

The US Labor Department updated the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) this week to update the meaning of "spouse" to include same-sex partners who reside in another state.

The FMLA update means employees in legal, same-sex marriages can take family medical leave to take care of their spouse even if they live in another state. The change could affect up to 118,000 spouses.

"The basic promise of the FMLA is that no one should have to choose between the job and income they need, and caring for a loved one," US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said Monday in a news release. "With our action today, we extend that promise so that no matter who you love, you will receive the same rights and protections as everyone else."

Experts estimate many of the 1.38 million same-sex couples in the country could get married and therefore be eligible for FMLA protections. About 70,200 Americans who are in same-sex marriages are raising children, and 80 percent of these parents are employed.

"Until the Supreme Court settles the issue of full nationwide marriage equality this summer, fairness and equality - and the Supreme Court's decision in the Windsor case - demanded this important change," said David Stacy, director of the Human Rights Campaign, which collected and submitted more than 19,000 comments to the Department of Labor last year to support this change.

The Supreme Court ruling in US v Windsor struck down a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that had the definitions of "marriage" and "spouse" as only applying to opposite-sex unions. The recent FMLA update is in line with this ruling.

2/23/2015 - Princeton Women Were Once Barred From These Clubs - Now, They Run Them

Princeton University's eating clubs are important social events for many students - and despite a history of sexist behavior and barring women, Princeton women have recently been in the spotlight for securing leadership roles in them.

Currently, four of these clubs are headed by women, which is the highest total since 2002. "I think the consensus that the club came to this year is that we're establishing a culture where women are running, and women are winning, Liz Lian, a 22-year-old senior in Princeton's Ivy Club, told The New York Times.

Tiger Inn elected Grace Larsen president this week, making her the first woman to head up one of the university's oldest eating clubs. The club isn't without its own internal gender discord: two officers were removed last fall for sending sexist emails, and someone spray-painted the words "rape haven" on the club's stone fence late last year. Princeton began admitting women in 1969, but Tiger Inn and another group named Ivy Club only began admitting women after a 1990 court order demanded it.

Sally Frank, a 55-year-old alumna of Princeton, took on the lawsuit that eventually made Tiger Inn admit women. Frank was one of the people targeted by the sexist emails sent by the now-removed officers. Frank is glad to see Larsen elected as president of the club. "It's extremely gratifying," Frank said. "The election isn't going to end all sexism on Princeton's campus. But it can help."

Ivy Club also recently elected a female president, Eliza Mott. She's the second in the club's history. Mott, who studies art history and is president of SpeakOut Princeton, a student group that addresses sexual violence and encourages consent, says she is excited that there is more female representation in these leadership roles on campus.

"It's an important thing to have female representation," 20-year-old Mott told The New York Times. "Perceptions change and new precedents are set."

These gains for women in leadership at Princeton have not been consistent. A 2011 report showed that despite a relatively even division of the student body between men and women, "there has been a pronounced drop-off in the representation of women in these prominent posts since 2000." The report found that women are often discouraged from leadership roles or undersell their own abilities. And, last fall, Princeton was found to be in violation of Title IX regulations due to the way administration dealt with sexual harassment and assault complaints.

2/23/2015 - Tennessee and Chicago Move Forward with Plans for Free Community College

Many Americans had not heard of the proposal to make 2 years of community college free until President Obama's State of the Union address. Tennessee and Chicago, however, have long been working to make this plan a reality for their students.

At his State of the Union Address last month, President Obama formally announced his College Promise, emphasizing that "in America, a quality education cannot be a privilege that is reserved for a few," and added that "certainly ... nobody with that drive and discipline should be denied a college education just because they don't have the money." The President's plan is based in part on Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam's announcement during his 2014 State of the State address, in which he promised two years of free community college or trade school.

"Tennessee will be the only state in the country to offer our high school graduates two years of community college with no tuition or fees," he said.
This plan will be put into action starting with the high school classes of 2015. The seniors of this academic year can apply for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship between August and November of this year, and may use the scholarship to attend any of the state's 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, or other eligible institutions offering an associate's degree program.

Rahm Emmanuel, the Democratic Mayor of Chicago, announced a similar plan last fall for students attending a City Colleges of Chicago (CCCs). This plan is a scholarship program for high school students hoping to attend a CCC, and includes strict requirements for eligibility, such as a 3.0 GPA. Even so, Mayor Emmanuel is optimistic about the doors this program could open for Chicago students. "The Chicago Star Scholarships will open more doors of opportunity for more students in the City of Chicago," said the Mayor. "Every student who is willing to work hard should have access to a quality education, regardless of whether they can afford it or not," he continued.

President Obama's College Promise would take the form of a matching grant program, in which the federal government would pay three quarters of tuition costs and the state would be responsible for paying the remaining amount. If adopted by all 50 states, the White House claims it would benefit as many as 9 million students annually, and save an average student around 4 thousand dollars.

