NEW LONDON, N.H., Nov. 17, 2011 — Affordable and accessible heath care, including reproductive health care, emerged as the top issue on the platform of the 2011 New Hampshire Women’s Caucus, held Saturday, Nov. 12, at Colby-Sawyer College.Timed to precede the first-in-the-nation primary and 2012 state and national elections, the New Hampshire Women’s Caucus identified critical issues for women and families and ways to effect positive change and ensure their priorities become part of the political dialogue. Nearly 175 women and a smaller number of men from the state and region participated in an energetic caucus in which they debated and adopted an issues-based platform aimed at improving the status of women.
Participants expressed strong support for workplace equality and flexibility, especially equal opportunities and pay for women, who earn an average of 20 percent less than men. They also called for affordable, high quality child care, the lack of which stymies the capacity of women across the socioeconomic spectrum to provide adequate financial support for their families and to advance their careers.
Additionally, the platform calls for the U.S. to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an international bill of rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979, which defines women’s rights as human rights. The U.S., along with Iran, Somalia and Sudan, remain among the seven nations yet to ratify the treaty.
The platform demands that the medical community vastly improve its efforts to prevent, detect and treat domestic and sexual violence. Protection of the Social Security program is part of the platform, as is the call for greater support for micro-financing, health care and education for poor women and girls in the U.S. and globally. Participants also called for the elimination of human trafficking, in which 70 percent of the victims are women and girls forced into prostitution; 50 percent of all victims are children.
The caucus participants also seek greater public support for Planned Parenthood programs and other reproductive health services that are seen as vital for healthy women, families and communities. Additionally, they stress the need for improvement and expansion of sexual health education programs in U.S. schools; an end to discrimination and violence against members of the LGBTQ community; and strong support for marriage equality. The platform also conveys an urgent need for more women in leadership positions at all levels of society, including as U.S. president; for more leadership education for young men and women, especially in examining gender roles; and for greater support of progressive candidates and issues.
Participants called for an examination of pervasive negative depictions of minorities and women in the media, and specifically, of violence perpetrated against women. They also expressed support for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment; for increased awareness of domestic abuse of women and children; and for addressing the exploitation of women, children and men by the sports industry. Finally, the platform calls for more affordable housing; sustainable jobs; accessible health care and insurance for treatment of mental health issues; increased non-partisan education and communication focused on women’s issues; and more research focused on environmental toxins as carcinogens.
Leading Issues at the 2011 New Hampshire Women’s CaucusThe New Hampshire Women’s Caucus, which took place on Nov. 12, 2011, at Colby-Sawyer College, began with opening remarks by Ann McLane Kuster, a public policy advocate and community activist, who called for more women in leadership roles in the U.S. Congress and on Wall Street. “Women bring a special sensibility to these areas; we’ve held our babies and watched our parents die. Our collective voice needs to be heard in Washington (D.C.) on the issues of the day: getting back to work, balancing our budgets, ending these two wars,” said. A candidate for U.S. Congress, Kuster said that “We can’t do this on the backs of the sick and the poor. Women are bearing the brunt of this downturn in the economy and need to be heard in this election. We’re talking about American values: liberty, equality and justice.”
Programs of great importance to women and families are at risk of dismantlement by the federal government, Kuster explained, most notably: Medicare, Social Security, the U.S. Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency. “Also at risk is women’s control over their own bodies. Our right to private decisions is in danger,” she added.
On the Women and the Economy panel, Dartmouth College Provost Carol Folt spoke to “The Importance of Child Care: Empowering Women in the Workforce.”
“Safe, reliable, nurturing and affordable child care is essential to developing the full capacity of women in the work force,” Folt said. “A recent study of American women who left the workforce to have children found that 93 percent wanted to return to work, but only 40 percent returned to full-time positions because of high child care costs.”
The development of quality, state-supported child care and education could be a core part of a long-term solution, according to Folt. “The aim is to solve two interrelated problems, the high cost to families on one side, and the expense of delivering high-quality child care on the other. she said. “These issues need to be part of the national conversation.”
