Monthly Archives: November 2015

Rape, Transgender Rights, and Reason

Houston, we have a problem.

Apologies for the obvious line, but my head is spinning a bit as you have simultaneously demonstrated both your intense fear about theoretical rapes in bathrooms and your apparent disinterest in actual rapes in actual bathrooms.

Your recent vote against an anti-discrimination ordinance seems to have been largely driven by ignorance and fear. Please correct me if I’m wrong. But the swelling conservative reaction to transgender rights is based almost entirely on the infamous bathroom argument: that predatory men will use anti-discrimination policies to pretend to be women and attack them in public restrooms.

The argument is absurd on many levels. Why would men go to the trouble of dressing up as women to carry out rapes? The vast majority of rapes are currently committed with impunity due to low reporting, prosecution, and conviction rates. It’s hard to imagine there are rapists out there who are saying to themselves, “If only there were an anti-discrimination policy in this town, THEN I’d be able to put on a dress and wig to commit rape in the luxury and privacy of a public bathroom!”

But let’s just go with it and say there’s a rapist who absolutely will not commit rape unless he gets to pretend to be a woman to do so. How exactly would an anti-discrimination policy protect him? Are there lots of rapists dressing up as women who are foiled because they are kicked out of the bathroom before they can attack? Can anyone name a single instance where gender discrimination in restrooms has served a protective purpose?

Also, denying rights to an entire group of people because of an irrational fear of something that has literally never happened is pretty much the definition of discrimination.

But to make matters worse, Houston, even as your vote places a faulty argument about rape prevention paramount to human rights, one of your police detectives – with a best supporting role from a local TV station – demonstrated just how seriously rape in bathrooms is taken. As reported on Jezebel, a 12-year-old girl (i.e. under the age of consent) was lured into a CVS bathroom by a man in his 20s (who was not, in fact, pretending to be a woman at the time). The detective told the local ABC affiliate that the girl, “was not necessarily all that unwilling” before helpfully adding that her willingness does not matter because she was 12. The news report added to the focus on the victim’s willingness by referring to what happened as “sex” and not “rape.”

Why even bring up the degree of her willingness if, as pointed out, it does not matter from a legal perspective? Was she only kind of unwilling? How unwilling does a 12-year-old have to be, and how does she have to show it, for the police to present it to the media as a straight up crime?

No. You do not get to pretend rape prevention is so important to you that you’ll vote away rights that are on the books, and then turn around and shrug when a 12-year-old is raped. You just don’t.

All this is on the heels of the outrage directed at the Department of Education for asking an Illinois school to accommodate a transgender girl’s request to be allowed to change in the same locker room as other girls on her team. In this case, opposition seems to be focused not so much on the possibility of rape, but on the possibility that a girl might see a penis. (Note that the exposure argument is exclusively applied to integration of transgender girls/women with cisgender girls/women, and not to integration of transgender men. Only girls and women are apparently irredeemably scarred by seeing the genitalia of the opposite sex.) In the New York Times, a Focus on the Family representative was quoted as saying, “girls should not have to risk being exposed to boys in locker rooms, changing rooms, and restrooms.”

Given their comments, I’m really curious about what these people do in locker rooms and restrooms. Personally, I have successfully used public restrooms my entire life without once seeing what’s in the pants of anyone else. And in locker rooms, the norm seems to be eyes front/down and dress quickly. One only needs to listen to transgender people to know that they don’t see access to the appropriate locker room as an opportunity to make others uncomfortable. They see it as a right, much like equal access to public facilities has been guaranteed for others in this country.

So Houston, and everywhere else considering restricting people’s rights, keep the following in mind:

  1. Transgender people are the ones who are most vulnerable in locker rooms and bathrooms. Not cisgender people.
  2. Transgender people, if they have not surgically transitioned, are unlikely to be super excited to flaunt their genitalia, given they don’t identify with these body parts.
  3. “Privacy” does not mean you have a right to never be uncomfortable. Living in a diverse society means sometimes you have to accept that your comfort does not trump other people’s rights.

Above all, no one should vote on these issues until they educate themselves – preferably by listening to the perspectives of transgender people themselves.

Abortion Left Off U.S. Gender and Development Agenda

It was a room filled with feminists. Or at least one could have assumed as much by the meeting’s theme of gender and international development. Panelists and presenters tackled pressing and difficult global issues that undermine women’s wellbeing: genital cutting, rape as a weapon of war, child marriage, gender-based violence, HIV, and family planning. It seemed we had all our gender and development bases covered. But as the event closed, it struck me: there had not been one mention of abortion.

Gender equality has become a major focus in international development circles, with the Obama administration responsible for a number of positive policies that mandate improved attention to the needs and rights of women and girls. These policies in turn have spawned massive investments in gender expertise within the global development set. Yet there is a peculiar, but predominantly unremarked, feature of the international development industry around gender that defies logic on its face: silence on one of the biggest threats to women’s health and human rights – unsafe abortion.

It’s not like unsafe abortion is an easily overlooked issue when you work in development. You would have to deliberately blind yourself to something that 21.6 million women experience every year, causing 13% of maternal deaths and 1.5 million years of healthy life lost to injury. Addressing the consequences of botched abortions is a major drain on developing countries’ health systems and economies. The impact of illegal abortion crosses sectors – keeping girls out of school and women away from work, or forcing girls and women to bear and support children they would have chosen not to have.