2/19/2015 - Kate Brown Just Became America's First-Ever Openly Bisexual Governor

Kate Brown was sworn in Wednesday morning as Oregon's 38th governor, making her the first openly bisexual governor in the US.

Brown is replacing John Kitzhaber, also a Democrat, who announced his resignation last Friday. Kitzhaber and his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, were the center of a large controversy that led to state and federal investigations looking into allegations of influence peddling. Brown has worked in Oregon politics since 1991, when she began her run as a member of the Oregon House of Representatives. She was later elected to the state's Senate and most recently served as their Secretary of State.

"Few are better prepared to lead the great state of Oregon than Kate Brown," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said following the news. "She's a known commodity to Oregonians with a distinguished record of service of over two decades. And while she'll make history as the nation's first sitting openly LGBT governor, the more important truth is that she's supremely capable of leading the state to better days ahead."

Brown has a lot of work to do after the political drama under Kitzhaber, but her inaugural speech Wednesday promises transparency and hard work. "We must work together to address these and other real problems in real time," Brown said, "to strengthen Oregon's recovery from the recession; to improve access to quality education and health care, and create more living-wage jobs in every single corner of the state."

Brown's election represents a victory for women and LGBT folks, who are underrepresented in gubernatorial positions as well as in all levels of national and state leadership. Women currently hold only 24.2 percent of all available elected state positions in the US, and only 22 percent of Americans have an openly LGBT elected official representing them at any level. Only five other women in America are currently serving as governors alongside Brown.

Although no bisexual person has ever been elected governor, openly bisexual people have served in state and national legislatures since 1997, when Evelyn Mantilla became the first openly bisexual state official as a a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives - where she remained until 2007. Openly bisexual lawmakers Kyrsten Sinema (R-AZ), Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee), and South Dakota Sen. Angie Buhl (D) have since been elected to office.

In the documentary Breaking Through, Brown said when she was working in law, she was "terrified" about the idea of her employers finding out she was dating a woman. "I was walking on eggshells the whole time," she said. "Like I couldn't be who I am - I'm not free to be myself. It feels like you're cutting off your legs or your arms. It feels like you can't be a whole person."

2/19/2015 - Feminist Activists Protest TPP and Bruneian Penal Code Outside Beverly Hills Hotel

Activists gathered across the street from the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles yesterday to call on Congress to exclude Brunei from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The crowd included organizers from the Feminist Majority Foundation, FMF board member Mavis Leno, as well as leadership from organizations such as 1 Billion Rising, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and Unite Here who organized the rally. The rally was held in a park across the street from the Beverly Hills Hotel as it is owned by the Sultan of Brunei, who has recently enacted a cruel and strict penal code that places the lives of women and the LGBT community in danger of harsh punishments.

The penal code, which went into effect last May, calls for harsh punishments for women who become pregnant outside of marriage, women who have abortions, for adultery, and for anything deemed "indecent behavior." It also threatens women who engage in same-sex relations with fines, imprisonment, or whipping, and men who engage in same-sex relations with flogging or death by stoning.

The City Council of West Hollywood passed a resolution on Tuesday opposing "fast tracking" of the TPP, and encouraging "transparent, public debate during TPP negotiations." The resolution cited many concerns with the TPP, including a partnership with Brunei, but emphasized the negative effects of "fast track" legislation, "which would prevent Congress from amending the trade agreement and would require an up-or-down vote in 60 days." The resolution stated "'Fast Track' procedures make it impossible for our elected representatives to adequately study and assess the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty presented to them in order to determine if this proposed Agreement is in the best interests of the American people." The resolution is currently awaiting the Mayor's signature.

Mavis Leno, FMF Board Member and wife of anti-TPP activist Jay Leno, echoed her concerns about "fast tracking" the TPP, as well as her frustration that the TPP negotiations have not been transparent and have largely happened in secret. She stressed that the United States should not be negotiating with a country whose policies so negatively impact women and the LGBT community.

Lindsey Horvath, a coordinator with 1 Billion Rising, spoke of the responsibility the United States has in this potential trade deal at the rally. "When our LGBT community is being stoned to death, it doesn't matter if that's not happening in our backyard. When our [local business and our dollars] are supporting that behavior, we're supporting it; we're responsible," she said.

Right now, President Obama and the United States are negotiating a potential trade partnership with 11 countries, including Brunei, through the TPP. The Feminist Majority and members of Congress are sounding the alarm, and the Feminist Majority released a petition asking people to urge their representatives to vote against the TPP agreement.

"At a minimum, the US should not enter into a partnership with a country that just last year adopted a penal code authorizing torture and violence against its citizens," said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority, in a blog for the Huffington Post, "we must call on the President to seriously address the impact of the TPP on human rights," Smeal added.