Monica Zulauf, executive director of YWCA New Hampshire, spoke to the need for equality and flexibility in the 21st century workplace, and began by pointing out that women in the U.S. still earn at least 20 percent less than men. “Economic and political power won’t equalize until salaries do,” she said. “We need workplaces that fit with being women; 80 percent of married and partnered women are dual earners; their pay is essential for sustaining the family.” Issues of flexibility involve more than just choosing “flex time,” Zulauf explained. “It’s about when, how and where we work.”
Sarah Chaisson Warner, executive director of New Hampshire Citizens’ Alliance, addressed the need for protection of Social Security benefits for women, who make up 57 percent of its beneficiaries ages 65 and older, many of whom have no other income. She challenged assertions that Social Security is about to run out of funding and adds to the federal deficit, noting that the program is predicted to pay out benefits through 2041 and by law it cannot add to the deficit.
The most urgent need is for more jobs, which puts money into the system. “We are in a jobs crisis. Let’s take Social Security out of the conversation regarding the deficit. Eliminate the cap on taxable income, roll back tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, and Social Security is solvent,” Warner said. “Social Security is a mainstay for women in this room, in New Hampshire, across the country.”
Heather Farr Gunnell, program director for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program through the New Hampshire Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence, identified domestic and sexual violence as serious threats to public health.
“In the U.S., 1.5 million women report abuse every year, and it affects one-third of women in New Hampshire,” Gunnell said, explaining that many victims endure multiple assaults, most of which go unreported. The health effects for victims are severe and last a lifetime: most victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and many are plagued by chronic pain, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and major psychological and eating disorders. She recommends that medical professionals screen their patients at every visit, and that the medical industry engage in public awareness campaigns about the dangers of domestic and sexual violence, just as it communicates so effectively about the symptoms and treatment of influenza and other major public health issues.
In New Hampshire, approximately 10 to 12 percent of the population, and 17 percent of the nation, lack health insurance, which limits their access to timely care and results in poorer health outcomes, higher costs, and lower quality of life, according to Kristina Fjeld, deputy director of the N.H. Area Health Education Center and director of the N.H. Uninsured Project at Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. Fjeld advocated for increased access to comprehensive health insurance to both improve public health and contain health care costs. One of every four dollars paid for health insurance covers the costs of care for uninsured and underinsured people, and the gap between the true costs and what the government pays through Medicaid, Medicare and other government-sponsored programs, according to Fjeld.
Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy advisor for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, addressed the need for comprehensive health care and reproductive health services for uninsured women. In New Hampshire, Planned Parenthood serves 16,000 people per year, and 70 percent of its primary care patients are poverty-level women who cannot afford health insurance.
“It’s critical for women to have access to comprehensive health care,” Frizzell said. “Primary care will affect the rest of their lives. Well-woman exams, birth control and cancer screenings are cost-effective prevention actions,” she said. The Affordable Care Act has reduced gender discrimination in cost and care, Frizzell explained, by emphasizing preventive services and eliminating co-pays and deductibles for birth control and health screenings.
Tools for Change from the 2011 New Hampshire Women’s Caucus
With state primaries and a major election year ahead, Representative Norelli, in her eighth term and now serving as minority house leader, suggested ways to engage and make a difference. Stay informed about issues, meet and exchange views with political candidates, and work for candidates who champion your causes, she advised. Get involved with organizations that advocate for constituencies you care about such as The Children’s Lobby or a local domestic violence prevention group. “Write letters to the editor, go to a public hearing and testify, and contact your local legislator by email, phone or mail with your concerns,” she said. “With 400 of us, there’s one near you! Be sure to vote and encourage your friends and family to vote.”
Panel moderator Melissa Meade, associate professor of Humanities at Colby-Sawyer, closed the panel by asking the audience, “Who among us will run for office? Who among us will reach the media, or start our own media? And who among us will withdraw our obedience?”
Echoing statements made throughout the day, Colby-Sawyer Assistant Professor of Humanities Margaret Wiley encouraged everyone to work together for positive change. “Women’s issues are America’s issues,” she said. ” It’s hard to make change…to make people listen and learn to see issues they thought they knew about with new eyes…The journey continues after the caucus ends. We need your talent and energy.”
~Kimberly Swick Slover, director of Communications, Colby-Sawyer College