You can’t ignore it from a gender equality and human rights angle either. Many of the same countries that deny women and girls access to reliable and affordable contraception, comprehensive sex education, and communities or households safe from sexual assault also punish women if they have an abortion, denying their right to decide the number and timing of their children. Some countries, like South Africa, have liberalized their abortion laws, yet still do not provide access to what is a very safe procedure when conducted by trained professionals in sanitary conditions. As a result, even women seeking legal abortion are often forced to seek care from untrained providers.

Under normal circumstances, such a glaring and universal issue with clear roots in gender inequality and government control of women’s reproductive lives would be a priority for those concerned with gender and international development. But “normal” has been severely warped out of shape by U.S. laws and their very eager watchdogs in Congress. These laws prohibit U.S. foreign assistance funding for abortion when used “as a method of family planning” (the Helms Amendment, 1973) and for advocacy efforts around abortion rights The Siljander Amendment, 1981).

We have a pro-choice administration, but still these laws are interpreted far more stringently than their original intent. Even in cases when abortion falls well outside a family planning purpose, such as for girls and women raped in conflict zones, the U.S. offers no funding. But it is the self-censorship I find most startling, with administration officials hesitant to speak publicly about the global epidemic of unsafe abortion. Outside of organizations working on and committed to reproductive rights, there is almost complete silence among international development groups.

This is the insidious way longstanding U.S. policy works. You can sit in a room filled with people who unanimously and ardently believe that gender inequality is one of the most significant barriers to international development and never – not once – hear the word “abortion” uttered.

At a recent meeting on women and global health, I had an opportunity to raise the issue, asking the panel (who had not mentioned abortion) how we could increase access to safe abortion over the next two decades. I could have asked about any other topic – about sex workers, drug users, or genital cutting – and received a response based on human rights and the latest public health evidence. But with this question, I immediately felt as though I had thrown a grenade into the room, and the discomfort among the panelists was palpable. They apparently had no expectation that the topic would come up, and had very little interest in giving more than a cursory response. When I left the meeting, even though on an intellectual level I knew that it was a perfectly legitimate question, part of me felt like I had just committed professional suicide, or at the least a very unfortunate faux pas.

We know how to prevent women from dying or being injured by unsafe abortion. But when we stop ourselves from discussing the subject in meetings of people who care about gender, human rights, or maternal health, we have accepted failure as the default and we show no interest in seriously grappling with the status quo.

The Helms Amendment hasn’t budged for forty years. If the wall of silence around unsafe abortion is not lifted by those who care deeply about women’s empowerment and equality, we are complicit in its permanence for another forty. And when the women we work with around the world ask us why, what will we tell them?

Global HIV Response Must Have a Woman’s Shape

This was originally posted in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog on December 5, 2012

Gender inequality is HIV’s best friend. Fortunately, the converse is also true – gender equality is HIV’s nemesis. And by fighting HIV through advancement of gender equality, we reap all kinds of additional benefits.

Women account for slightly more than half of all people living with HIV, and the majority contract it through sex with long-term partners. Young women account for nearly 75 percent of infections among people ages 15-24 in sub-Saharan Africa. Girls who bear the brunt of two classic symptoms of gender oppression — being married off young or kept out of school — are particularly vulnerable to HIV. Gender violence – whether it’s rape used as a weapon of war, physical violence in the home that takes away women’s power to suggest condom use, or emotional violence that keeps women silent and untreated if they are diagnosed with HIV – is like gasoline to the spread of HIV.

See more here.

Woman-Centered Maternity Care, Family Planning, and HIV: Principles for Rights-Based Integration

In global health, people frequently talk about “entry points” where people using one service can be reached by providers of other services (such as providing family planning services to women who have just given birth). Here’s a link to a panel discussion at Woodrow Wilson Center during which I argue that there these can also be “exit points” – if women are mistreated and disrespected during maternity care, their impression of health care providers in general may be negatively affected. We need to integrate services to meet the needs of clients, but also must be attentive to their human rights.


Female Condoms: A Tool to Exercise Human Rights

Originally posted on Huffington Post, November 13, 2012

In an HIV prevention focus group in Malawi, a woman raised her hand. She asked the facilitator if he would be able to go to the condom company and ask them to make a condom for women. That way, she and the other women in her community would have options to protect themselves from HIV, and plan their families. They wouldn’t have to rely on their partners to initiate condom use. They could have the opportunity to protect their own health.

See full post here

Rights-Based Maternity Care Must Become a Global Priority

Written with Bergen Cooper, Senior Policy Research Associate, Center for Health and Gender Equity. Original post in RH Reality Check, April 10, 2015

It has become all too clear lately that to be pregnant, to be in labor, or to birth a child is to put oneself at the mercy of larger powers—powers that sometimes seem unconvinced of women’s humanity. Anti-choice politicians are often the most egregious in leaving out any trace of women’s agency from their rhetoric around pregnancy and abortion. But now we are increasingly seeing evidence that some health-care providers, both in the United States and globally, tend to also reproduce the persistent narrative that girls and women relinquish their human rights when they conceive. Beginning last year, advocates launched the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights on April 11 to ensure that women’s rights in pregnancy, labor, and childbirth become an international priority, including among health providers and politicians.

For more, see full post here.